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This Side of the Blue

Chapter Text

This Side of the Blue title card

Prologue

 

Beware the song of the siren, lest she sing you to sleep.
Think twice before you heed her call, she’ll lead you to the deep.

 

Steve Rogers knew the lullaby before he knew himself, words sung low as he lay in his cradle, passed down from parents who had learned the rhyme when they themselves were small. Back and back and back. A hundred years. A thousand. The song was familiar to anyone who lived their life along the shore of Eascor. Wizened sailors and small children alike lived by the warning, cleaving to the old ways and paying respect where it was due. For they were not the masters of the frothing grey-green sea that swirled between the rocks, creating eddies and treacherous tides. The sea belonged to none but the sirens, and so for generations, the people who lived on the loam and took their living from the water heeded these words.

Steve's father Joseph was one of these people. A sailor by trade, he had fallen in love with Steve's mother, Sarah, the daughter of the local carpenter, and handy with a rasp herself. They were married on a Tuesday and took up residence in Joseph's weather-beaten cottage, which lay along a cliffside overlooking the sea. Their humble but happy life was made all the better when Steve arrived scarcely a year after their vows.

An inquisitive boy—sweet with a stubborn streak—Steve grew steadily. One, two, three, four years passed, until he was much too old for lullabies. Yet during those long days spent alone with his mother while Joseph was at sea, Steve sought comfort in her arms and in the familiar words of the song.

“What is a siren, ma?” he asked one morning as they sat together, scanning the horizon, ever-watchful for his father’s ship.

“Don’t you know?”

“Only that she sings a song and makes you sleep.”

Sarah smoothed an errant lock of hair from Steve’s forehead and hummed deep in her chest, just the way he liked. “Do you remember the mobile above your cradle?”

“Yes,” he said, though at five years old, he didn’t like to be reminded of babyish things.

“The carving of the woman with the tail of a fish. That’s a siren.”

Steve furrowed his brow. “But why?”

“Why what?”

“Why is she a fish?”

“Because she’s as the Fury made her.”

“What’s the Fury?”

“I—” she laughed, then kissed the top of his head. “Sometimes, starfish, I forget that you are very small, and that you don’t know all the things I know.”

“Then I think you’d better tell me,” he replied, solemn as ever.

“I suppose I’d better had,” Sarah said, holding him closer and reciting from memory the theological verses she’d learned as a girl—myths and legends of their own beginning.

 

Before the world was the world, there was only the Fury.

Lonely in the deep dark of the sky, without even a star for friendship, the Fury wailed and gnashed its teeth and in so doing tore itself into four parts. These children of the Fury were the Elementals, and in their creation so was the world begun.

The first was the Loam, who lifted great rocks from the void and smoothed them to form the land.

The second was Fire, who joined the Loam, bashing and crashing the rough shape of the world. Mapping the mountains with fists of molten flame.

The third was Wind, and when it saw what Loam and Fire had done, it blew in two directions, becoming the quick wind and the red.

Fourth and finally came Water, soothing the fire, covering much of the loam, and gentling the winds through its tides.

And so it was that the world was created by the children of the Fury.

 

Steve listened carefully to his mother and found no answer among her verses. "That's not sirens," he said. "That's Lellementals."

“There’s another bit,” she laughed. “Only I don’t remember the words exactly. I think the Fury returns…”

“But he turned into pieces.”

“I know, starfish, but it’s all a bit metaphorical and—”

“That’s not sirens,” he sighed.

“Steve,” she said, a smile on her lips. “It has been a very long time since I’ve been to a kirk, but if my memory holds, the next chapter says that sirens were created by the Fury as a gift to the Water. Same as fire forged the blacksmiths.”

“Oh.” Steve frowned. “So sirens aren’t real?”

“They’re real enough.”

“How come I never saw one?”

“Because nobody who sees a siren lives to tell the tale.”

Steve’s tiny body tensed, blue eyes widening. “Why?”

“It’s in the song,” she said, pressing her lips to his temple. “When sailors turn from the old customs, sirens sing songs that lure them close to where they lie in wait. The ships are lost, and those traitorous sailors? Well, the sirens eat them up.”

She punctuated the last words with a tickle and a squeeze, making Steve squirm and scream with joy.

“But!” he gasped. “Mama, surely they don’t eat them.”

“That’s what the legends say.”

“Mama—”

“Such a skeptic,” Sarah said, feigning horror. “Don’t you believe me?”

“Has Da ever seen a siren?”

“No. But your father keeps to the old ways. Do you remember what that means?”

Steve knew the ritual well; had seen his father perform it even during the small fishing excursions they took in their battered old rowboat: two fish were thrown from the starboard side before turning home. Every time.

“Yes, I remember, but it doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

“It doesn’t?”

“The sirens! If nobody lived, then how come we know what they look like?”

Sarah frowned. “Huh. I suppose one person must have lived and told the story to someone who wrote it down.”

“Oh,” he said, accepting that as logical fact in the way of most children. “Do sirens really have tails?”

“Mmm. Tails and teeth like a shark.”

“I guess you’d need very sharp teeth to eat someone.”

Sarah laughed at that and kissed the shell of his ear. “How practical of you, starfish.”

Steve smiled, then turned his eyes back to the horizon and declared, “I should like to see a siren.”

“I shouldn’t like you to,” Sarah tutted, shaking her head.

“I wouldn’t get very close.”

“Oh, well, that’s alright,” she teased. “I’ll need your solemn promise, though—when you meet a siren, you must keep your distance.”

“I promise.”

It took twenty-six years for Steve to break his word, but he broke it in the end.

image of Red Hook Bay

Chapter One

In the end, he drowned.

Slipped beneath the waves, clinging to the cold air with the tips of his fingers until they, too, sank into the dark.

He was not frightened. He did not fight.

He acquiesced. Released the breath from his lungs and watched it leave in a series of bubbles rising to the world he’d come from. The world to which he would never return.

Strange to feel comforted, there in the dark, in the deep, in the inky blackness of his tomb.

His eyes fluttered shut, and he allowed that darkness to swallow him whole.

 

Steve sucked in a breath, hands flying to his chest. He began to cough, imaginary water filling his lungs as he struggled his way into the waking world, still half-trapped in his dream.

The prophet dream. The dream he’d had countless times in his thirty-one years.

It was always the same—the stormy skies, the churning seas, the sense of inevitability. The correctness of it all.

The dream had first come when he was fourteen, on the night his father died. His mother had called it an ill-omen; foresight of the terrible news that would not officially reach them for two more days. Steve wasn’t sure he believed that—of the two of them, Sarah was more prone to sorcery and superstition. Still, the drowning dream had come to him for seventeen years now, most often descending on nights when he was especially anxious or troubled.

Which would explain why it had come knocking on the eve of this bitter morning.

With a sigh, Steve rubbed his eyes and looked at the ceiling to greet the view that had been his own every day of his life: the slanted roof of rough-hewn beams that lined the attic loft of the cottage he shared with his mother, plaster coming away in places, exposing the lathes. Steve had spent many a sleepless night listening to the wind whip around the eaves, shivering in his too-small bed. He would miss it, this room, with its cracked ceiling and rough sheets topped with the patchwork quilt Sarah had pieced for him years ago when she was well, and his father still walked the world. A paradise, running the length of the three rooms below. Steve's dominion, to do with as he pleased.

The whistle of the kettle pierced his thoughts. Peggy had arrived, then. Had to be Peggy, as Sarah had a hard time managing the stove these days. Yawning, he stretched his fingertips toward the jagged hole of missing plaster that looked like a ghost’s smile before sitting and twisting the bulk of his body so his head wouldn’t hit the slant.

“I hear you creaking!” came Peggy’s voice from the bottom of the steep, rickety staircase. “You’d best get a move on if we’re to make it to Penston for the noon train.”

“Give me a minute,” he called back with a groan, hating that she was right—Penston was nearly seven miles away, and only one train departed its single platform daily.

All the same, Penston was a metropolis when compared to their tiny town of Red Hook, which boasted very little, save for being the northernmost populated place in the country of Eascor. This was not much of an accomplishment, but considering the state of the town and the people in it, they would take the unearned victory bought by their ancestors who had settled there first.

Steve swung his feet out of bed and placed them on the rough pine boards, shivering as he stood. Not to his full height—it had been years since he’d been able to stand properly in his space—but enough that he could crack his back and shuffle to the chair where he’d laid out his traveling clothes. He’d chosen a brown tweed jacket that wouldn’t show stains, alongside a blue shirt that had been his father’s, and a pair of trousers that needed hemming. None of it fit him well—the jacket too small across his broad shoulders and too loose in the waist—but the clothing was clean and pressed and would see him through his trip.

There you are,” Peggy teased when he descended the steps some minutes later, fully dressed and holding the valise he’d be bringing with him. “I was just about to come and find you.”

“You’d have gotten an eyeful,” he said, crossing to the rocking chair where his mother sat, swaddled in blankets, and pressing a kiss to her thinning hair. “Morning, ma.”

“Don’t be crass,” Sarah replied, smiling and tilting her head so she could take a look at him. “I ought to have hemmed those trousers.”

“They look fine,” Steve said. What was the use in fussing over a hem? Sarah could hardly hold a spoon these days, much less a needle. “What’s for breakfast?”

“Bacon and hash,” Peggy replied, wiping a hand on the apron she’d tied over her trousers.

“Don’t burn it,” he said, moving behind her to steal a piece of potato. The spud was hot, burning his fingers as he hissed and dropped it back into the oil.

“Serves you right,” she teased.

Steve sulked, sucking on his sore fingers, then busied himself with stirring Sarah's porridge, as her stomach couldn't tolerate much more than that these days. Satisfied that it was soft enough, Steve scooped some into a bowl before pulling a chair near her rocker and holding it up, pressing a spoon into her palm so she could maintain a bit of dignity in feeding herself.

It was a nasty business, the disease they called the thrux. Ate people from the inside, freezing their bones and turning them into statues until even opening and closing their mouths became too much to bear. There was no rhyme or reason to who suffered from the affliction, though it affected the very young and the very old more than most.

Privately, Steve blamed the war. Sarah had only begun showing symptoms after the armistice—after the black years. The starving years. The years when she and others in Red Hook had subsisted on crusts of black bread and soups made of boiled seagrass. When Steve had gone to war, he’d left a healthy woman behind. Upon his return, he’d found her succumbing to one of the nastier ends a body could have. And though he couldn’t prove it to be the case, it didn’t take a genius to put the pieces together.

There was no cure for the thrux, only a balm. It was a shame—if the treatment had been simple, perhaps Steve could have managed it. Sold the house, begged favors, any number of things to afford a single dosage of something. Instead, the remedy came from a combination of three different drugs which needed to be taken daily for the rest of the life of the afflicted.

In short, it was a rich person’s remedy, and not one Steve could afford with the state of things in Red Hook. Perhaps if he’d had a ship or other means of support, he might have scraped by, but his father’s livelihood had sunk to the bottom of the ocean alongside him, and there had been no insurance.

When presented with the problem, it had been Peggy who devised a possible solution. For she knew a rich man from her time in the war. A Lord—one of the wealthiest men in Eascor—who resided in the capital city of Columbia, several hundred miles from Red Hook, and far from any shore. Columbia was where Steve intended to take the train, a letter of introduction from Peggy in his pocket. He planned to ask this lord for a job, either in his own household or elsewhere. The pay was better in Columbia, and Steve would be able to buy the medication his mother needed and have it shipped home.

Sarah had protested his leaving, but Steve was as stubborn as she was, and would not be dissuaded. He couldn’t dwell on how much he was going to miss her. Couldn’t wander down the worrisome path of whether the medicine would help. Whether or not he’d ever see her again.

Thank the gods for Peggy, with her good humor and practicality, serving herself and Steve a hearty breakfast, helping him move Sarah closer to the table, and keeping up a steady stream of conversation about the day ahead as they ate.

“Soon as I have Steve settled, I’ll come back and check on you. My mother’s minding the boarding house, so we’ll manage just fine, between us.” The repetition of the plan was more for Steve’s benefit than Sarah’s—Peggy’s way of reassuring him that she would be there to take care of Sarah until he was settled, and the money and medication began to come through.

It was nearly nine o’clock by the time they finished breakfast, Steve washing the dishes and Peggy helping Sarah get comfortable in her chair before going to hitch up her horse and wagon. That left Sarah, Steve, and a miserable goodbye between them.

Looking at her—really looking at her, as he did now, sitting there in her chair, wrapped tightly in a half-dozen blankets—came as something of a shock. When he had been small, Sarah had seemed a giantess. Larger than life and formidable as a queen, holding his hand as they stood on the edge of the cliff overlooking the water, skirts whipping in the wind. Now, she was tiny. Gaunt and frail as he bent to embrace her.

“Be smart,” she said, straightening his lapels with her gnarled fingers. “Be careful. Be good.”

“I will,” he said, blinking twice and kissing her temple.

“I love you, starfish.”

Ducking his head, Steve squeezed her hands and offered her a smile. “I love you, too, ma.”

 


 

Shutting the door to the cottage felt like locking himself into a prison from which there was no escape; a prison made from the world outside the home he longed for, while the person he loved most waited within those four welcoming walls.

Steve turned to where Peggy was waiting in the wagon and tossed his valise into the bed before climbing up beside her. She knew him well enough to know he'd rather not talk, so she flicked the reins and told the horse to walk on.

The cottage lay nearly three miles down the road from Red Hook, which they'd have to pass through on the way to Penston. For the first eighteen years of his life, Steve had known no more, and no less than that road—a childhood spent running the distance between home and town, where he'd attended the one-room school and befriended a fierce little girl with a cunning mind and a sharp tongue. He and Peggy had been inseparable since they were small, through good and ill—the loss of his father and hers cementing their loyalty to one another. Some, including Peggy's mother Amanda, had hoped the two of them might find romance somewhere in the complicated web of their friendship, but it was not to be. Steve knew from an early age that he preferred the mast to the hold, while Peggy had no use for masts at all.

When they were eighteen, war had come to Red Hook. The rumblings were distant at first, the clash several years in the making. Rumors of a conflict with Vedoria, a country which lay across the sea that separated the Eascorian Republic and her neighboring countries from the continent on the other side of the globe. It meant nothing to them at first, this war fought in faraway places, toy soldiers laying down their lives for a cause they assumed was noble and just.

Until that eighteenth summer, when a damaged Eascorian warship had sought refuge in Red Hook Bay. There had been hundreds of soldiers on board, and for a time, the sleepy town had become a base of operations. Telegraph wires were strung, supplies came and went, and Peggy and Steve grew fascinated with the machinery of war, each wanting to do their part.

Peggy went first, her talent for subterfuge spotted by a commanding general who sent her over the sea as a spy. It was eight years before Steve saw her again, and during their time apart Peggy had adventures aplenty—making the acquaintance of the fancy lord, and falling in love with a Vedorian refugee who had later abandoned her.

Steve’s opportunity to serve had come not long after Peggy’s. As it happened, he’d intended to enlist in a more conventional manner, but one day, whilst out in his small rowboat, he came across a man floating along in a newfangled motorboat which had lost its capacity for motoring.

“Abraham Erskine,” the drifting man had said by way of introduction, before accepting Steve’s offer of assistance.

Turned out, this Abraham Erskine was seeking men like Steve. Men who could sail, silent and swift. Sneak through rough seas and choppy waters to keep troops fed and supplies moving. Serving in an unofficial capacity, but serving all the same.

Steve hadn’t hesitated, and had gone straight home to tell his mother, who was smart enough to know she ought to let him go; that he wouldn’t have been happy sitting idle.

Erskine supplied him with a proper ship. A crew. Men who referred to him as Captain, though he had no real rank to claim. It had been good work, and Steve had grown into himself during his time away. Gone was the boy who had never left home, and in his place stood a man who was sure and capable. Who gave orders and expected to have them followed. Who understood his place in the world, and believed that the work he was doing was just.

Until it wasn’t.

Until he began to understand the toll of war. The famine. The death. The realization that he was fighting the fight of wealthy men who sent poor soldiers in to die in their stead. By the time the armistice was declared, Steve was weary of war, and he returned home in search of some comfort.

What he found instead was an ailing mother and no opportunities to speak of.

Red Hook had dried up, the war industry receding along with the troops. The telegraph lines fell into disrepair, Peggy’s boarding house barely scraped by, and Steve was left foundering for coin and purpose both.

For five years they’d managed, with Steve taking work as a crew member on one of the few successful fishing boats remaining in Red Hook. This year, though, there was no managing. Not with Sarah so much worse, and the medicine so sorely needed.

Which meant that for the second time in his life, Steve was leaving home. Only this time there was no excitement to be had. No sense of adventure. Just work—finding it, performing it, and subjecting himself to it for his mother's sake.

It was half noon by the time Steve and Peggy reached Penston, Peggy bringing the wagon to a stop in front of the so-called station—a single platform, steam train chuffing in anticipation, and a ticket booth staffed by a dozing older gentleman.

“You’ve got the letter?” Peggy said.

Steve patted his breast pocket, feeling the weight of the envelope bearing the name ‘Howard Stark’ in her familiar scrawl. “Right here.”

“I’ve told you he’s odd—” she said. “Don’t fuss at him when he’s…well, he can be rather…Howard.”

“You say that as though you’re intimately acquainted,” he teased, leaning over to kiss her cheek.

“Don’t be stupid,” she snapped in her ridiculous Columbian accent—acquired during the war, and put on when she was feeling especially imperious. Or emotional. She was smiling, though, in spite of herself.

“Wouldn’t be me otherwise.”

“True,” she agreed, twisting her mouth up, eyes bright. Steve knew that face—had known it since the day she’d tripped and scraped her knee on a rock when they’d been all of six, sitting on the side of the road with her cheeks gone scarlet, eyes bright with unshed tears. “Howard knows everyone in Columbia, he’ll see you get situated.”

“Everyone, huh?”

“Everyone who’s anyone,” she said. “And you’ll write once you’re settled?”

“I promise,” he said, before taking a deep breath. “Peggy, I—”

“Don’t worry about your mother,” she said, anticipating him. “I know that you will, no matter what I say. But I’ll look after her for you, my darling.”

“I was only going to say,” he said, reaching over to squeeze her arm. “That I hope you don’t start crying. Because you’re ugly when you cry, and—”

Peggy swatted his hand, bursting out laughing. “You’re a shit, Steve.”

“Can’t help it,” he said, pulling her into a fierce hug and kissing the top of her head, even as she tried to squirm away. “Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone.”

“How can I? You’re taking all the stupid with you.”

That made him snort, and he squeezed her even tighter before letting her go. “I love you, you know.”

“I am well aware,” she smiled, as the train blew its whistle. “Now go, before I have to look at you another second!”

Steve chanced one more kiss to her cheek before hopping down and going to fetch his bag, which he set on the platform, then turned to face her one last time, shielding his eyes from the sun.

“I will miss you,” she conceded. “Even if you are an ass.”

“I’ll miss you,” he agreed. “Even if you’re a mule.”

“Don’t pick fights.”

“Don’t take the bait.”

“Don’t pull your punches.”

Steve grinned. “Never.”

The whistle blew again. “Go!” Peggy laughed, waving him off.

Steve gave her a mock-salute before turning to the ticket booth, where he purchased a third-class fare and stepped into the carriage, finding his place on the hard bench. He had never been on a train before, as he much preferred travel by boat. Fifteen minutes after the train departed the station, he'd decided that he hated it. Hated the way the belching beast of steam and soot trundled across the countryside. Hated the sound of the glass rattling in the windows. The scream of the whistle. The squalling of the child in the row behind him.

As the day wore on, things only got worse. There were dozens of stops, each one bringing with it more travelers to fill up the car. Five to a bench, squashed in so tightly that Steve found himself cramped and miserable, arms folded in his lap as sweat soaked the collar of his suit. The stench of the car was unbearable, but opening the window brought with it nasty, sooty air, so after a brief encounter with that bit of unpleasantness, he decided he would make do with the pungent stench of humanity instead.

It was ten o’clock at night before the train reached its terminus—a smallish city by the name of Pompton. He took a room in a cheap inn nearest the train station and fell asleep dreaming of ocean breezes.

The next day brought with it a new train, departing at eight in the morning from Pompton’s central station. He reached the end of that line, took another room, and did it again the following day. More of the same followed, stop after stop, and while there were faster ways of traveling—express lines that bypassed the endless stops with their squealing brakes and rush of new riders—Steve was in no position to afford them.

It took six days total to reach Columbia’s grand central station—twelve tracks under a dome of glass and steel, ornate and overly fussy to Steve’s tired eyes. The final leg of the journey had been on a night train, which had him stepping down from the car in the grey light of dawn, still wearing his rumpled brown suit, hundreds of miles from home and smelling of grease and grime and perspiration, jostled by the crush of humanity that had traveled alongside him.

The teeming crowd carried him from the station and into the street, where he was faced with a cacophony the likes of which he’d only ever seen on a battlefield. This place was chaos—vendors screaming their wares from stalls. Children darting between the wheels of carriages as they rolled past. Shit on the streets and not a cooling breeze to be found. He’d known the south of Eascor was hot, but this was unbearable—wasn’t even summer yet, and he had sweat running down his forehead in rivulets.

Upon spotting someone useful, Steve marched over to a man in a navy blue uniform and a silver badge, requesting directions to the home of Lord Howard Stark. The policeman set him on his way, and as he had no other means of transportation, Steve began to walk. It soon became apparent that people like Lord Stark did not live near that squalling city center. People like Lord Stark, in fact, lived some miles away, where vast estates spread themselves out behind high, iron gates, lush lawns and thick foliage separating these castles from the commoners. Smelled better, too, though Steve’s neck still prickled with resentment at the opulence.

When he arrived at the address he’d been given, he found a home that was grander than the rest by half—a palatial structure of red brick ringed by lush, dark hedges, hidden behind a massive golden gate. Despite his height, Steve felt small standing there in his crushed suit, cheeks hot, perspiration on his brow, and dried mud on his shoes. Probably they’d take one look at him and send him packing.

Still, for his mother, he would have to try.

Squaring his shoulders, Steve rang the bell.

Chapter Text

There was no answer at the house of Lord Howard Stark—curtains drawn against the daylight casting the brick in shades of red and orange. Hustle and bustle, it seemed, were having a long-lie.

Steve checked the pocket watch which had once belonged to his father and frowned. A quarter past nine—early enough for people to be out and about. It was hard to recall a day in his life when he’d risen past eight; more often than not he was up before the sun, whether sailing or soldiering.

Why have a bell if not to answer it? Or perhaps it was broken? He tried again, pulling hard on the mechanical lever and listening for some confirmation that noise was being heard within.

“Hello?”

That noise was from without—a woman’s voice, curiously accented, coming from behind him. Steve turned to find a tallish, slender woman with dark red hair and a pointed, beaky face of sharp-edged prettiness. On her head was a green bonnet that matched the print of the leaves on the dress she wore, and hanging from one arm was a basket laden down with such a quantity of produce and bread that Steve’s stomach began rumbling before he could form a response.

“Ah, hello,” he said, hoping she couldn’t hear the protestations of his gut when he offered her a smile. “I’m Steve? Rogers?”

“I’m sure that you are. Why are you standing outside my gate?”

Steve frowned; Peggy had said Lord Stark was a widower. “I…are you Lady Stark?”

“I’m sure that I am not. But I live here all the same.”

The woman’s matter-of-factness reminded him of Peggy; he liked her in an instant. “I’m here to see Lord Stark,” he said. “I have a letter?” Reaching into his breast pocket, he produced the envelope, which had gotten quite crumpled on the journey.

“So you do,” she said, plucking it from his fingers for further examination. Handing it back after a cursory look, she tugged on a chain around her neck and produced a key. “You’d better come along with me, Mr. Rogers. We’ll find Edwin. That is to say, Mister Jarvis.”

Nodding as though he knew who that was, Steve followed her through the gate, waiting politely as she closed it behind them.

“Thank you.”

“Thank me or don’t, it’s all the same to me.”

With that, she was off, marching toward the house, full skirts sweeping across the crushed stone of the gravel drive. Steve suppressed a smile, jogging to keep up, and as it was quite the distance to the house, he spoke mostly to fill the silence.

“I’m Steve.”

“So you’ve said.”

The amusement in her tone did nothing to quell the slight flush that crept onto his cheeks.

“I am Ana,” she offered, sidestepping a box of springs and other detritus that lay in the middle of the drive. “Jarvis. Mrs. Ana Jarvis. Edwin is my husband.”

Steve nodded again, wondering if perhaps he’d gotten the Jarvis manor rather than the Stark. “Oh,” he said. “But Mr. Stark—”

“Edwin is very particular about his breakfast,” Mrs. Jarvis said. “So you see—” She stopped short, turning her head toward a small shed that lay just beyond the entrance to a high-walled garden. “Anthony Edward! I see you!”

The shed exploded. Or, rather, the door did—a young man of about sixteen, fleeing from the outbuilding as fast as his legs could carry him. Seconds later, a blonde girl and a redheaded one tumbled after, giggling as they beat a hasty retreat into the gardens.

“They’ll be up and over the wall,” Mrs. Jarvis said disapprovingly. “If his mother could see him.”

“That’s…who are they?”

“I could not tell you of the young ladies,” she replied. “But the boy is Lord Stark’s son.”

An indication that Steve was at the right house, at least. "I see," he said.

“He is very smart,” she went on. “But so much mischief, even now that he is at the university—” she shook her head. “But this is family business. Come. Your letter. Let’s find Edwin.”

Steve trailed behind as she led the way to the side of the house, where a set of stairs descended to a wooden door. The door opened to a narrow hallway which smelled of baking bread and frying bacon. Steve’s mouth watered as he ducked inside, stomach continuing to rumble.

“Edwin is very tall, also,” Mrs. Jarvis said upon observing Steve’s stoop.

An archway on the right side of the hallway led to an expansive, modern kitchen, with four ovens and hobs enough to feed an army, two of which were lit—one holding a pan of bacon, the other eggs. A great copper pot sat over a fire in one of three massive hearths, while a large, wooden table dominated the center of the room, running nearly from one wall to the other.

This table was where Mrs. Jarvis put her basket, just as a stout woman appeared from a side door, knotting an apron around her waist.

“Oh, Mrs. Jarvis!” she exclaimed. “Just in time.”

“Excellent apples at the market today, Mrs. Murphy.”

“Wonderful. I’ll make a torte.”

“I’m sure Master Anthony will appreciate that.”

The women spoke as though Steve were not there at all, though Mrs. Murphy gave him a glance that indicated he was about as interesting as a bit of lint on the hem of her dress. He had begun wondering if he’d somehow been rendered invisible when a tall, thin man, impeccably clad in a dark grey suit, strode down the hall and into the kitchen, newspaper folded under one arm.

“Good morning, Mrs. Jarvis,” he said. “Mrs. Murphy.”

"Good morning, Mr. Jarvis," Mrs. Jarvis replied, crossing to her husband and leaning on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. "The apples are excellent today."

“Wonderful. Mrs. Murphy, will you—”

“I’ll make a torte.”

“Marvelous.” He turned to Steve, nonplussed, and looked him up and down. “Have we hired a new gardener?”

“I don’t believe so.”

“I’m to be kept informed of all matters regarding new staff, Mrs. Jarvis—”

“I’m not entirely sure he’s a gardener.”

“Then why is he here?”

“Because he has a letter.”

“A letter?”

“For Lord Stark.”

“Are you sure? I’m quite certain Lord Stark would have told me if he was expecting any letters from gardeners.”

“I’m not a gardener!” Steve said, doing his best to mask his exasperation as he stepped forward and presented his letter.

Mr. Jarvis took it, lips moving as he confirmed that yes, it was addressed to Lord Howard Stark. Upon flipping it over to inspect the seal, he raised a brow and looked at Steve, then handed it back. “Miss Carter has sent us a new gardener? Why on earth would she do that?”

“I’m sure I don’t know, Mr. Jarvis,” Mrs. Jarvis said. “Perhaps it’s her idea of a joke.”

“Not a very funny one. What are we to do with the old gardener?”

“Are we quite sure he’s a gardener?”

“You’re the one who said so.”

“I’m sure I did no such thing.”

“Now, Mrs. Jarvis—”

A distinct and unpleasant throbbing had begun behind Steve’s left eye. “Please,” he said. “I’m just here to speak to Lord Stark. That’s all.”

Both Jarvises looked at him, making him feel as if he were standing before them in nothing but his underthings.

“Lord Stark,” said Mr. Jarvis imperiously. “Is having his breakfast. In bed. Surely you don’t expect to be granted an audience before the man is dressed?”

“I—” Steve stammered. “Well. No. But.”

“Goodness, we are being rude,” Mrs. Jarvis said. “Have you had your own breakfast, Mr. Rogers?”

“No,” he said.

“Mrs. Murphy, surely we can share? He is looking awfully peaky, don’t you think?”

“Very peaky,” Mrs. Murphy agreed.

“Quite,” Mr. Jarvis nodded.

Which was how Steve found himself sitting at one end of that large table, eating a plate of bacon and eggs, alongside four scones and a healthy helping of cream. The others joined him presently, each with a full plate and plenty of pleasant—if perplexing—conversation.

“I’m sorry I can’t offer you an apple,” Mrs. Murphy lamented as she poured him a piping hot cup of coffee. “But I’m afraid I’ll need them all for the torte.”

“I don’t mind,” Steve said, tucking in, much too hungry to worry about decorum.

While he ate like a starving dog, the other three picked at their plates, talking all the while, allowing Steve to pick up the nuances of their positions—Mr. Jarvis was Lord Stark’s butler, valet, and trusted confidante. Mrs. Jarvis, in addition to being Mr. Jarvis’ wife, did the household accounting. Mrs. Murphy was the cook, which was self-explanatory. The three of them, plus one gardener and two maids, were the only full-time staff.

“But it’s such a massive house,” Steve said after swallowing a mouthful of scone.

“Lord Stark keeps most of it closed off,” Mrs. Murphy said, waving a rasher of bacon in the air as if conducting a porcine orchestra. “Has for years, ever since—”

“On those occasions,” Mr. Jarvis broke in with a reproving look. “That there are to be guests, we hire help. Temporarily.”

Which did not bode well for Steve finding employment under Lord Howard Stark, he realized, frowning at his plate.

“Anyhow,” Mrs. Murphy continued. “The only room with any real mess is his workshop.”

“His workshop?”

“Of course,” she said, blinking at him. “Lord Stark’s an inventor. A proper scientist. Haven’t you heard?”

Only as much as Peggy had ever told him. Steve nodded anyway, reaching for his coffee.

“He is always tinkering,” Mrs. Jarvis said with no small amount of pride.

“Exploding,” Mr. Jarvis corrected.

“Sometimes exploding,” she conceded.

"And his son?" Steve pressed. Perhaps the boy needed a valet?

“What about him?” Mr. Jarvis asked.

“Does he live here?”

“Some of the time,” he replied. “Mostly, he is at school.”

“Top of his class,” Mrs. Jarvis said with a smile. “At only sixteen!”

“At Columbia?” Steve asked. The city’s namesake university was the only one he had ever heard of, chiefly because the brainy nephew of a friend of his mother’s had been admitted on a scholarship basis (making him one of the few folks who ever escaped Red Hook for a good reason).

“Yes,” she said. “You’ve heard of it?”

“Only a little. But—”

Steve's sentence was forestalled by a rather loud buzzing sound coming from a black box set high on the wall above the entryway. Several wires were coming from it, connected to holes in the ceiling. It reminded Steve of things he'd seen during the war—loud, crackling boxes that carried human voices, scratchy and barely comprehensible.

“Ah,” said Mr. Jarvis. “Right on time.”

Steve rubbed his ear, trying to clear the ringing. “What—?”

“Lord Stark.”

“He ah…huh,” Steve said, looking at the box with some annoyance.

“I’ll go and see that he’s dressed,” Mr. Jarvis said, getting to his feet. “Then you can present him with your letter.”

Leaving as swiftly as he’d come, Mr. Jarvis walked with purpose down the hall that presumably led upstairs. Steve, meanwhile, was content to finish his breakfast, after which Mrs. Murphy swooped in to clear his plate. His offer to help her with the dishes was met with polite refusal, which was just as well, for soon after that, Mr. Jarvis returned.

“Come along,” he said, bidding Steve follow him down the narrow hallway and up a set of wide stairs that were no doubt meant to accommodate a large staff. They seemed rather lonely with just the two of them.

“Lord Stark is most curious about how you’ve come to be in possession of a letter from Miss Carter,” Mr. Jarvis said, pushing open something that was a door on one side and—Steve saw once they’d stepped through—a clever piece of wallpaper masquerading as a wall on the other.

“Oh,” Steve said, struck dumb by the sheer size of the hall into which they’d walked. It was opulent without being overwrought, with tasteful gold accents and rich burgundy drapes adorning the windows.

“Mr. Rogers?”

“I only—”

“This way, please.” Mr. Jarvis, having given him ample time to gape like a codfish, walked on. Up the main stairs. Down a long corridor. A left turn. A right. A labyrinth of grandeur, with massive gilt-framed paintings on every wall and strange, mechanical curios on every table.

“Here we are,” he said at last, stopping before a set of varnished wooden doors.

“Are we?” Steve said, which was a fairly stupid thing to say.

“Quite,” Mr. Jarvis replied before pushing open the rightmost door and clearing his throat. “Lord Stark, Mr. Steve Rogers to see you.”

“Steve!” came from within, which left Steve no choice but to walk through the door.

Lord Stark was a slight man, shorter than Steve by a head and older than him by half, with well-coiffed dark brown hair that sported a few white streaks, and a mustache to match. He looked less an academic—which Steve had expected, given his work—and more a traveling salesman, all slickness and charm. The fit of his perfectly-crisp suit stood in sharp contrast to Steve’s shabby clothing, which was made all the more evident when he stepped out from behind his ostentatious wooden desk to offer his hand. “Jarvis, you didn’t tell me it was Steve Rogers. Of course, I know Steve! Steve—heard all about Steve. Cap, right?”

It had been so long since Steve had heard the name—last spoken to him on the deck of a ship by one of his men as they bid their farewells—he couldn’t help but laugh. “I—yes.”

"Peggy never shut up about you, and then we heard all about you and the boys under your command—supposed to be a secret, ha! Some secret. Cap'n Rogers and his Howling Commandos. Come in, come in. Sit a while. You drink?"

“Not this early in the morning.”

Lord Stark laughed far more than the poor joke deserved, clapping Steve on the back and pointing him toward an overstuffed armchair. “Funny, too. Peg never said you were funny.”

Likely because he wasn’t, at least not on purpose. “Lord Stark—”

“Call me Howard,” he said as Steve sat himself down in the comfortable chair. “Any friend of Peg’s is a friend of mine.”

“Alright then, Howard. Thank you for agreeing to see me. I have a letter—” He held out the envelope, which Howard took as Mr. Jarvis shut the door, leaving them alone.

Howard broke the seal, lifting out the letter and sitting atop his desk as he pored over the contents. It was a longish missive, and it took him some time to read, perusal peppered with occasional laughter, and one or two “mmmhmms.”

When he was through, he looked closely at Steve. “So it’s a job you’re after?”

Steve nodded. A job, money, resources to pay for the medication without resorting to begging for charity. "Yes," he said. "Peggy thought you might need someone new, or know someone who does—"

“Not here, I’m afraid. Or at least if there’s work to be had it’s not steady. But, oh…say now, there’s an idea.”

“What’s—?”

“You ever work with animals?”

Caught off-guard, Steve stared at him before finding his voice. “I…my father was a fisherman. I did it myself before the war, and a bit since—”

Howard guffawed, though Steve hadn’t intended to be funny. “I’m talking about live animals, my friend. Wild ones.”

It was a strange question, but then, it had been a strange day, so Steve responded honestly. “There were a couple cats on board my boat.”

“Cats?”

“Sure. Real mousers, both of ‘em. Vicious—one liked to bite.”

Howard lay the letter on the desk and cocked his head to the side. “So what I’m hearing is, you tamed tigers?”

“What?” Steve laughed. “No—“

“Sure you did. And I seem to recall Peggy mentioning you fought a bear during the war. Wrestled him right to the ground. They called you crazy, but by the gods, you pinned the beast.”

“Bu—no?”

"And after the war, you ran one of those…menageries. A zoo, specializing in the strange and the exotic. With the wrestled bear and the tiger, too. And sharks! Whole tank fulla sharks, I'd say."

“I’ve certainly seen sharks if that's what you're asking," he offered.

“Fought ‘em, too?”

“No,” he said, still laughing. The man was as odd as Peggy had made him out to be. “Howard, I’m sorry, but what are you talking about?”

“I know a fella. A peer of mine in the peerage, as it were. He specializes in the acquisition of…unique creatures.”

Steve raised a brow. “Ah.”

“Mostly, the dead sort. Picks up the corpses. Stuffs and mounts them. You understand?”

Charming. Steve nodded.

“But his latest find—” Howard flashed him a grin. “It’s alive and kicking, in a manner of speaking. A real beast.”

“What is it?” Steve asked, curiosity piqued. The job, whatever it might be, sounded interesting at the very least, and an interesting job was more than he had hoped for, coming here.

“Can’t precisely say,” Howard replied. “Sworn to secrecy—couldn’t tell you unless he decides to show you himself.”

“I see.”

"Problem is—and this is where the job comes in—the beast needs managing. I believe my acquaintance hopes to show it to the public, but you can't make money from a sulky creature, and the man he has on the job now is prone to—" At that, he hesitated, waggling his fingers. "More aggressive methods of coercion."

"So I won't be wrestling it, then," Steve said, folding his arms across his chest. The whole thing was getting weirder and weirder, and for all that he was intrigued, the fact was that he knew nothing about wild animals, and was as likely to have his eyes scratched out as he was to make a success of it. All the same, if the job were offered, he'd figure it out. Shit, it wasn't as if he'd ever backed down from a challenge before, and what was life if not for being repeatedly tossed overboard and expected to haul oneself back onto the deck? (Plus, a dangerous and interesting job might come with a heftier salary than a simple servant's position.)

“Not as such, no,” Howard said, squinting at a point on the wall somewhere behind Steve’s head. “Though that’d make for quite the show...”

When it became evident no further thoughts were forthcoming, Steve cleared his throat. “I won’t lie for work. Tigers and bears are all well and good, but—”

“It’s showmanship, my friend,” Howard interrupted. “You’ve wrangled sailors and storms and feral kitty cats—nothing wrong with a little embellishment.”

“All the same, I’ll earn the position on my merits or not at all.”

Howard narrowed his eyes, and for a moment Steve thought he was angry. Damn it—probably shouldn’t have pushed back. Howard was a rich man, and that sort didn’t like having their notions questioned. Two seconds later, though, the frown turned into a grin, and Howard shook his head. “By the gods, if you and Carter aren’t two of a kind. Alright then, Rogers, have it your way. I’ll make the introduction.”

“Thank you,” he said, “I look forward to speaking with your friend.”

“Acquaintance,” Howard corrected, rising to his feet, which made Steve feel as if he ought to do the same.

“Acquaintance,” Steve echoed, taking careful note of Howard’s differentiation.

"I'll ring him up, let him know we're coming." Howard walked as he talked, striding around the desk to what Steve knew, in theory, was a telephone, though he'd never seen one up close.

Money did make marvels.

“We’ll go today?” he asked.

“Couple of hours, if he’s home,” Howard agreed. “It’ll give you time to freshen up. Between you and me, pal, you stink.

Steve did his best not to take offense. After all, Howard was right.

“Thank you,” he said. “And your—ah, I’m sorry if you said it, but what’s his name?”

“I hadn’t said. But I’m sure you’ll have heard of Lord Alexander Pierce?”

Chapter Text

Yes, Steve knew of Lord Pierce, whose name had been stamped on the hull of every official ship he’d boarded during the war. Pierce, the lord whose already profitable shipyards had turned away from freight and fishing, and towards war, building the swift-moving steam-powered metal behemoths that carried troops and supplies across the sea to Vedoria. Steve had often wondered what sort of man could profit from such misery.

Which wasn't to say that Lord Stark was any sort of innocent; his advances in weaponry had armed soldiers with guns that could spray bullets at a rapid clip, and with grenades that left cratering, ugly pockmarks behind, decimating any living thing in their wake.

War was a nasty business, however you sold it. Great men remained safe behind the walls of their mansions, grinding the poor beneath the treads of progress and the advancement of a murky agenda.

However, if Peggy was to be believed (and Peggy was always to be believed), Howard Stark had not been content to direct developments from a distance. He had slept in his fair share of trenches, more committed to the cause than to lining his own pockets. Steve could respect that. Lord Alexander Pierce, conversely, remained an unknown quantity. Steve had no reference for the man beyond the belching black smoke of his shipyards and the preponderance of his name on any available surface. Telling the world what an important person he was.

“Hey, now, honey, work with me here,” Howard barked, jolting Steve from his thoughts, as the automobile in which they were traveling gave a series of groans. Steve had never been in an auto before—had only ever seen a few up close—but Howard was an old hand, turning cranks and pulling levers as the machine trundled down the road between his estate and Lord Pierce’s.

“Awfully loud,” Steve called over the din.

“She’s a beaut, huh?”

The auto was pretty, Steve would give Howard that, with shiny red paint and a gleaming steering wheel of lacquered wood. It was also—with its open top and low sides—dusty, loud, and cumbersome. He was grateful for the duster Howard had given him to wear, as he’d changed into his best suit after taking a bath, and didn’t need it dirtied before meeting Lord Pierce.

The distance between the estates was around two miles, the properties growing larger the further they went from the city. Howard’s estate had been a series of gardens with the house visible from the street, but these houses were set so far back that it was difficult to make out any structures as they passed by. Not long after traveling through a small, well-appointed market square, Howard took a left turn through a set of massive, wrought-iron gates and into a wilderness—ancient trees lining both sides of the drive, their roots making for a bumpy ride as the auto followed the winding road.

“This is Lord Pierce’s property?” Steve asked, just to be sure.

“Told you he’s unique,” Howard said. “Says he doesn’t like to disturb the natural beauty. There’ve been Pierces on this land for hundreds of years—one of the oldest families in Eascoria, if you hear him tell the story.”

“Ah.”

"There we are," Howard said, pointing through the trees to where Steve could just make out a second gate, this one closed. This gate was connected not to a fence, but to a hedgerow taller than any Steve had ever seen. Ten feet if it was an inch, immaculately maintained and terribly imposing. Beyond the gate lay more of the curving drive, the estate visible in the distance. And what an estate it was! Twice the size of Howard's home, boasting at least four stories. Steve didn't know enough about architecture to put words to what he was seeing, but he could tell that the house was very old and austere, made from large grey bricks that lent it an air of authority.

Howard brought the auto to a stop, and a stooped, older man shambled from a small guardhouse. The stooped man spoke briefly to Howard, then opened the gate, after which Howard shifted a lever and drove them toward the sprawling stone steps that led to a grand set of double doors.

As they drew closer, the doors opened, and a man stepped through, leaning heavily on a cane and raising his hand in greeting.

“That’s him,” Howard said, shutting off the engine.

Steve looked up at Lord Pierce, who had a half-smile on his weathered face.

“Welcome,” he called, as three separate servants came through the doors behind him, busying themselves with helping Steve and Howard down from the auto and out of their dusters, then standing at stiff attention while the two of them made their way up the stairs.

“Alexander,” Howard greeted, extending his hand. “Good to see you, old man.”

Lord Pierce pumped Howard’s hand twice before turning to Steve. A regal man, this lord, with handsome features only slightly dimmed with age. Steve thought he was maybe sixty, but a young sixty—the sort of sixty that comes from a life lived without much trouble. There was a jovial quality about him, practiced and polite, and yet his smile did not quite meet his eyes.

“This must be the proposed solution,” Lord Pierce said, offering Steve his hand as well.

"Pleased to meet you, Lord Pierce." Steve shook and found the man's grip firm, but his fingers clammy.

“Howard says you’ve worked with animals?”

“I uh, I’ve wrangled a few beasts in my time,” he said, thinking of one of his men in particular—a fella named Denier—who couldn’t handle his drink, and had often needed coaxing into bed after a raucous night out. “But I’m eager to learn more.”

“I see,” Lord Pierce said, gaze appraising before he turned his attention back to Howard. “What did you say his name was?”

“Steve Rogers,” Howard said, which annoyed Steve. As if he wasn’t important enough to give his own name. “War hero—I mentioned that, didn’t I?”

“Hero’s a stretch,” Steve demurred. “I only did what anyone would have done.”

Lord Pierce looked at him, then, eyes narrowing, though the smile never left his lips. “Indeed,” he nodded. “Come, we’ll speak in the parlor.”

With that, he turned on his heel with such swiftness that Steve wondered at his need of the heavy, wooden cane. But then people had all sorts of ailments which might make turning simple while walking remained burdensome.

Howard touched his arm as they crossed the threshold, giving him a reassuring wink. Upon entering the foyer, Steve didn’t know where to look. The entryway was thrice the size of Howard’s grand hall, with two-story high paintings dominating every wall. The windows and doorways were adorned with velvet curtains of such a deep blue they were nearly black, giving the room a funereal quality. The gloominess wasn’t helped by the furniture—several heavy, dark benches and tables populated the space, all of them glum and lonely. As if nobody had bothered to notice them for years, save for the odd swipe of a maid’s duster.

Lord Pierce kept walking, leading them to a set of open double doors, outside of which a footman and a maid stood waiting.

“Tea, Renata,” Lord Pierce instructed the maid.

Renata bobbed a curtsy before taking her leave, after which Lord Pierce turned to the footman.

“Have Rumlow see that it’s prepared for visitors, then ask him to join us.”

“Yes, sir,” said the footman, bowing slightly before following Renata.

Lord Pierce continued through the open doors and into the parlor, with its navy blue sofas and chairs. The innocuous furniture wasn’t what caught Steve’s eye, though. How could a couch hold a candle to the corpses lining all four walls?

Dead things. Animals of every stripe and species, mounted and stuffed. Some of them merely heads, while others were full bodies. There was a tiger, which Steve recognized from a picture book he’d had as a boy, tucked against the leftmost wall. A cheetah at its side, spots forever frozen. The far corner was dominated by a bear, reared up on its hind legs with a gaping maw and paws poised to strike at an enemy that would never come.

“Quite the specimen, isn’t she, my boy?” Lord Pierce asked, noting Steve’s staring. “Took her down myself—clean shot, right between the eyes.”

“Oh,” Steve said, because he wasn’t sure what else to say about such a strange accomplishment.

“Alexander’s quite the collector,” Howard agreed, sitting casually on one of the sofas as though it were his own. “Didn’t I tell you, Steve?”

“You…yes,” Steve nodded, remaining on his feet even as Lord Pierce settled himself on an armchair that—Steve now saw—was covered with fur that had been dyed to match the fabric of the couches.

“All credit to the taxidermist,” Lord Pierce said, laughing at what he obviously thought was a joke. “Sit, sit. We don’t stand on ceremony here.”

Steve made his way to the sofa Howard already occupied, sitting stiffly on the other side and noting the collection of what appeared to be elephant tusks on a shelf, alongside the teeth of…well, he didn’t know what, but something that might have liked to bite Lord Pierce back.

Quite the collector, indeed.

“Now,” Lord Pierce said. “Tell me about this beast you managed.”

“Oh, I…” Steve cleared his throat. “He wasn’t a beast precisely. Just…ah, I suppose you’d call him a man, actually. A wild one—”

Lord Pierce’s eyes narrowed. “I see.”

“Steve spent time training big cats,” Howard lied. “Real nasty buggers—”

“They weren’t so big,” Steve corrected. “Mousers, mostly. On my ship.”

Lord Pierce peered at Howard. “You said he’d had experience.”

“Of a sort. He’s a quick thinker. Good in a tight spot.”

“This isn’t some housepet, Howard. Honestly—”

“Lord Pierce,” Steve broke in, leaning forward. If he’d had a hat, he might have held it between his hands. “I don’t aim to mislead you. It’s true, I don’t have much to offer in the way of know-how with animals, but I’m a quick learner. I’ve been told I’m good at improvising when there’s trouble, and I found my way out of a few scrapes during the war. I’m only asking for a chance, is all. No hard feelings if it doesn’t work out.”

“No hard feelings,” Lord Pierce echoed, another one of his strange laughs escaping.

“I’ll vouch for him any day of the week, Alexander,” Howard said. “He’s trustworthy. Honest.”

“You know him so well, Howard?”

“Only by reputation. But if that’s any indication, there’s nobody who’ll try harder than Steve, and I trust the woman who recommended him more than…Gods, more than I trust Jarvis.”

“Hmm,” Lord Pierce looked at Steve. “A weighty endorsement, my boy.”

“Lord Stark is generous,” Steve said, glancing at Howard, who winked. “I hope I can live up to his high esteem. Mostly, sir, I think I can do the job, and do it well.”

"Can you?" Pierce said. "How is it that you're so confident when you don't yet know what's being asked of you?"

"Because I can do just about anything." It wasn't a boast—he'd never been one for self-flattery—it was just what life had taught him about himself. "From what Lord Stark says, you've got an animal that needs training. I like animals, always have—I'm good with them, and I guess I got more patience for them that I do people, most days. I don't back down from challenges, sir, and I figure any beast is manageable with the right motivation."

“And what motivation might you consider prudent?”

“I—” Steve hesitated. He’d trained a dog or two in his day, and had spent enough time around horses to know what worked and what didn’t. “Patience, like I said. A bit of compassion. And I never met an animal that wasn’t motivated by the idea of a full belly.”

Lord Pierce considered him, blue eyes sharp as he subjected Steve to intense, unwavering scrutiny. Finally, he spoke. "Yes, alright. We'll see how you do on a trial basis. A fortnight, to start."

“Yes, sir,” Steve said, smiling. “You won’t regret it.”

“Let’s hope not, my boy,” he replied, just as the door opened and Renata stepped through, holding a tray in her hands. “Perfect timing. Let’s discuss the particulars over tea.”

The particulars were of the bureaucratic sort, including Steve's compensation (moderate for the first fortnight, increasing if he kept the job), his living quarters (a private room in the basement), and his meals (provided). He would have no days off, but as his only responsibility would be the care and training of the creature, he could set his schedule and take time for personal matters as he saw fit. This came as a relief, being as he'd need to visit a chemist to arrange for his mother's treatments.

“Now,” Lord Pierce said, once the business was settled. “About the beast.”

Steve sat up straighter, placing his teacup on a saucer. “Yes, sir.”

“My business has been quite profitable of late, which has afforded me the opportunity to travel. I find it reprehensible, how little of the world we’ve explored, and how many things we have yet to discover.”

“Mmm,” Steve murmured. How easy an opinion for a man of wealth and leisure to hold.

“I inherited much of this collection from my father—” he waved his hand at the hundreds of dead things lining the walls. “Which is all well and good, if you’re interested in understanding the idea of something. Better than a picture in a storybook, but not real, you understand?”

“I…think so, sir.”

“My ambition is to educate people. Inspire them with the wonders of the natural world. Create a menagerie of the mysterious for those who don’t have the means to seek it out themselves.”

(And turn a hefty profit from their curiosity, Steve imagined.)

“The trouble is,” Lord Pierce said. “The acquisition of such creatures is expensive, not to mention troublesome. It cost me a fortune to acquire this beast, and yet I can’t possibly exhibit such a wild thing. I want to have it act naturally, you see? Not sick and sullen.”

“Yes, sir,” Steve said, though he didn’t really.

“I believe this creature might be the first of its kind ever captured, my boy,” he continued, brimming with excitement.

Not a tiger, then. Nor a bear. Not even an elephant or a rhino, the former of which had been Steve’s secret hope.

“And if you can get it singing, Steve—”

“Singing?” Steve repeated, sure he’d misheard. “Is it a bird?” Visions of claws and a vicious, pecking beak began running through his head.

Howard and Lord Pierce started to laugh, which annoyed Steve to the point that he nearly scowled. How was he supposed to guess? They were the ones having him play this stupid game.

“Not a bird, my friend—” Howard began, right as the door swung open again and a man stepped in.

“Ah, Rumlow, excellent!” Lord Pierce exclaimed. “We’re nearly ready.”

“Sir?” said the man, who appeared a few years older than Steve, with a grizzled, scarred face which looked made for trouble. Despite the scarring, he might have been considered rakish and good-looking, if not for the sneer coloring his expression.

“Steve, this is Brock Rumlow,” Lord Pierce said. “My manservant. He’s been wrangling the beast up to now, as we haven’t had any luck with other trainers.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Steve said, not sure whether he should stand.

“Rumlow, this is Steve Rogers. Howard’s recommended him for the position, so we’ll be trying him out. Is the creature ready?”

“Yes, sir,” Rumlow replied, voice a hoarse rasp, like wheels on gravel. “Sulky today.”

“It’s always sulky,” Lord Pierce sighed, glancing at Steve. “As I said, you’re taking on a stubborn, mean sort of beast.”

“Vicious, too,” Howard said. “Have Rumlow show him.”

“Ah, yes,” Pierce nodded, snapping his fingers in Rumlow’s direction. “Brock. Your hand.”

Rumlow stiffened, though he stepped forward, holding out his left hand, which had been hidden behind his back. There were only three fingers, plus the thumb, with a jagged scar where the index finger should have been.

“Tell him,” Lord Pierce prompted.

“Bit me, the fucker,” Rumlow swore. “Took my finger clean off.”

“Kept the bone as a souvenir after it spat out the meat, as I recall,” Lord Pierce said, a small smile on his face.

“Evil, is what it is,” Rumlow snarled.

“Don’t be an idiot,” Lord Pierce snapped. “It’s an animal. It doesn’t know any better.”

Rumlow’s gaze darkened, and he put his hand behind his back once more. As he stepped away, his gaze flicked to Steve, studying him.

“As you can see, Steve,” Lord Pierce said. “We need a careful hand, in addition to a skilled one.”

“I can do it,” Steve said. “I’ll keep my fingers clear.”

That made Lord Pierce and Howard chuckle, even as Rumlow’s glower deepened. Steve felt instantly guilty—he didn’t need to go making enemies, and it was a rotten thing that had happened to Rumlow. So he offered the man an apologetic half-smile, only to receive a dark stare in return.

“Time to make your acquaintance with the beast,” Lord Pierce declared, getting to his feet.

For his part, Howard was thrumming with excitement as they made their way out of the parlor. “Just you wait,” he said. “Just you wait.”

They walked through the silent halls, Steve doing his best to memorize the twists and turns of the elaborate house. Eventually, they reached a side door, and Lord Pierce took a keyring from his belt to unlock it.

“Security,” he explained when he caught Steve staring. “None of the staff is allowed into the rear yard, save for those whose jobs make it necessary.”

“I see.”

“Can’t have anyone getting too close,” he said, before opening the door.

Steve winced at the bright light, which was a sharp contrast from the gloomy interior of the old mansion. They followed Lord Pierce down a set of steps and onto a lush, green lawn that ran along the side of the house. Lord Pierce led them to the rear corner, where he stopped and allowed Steve to go first. Steve rounded the corner and took three steps forward before halting, the sight greeting him so strange that his feet froze solid.

Tucked against a set of crumbling, stone steps was a large tank made of glass and metal, taller than it was wide, filled to the brim with greenish water. The sunlight filtering through the glass was distorted, casting strange shadows in the depths. Playing tricks on the eye.

A trick was what it had to be; there could be no other explanation. For what Steve saw floating inside the tank was not real—couldn’t be real—merely a figment of his childhood. A myth. A story born of delirium and shipwrecked sailors. Yes, Steve had spent his life keeping to the old ways, heeding his mother’s words and his father’s warnings, but as a grown, sensible person, he did not believe that such a creature existed in the world.

It couldn’t be.

It wasn’t possible.

Yet, there it was.

“My boy,” Lord Pierce said. “Allow me—”

“It’s a siren,” Steve whispered.

Within the cage, the creature bared its teeth.



the siren in its tank

Chapter Text

Steve’s world narrowed. There was nothing in it but the siren. This creature, this legend, this beauty . And it was beautiful—eerily so—with its pale, disconcertingly human face. Steve found he could not look away from the teeth, so much like a shark’s, pointed and razor sharp. Teeth that could tear off a finger, no doubt.

The siren placed its left hand on the glass, and Steve stepped closer. Strange—the hand wasn’t a hand the way a person might be accustomed to thinking of one. Webbing grew halfway to the knuckles, reducing the finger span, though likely making it fast in the water. Instead of nails, each finger ended in a curved claw. When Steve took another step nearer, the siren closed its bared teeth behind colorless lips. Steve smiled, a sense of calm overwhelming him. Obviously, the siren could sense that he wasn’t a threat. This job would be simple enough; the creature only needed some kindness.

Emboldened by the thought, Steve leaned in for a closer examination, and the longer he looked, the more he could see how foreign the siren was. There were gills on its neck—knife slashes in the skin—and its eyes were the most unnatural shade of blue, set deep above gaunt cheeks, face framed by a cloud of dark hair which reminded Steve of the fine sea kelp that grew in the shallows.

Then, there was the tail. Flesh transitioning seamlessly to silvery scales, which reflected every color of a muted rainbow as the siren twisted in the light, green and grey mixing with touches of salmon and soot, down to the nearly translucent fins. He was mesmerized, eyes traveling down the length of the tail, then back to the creature’s face.

Had Steve known anything, before now? Had he a mother? A father? Friends, companions, a life to live? He didn’t think so. It had only ever been the two of them.

This surety drove him to lift his hand, placing it against the glass. Separated from this great beauty by such a thin barrier. If it weren’t there—if he could climb inside the tank. Swim and touch and—

The creature moved fast, pressing its face close to Steve’s and opening its mouth in a silent shriek, every fang bared. Claws scraped against the glass, and its tail beat once against the bottom of the cage before it shot up, head hitting the bars that kept it trapped.

Steve stumbled backward, falling on his ass with a yelp and biting his tongue in the process. The spell was broken, and he heard someone laughing. Someone else shouting. A hand clapped him on the shoulder, while another pair hauled him to his feet.

“What’d I tell you?” Howard said with a grin, smacking Steve between the shoulder blades once he was upright. “A natural.”

“I—” Steve stammered, the nefarious fog laid upon his mind slow to recede. He looked at the tank, where the siren had curled up, tail fins covering its face as it huddled in the bottom corner, as far from the spectators as possible. “What—?”

“A trick,” Lord Pierce said. “One of a few it has—gets into your head. Lures you in.”

“That…is that its song?” Steve said, swallowing the blood in his mouth.

“No.” Lord Pierce’s expression hardened. “Simple telepathy—trickery. No doubt meant to entrap prey.”

“Right.” Steve frowned, embarrassed at having been so gullible.

“When we first got it back here,” Lord Pierce continued, gesticulating toward the tank. “It tried the same stunt with the first man I entrusted to feed it. He lost more than a finger.”

Steve followed Lord Pierce’s gesture and saw that among the rocks at the bottom of the tank was a bone-white skull. His stomach churned, and he looked over sharply. “That’s—?”

“His name was Rollins,” Rumlow grunted. “I had to tell his mother.”

“Keep your wits about you, and we won’t have to inform yours,” Lord Pierce said, placing a hand on Steve’s shoulder.

“But how do I keep it from—”

“You learn to recognize the signs,” Howard said. “A tingle at the base of your skull, feeling like you’re in a dream. Once you know what it feels like, you can guard against it. Force it out.”

“Ah,” Steve nodded.

“Harder to con an intelligent mind than that of a fish or a squid, I’d imagine,” Lord Pierce chuckled. “It was quite upset when the trick stopped working, I can tell you.”

“Neat,” Steve muttered. “What else does it do?”

“Nothing,” Rumlow replied, stepping nearer the tank. “Just a dumb animal, aren’t you?” He smacked his hand against the metal, which caused the siren to curl further into itself.

“Don’t be stupid, Brock,” Lord Pierce said, “Of course it can do more. It’s only that you haven’t been able to manage it. Which is where you come in, Steve.”

“Sure. Simple,” Steve said, chuckling weakly, and meaning for it to be a joke.

Lord Pierce rounded on him, eyes narrowed and brows raised. “Let’s hope so. You’ll begin tomorrow. For now, you ought to get settled. Brock will show you to your quarters.” Turning, he smiled at Howard. “Come, my friend. It’s past time for lunch.”

Howard nodded, then looked at Steve with a smile. "Guess that's my cue. It's been a pleasure, Steve. Don't be a stranger."

The two lords took their leave, and Steve couldn’t help but think a line had been drawn—he wasn’t a servant, exactly, but neither was he invited to lunch. Just as well; he’d never known how to act around the fancy people he’d met during the war, and Lord Pierce was fancier than all of them put together.

“C’mon,” Rumlow grunted once they’d gone.

“What about the siren?” Steve asked.

“It’ll be sulking a while. Doesn’t need us here to do that—it only put on a show because you were new, I’d wager.”

Steve nodded, though he couldn’t help but glance back as they walked away. The siren floated, silent and still, hardly a disturbance in the water around it. Not much of a life.

Rumlow led them to a set of steps not dissimilar to the staff entrance at Howard's house, though the steps were where the similarities ended. While the quarters in Howard's home had been warm and well-appointed, full of good smells and pleasant people, those of Lord Pierce's austere estate were spartan to an uncomfortable degree. The basement held an ever-present dampness which set Steve shivering despite the warmth of the day, and there was an overwhelmingly unwelcoming atmosphere. Of course, that might have been due to the abundance of people darting to and fro in dun-colored uniforms, none smiling or stopping to greet a stranger. The endless main corridor was like a river, with unhappy servants flowing into it like tributaries from dimly-lit side halls. As they walked, Rumlow pointed out important places—the staff dining room, the laundry, the kitchens—but mostly stayed silent.

“Lots of people,” Steve commented eventually, for the sake of conversation.

“Lord Pierce is an important man,” he replied imperiously.

“So it seems.”

Rumlow turned a corner and nearly ran headlong into a short young woman in a maid’s uniform. She appeared meek at first glance, with long, gleaming brown hair tied into a thick braid that lay over her small shoulder.

“Watch where you’re going,” Rumlow snapped.

The woman’s mouth twisted, and though she did not raise her eyes, Steve took note of the way she clenched and released her fists once, twice, three times before responding, voice accented in a way he couldn’t place. “My apologies, sir.”

“You don’t look busy,” Rumlow continued, taking what small power he had and wielding it like an impotent king. “Fetch fresh sheets and linens, bring them to the blue room.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, scurrying past before Steve could say hello.

“Lazy,” Rumlow grumbled as he continued walking.

“Is she? I thought she looked tired.”

Rumlow snorted, stopping in front of a sloppily painted blue door. “No martyrs here,” he said before twisting the squeaky brass knob and pushing it open. “This is yours.”

The room that lay beyond—the blue room, Steve guessed—was tiny, with a bare mattress on a plain wood frame, a dresser topped with a washbasin and a cracked mirror, and a chair shoved against one wall. There was a single window, set very high on the far wall, which allowed in only a scant bit of daylight.

“There’s a shortcut to the yard near here,” Rumlow said as Steve turned a slow circle. “I took you the long way so’s you could see what’s what.” He pointed down the narrow hall. “Door at the end leads to the attic steps—that’s where most of us sleep, save for the kitchen staff and you, now. Take it up one flight, then there’s a side door. Siren’s around the back. It’s—” he reached into his pocket, producing a set of keys and working a small one from the end of the ring. “This opens any yard door.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t share that,” he said. “Lord Pierce takes his secrets serious, understand?”

“Sure,” Steve nodded. “I’ll keep it to myself.”

“Good. I—” he stopped as the maid from the hallway reappeared, laden down with sheets and linens. “Not entirely useless, I see. Make the bed and leave the towels, then get back to your work.”

“Yes, sir.”.

“Thank you,” Steve said, stepping aside to allow her access to the bed. “I’m Steve, by the way. What’s your name?”

She stopped, lifting her head and looking over her shoulder. For a moment, she said nothing, simply scrutinized his face before bobbing a half-curtsy. “Wanda, sir.”

“Oh, I don’t—” he laughed. “Call me Steve, please.”

Rumlow made a noise that was something between a snort and a cough. “Flirt on your own time,” he said. “Come on, Rogers, we’ve nearly missed lunch.”

Wanda, whose cheeks had gone pink, turned away. Steve frowned, following Rumlow into the hall and waiting until she was out of earshot before speaking, not wanting to embarrass her further. “Don’t do that.”

“Do what?”

“Cast aspersions—that’s not fair, and I’d imagine it’s not true.”

Rumlow stopped, eyes narrowing. “How gallant. Just arrived, and he thinks he knows better—”

“I don’t,” Steve said, because he didn’t. “I just think it never hurts to show a little compassion.”

“Well lah-dee-damn-dah,” Rumlow snorted. “Ain’t you a prince?”

“I’m not—”

“You come talk to me when you’ve been here as long as I have. See if a couple pretty faces can’t make a cynic out of you. Anyhow, there’s the shitter.”

It was such an abrupt shift in topic that Steve nearly laughed, stopping short in front of a scratched wooden door bearing a lavatory sign.

“Men this side,” Rumlow continued. “Women the other. Showers run hot if you get there early enough.”

“Ah,” Steve said. “Come to think of it, I do need to step in.”

Rumlow’s mouth twitched. “I’ll wait.”

Steve took care of the necessary in the necessary before following Rumlow to the staff dining room, where a cook's boy was sent to fetch them their meals, the caste system of the underclass evident in every interaction. Rumlow, as Lord Pierce's right-hand man, ruled the roost. Steve, as a newcomer who was not-quite-a-servant, was to be afforded special treatment as well, it seemed. That fact sat poorly with him, and he made sure to thank the boy when he brought them two bowls of steaming stew.

“I suppose,” Rumlow said, once they were left alone to eat. “You’ll have more questions about the beast?”

“Yep,” Steve agreed, taking a bite of the stew, which contained more gristle than meat, alongside a few limp carrots thrown in for color. “How did Lord Pierce find it? And how long has it been here?”

“Year and a bit—captured it the winter before last,” Rumlow shrugged. “As for how that happened, it’s a long story. He’s in the shipping business, you ought to know.”

“I do.”

Rumlow squinted. “—and during the war, he was spending more time at his factories than he does now—the big ones on the coasts.”

“I see,” Steve nodded, finding it strange that a man who earned so much money from the sea should live so many miles from the shore.

“And he’s a…religious fella, I suppose you’d say? Always believed in what the parsons preach in the kirks, about the Elementals and such. Back when I first started working for him, he was obsessed with the blacksmith’s eye, though he’s moved on from that. The sirens are his new focus, or they were, so after the war, he starts talking to sailors and sea folk about the legends and the rumors, then gets it in his head that he’s going to catch one.”

"I'd say he succeeded," Steve said dryly.

“More than,” Rumlow agreed, slurping up another mouthful. “He had Lord Stark build the tank, set it up custom with bottom feeders and newfangled filtration for the mess.”

“Huh.”

“I was with Lord Pierce at the time, and in addition to what he had Stark doing here, he had another cage built by the dockworkers in Seward—you know where that is?”

“I know it’s south.”

“Far south as you can get, yeah,” Rumlow agreed. “Anyhow, they built this second cage, but a  smaller one—no bigger’n a coffin—alongside a special ship. From there, he hires a crew and sails out to the area in the southern seas where most of the siren rumors came from.”

“And you went with him?”

“No,” he said bitterly. “Said I wasn’t a good enough sailor—had to stay behind for the business .”

“That’s a shame.”

“It’s because he needs someone he can trust running things," he said as if Steve had been making fun of him. Which he hadn't—not really. "Anyhow, he did what he set out to do—he always does—and they came back with the beast in the tank and all the crew sworn to secrecy."

“How did you get it back here?”

“Crated the cage. Put it on a train. Took nearly a week to move it, with all the loading and unloading we had to do—we had to keep it sedated, and the damn thing was half-dead by the time we got it here.” He laughed as though he was telling a joke, rather than reminiscing about the near-death of an unconscious animal.

“And when you did get it here?”

“Gods, you’ve never seen anything like it. Once it came to, it fought like crazy to get out. Threw itself against the bars until it passed out. And then when it woke up, Rollins tried to feed it or…yeah. Got too close, anyway.”

Steve pressed his lips into a thin line. “That’s the one that died?”

“Opened the cage, yeah, stupid fucker. The siren went right for him. But it was too weak—couldn’t lift itself out of the tank, so it dragged Rollins down instead, busied itself with killing him. Lucky thing, too.”

“Lucky?”

"Can't breathe air," Rumlow said, tapping his chest. "By the time I got there, Rollins was dead, and the beast was half out of the tank, gasping like a fucking fish."

"Oh yeah?" The imagery was disturbing, and a shiver went down Steve's spine at the thought of the siren meeting such a fate. Not to speak ill of the dead, but this Rollins sounded like a real moron.

"Yep," Rumlow said around the potato he'd just shoved into his mouth. "Now, we don't open the bars without some uh…safeguards."

“Safeguards?”

“You’ll see in the morning,. I’m telling you, Rogers, it’s the wildest thing I ever saw, or at least it was. I got it mostly broken now, and we all know what it feels like when it fucks with your head. Shit, it tried to play me like an out-of-tune-fiddle at first, too.”

“That’s apt,” Steve said, the prickle of the siren’s hold lingering like a ghost at the base of his skull.

“You’ll get used to him,” Rumlow said. “Leastwise, I think it’s a him.”

“Some fish can be both,” Steve offered. “Or change, male to female.”

“That a fact?” he said, reaching for his water. “Huh. Wouldn’t that be the damndest thing?”

Steve shrugged, distracted by the glob of fat between his teeth, which he spat into a napkin as discreetly as he could.

“Anyway,” Rumlow continued. “Tomorrow we’ll work out how you’re managing it—and how to keep your fingers.”

“I look forward to that,” Steve said, wiping his mouth. The statement wasn’t quite a lie, but it was only a half-truth—he wanted to see the siren again, but Rumlow? He was finding he could take him or leave him.

“You’ll be alright, Rogers. And if you aren’t, well—” he grinned. “Better your head than mine.”



Chapter Text

Steve floated on his back, buffeted by the gentle swell of the waves. There was a briny smell about—fresh, clean and salty—the smell of life and time and tides. The sun was warm on his skin, the water cooling, and his eyes were closed against any outside worry as gulls cawed overhead.

Gulls cawed…

Cawed…

A raindrop hit his forehead.

Then another.

Then a third.

 

Steve opened his eyes and remembered where he was, dream falling away as he stared up at the condensation gathering on the steam pipe above his head. Drip-drip-dripping on his head. Lord Pierce’s luxurious accommodations—a leaking pipe and squabbling voices in the hallway.

With a sigh, he scrubbed a hand across his stubbled face. He’d need a shave soon, but before that he’d need to acquire a razor. Yawning and stretching his arms as high as they would reach, he shook some life into his limbs before placing both feet on the cold floor and standing. A glance at the pocket watch he’d laid atop his dresser told him it was ten minutes after six, which explained the voices—a great house such as this one rose well before the cock crowed.

After dressing in a shirt that was threadbare in places, and trousers he didn’t mind mussing, Steve followed his nose back to the dining room where he’d eaten the day before. Rumlow was nowhere to be seen, but the young maid named Wanda was sitting by herself at the end of one of the long tables. Being as he was alone as well, Steve fetched a plate and went to join her.

“Good morning,” he said. “It’s Wanda, isn’t it?”

She didn’t bother to hide her surprise when she looked up. “Yes,” she said. “And you are…Steve.”

“I am,” he smiled. “Thank you for making my bed.”

“It is what I do,” she replied, spooning porridge into her mouth.

“How long have you worked here?” he asked, because while she wasn’t friendly , exactly, she was still better company than Rumlow.

“One year and one month.”

That seemed about right—she couldn’t have been much older than seventeen. “And do you like it?”

She fixed him with a funny look, cocking her head to the side and contemplating her response. “It is where I am. Where I must be.”

“I can relate,” Steve said, reaching for his coffee.

“They say you are here to tame the beast.”

Steve spluttered, coffee slopping onto his plate. “I…ah. Is…how do you know…?”

“They are keeping the doors locked,” she said with a shrug. “It does not mean we are stupid.”

“So you’ve seen it?”

Wanda shrugged, pushing her spoon around the bowl without taking a bite. “Not very close. But I see what they do .”

“Do?”

“They—”

“Wanda!” came a sharp bark. Steve turned and found the senior maid from the previous day—Renata—standing with arms folded across her chest. “Stop dawdling.”

“Sorry, ma’am,” Wanda said, standing and muttering low enough that only Steve could hear, “eating is dawdle now, she thinks.”

“It’s my fault,” Steve said, loud enough for Renata. “I was talking to her and—”

“No.” Wanda cut him off, picking up her plate and shaking her head. “I am choosing to stay. Very sorry, ma’am, Coming now.”

“See that you are,” Renata replied, “you’re needed in the study, so make haste.” With that, she turned and walked away.

Wanda squared her shoulders, frowning at Steve. “Do not make apologies for me.”

“I only meant—”

“People are always meaning. It is alright now. But no more. Goodbye, Steve. I will see you again?”

“Yes,” he said. “And I’m sorry if I offended. I didn’t—”

“Meaning is one thing and doing is another,” she said lightly. “Forgiven.”

Something about the phrasing reminded Steve of a thing his father used to say, and that made him smile. “Thank you. Good luck with your day.”

“Good luck with the beast,” she replied before taking her leave.

Steve would take the well-wishes where he could get them, and he finished his breakfast before making his way through the rabbit warren of tunnels. He used the side door Rumlow had shown him the day before, locking it behind him as he stepped into the early morning sunshine. Gods, but Columbia was a different world, with spring days bringing such warmth as was hardly ever felt on even the hottest summer day in Red Hook. Cheered by the bright skies, Steve oriented himself and walked around to the rear of the house, trouser hems growing dew-damp from the lawn, excited to see the siren again.

Upon turning the corner, however, his good mood evaporated, though it took him a moment to process what, precisely, he was seeing.

Something was wrong.

The siren’s tank was there, same as it had been the day before. The siren was in it. A wooden ladder lay against its side, and atop that ladder was Brock Rumlow, wearing a pair of black gloves and holding a long thin metal wand in one hand, while the other held a smaller, tightly woven net attached to a stick.

A thick black cable ran from the end of the wand, along the ground, and into a small shed near the side of the house. The wand was metal. The cable likely contained an electric current.

Steve’s brain made the connection just as Rumlow thrust the stick into the water and against the siren’s side.

The siren thrashed in obvious pain, writhing so that the water sloshed over the edge as it fought to get away from the prod. Instinct drove Steve forward, and he ran. Threw his shoulder against the ladder and toppled it along with its occupant into a nearby flowerbed.

The force of the shove toppled Steve, too, though he was quicker to recover, springing to his feet and looking into the tank, where the stick now floated free in the water, inches away from the siren, which was doing everything in its power to avoid being touched by it, with little success.

“Shit,” Steve swore, yanking on the cable to try and pull the prod free. “Shit, shit !”

“What the fuck are you doing?” Rumlow roared, arms closing around Steve’s legs to try and stop him.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Steve snarled in response, wrestling against the hold.

“The bars are open, you idiot! Don’t pull the fucking sticker out!”

“What—”

Rumlow laid him flat with a strike to the back of the knees. Steve went down hard, and in the time it took him to gather his wits, Rumlow pulled the cable from his hands.

“You’re hurting it!” Steve protested.

“And you’re going to kill yourself, you stupid bastard,” Rumlow snarled, kicking Steve while he was down, then righting the ladder and scrambling up it to slam the cage shut. “Fury’s balls, Rogers, what’s the matter with you?”

“I could ask you the same!” Steve shouted, struggling to his feet.

"You…" Rumlow's mouth twisted into a snarl. "Shit, Rogers, if you'd give me a minute—"

“Get that thing out of there,” he said, pointing a shaking finger at the still-submerged rod.

“I’m trying! Just…hang on while I do it right.”

'Doing it right' involved reattaching a padlock to the bars, after which Rumlow slid the prod out carefully, holding it in one gloved hand before hopping to the ground and glaring at Steve.

“Don’t try and touch it,” he warned. “I gotta turn off the current.”

Steve had no plans to do so, as he was far more interested in the siren, which had retreated back to the far corner of the cage, hiding behind its tail, pink weal visible on its side.

Rumlow went to the shed with the prod, opening the door and stepping inside. Meanwhile, Steve brushed himself off, trying to get the siren's attention, to no avail—it had once again hidden behind its tail. When Rumlow reemerged a few minutes later, he was holding two thick, black cables. These ones ended not in prods, but in metal clamps, which he walked toward the tank and attached to two metal protrusions near the base.

“What the fuck are those?” Steve asked, though he feared he already knew the answer.

“The main current.”

“Gods damn it—”

"Relax, Rogers. Saltwater isn't gonna shock it—don't you know that?"

Considering Steve’s understanding of electricity extended to the acknowledgment of its existence, and that it was bad business near water, no, he didn’t know that. “What?”

"Only the metal part's electrified," Rumlow continued as if explaining something to a small, stupid child. "And it ain't that strong an uh…voltage. Besides, salt water's a lousy conductor…or a good one? It's one or the other, and I don't know all the science, but—"

“You’re torturing it,” Steve said flatly.

“It’s torturing itself,” Rumlow corrected.

“That’s inhumane.”

“It’s security . Anyhow, so long as it stays in the center, it doesn’t feel a thing.”

“How can you be sure of that?”

“It isn’t dead, is it?” he shot back. “Anyhow, Lord Stark—”

Howard designed this?”

“Not knowingly,” Rumlow said with a shrug. “We liberated the idea from one of his experiments, and—”

“So yesterday, with the—?”

“Power was off,” he explained. “That’s why it got feisty.”

“But it’s such a small cage, surely it must touch the sides sometimes.”

"That's motivating—Lord Pierce might build it a bigger one if it did its job," he replied with a smirk. "C'mon over here—I didn't turn it back on yet, I was gonna show you how."

"No!" Steve yelped. "I don't—" he drew himself up to his full height, which made him at least four inches taller than Rumlow. "I'm not… I'm gonna—"

“You gonna tell me how to do my job?” Rumlow challenged.

“Not your job anymore,” Steve said, standing his ground.

“Shit,” Rumlow snorted. “Shoulda known you’d be a soft touch. How you planning on feeding it without opening the cage?”

“What ah—where’s the food?” The problem of how could wait.

“I’ll show you. Unless you want to knock me off a gods damn ladder again.”

Steve wasn’t about to apologize for that, so he shrugged. Rumlow rolled his eyes and headed for the house.

Turned out, the feeding of the siren was a convoluted process. Or, at least, there were a few moving parts. According to Rumlow, they had initially tried the beast out on freshwater fish, since that was readily available. After its initial hunger had abated, though, the siren had started turning up its nose at everything offered, and as Lord Pierce needed it healthy, they went a different route.

“Fish get shipped in from the coast,” Rumlow explained, leading Steve to a small room off the kitchen that held an ice chest. “Resupplied every couple days. ”

To illustrate, he tossed three frozen fish into a bucket—two medium-sized mackerels and a species Steve wasn’t sure of—with a clunk. Not very appetizing.

“Now,” Rumlow said with a smirk. “Normally, I’d lift up the bars and toss the fish in, using the sticker for security. Seeing as how you know so much better—” he shrugged and held out the bucket. “I guess I’ll leave you to it.”

“I’m sure I’ll manage.”

“Have fun with that. I’ve got business elsewhere, but I’ll come back in a couple hours. Check in.”

The implication being that by then Steve might have come to his senses. However, the joke was on Rumlow: Peggy had been telling Steve all his life that he had no senses to come to.

So, he took the bucket from Rumlow and marched back outside to the tank, where the siren was still hiding, floating in the center, no doubt terrified of the metal joins. What an idiot Rumlow was—whoever heard of a creature that responded to pain with anything other than fear and anger? A scared animal was as likely to bite as it was to obey, and Steve wasn’t interested in that sort of compliance.

“Alright,” he said, studying the cage. “Let’s see how we’re going to do this.”

The first order of business was to pull the ladder away and open it, so it formed an A-frame, before climbing up to survey the situation. Steve wasn't going near the tank itself—the siren had proven it was fast, and he wasn't interested in losing a finger while shoving fish through the small gaps between bars. (Come to think of it, that might well have been how Rumlow lost his.) Steve's aim wasn't bad, though—years spent tossing fish on the deck of a ship would sharpen one's skills in that area—and the gaps between the bars were a good three inches apart. With any luck, he might toss them right between and into the water.

“Here goes nothing,” he said, pulling a fish from the bucket and giving it a throw. It landed with a clang on the bars, perfectly balanced between two slats.

Some aim.

“Damn it,” he swore.

The siren moved, looking up at the fish with guarded interest. Steve picked up a second one, figuring maybe he could use it to knock the first one through. No such luck - the latter only knocked the first a few inches further down, neither of them making it into the tank.

“Shit,” he muttered, looking at the siren, which was staring at him with an expression that might have been called disdainful, were it capable of disdain. Then, it cocked its head and softened its features before swimming closer to Steve’s side of the cage. Within seconds, Steve felt the same queer, soothing sensation from the day before settling over him—that faint prickling at the back of his neck.

"Knock it off!" he snapped. "Nope—I know that trick now, pal. You want those fish, you go get 'em."

But, of course, it wouldn’t. Experience had taught the siren that the bars meant pain when the clamps were attached to the cage. It had no concept of switches, nor could it understand that the power was off. All it knew was that when the clamps were there, things hurt.

“Alright,” Steve said, tossing the third fish to join its brethren before climbing down from the ladder. “First of all, those would be fried fish if the current were on, but I guess you don’t know that. So—”

He went to the clamps, giving one a tentative touch before pulling it off, then repeated the action with the other, tossing them both to the ground and placing his hand on the exposed metal of the cage. “Let’s see how smart you are, huh?”

The siren swam closer, face inches from Steve's hand as if sussing out some sort of trick.

“See?” Steve said. “You can go up and take them.”

The siren brought its face closer, and oh, it was so tired. Steve could see it now—the things he'd missed while under its spell the day before. The red-rimmed eyes, the gaunt face, the hollow expression. No doubt it was nigh on impossible to get a decent night's sleep, when drifting even slightly would bring you pain. Not to mention it would be challenging to stay healthy on a steady diet of frozen fish.

"Hi there," he said, trying to look non-threatening. "It's alright. You're not gonna hurt yourself."

Tentatively, the siren brought one finger up, claw barely brushing the metal. The expression it made when it realized there was no current was comical, and it shot to the top of the cage in an instant, hand clawing between the bars to drag the fish through.

“Look at you, smart guy,” Steve marveled, stepping back.

The siren went for the biggest fish first, tearing into it with methodical precision. Steve watched, fascinated, as it stripped every bit of meat from the bones. It took less than ten minutes for all three fish to be consumed, heads and all, carcasses piled at the bottom of the cage. The moment it finished, the siren went back to the bars, wrapping long, slender fingers around the metal and beginning to pull and push with frantic desperation.

“Hey,” Steve said, putting both hands on the glass. “Stop, you’re gonna—”

The siren beat its tail near Steve’s face, the action causing water to slosh out the top of the tank, soaking Steve from head to toe.

Hey !” He repeated, slapping a hand against the glass. “Stop it! You’re only gonna hurt yourself—”

“Give it an inch,” said a voice from behind.

Steve whirled to find Lord Pierce standing twenty feet away, an inscrutable expression on his face.

“Lord Pierce!” he said. “I—”

“Rumlow tells me you’ve a problem with the way he manages my beast. Is that true?”

Steve swallowed, wondering if he was about to lose the position before he’d had the chance to prove himself. “Uh. Well, it’s only that I don’t think hurting animals is the smartest way to gain their trust, sir.”

“Oh no?” Lord Pierce’s mouth twitched, and Steve realized he was holding back a smile. “Brock feels quite strongly that you’re being foolish.”

“Better a successful fool than a foundering genius.”

Lord Pierce chuckled, stepped closer to the tank, and Steve watched as the siren released its hold on the bars, sinking to the bottom and hiding behind its tail. Seemed that Rumlow wasn’t the only one who’d been using less-than-savory methods of control—at the very least, Lord Pierce had to have known what was happening if he’d paid for the construction of the shed. “And you have reason to believe you can ah…cultivate kindness in the creature with compassion?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Mmm. Well, I’m more than willing to be surprised. As I said yesterday, you have a fortnight.”

“I uh…thank you, sir?” Steve stammered, having expected a rebuke. But then, Lord Pierce had proven himself reasonable thus far, and logic dictated that he couldn’t be too invested in Rumlow’s sadistic methodology if he’d brought Steve on board. Perhaps he’d only been making do in a bad situation? Steve would just have to show him that he could manage the siren without torturing it.

“I’ll make certain Brock understands that you have autonomy when it comes to the beast.”

“Thank you, sir,” he said. “I’m—

“However,” he went on. “I urge you to learn what you can from Brock while he’s here. I’ve been called away on a bit of business outside the city—we’ll be leaving at the end of the week, and won’t return until your probationary period is through.”

“Oh.” Steve frowned.

“I will assess your progress once I return. I look forward to seeing the results of your…novel techniques.”

"Uh." Steve cleared his throat. "Yes, sir. I'm sure… I'm sure I'll have plenty to show you."

“Very good, my boy,” Lord Pierce smiled. “I’ll leave you to it.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you,” Steve said, though he wasn’t entirely sure what he was thanking him for.

Lord Pierce took his leave, and Steve waited until he'd disappeared before turning back to the cage, where the siren was still hiding. With a sigh, he sank to the ground, sitting cross-legged at a level that put him slightly below where the creature hovered. Eventually, the siren showed one blue eye, which regarded Steve carefully.

“I know we don’t know each other yet,” he murmured, entirely for his own benefit. “But we’ve got two weeks to figure something out, pal. I’m not here to hurt you, I promise you that. So we gotta learn how to work together, you get me?”

The siren blinked. Steve didn't move. And so they sat that way, staring at one another for an age until Rumlow stomped back into the yard like a petulant storm cloud, and the siren hid away.

“S’posed to show you how to clean out the cage,” Rumlow muttered as Steve got to his feet.

“Does it involve electricity?”

A muscle tightened in Rumlow’s jaw, and he shrugged.

Steve smiled, crossing his arms over his chest. “Guess we’ll just have to get creative.”

Chapter Text

Steve went to bed on the second night with a sense of satisfaction. Not because he’d had any great success with the siren, but because he sincerely believed that he’d won whatever unspoken competition existed between himself and Brock Rumlow when it came to proper care of the creature. Granted, they hadn’t exactly found a solution for getting the fish bones from the bottom of the cage, but they had come to an impasse, with Rumlow muttering curses as he slammed into the house. To Steve’s stubborn mind, that was good enough.

(Steve did feel badly that the bones remained in the tank, though that was tomorrow’s problem. One day’s detritus wouldn’t do the siren any harm, and Steve was bound and determined to figure out a way to clean the cage of what mess the filtration and the suckerfish couldn’t manage.)

The next day, he woke early and breakfasted with Wanda before going to fetch fish for the siren, still thinking the issue through. By the time he reached the yard, he didn’t have a plan, but he certainly had ideas. Which made it all the more upsetting when he found the cage pristine, no bones to be seen, the siren floating in the center, tired-eyed and wary, thick black cables snaking along the ground.

“Gods damn Rumlow,” he swore.

He rushed forward, dropping the bucket and reaching for the clamps, only to remember too late that Rumlow had been using gloves the day before. The shock of the voltage sent him stumbling, where he tangled in the cable and fell on his ass, letting out a pained yelp. It hurt—not like the pain of a cut or a scrape, but a bone-deep jolt that buzzed through him like the stinging of a dozen jellyfish. Not enough to do any real damage, as Rumlow had said, but more than a year spent with the threat of such a shock hanging over one's head would be enough to drive any creature mad.

“Fuck,” he managed, heart thudding away in his chest. “I’m sorry—” That was directed to the siren. “I told him not to…”

The siren blinked. Looked from Steve to the discarded bucket of fish, then back again.

Steve shook his head, disentangling himself shakily and clambering to his feet. He needed to figure out how the current worked, so he went into the shed and frowned at the machinery, trying to make sense of it. Not fancying another shock, he pulled on the heavy, rubber gloves Rumlow had left lying on a bench, before studying the switches to locate the big one that attached to the cables. Grasping the lever, he flipped it, and the buzzing ceased, though he hadn’t fully heard until it was gone.

Taking the ladder from the shed, Steve set it up a few feet from the cage, then went to the clamps and removed them (with gloves still on, just in case he’d flipped the wrong switch). “No more of this,” he said, holding the metal near the glass. “You understand?”

To illuminate, Steve pulled at the clamps with all his strength until the metal popped off the cables, leaving frayed wires behind. Rumlow was going to have to get used to this new world, whether he liked it or not, because Steve firmly believed that compliance wasn’t going to come through torture. Shit, nobody had asked the siren if it wanted to be there, after all. Steve would have been ornery, too.

“No more,” he repeated, holding up the broken bits, then tossing them to the gravel path. “Done.”

The siren swam closer, peering at Steve as its claws came to rest on the glass. It cocked its head to the side, and after a moment, it looked away.

To the bucket.

“One track mind, huh?” Steve asked, smiling a little. “Alright, I got your breakfast.”

He climbed the ladder to toss the fish—four of them this time, as they were smaller than the day before—while the siren pulled them through the bars. The fourth fish, to Steve’s delight, slipped through without any assistance, and he allowed himself a little victory cheer. It wasn’t much of a game, but he’d take what he could get to pass the time, considering he had no idea what he was going to do for the rest of the day, or how he was going to begin the siren’s training. He had no means of communication, no understanding of its way of thinking, and the only thing it had shown an interest in was food, which came in limited quantities.

Steve hopped down from the ladder to watch the siren eat, as fascinated with its methodology as he had been the day before. Never before had he seen an animal so meticulous about its food. Every dog and cat he'd ever known had torn into their meals with gleeful abandon, caring not a whit for propriety. The siren, however, was nearly delicate, using its claws to scrape meat from the bones, which it once again placed in the corner of the tank. Steve found himself focusing on every movement, so distracted by its fussiness that he failed to notice when he had company.

“Morning, Rogers,” Rumlow called from behind him.

Steve turned, jaw twitching as he crossed his arms over his chest. “Is it?”

“Sure,” Rumlow said, the tone a challenge. “Blue skies, warm sun. What’s not to be happy about?”

“I can think of a couple things.”

Rumlow fixed him with a gormless, simple expression that was beneath him—Steve knew that he knew exactly what he'd done. "What's that?"

“Maybe you putting the clamps back on the cage?”

Wide-eyed with shock, Rumlow staggered back. He should have been an actor. “Aw geez, that’s…my humble apologies. Force’a habit, I guess—”

“I’ll bet.” Steve tossed his head toward the broken clamps. “Think that’ll help you remember?”

“Wha—shit,” Rumlow said, faux-regret fading as he jogged the last few feet to the cage. “Rogers, you dummy! You got any idea how expensive—”

"My humble apologies. It was an accident," Steve said because Rumlow wasn't the only person who could feign innocence. "I got so upset, guess I pulled too hard…"

“You dummy,” he repeated. “What are you gonna do about cleaning the cage?”

Steve shrugged, “it can live with some bones—it’s already got a skull—”

"And when the season turns and leaves blow in? Or it rains, and the water's fucked? Or there's bugs, or scum, or—"

Steve hadn’t actually thought of any of that, and he frowned as Rumlow continued ranting.

“—gonna let it sit in filthy water. Nice, Rogers—”

“I’ll—”

“Real hero. Real generous. I’m not telling Lord Pierce what you did, you can do that yourself, and—”

“Look!” Steve shouted, though he wasn’t sure quite what he was going to say next. “I’ll figure it out.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes,” he said, gritting his teeth. “But shit, Rumlow, it’s terrified of you. I got a hard enough job fixing your mistakes without making it scared of me, too.”

Rumlow’s gaze darkened. “Tell yourself that when it’s gnawing on your finger.”

Steve scowled. “If that happens, I’ll let you enjoy the victory.”

“When, not if,” Rumlow scoffed, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a key, which he tossed on the ground at Steve’s feet. “That’s my cage key. I don’t fuckin’ want it. Good luck, jackass.”

“You know what?” Steve began, hackles raised, before walking himself back to a more measured stance, his mother’s voice in his head. Fighting, for all that it was a catharsis, didn’t solve anything. “If I’m wrong, I’m wrong.”

"Wonderful," Rumlow said, bowing low in an exaggerated show of respect that made Steve want to punch him in the teeth. "I'll leave you to it, your grace."

“Guess you’d better get back to lording it over the scullery maids,” Steve agreed, which wasn’t exactly in the spirit of peace, but damn, he had a limit.

Rumlow's eyes flashed, and he took a step forward. Steve met him where he stood, arms crossed and gaze impassive. For a minute, neither of them said a word, and in the end, Rumlow was the one who backed down, huffing a breath and heading for the house.

It was only when he had rounded a corner that Steve allowed himself to relax, pushing a hand through his hair and closing his eyes. There was something about Brock Rumlow that was impossible to like—something sharp, like stepping on coral. But then, Rumlow would likely say the same about him.

When Steve turned back to the tank, the siren was watching him, expression blank but eyes alert, reminding him of a shark stalking its prey. Which wasn’t disconcerting in the least, oh no. “Hey there,” he said.

The siren blinked.

“Some communication problem we got, huh, pal?” Reaching for the broken clamps, Steve held one in each hand. “Let’s see if we can’t work on that.”

Walking to the tank, he watched as the siren shrank back, wary when Steve held the clamps to the glass. “Not gonna hurt you,” he murmured, placing each one against his own neck, then lifting his shirt to touch his side with the metal. “We’re done with these.” He would demonstrate as many times as he needed to for the siren to understand.

Swimming forward, the siren pressed its webbed hand against the glass, then looked up at the bars before turning its attention to Steve.

Steve snorted. "Yeah, not falling for that again," he said, dropping the clamps before lifting his palm and placing it against the siren's. "You can't breathe out here—you wouldn't like it. But if we start working together, maybe I can see about getting you some roomier accommodations."

The siren blinked at the place where their hands met. Steve took a chance and put his other hand on the glass as well. It took a moment, but eventually, the siren did the same.

“Pretty smart,” Steve said, a smile spreading across his face.

To his astonishment, the siren smiled, too—its expression a sharp-toothed, grotesque facsimile of Steve’s. There was no emotion behind it, eyes remaining blank and guarded, but it didn’t seem like a trick. More like the siren was playing a game.

“Good job,” he murmured, trying something new and quirking his left eyebrow as high as it would go.

The siren studied him for a moment before raising its brow, the change in its features giving it a downright quizzical expression. And wasn’t that the damndest thing? A natural mimic—and more intelligent than Lord Pierce and Rumlow had given it credit for.

Not wanting to stop while they were on a roll, Steve stepped away and touched a finger to his nose, and the siren did the same with its claw. Fast as lightning, Steve swapped one hand the other. The siren didn’t miss a beat, following his movements with ease.

Gods, it was a quick learner—Steve could work with that.

“Look at that,” he marveled as he touched his forehead, his ears, his mouth, and his neck, the siren following along every step of the way. “Wow.”

Stepping to the glass again, Steve lay his hand on the surface, waiting for the siren to match him. Once it had settled, he tapped his index finger against the tank, and while the sound was barely audible to his ears, it was obviously much louder for the siren, who made a face.

“Ah,” Steve smiled. “Sorry.”

Not sure how to convey a proper apology, he mimed socking himself in the jaw. The siren cocked its head before doing the same, its fist sending ripples through the water.

“No, no,” Steve laughed, shaking his head, which the siren mimicked before doing its best to capture his laugh, tipping its head back and baring its teeth, then working its jaw in a gruesome approximation of good-humor. Steve shivered—he hoped he didn’t look like that when he got the giggles.

Still, if the siren was going to match his every movement? That gave him an idea.

Crouching low, he pretended to scoop something from the ground. The siren followed along, fingers curling around water, though that wasn’t what Steve had intended. Shaking his head, he repeated the gesture, this time picking up some gravel from the path.

The siren, in response, palmed several smaller pebbles that lined the bottom of its enclosure. Steve sighed, dropping his rocks, then pointing to the pile of fish carcasses. He repeated the scooping motion, before pointing to the siren, then once more to the bones.

It took three repetitions before understanding dawned in the siren’s eyes, and it went to pick up the remnants of its breakfast, looking at Steve expectantly. Steve grinned, pleased, and got to his feet, where he lifted his hands as high over his head as he could, pushing an invisible something over an imaginary barrier.

The siren was faster to grasp the new concept, swimming to the top of its cage and pushing the fish bones over the edge, where they fell to the ground at Steve’s feet. It wasn’t perfect, but it was one way to clean a cage.

“Shit, you’re smart.” He gave the siren another big, toothy smile, which was returned, though the gaping grin still didn’t meet the creature’s eyes. For his part, Steve was somewhat disconcerted, and he moved closer to the cage, bringing a fist to his chest and rubbing a small circle. It was a gesture borne of instinct, one his father had taught him when he was young—some old sign of friendship and fidelity, used by sailors on passing ships. “Maybe you and I can get along, huh? Be friends? How about that?”

The siren's expression shuttered, false grin fading as it turned away, covering its face and hiding. Steve had done something wrong with the sign—moved too fast, maybe—and no matter how hard he tried to engage it, the siren refused to emerge. When it became apparent the siren was going to hide until he was gone, Steve took his leave, guilt settling heavily in his chest.

The rest of the day was spent on small chores—unpacking and acquiring a razor being the top of his list. In the afternoon, he made his way to the small market square he’d seen from Howard’s auto, which boasted a chemist, a post office, and the entrance to one of the grandest parks Steve had ever seen. The square was well-appointed enough that the rich folk didn’t have to travel into the city center to have their needs met, and Steve was grateful for the proximity (even if he did feel as though he’d overpaid for his razor).

When he returned to the house, he shaved and showered before sitting down to write letters to his mother and Peggy, informing them of his new position, though he left out the bit about the probationary period, as well as what sort of animal he was training. After the letters were completed, he went to find supper and found Wanda as well. She joined him for dinner and once again proved excellent company.

After that, Steve went to bed, where a nightmare the likes of which he’d never known overtook him.

In the nightmare, he was a siren—or, rather, he was the siren, with its cloud of dark hair and shimmering tail.

He was trapped in the cage.

Panicked, he flung himself at the glass walls of his prison, only to be shocked by the same sort of jolt he’d felt upon touching the cables that morning.

The world beyond the glass was dim, proportions distorted and exaggerated. Dark shadows moved in the distance. There were strange sounds, awful sensations. His head ached, and his stomach cramped with hunger, but worst of all was his tail, which could not fully unfurl, bringing with it a low, miserable stiffness to his muscles. His body yearning to flip and spin and swim.

He was frightened. Angry. Lonely.

He wanted to go home.

He wanted to see his mother. See his sister.

On the other side of the glass, one of the shadowy figures stepped closer, and the craggy face of Brock Rumlow leered in the dark.

Steve woke with a grunt, sweat-soaked and overwhelmed, tear tracks on his cheeks and a pit of horror in his stomach.

The dream…it had been a dream…

But how could he dream of a sister he’d never known, and a mother who wasn’t his own?



Chapter Text

Despite his strange circumstances, Steve found himself establishing a routine as the days wore on. Mornings with the siren, afternoons to himself, early to bed, early to rise. The household bustled like some mechanical beast, the men and women employed by Lord Alexander Pierce silent and subdued, keeping the machine running while offering no particular personality. The hierarchy established among the serving class was ruthless, with those above taking their frustrations out on those below, along with a never-ending stream of work. Steve was among them, yet not of them, by virtue of his position, meaning he continued to feel like an outsider as his first week in the household drew to a close. Lord Pierce was making ready to leave on his trip with Rumlow, so the staff were working long hours to prepare for his departure, bringing with them short tempers and plenty of harsh rebukes.

There was one bright spot amongst the misery—Wanda, who had yet to be beaten down by her circumstances. She and Steve took breakfast together every morning, and he found himself waking earlier just to spend a few more minutes in her company. Part of the reason he liked her so much was that she reminded him of Peggy. Quieter, yes, and with a more even-keeled temper, but the same spirit and slyness—her shy demeanor a cover for her hidden cunning. Wanda watched, and she waited, speaking only when she had something to say, all the while listening to those around her, taking in their stories and learning their secrets.

Steve confided in her, telling her of his mother and the homesickness that plagued him. Wanda was quick to reassure him that she, too, had taken her position in Lord Pierce's household out of necessity. In her case, it was a sick sibling—a twin brother—who needed her help. Her travels had taken her much further than Steve's, though, as she was Coskovian by birth and had left not only her home but her country behind.

“We are kindred,” she said to Steve on the morning of his sixth day.

“I suppose so.”

“It is nice to have one kindred in this place.” Rising to her feet, she brushed the crumbs from her skirt. “Good luck with your beast.”

“Good luck with your duties.”

Once she'd gone, Steve went to fetch the fish. To climb the ladder and toss them onto the bars as the siren fixed him with a blank-eyed stare. Steve had made no progress beyond the simple mimicry, which had become part of their morning routine, adding new, more complicated patterns for the siren to follow each day, sure he'd eventually confuse it. Push it too far. Yet the siren played along without fail, every time, eyes sharp and intelligent.

The intelligence was the thing which bothered Steve most, as the siren was smarter than any domesticated animal he had ever seen. The more he realized the extent of those smarts, the more unnerved he became, not least because of the way the siren retained information. After that first day, it didn’t need to be prompted to clean the bones from its cage, and would push them up and through the slats, along with any accumulated debris in the water. Efficient, yes. Upsettingly human? Absolutely.

Because regardless of how canny the creature was, it was trapped in a too-small cage, hundreds of miles from the sea. Steve knew this, though the siren didn’t. He knew that the air was poison. That it couldn’t walk on a tail. That it didn’t have enough to eat. That it slept poorly. That it wasn’t happy.

Steve did not, however, know what he was supposed to do with that knowledge.

So, he nursed his private worries as the sixth day became the seventh, which found Rumlow interrupting his breakfast with Wanda to gruffly inform him that Lord Pierce wished to see him.

“I have to feed our mutual friend,” Steve said, remembering just in time that the siren wasn’t supposed to be public information.

“It can wait.”

Steve left his breakfast and followed Rumlow to Lord Pierce’s office, where he waited outside the door until he was called in. The office, he found, was another macabre mausoleum—dead things lining every shelf. Lord Pierce was predictably odd, at least, and while Steve might not have understood the man’s eerie fascinations, he supposed he’d get used to them in time.

"Steve, thank you for coming," Lord Pierce said as if Steve were there out of anything other than obligation.

“Of course.”

“I’m afraid there’s been a change of plans.”

Something hard settled in Steve’s stomach, and he swallowed. “Has there?”

“I’m afraid the business calling me away might take longer than I’d anticipated.”

“Oh?”

Steepling his hands in front, Lord Pierce frowned. “Normally, this wouldn’t be a concern, but there is the matter of your probationary period.”

The hard knot in Steve’s middle doubled in size. “I…see, sir,” he said, trying to mask his worry.

“Under different circumstances—” he said, reaching into a drawer to pull out a large, leather-bound book. “Well, it is what it is.”

“Is it, sir?”

“It is. You see, it’s only a matter of the accounts.”

“Sir?”

“You haven’t been made official,” he said, opening the ledger. “I’ll need your date of birth.”

“I—” Steve stammered, the knot in his stomach loosening slightly. “You’re hiring me?”

Lord Pierce looked up, resting a weathered hand atop the page, a signet ring with a ruby stone gracing his fourth finger. “Of course, my boy.”

“But—“

“The things you’re doing with it—those games. The beast responds to you.”

Steve frowned. “How—?”

Lord Pierce gestured to the window. “I’ve been keeping an eye on your progress.”

Steve didn’t presume to step closer. Anyhow, he had a good idea of what he would find: a view of the back garden, and the cage that lay within it.

It was, of course, within Lord Pierce’s purview to observe his employees, but that didn’t mean Steve had to like it. In fact, the idea that he’d been watched set the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end.

“The work’s satisfactory then, sir?” he said, trying not to frown.

“It is, yes.” He tapped his finger against the ledger. “Now, your birth date?”

Steve gave it and watched as Lord Pierce recorded his name and his information, along with how much he was to be paid. Then, he took out another book—this one holding checks, a form of payment with which Steve was only vaguely familiar—and scribbled out the agreed-upon wages before presenting the paper to Steve.

“For your first week,” he said. “You’ll be paid monthly with the rest of the staff going forward.”

“Thank you, sir.” Steve reached for the check, already itching to get to a chemist to see what it would take to arrange regular shipments of medication.

“Never thank a man for what you earn, Steve,” Lord Pierce replied. “Now, I know you’ve work to do, so I won’t keep you.”

“Well—” Steve said, pushing his luck, yet unwilling to pass up the opportunity. Not with Lord Pierce leaving so soon. “Actually, sir.”

Lord Pierce raised one manicured brow.

“It’s only, I had some questions.”

“Go on.”

"The tank's awfully small—I'm sure you've realized. Rumlow said you had it built before you ever captured the siren, so I figure you didn't know how big it would be, but—" he hesitated, watching as lines began to furrow themselves on Lord Pierce's brow. "I only thought that if it had more room to swim…a pond, or—"

“How enterprising you are, my boy,” Lord Pierce said with icy civility. “And how do you propose we contain the beast in this pond?”

“Well, I, ah…” Hadn’t thought that far ahead.

“It’s all well and good for you to try new techniques,” he said with a sigh. “But I urge you to think before you make demands, Steve.”

“It’s not a demand,” he said, his voice coming out higher than he’d meant; a child’s squeak of denial. “Just a—”

“Though, it does make me think,” he went on, the picture of benevolence. “A larger tank—not a pond—that’s perhaps something I could take under consideration. Provided, that is, I see results beyond your games by the time I return.”

It wasn’t the answer Steve had hoped for, though he could see the opportunity for what it was, even if he didn’t much care for the delivery. “Yes, sir,” he said, squaring his shoulders. “You won’t be disappointed.”

“I should hope not,” Lord Pierce said, eyes glittering as a small smile curled one corner of his mouth. “Any other…requests?”

Steve hesitated briefly. “A better variety of fish. Smaller ones, too, that I can use to reward it.”

Lord Pierce waved a hand, unperturbed by the second request, which made a marked contrast from his reaction to the first. “I don’t care—you’re in charge of its food, so whatever gets results. Speak to the fishmonger and have him bill it to the household accounts.”

“Err…thank you, sir,” he said. Something in his voice must have given away his surprise, as Pierce looked up, smile widening.

“Honestly, Steve. You act as though I don’t see the value in your work.”

“No, sir, it’s only—”

“This is your job, my boy. You mustn’t be afraid to ask for what you need. So long as the requests are reasonable. You understand?”

Steve didn’t, the man’s mercurial temper confounding, but he shrugged all the same. “Yes, sir.”

“Now, I can’t indulge you in everything, naturally. I’m not made of money…” he sighed. “But to make me out to be some sort of miser…well, I’m baffled, Steve.”

“I don’t mean to imply—”

“I’m a decent fellow, wouldn’t you say?”

Whether or not he would, Steve couldn’t very well disagree. “Yes, sir, bu—”

“Good,” he continued, warmth flooding his tone as he gestured to the door. “I do believe I’ve kept you from your duties this morning. Much to be done—work never stops.”

Which was how Steve found himself standing on the other side of the office door, dismissed and disconcerted. Lord Pierce appeared friendly enough—reasonable like he'd said—and Steve certainly appreciated his faith. Shit, he could even understand his reluctance over the pond, as it would be a considerable expense, not to mention challenging to build. But his outsize reaction had been odd, antagonizing some deep-seated itch Steve couldn't quite scratch.

Or maybe, just maybe, Steve was being unkind or overly suspicious. Lord Pierce was an important man, as well as a busy one. Those sorts were often eccentric and demanding, prone to whims and tempers. Steve had probably just caught him on a bad day.

All the same, the prospect of having time away from Lord Pierce's scrutiny and Rumlow's sour sneer was appealing, so Steve was more than happy to wave them off on their journey when they departed several hours later, a bevy of servants in tow. Maintaining a household in stasis was markedly different than catering to the unpredictable desires of a lord in residence, so once the auto disappeared through the inner gates, a palpable sense of relief fell over those left behind.

Steve's work, however, would not change; caring for another creature didn't come with holidays. Honestly, though, he didn't mind—the solitude of the garden suited him, and with Lord Pierce gone, he had the afternoon free. He needed to write a letter to his mother about the money and the medication, so he brought a folio of paper outside, sitting with his back against the siren's tank before beginning to write.

After ten minutes or so, his concentration was broken by a thump, and he looked up to find the siren hovering close, its usual curiosity turning to annoyance at being ignored.

“What?” he asked with a laugh. “I played with you this morning.”

The siren turned in a circle, then made a few of the symbols Steve had shown it earlier—nonsense things, circles and squares, done to see if it could manage the mimicry.

“Alright, alright,” he said, setting the letter on the ground and weighting it with a rock before getting to his feet.

Pleased—or as pleased as it ever got—the siren flicked its tail, the ripple making its fins shimmer in the early afternoon light. It had a tendency to do that when it got something it wanted, be that fish or attention, and Steve had tucked the knowledge away into his ever-growing list of things he knew about his charge.

“How about—” he said, thinking out loud, then turning on his head to execute a shaky handstand, legs flailing. He wasn’t much of a contortionist, but he could waggle about for a second or two before falling on his ass, landing with an “oof” and a grin.

The siren regarded him with some approximation of confusion, so Steve shrugged, singing out a “ta-da!” and hopping to his feet in an exaggerated display of showmanship.

Twisting around, the siren made an attempt at a handstand of its own. Only without room to stretch out, its tail connected with the bars, water sloshing onto the ground. Steve laughed, and the siren snarled silently, then curled up, holding onto the end of its tail while giving Steve a poisonous glare.

"What?" he laughed. "Sorry! Geez, that one's on you, pal. Didn't have to uh…you know. Make a big production of it."

Peevish, as was its custom, the siren went into hiding once more.

Most of the time when that happened, Steve couldn’t be sure what he’d done to precipitate the anger—maybe moved the wrong way, or looked at it cross-eyed—but this time, he knew exactly what had caused the sulk, which was fine. Let it hide for a while; he had a letter to mail and medication to purchase.

“Suit yourself, grumpy,” he said, laying his fingers against the glass. “I’ll see you later.”

 


 

The market square was bustling when Steve arrived, and he stepped inside the chemist to join the queue, making conversation with a number of people waiting with him. This part of the city was full of well-to-do sorts—men in tailored frock coats; women in elaborate dresses—mingling with servants running errands for their masters. None were so wealthy as Lord Pierce, he supposed, but there was plenty of money about all the same.

A well-dressed woman stepped away from the counter, holding the hand of a little girl who was singing a song to herself. The woman reached down to give the girl a nasty pinch on the arm, and her face twisted into a sob. Steve frowned; she’d only been doing what four-year-olds do, so he crouched low to catch her eye, making a face that got her smiling, even as her mother ushered her swiftly from the building, saying something haughty about servants.

“Better that than you,” Steve muttered, just loud enough for her to hear, then stepping up to the counter.

It took some time to work out the shipping details for the medication, and Steve watched as all of the money he'd made was eaten up by necessities—insurance, packing, and guarantees. In the end, he left the chemist with a twenty-five cent debt on his account, only allowable because Lord Alexander Pierce had been the signatory on his paycheck.

Steve was doing sums in his head as he walked through the square, preoccupied with worry until the barking of a dog caught his attention. He looked up to see a gaggle of children playing on the grass near the entrance of the park, with an unleashed dog running toward them. When the dog reached them, he seemed friendly enough, but the children squealed, all the same, confusing him as he turned in a frantic circle, jumping about and barking before charging in Steve's direction.

The problem was, there was a road between Steve and the dog. A road with an automobile on it, going faster than the dog could run. Steve reacted without thinking, instinct driving him forward with a shout as he attempted to catch the driver's attention. Time slowed to a crawl; Steve leaped into the road, grabbing the dog by the collar, using every bit of strength he had to propel them both onto the grass on the other side.

The whole thing happened in an instant, Steve's heart thumping a tattoo in his chest as the car continued on and the dog kept barking. He held one firm hand on the dog's collar while pushing himself to his knees, damp grass soaking through his trousers. His suit was in disarray, and it wasn't helped by the dog sticking its mucky paws on his shoulders so it could lick his face in gratitude.

“Oh…” he laughed. “Hey, fella. Or uh, lady?”

“Lucky!” came a shout. “Lucky, you dumb dog! What did you do?”

Steve stood, keeping his hand on (presumably) Lucky’s collar, looking down the park path, where he saw a handsome black man with a well-trimmed beard and a concerned frown jogging his way.

“This guy belongs to you?” Steve said, releasing Lucky and watching as he sprinted toward his master.

“Near enough,” said the man, jogging the last few feet to catch Lucky, then walking the distance to Steve. “Sorry about that—he got away from me. Saw those kids and bolted. Normally he’s good off the leash, but—”

“No harm done,” Steve said, brushing the grass and dirt from his trousers.

“Messed you up, though, huh?” The man shook his head, pulling a leash from his pocket and attaching it to Lucky’s collar before offering Steve a handkerchief. “Sorry again.”

“Nothing some soap and water won’t fix,” Steve said, taking the cloth and extending his hand. “Steve Rogers. Pleased to meet you.”

The man smiled a gap-toothed smile and shook Steve's hand with enthusiasm. “Good to know you, Steve. I’m Sam Wilson.”

Sam Wilson portrait

Chapter Text

Sam Wilson had a firm grip, but not a bruising one—a grip that spoke to a man of confidence, who had no need to posture in front of a stranger. Steve took to him immediately.

“Pleasure’s mine,” Steve said, then nodded at the dog, which sat on its haunches, giving them a goofy canine grin while staring out of its only eye. Steve hadn’t noticed the loss before, but he had to assume it was an old wound, as the dog seemed happy enough—biddable, as any loved dog would be. “And this is Lucky?”

“So named because he didn’t have much of it in his early years,” Sam said as he leaned over to scratch Lucky’s head, setting the dog’s tail thumping against the grass. “Not so much bad luck these days, though—he’s a spoiled brat.”

“Then it’s good you found one another.”

“Oh, he’s not mine.”

“No?”

“He belongs to a friend—I was taking him on a run as a favor.”

“That’s decent of you.”

“I’ve been cooped up myself,” Sam replied, his phrasing making Steve think of a small, glass tank. “Glad to be out in the sunshine.”

“Guess most of us would be. Do you live nearby?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Sam said, tossing his head toward the park. “Just got into town today, but I’m already at home.” Steve’s expression must have testified to his confusion, as Sam grinned before clarifying. “I’m with the circus.”

Something young and enraptured woke in Steve at the mere mention of such a place. In his childhood, he’d owned a circus storybook, which featured wild tales of high-wires and trapeze artists. The stories had set fire to his imagination, but he’d never had occasion to see a circus up close—circuses were for towns and cities far bigger than Red Hook. Anyhow, even if one had come near, they wouldn’t have had the money.

Doing his damnedest to school his excitement, Steve smiled. "Oh yeah?"

“Sure,” Sam grinned. “Season’s just about to start—Columbia’s home for a lot of folks, so we put up here for a few weeks before hitting the road. Lucky—” at the sound of his name, the dog gave a happy wriggle. “He’s one of the show dogs. Aren’t you, boy?”

Lucky turned in a circle, then sat back down, which was as much an answer as anything else.

“Must be an interesting life,” Steve said, noting with renewed interest the hard muscles of Sam’s forearms, the slimness of his hips, and the breadth of his shoulders. Handsome, there was no denying, with the body of a man who worked hard at whatever he did.

“Sure,” Sam said, and when Steve looked back at his face, he was smiling, one brow raised.

“Are…” Steve coughed. “Are you a performer?”

“I am.” He paused. “Trapeze act. With my husband.”

Ah. Handsome, sure. Taken, too. Steve’s interest dimmed with the new information—he’d been intimate with a fair few fellas during the war, but never with married ones. Marriage was sacrosanct, as far as he was concerned, so he didn’t care for people who went sniffing outside their made beds. “Shit,” he said, letting out a low whistle. “That must be hard work.”

“Just work to me—I’ve spent more of my life turning tricks in the air than on solid ground, seems like.”

“How’d you ah…” Steve laughed. “How does one get into that line of work?”

“Born to it. My mother learned it from her folks, taught it to me.”

“And your father?”

Sam grinned. “Roustabout, but she fell for him anyway, on account of him possessing the same good looks that I, myself, am afflicted with.”

“Oh, sure,” Steve said, appreciating Sam’s company more and more with each passing minute.

“Problem was, in addition to his looks, I also got his height—ma worried for a few years I’d never find someone strong enough to keep up the act after she was gone. For a while, I couldn’t, but then—”

“Your husband?”

"That's right—Riley. We proved 'em wrong."

“Suppose so,” Steve said. “And Lucky?”

“Sure, sometimes we give him a turn on the trapeze.”

“What, really?”

“No, not really! Dog on the platform—Clint’d lose his damn mind.”

“Clint?”

"Lucky's trainer. Does the dog show—got a whole pack of 'em now, but when he started, it was just the two of them."

“What else?”

“Clowns. Horses. Tightrope walkers and tumblers. Fire eaters and coal walkers. Got a fella that swallows swords and a woman that can stand on her own head.”

“Elephants?”

Sam frowned. "No. No big cats, either. Ringmaster doesn't believe in showing animals that you gotta beat into submission to get 'em working. Horses and dogs, they do what they're told because they love you—some of them even love performing. Like this guy? Lucky soaks up every bit of the attention. But the wild beasts—"

Steve's stomach tightened; he knew precisely the sort of beast Sam meant.

"The wild ones, we let 'em alone," he continued. "One of the horse trainers, Bobbi, she has a chimp, but she doesn't show him—rescued him from a shitty show that was shutting down."

"Oh," Steve said. "Makes sense."

“You sound disappointed.”

"No!" he shook his head. "It's only when I was little, I had a book, and there were elephants."

“Ah.” Sam smiled. “Fury says—”

“Fury?”

“Our ringmaster.”

“As in the Fury?” Steve laughed.

“He wishes. It’s a stage name. Gets the rubes in the door, thinking we got a divine presence running the place.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Anyhow, he says we got a better show because everyone in it wants to be there.”

“I don’t doubt that.”

"You ought to come to see us, we open tomorrow."

“Ah, I’d love to, but—” he shrugged. “I’ve only just arrived in town myself, so funds are a little low.”

“Pfff.” Sam was quick to wave the problem off. “You saved Clint’s favorite dog, I guess I can have a ticket put aside for you.”

“You don’t have to do that—”

“I know I don’t have to, but I will anyway. Shoot, bring a guest, I’ll have them hold two.”

Steve thought of Wanda, and he smiled. “Put it that way, I can think of someone I might bring along.”

“Perfect. Come around to the yard after, I’ll introduce you to Riley.”

“Can’t wait.” For the first time since arriving in Columbia, Steve found himself looking forward to something with joy rather than apprehension.

 


 

The circus was impossible to miss, with a crowd of people streaming through a brightly-lit midway toward a massive white tent, lit from all sides with colored lights. Purple and blue and green and red, shading the canvas in a shimmering rainbow that made Steve smile. Wanda had been more than happy to accompany him, dressed for an evening out in a pretty crimson dress with black trim—Coskovian lace, hand-tatted by her mother, according to her. They made their way to the ticket booth, Wanda exclaiming over everything from the delicate paper lanterns to the euphemistically named Kitty-Kat tent. Steve could only imagine the attractions there were somewhat different than the ones in the main show.

A massive sign hung above the entrance to the big top, blaring “FURY’S MODERN MARVELS!” in block lettering. Children were running and screaming in front of beleaguered-looking parents, no doubt buoyed by the crackle of excitement and anticipation in the air. Two big, burly men were stationed near the opening of the tent, taking tickets, bantering with the kids, and winking at the parents. It looked like fun—like a job Steve might not hate to have. A job without worry or fear that he was responsible for the fate of a creature that—

“Steve!” Wanda said. “Tickets!”

He followed her to the booth, where he gave his name. The woman behind the counter rifled through a pile of paper then presented him with two tickets in his name.

“Sam says to tell you where to go after,” she informed him before he could step away. “Walk around to the rear of the tent, you can’t miss the caravans.”

“Much obliged,” Steve said, stepping back to hand Wanda her ticket.

Sam had been generous with the seats—two of them, right near the front of the center bleachers, so close to the sawdust they could smell it. Steve couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so excited; the last time he’d allowed himself a night out without worry. Which wasn’t to say he was entirely unburdened, but he was going to try and enjoy himself. To remember what it was to look at the world with the same thrill he’d felt when flipping through his circus book as a child.

They had just taken their seats when the lights dimmed, the energy in the room focused on the center of the ring where a spotlight was shining. A man in a resplendent red coat with gold buttons and a black velvet top hat on his head strode into the center. This man, like Lucky, had only one eye, the other covered by a black patch that made Steve think of the pirate stories he and Peggy had told one another as children.

The man swung his arms wide, introducing himself as Nicholas J. Fury (emphasis on Fury), ringmaster and owner of Fury's Modern Marvels. He set forth boasts of what they were to see that night—things that had never been seen before! Death-defying stunts! A woman who could stand on her own head! A man who could swallow fire! Nothing, Fury assured them, would astound them so much as the show he had in store.

Privately, Steve doubted that, as they certainly didn’t have a siren. All the same, he was nearly bouncing in his seat by the time the first act began.

Fury hadn’t been kidding about the spectacle—the circus was something to behold. It began with capering clowns, falling over one another, teasing the children in the crowd while throwing whipped cream pies, one of which splattered near Steve’s shoe, mucking it up, along with the hem of Wanda’s dress. The clown who’d thrown the pie mimed an apology, bringing over a large, false flower for Wanda before bowing low to scrape up the mess. By the time he was finished, she was laughing, and when she tucked the flower behind her ear, the clown put a hand beneath his shirt to pretend it was his beating heart.

“Looking for a husband?” Steve murmured under his breath.

“I could do worse,” she replied, elbowing him in the side.

The clowns gave way to the acrobats, who were joined by the contortionist. Turned out, watching someone stand on their own head was more than a little disconcerting, reminding Steve of the way the siren sometimes twisted itself in half.

His discomfort was forgotten with the arrival of the barking, joyful pack of dogs, Lucky in the lead. They ran into the ring, each to their own small platform, followed by their master—a compact blond man in a purple coat, holding a chair and a metal hoop. Clint, Steve surmised.

The dogs were the best act yet, funny and full of energy as Clint directed them all over the place—through the hoop and around various obstacles. They were hams, too, with a few comedy bits woven into the fabric of the show. At one point, Clint pulled out a bow and quiver, only to have Lucky jump up and steal his arrows before he could fire them. It was nonsense, and Steve couldn’t stop laughing.

“Oh, they’re funny,” Wanda grinned as they stood on their hind legs while Clint took a bow.

Some smaller acts came next—a young boy who imitated birdcalls, a man on a unicycle, and the promised sword swallower. Then came the trick riders, a man and a woman with four horses, the two of them engaging in elaborate stunts that had them in and out of the saddles more times than Steve could count. At one point, he was sure the woman had been trampled, only to have her pop up to straddle the space between two horses, one foot in each saddle as they cantered around the ring.

“Shit,” he muttered.

Wanda, enraptured, said nothing, only applauded wildly when the riders took their bows.

All things fire entered the ring as the horses left—spinners and walkers and eaters and throwers—though Steve was paying more attention to certain things happening in the wings. Things like two men climbing ladders behind the bleachers, making their way to the platforms raised high above the crowd.

Sam and Riley were the final act of the evening, with Fury coming out to introduce them once the fire walker had hot-footed it from the ring.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” Fury called, voice booming as he gestured high overhead. “Fury’s Modern Marvels is proud to present…the fantastic! Flying! Falcons!”

Flying was an understatement. The lights swung up as Sam leaped from the platform, though the net seemed flimsy and inadequate from where Steve was sitting. He watched with bated breath while Sam soared through the air, up and up and—caught! By a brown-haired man in an identical costume, just as strong and swift as Sam was, making what they did look simple, though Steve knew it wasn't. Sam and Riley moved in perfect sync after that, supporting one another time and again as they twisted and turned and flipped. Steve could hardly keep track of where one ended and the other began, so seamless were their movements. Graceful and fluid, it was unlike anything he'd ever seen, save perhaps for a siren's tail, undulating in the water.

When the Falcons had finished, they stood safely upon their platforms to take their bows. Steve shot to his feet, along with Wanda and most of the crowd, applauding riotously.

That is your friend?” she exclaimed.

“He said he was good—” Steve said, drowned out by the thundering cheers as every act from the show spilled through the curtains, piling together in the center ring while Sam and Riley climbed down from their perches.

Fury announced them all, one by one, and then the show was over, the band continuing to play as the performers dispersed, along with the crowd. Steve and Wanda waited until most people were gone, then headed outside and around to the rear of the big top.

“Steve!” called a voice, Sam stepping from behind a pulled-back tent flap. He was dripping with sweat, still in his show clothes, with a grin on his face. “You made it!”

“Sure did,” Steve said. “That was something else, Sam.”

“Told you we’re the best act.”

“You weren’t lying. This is my friend Wanda.”

“It is nice to meet you,” Wanda said, extending her hand and getting both a shake and a kiss on the cheek for her trouble. “You were very wonderful.”

“Thank you,” Sam said. “It’s good to meet you right back. Riley’s gone to get dressed—you want to come on, meet some folks?”

Steve couldn't imagine a better way of ending the evening, which was how he and Wanda found themselves sitting around a bonfire, sharing a late supper with an assortment of circus sorts. To a person, they were friendly, cheerful, and open in their greetings, modestly accepting of the compliments Steve and Wanda lavished upon them.

"So, what is it you do, Steve?" Clint asked from his position on the ground, surrounded by his dogs. Lucky had pride of place, his head in Clint's lap with his eyes closed, enjoying a contented nap after a hard night's work.

“Oh.” Steve shrugged. “I’m employed in one of the houses near here. We both are.”

Clint blinked. “Sure. But what do you do?”

Steve glanced at Wanda, who shrugged, giving him a moment's reprieve by responding first. "I'm one of the worst maids to ever make a bed if you believe everything you hear."

That made Clint laugh, raising his glass to her. “A woman after my own heart.”

“And I…guess I’m kind of in your line of work,” Steve said after a moment.

“Oh?”

"I train…" he hesitated. "Y' see, the man I work for has an exotic pet, so—"

“A lion?” Sam asked from where he was sitting with an arm around Riley’s waist, head on his shoulder, their partnership offstage every bit as simpatico as the one they had on.

“No.”

“A wolf?”

“No.”

“Now, I know it’s not an elephant—”

“No, but—”

“He can’t say,” Wanda said. “It is not, I think…a legal creature?”

“Ah,” said Sam.

“Ah,” said Clint.

“Huh,” said Riley.

“How’d you end up doing that?” asked Bobbi, the trick rider who had so shocked Steve with her equine prowess.

“I stumbled into it,” Steve admitted. “I don’t have much experience with uh. Animals.” Referring to the siren that way felt wrong, but he didn’t know how else to describe it. “But I needed a job, and I had a good reference.”

“There was a time none of us knew much about anything we do,” Clint shrugged, glancing at Bobbi. “Save for Sam, who flipped out of his mama like—”

“Watch it, Barton,” Sam warned, throwing a piece of potato at Clint, who dodged it, while the nearest dog lifted her head to wolf it down.

“How are you finding the work?” Riley asked.

“Well, I’m not finding it at all,” Steve said, figuring this was the right crowd to ask questions of, albeit indirectly. “That’s the thing. The creature’s a bit…difficult.”

Lucky lifted both his head and a paw, huffing out a groan as he began to scratch behind his ear. Clint smiled at the action, rubbing Lucky’s head before speaking. “It takes time. Any trainer worth their salt knows that. But mostly, there’s two things all animals need to be happy.”

“What’re those?” Steve asked.

“A full belly and a kind hand.”

This creature,” Wanda broke in. “Has had no kind hands before Steve comes.”

Steve looked sharply at her. As far as she’d let on, her awareness of the siren was more theoretical than actual—speculation and rumors passed around by the other members of the staff. “Uh…well,” he said. “She’s not wrong.”

“That makes your job harder,” Clint said, stretching his arms above his head. “A beaten down animal won’t trust easy, plus it’s more liable to hurt you. Shit, I rescued Bailey here from some bastard that took a stick to her on the regular. When I first got her home, she was as like to bite me than look at me.”

“How’d you help her?” Steve asked, glancing at the dog, who had finished her potato and was staring at Clint with an expression of naked adoration.

“Time,” he said. “Patience. Dealing with the shit days and building her trust, bit by bit.”

Steve thought of the cables and wires; the fear in the siren’s eyes. He’d taken that torment away, sure. Given it more food. Paid more attention to it than Rumlow. Small changes, but a start. “We’re working on all of that,” he offered.

“Good,” Clint said with a grin.

“It’s more than that, though,” Bobbi said. “My horses do what I ask them because they trust me, yes, but also because we’re on the same team. I don’t eat unless I know they’re fed. My wellbeing is contingent on their performance, so we have a common concern, you see? It’s in my best interest to see that they’re dealt with kindly, and they perform better because of it. We take care of one another.”

Steve understood what she meant, though both she and Clint had tricks and tools at their disposal that Steve didn’t. Words, for one. Touch, for another. Gentling a creature with positive reinforcement, holding it close to quell its fear, using a tone of their voice to set it at ease—Steve had nothing like that, just a glass wall and a head full of worry.

“The thing is,” he said slowly, giving voice to that concern. “I don’t know how to tell it I’m trying to help. That I’m not the bad guy—”

“Most creatures, animal or human,” Sam said, lifting his head from Riley’s shoulder. “They want the same thing. Decency. You show it that enough times, and I wager it’ll come around on you.”

"Maybe," Steve said, tugging on a loose thread unraveling at the hem of his shirtsleeve. "I'll have to figure it out if I want to keep my job."

“I’d offer to come over and see what’s what,” Clint grinned. “But I have a feeling you’d turn me down.”

“Like Wanda said, it’s not exactly legal. So I’m doing what I can, but I can’t…”

“Mind you don’t get yourself in trouble for a richer man’s schemes,” Riley cautioned.

Steve hadn’t thought about that, but what was one more worry among millions? “It’ll be alright,” he said. “It’s smart, I think. Capable of learning.”

“Food and kindness,” Clint reiterated.

“And a common cause,” Bobbi nodded. “You’ll do fine.”

 


 

Later, as Steve and Wanda made their way home through streets lit only by the soft glow of gas lamps, he asked her the question that had been niggling at him since she’d brought up her understanding of the siren’s circumstances.

“How much do you know about the uh…the beast?” he asked.

“I know it is a siren,” she said, confirming his suspicion. “And I know more than I’m supposed to. It is a bad house for keeping secrets.”

"So, what do you think about what they said back there?"

“I think,” she said as they approached the gate that led to the main drive. “That perhaps this siren is more human than Lord Pierce thinks.”

Steve frowned. “I…yeah. I guess I’ve been thinking that, too.” Admitting it out loud made it real, somehow, and the squirming, awful, guilty feeling in his gut only got worse.

“This does not fix your problem,” she said. “I think maybe it is only creating new ones?”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Regardless of how smart it is, the circumstances haven’t changed. It’s a long way from home.”

“True.” Wanda waited as Steve pushed the gate open, then stepped through it, glancing over her shoulder. “But perhaps it is a matter of…changing how you speak to it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Bobbi says, you are working toward something. Make it understand so.”

“But we’re not,” Steve said. “Unless it’s interested in a bigger tank, or me keeping my job. Beyond that, all I’ve got is a load of frozen fish for tossing.”

“A bigger tank is worth working toward,” she replied. “Maybe the siren will think so, too. If you are showing it. Or finding out what it wants.”

Steve thought that over, letting Wanda take his arm as they made their way down the dark path to the main house. “Maybe,” he said.

“You are smart, too. You will find a way.”

“I hope so,” he agreed, smiling at her. “Say, you wouldn’t uh…want to meet it, would you?”

Wanda grinned, squeezing his arm. “I am thinking you will never ask.”

They went into the house together, parting ways in the hall outside Steve’s room. As Steve readied for sleep, his eyes caught on the folio full of blank paper laying on his dresser, and an idea started taking shape in his head. Words and touch, he didn’t have. Signs and symbols? Well now, he’d always been a pretty good artist.

Whether the notion was genius or nonsense, however, he wouldn’t know until the next morning.

poster advertising the Flying Falcon Sam Wilson

Chapter Text

Steve’s idea seemed silly in the light of a new day—a notion borne of an evening spent with new friends, where all things seemed possible. Now, it sat stale in his mouth, bringing with it the bitter taste of futile hope. If he was wrong—if this didn’t work—then he had no idea what he was going to do.

All the same, it had to be worth a shot. Plus, he’d promised Wanda he’d introduce her to the siren.

“Renata,” he called while at breakfast with Wanda, doing his best to appear friendly while also projecting some authority.

Renata, who was senior staff but not quite so important as Steve, approached the table.

“What is it?” she asked, in her harried way.

“With Rumlow gone, I’m afraid my work requires some assistance—”

Renata’s eyes were sharp, and she shook her head. “I won’t do it,” she said. “Not near that—” she bit back her words, pressing her lips together. “No. Ask the gardener.”

“It can’t be the gardener.”

“Why not?” she asked, suspicion on her face.

“Gotta be someone with small hands,” he explained. “Someone who can reach into the tank.”

“Are you mad?” she said, eyes bulging. “There’s—”

“I’ll do it!” Wanda said, putting on the timid voice she only used when speaking to her superiors. Pairing it with wide, simpering eyes, like some mooning schoolgirl who’d taken a fancy to Steve. “Please, miss, I want to help.”

“Quiet,” Renata snapped. “You’ve no idea what you’re being asked to do, you silly girl.”

“But…”

"Well, now," Steve said with an affected drawl. "Seems to me, I have myself a volunteer."

“Mr. Rogers,” Renata said, and for all her hardness, Steve didn’t believe she was cruel. “Please.”

In truth, Steve felt bad for playing a trick, but requesting Wanda directly might arouse suspicion amongst the staff. "Have her come to the garden when her chores are through—I trust you'll be able to provide her a key?"

“I—”

“She won’t be harmed if she does as she’s told.”

Renata frowned. Steve could see the war within her: she wanted to refuse, but Steve had been given full authority to train the siren as he saw fit. With Lord Pierce and Rumlow gone, she had no one to whom she could appeal. “She…” Trailing off, she looked at Wanda. “She’s not to skimp on her duties. You may have her for an hour.”

“Per day.”

“Mr. Rogers!”

“Surely you, of all people, understand Lord Pierce’s particular attachment to my work?”

A scowl crossed Renata’s face as she glared at him. “You’d best keep her hands attached to her arms, and I’ll be counting all her fingers.”

“Why, miss?” Wanda asked, guileless and wide-eyed.

“It’s—” Renata made the motion of the mages against her chest before kissing two fingers and holding them to the sky. “There’s washing on the line, Wanda. Go and fetch it.”

“Yes, miss,” she said. “Shall I come and get the key from you, once I’ve done that?”

“And after you’ve stripped the beds! And…” she glanced around. “Helped cook peel the potatoes.”

“Then,” Steve said, knowing Renata would load Wanda up with enough chores for ten people if they weren’t careful, “she’ll come to the yard.”

“Yes,” Renata gritted.

“Very good,” Steve said cheerfully. “Honestly, Renata, I wouldn’t worry—once it’s been fed, it’s pretty docile.”

He left before she could get in another protestation, fetching the fish as well as his sheaf of paper, satisfied that the first part of the plan had gone off without a hitch. The second, however, was up to the siren.

As usual, the siren was awake when Steve rounded the corner. He had never seen it sleeping, though he hoped that it was able to rest easier, now that the current had been removed. At any rate, the creature’s stormy sea-colored eyes were no longer red-rimmed, and its face was a bit less drawn.

“Good morning,” he greeted, setting down the papers. “Hungry?”

The siren watched the bucket, ignoring Steve. Nothing out of the ordinary. Steve wasn’t sure why he kept trying to talk to it, save for it being a very human thing to do—conversing with creatures that couldn’t talk back. Hadn’t he been calling Lucky a good boy the night before, or cheering on countless cats as they stalked their prey?

Steve went through the now-familiar routine of feeding the siren—tossing the fish (his aim was better, two in four made it through the slats), then waiting for the siren to eat. This morning, rather than watching, he sat down with the paper, beginning to draw, the damp grass of the lawn soaking through his trousers while he worked. He'd always enjoyed drawing, soothed by his ability to create something from nothing. Shit, he even had a bit of natural talent at the art, though what good that did a faux-soldier and a fisherman, he couldn't fathom. Still, as was often the case when he allowed himself the luxury of his hobby, he got lost in the work, time ticking by until he looked up to find the siren watching him, breakfast long finished, a bored, vaguely peevish expression on its face.

“Oh, excuse me, your highness,” he teased as he got to his feet, paper in hand.

The drawing Steve had produced was of the siren—his best attempt at capturing how it looked in its tank—which he held it to the glass and waited. The notion that this might work seemed even more ridiculous now that he was standing there, because smart or not, the siren wasn’t human. It wasn’t going to understand that it was looking at an approximation of itself. After all, one couldn’t show a dog a drawing of a ball and expect it to go fetch.

Those doubts deepened when the siren simply blinked at the paper before cocking its head to the side.

“That’s you,” Steve said, tapping the picture, then pointing at the siren. “You?”

The siren leaned closer, studying the piece. After a moment, it trailed one clawed fingertip down the glass, tracing the shape of its tail on the paper. Then, its disconcerting gaze flicked to Steve before it pulled its finger back and tapped its chest.

There was no mistaking the gesture for mimicry or game-playing. That was intentional. A complex understanding born of an intelligent mind.

“Oh, fuck," Steve muttered, nearly dropping the paper, mouth falling open in surprise. Part of him had hoped it wouldn't work. That he'd imagined things when it came to the siren's capacity for understanding.

He’d been wrong.

The siren’s mouth opened wide, lips curling in a grin. Only, this smile wasn’t mirroring Steve’s. It was choosing to express some small happiness, as if it had picked up on the fact that when Steve smiled, that generally meant something good.

“Did you—” Steve shook his head, bending to pick up his pencil, then quickly scribbling a second drawing. This one was cruder—a rushed approximation of himself, replete with suspenders, which he pressed to the tank.

The siren swam close, nose nearly against the glass. It looked up after a moment. Pointed to the paper, then to Steve.

You?

Steve was going to vomit. This was, deep down, what he’d feared. That the siren was no dumb beast. It was human. Or, not human, but some equivalent mythical thing, trapped between two worlds. Stuck in a tiny glass-walled prison, impossibly far from home.

“Gods,” he whispered. “What are you?”

The siren’s grin faded, fixing Steve with a hard, unblinking stare. He felt the familiar prickle at the back of his neck, though the fog from the first day didn’t settle on him. Instead, he felt cold. Anxious. Angry. Oh, but he was angry—a preternatural rage bubbling in his belly. The siren bared its teeth, slamming itself against the glass.

Steve understood now—this anger wasn’t his own. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry, I don’t—”

Quick as it had come, the anger faded, the siren hiding behind its tail. Steve groaned, the ghost of a chill in his veins as he rubbed the back of his neck, hugging himself with one arm.

A small hand touched his shoulder, causing him to jump a foot in the air, so caught up in his own thoughts that he’d missed Wanda’s arrival.

“Shit!” he yelped, whirling around. “Wanda, sorry—”

“My mama used to tell me stories about the sirens,” she said as if Steve hadn’t spoken. “Said they were queer things—didn’t use their voices much, save for singing.”

“It’s, I felt it…it’s so angry—”

“Yes,” she agreed. “I am feeling it, too, sometimes. But I feel many things. Too many, I think.” She stepped forward, pressing her palm to the glass. “Hello, gorgeous.”

The siren did something curious then, coming out of hiding and going right to her, where it leaned its cheek against the glass, nuzzling her hand through the thin barrier.

“He’s never done that before,” Steve said.

“They think he is a beast,” Wanda replied. “But we both know that he isn’t. When they bring him here—there is a way, from my room in the attic, to sneak across the roof. I would watch what they did. The things they did.”

“He’s like us. I’ve been such an idiot—”

“Yes,” she agreed. “But no, he is not like us. And I am not like you, and you are not like me. But maybe he is a different type of us?”

“I don’t understand.”

“These great men, these important men like Pierce. They take what they want. Believe they have dominion over things they do not understand. I forget the word in your language, but—”

“Hubris?”

“Yes!” she frowned, fingers flexing as the siren pressed closer. “Men like Pierce, they play games with lives. With the natural world. They seek not to understand but to control.”

Steve watched as the siren’s gaze fixed on Wanda’s face, expression softer than he’d ever seen it. “How—” he swallowed. “How do you know so much?”

“Not so much,” she said. “But I know men like this.”

“Wanda…”

“Now you know, too,” she continued. “So, I wonder, what will you do now?”

Steve frowned. “I don’t know.”

“Think, maybe,” she said, smiling at the siren. “Or ask. He has, I believe, much to say.”

“Do you—” he frowned, “is he speaking to you?”

Wanda laughed, shaking her head. “Not in the way I am speaking to you, no. But these feelings he gives, we have those.”

“Yes,” Steve said. “That’s—”

The siren moved, pulling away from Wanda’s hand so he could raise his own, making repetitive patterns against the glass with such insistence that Steve understood his game in an instant.

“He’s drawing something!” he exclaimed. “But how do we…” Tracing paper? Or…oh! “Wanda! Is there any chalk in the house?”

Wanda furrowed her brow in thought before lighting up. “Yes! I know where. You wait.”

She was off like a shot, though the moment she disappeared, the siren stopped drawing to glare at Steve as if he'd made her leave.

“She’s coming back,” he said with a sheepish shrug. “I guess you like her? You’re never that nice to me.”

The siren continued to fix him with a blank, unimpressed stare until Wanda returned, bearing both chalk and a frown.

“What’s wrong?” Steve asked as she pressed the chalk into his palm.

“I’ve been told they need assistance in the laundry. Renata only gave me leave to bring you this.”

“She said I’d have you for an hour!” he protested.

“Yes, well. Take it up with her yourself.”

“I will,” he frowned. “Soon as I’m done here.”

“She is only worried, in her way.”

“I know, but—”

“Perhaps I should have acted more frightened,” she smiled. “I am making my own mistakes.”

“All the same, I’ll speak to her. See about getting you back tomorrow.”

“Good,” she replied, turning her attention to the siren, then touching the glass. “Goodbye, pretty boy. I will see you soon.”

The siren pressed his palm against hers, before once again scowling at Steve the moment she was gone.

“I’m sorry,” he said; it felt like all he could say. “Can you…do what you were doing before, please?” He gestured to the tank, miming the drawing

After a begrudging moment of nothing, the siren relented, outlining shapes on the glass while Steve traced along with the chalk. The picture was crude, but its subject was obvious: the siren was drawing himself—tail, long hair, and all—alongside a stick-figure rendering of Steve.

“You and me,” Steve said when he was through, pointing to each figure in turn. “Sure. Got it.”

The siren blinked, then began to draw again, this time making a square around his chalk-self. Steve stepped back to watch as the siren pointed to himself, then arced a half circle between the tank and where stick-Steve stood beyond the barriers. He repeated the gesture a dozen times, then pointed right at real-Steve.

You. Get me out.

“Aw shit,” Steve said, squeezing the useless piece of chalk in his fist. How to explain air to a creature that couldn’t breathe it? A world without water to one who had never known anything but the blue? The concept of distance and time and space? Yes, Steve could open the bars, but only if he wanted to watch the siren flop his way out of the tank and die free at his feet.

Steve had watched a thousand fish die that way in nets, gasping for air on the deck of a ship, shimmering bodies writhing as they attempted to find breath in an inhospitable world. He would not resign the siren to such a fate, but neither could he fathom keeping him trapped.

He’d have to speak to Lord Pierce. The man was eccentric, but Steve didn’t think he was a fool—he’d said that reasonable requests would be honored, plus he'd been decent about the fish, and willing to revisit the idea of a larger tank. Surely once he saw that the siren was an intelligent creature, he’d see reason in the idea of setting him free? Granted, that freedom would put Steve out of a job, but how could Steve live with himself otherwise?

Of course, without a job, his mother couldn’t live at all. Although, perhaps Lord Pierce would keep him on as a footman or a butler? Something. Anything. His mother would have to understand; Gods knew she wouldn’t want the siren kept captive for her sake.

The siren was still making his desperate sign, only this time Steve was the mimic, drawing his finger along the arc with him. “Yes, alright? I understand.”

Casting his eyes to the bars, the siren shot up to wrap his claws around the metal, shaking them so they clanged. There was no mistaking the gesture for anything other than a demand—a desperate plea.

“I can’t yet,” Steve said. “I wish you could—wait!”

Wanting to stop the siren's panic, Steve moved to a clean bit of glass, using the chalk to draw a sun and a moon. The siren, curious, stopped shaking the bars and swam down, allowing Steve to connect the dots. First, he pointed to the real sun in the sky before closing his eyes, pretending to sleep. He kept them mostly closed while pointing to the chalk moon, hoping to make his point. Day and night. They had that in common. After a time, the siren indicated his understanding by flicking his tail against the glass.

Steve hoped that meant he understood, at least. Catching the siren’s eye again, he pointed once more to the sun, then the moon, then back and forth quite a few times while occasionally pretending to sleep, just to be sure.

“Not yet, but soon,” he said. “When Lord Pierce comes home, things will change.”

The siren looked between the drawings and Steve before he tapped the sun, then the moon, then closed his eyes and opened them.

Tomorrow.

“Not tomorrow,” Steve cautioned. “But the concept of a couple weeks is probably lost on you, huh?”

Behind the glass, the siren turned away.

 


 

That night, tucked safely in his bed, Steve had another dream.

He was the siren again, only he wasn’t in his cage. He was in the sea, sun slanting into the shallows from above, illuminating schools of fish and bright, beautiful plants.

There was a movement to his left. He turned to find another siren beside him—a young woman, hardly more than a girl, with a cloud of dark hair framing her inquisitive face, mouth drawn up in a bow.

Sister.

He loved her in an instant, this sister of his, whom he had never seen before while also knowing all his life.

Quick as she’d come, the sister was gone, darting amongst the rocks and the plants. Instinct drove him to chase her, the two of them playing a game of which he innately knew the rules. Sometimes he was the chaser, sometimes the chased, their roles switching whenever they were caught tucked away in some small hiding place.

It was a lesson, he realized, tied up in fun. A way of teaching one younger and smaller than himself how to hide and hunt and keep herself safe. He was faster and cannier, but she was a quick study, heeding his instructions, learning from her mistakes. There was no real danger in the chase—this was home, where they were loved by a mother who was not far away, along with a group of others like themselves. Family.

They played for hours, but eventually, there came a turn where he could not find her. So he was forced to venture out beyond the safety of the shallows, to the places his mother didn't like either of them to go. He found her near the deep drop, chasing a school of her favorite sort of fish.

He had nearly caught her and was intending to scold her, when the sun disappeared, a hulking black shadow sliding over their heads.

His sister stared with wide, frightened eyes. He tried to reassure her.

Only split-tails.

He had seen split-tails before, but his sister was too young to have known them. She had been raised on their mother's stories of monstrous ships and the terrible beasts who had killed their father. Hideous creatures covered in hair who made awful noises from behind their flat teeth.

They were only stories meant to scare her. Keep her from the surface. Split-tails weren’t so frightening, he knew, though it had been years since he’d seen them at any time other than their ending.

Something dropped into the sea. He swam closer, cautioning his sister to stay where she was. The black thing that had come from the ship turned; he jerked back in shock when he saw the horrible, bloated split-tail within the black bag that shone like seaweed, pale face visible behind some translucent barrier.

Something was wrong.

The creature had a spear like the one that had killed his father.

He turned to his sister.

Go.

She looked at him with wide eyes. This small, brave sister whom he loved so much.

The creature raised the spear. Pointed it at his sister. The siren moved without thinking. Put himself in the weapon’s path.

His sister raised a hand as if to stop him. Something ripped through him from the inside out. Burning him. He looked down to see that his tail had been pierced by the shiny metal.

NoNO!

His sister rushed forward, baring her teeth, fierce one that she was.

GogogogoGO, he begged.

Another whump sounded through the water. Something stung his shoulder. He snarled, turned on the creature, rushed forward even as the world around him grew dim.

Mother sea granted him mercy; the last thing he saw before oblivion took him was his sister’s tail retreating into the dark.

sirens at play

Chapter Text

Steve woke in a cold sweat, the scratchy sheets of his too-small bed twisting around his legs. For a moment, he was convinced he had indeed become the siren. Trapped and helpless in a world where the very air was poison. His hands flew to his throat as he fought through the last remnants of sleep and the memory of his sister.

Not a tail. Merely a tangle.

The memory, though—it had been a memory, not a dream. And not his own. He was sure of it now, the snippet had been passed from the siren through whatever bond existed between them. The same bond the siren had used to draw Steve in that first day, and the one that had pulsed with anger the previous afternoon. Powerful, yes. Controllable? He couldn’t say. The siren wasn’t sharing visions when they were awake, though, the memories coming as dreams, slipping through when Steve’s mind was at peace.

There was something to that, probably, and he kicked the sheets to the bottom of the bed, falling back against the mattress to puzzle through the facts, like a map laid out to plot a course through troubled waters.

Sirens were real. That was a fact. An entire species made of myth, existing in the sea, out of sight and fearful of humans. That had come through clearly enough in the dream. Wariness. Anger. The siren’s fear for his sister if not for himself. Love for his sister, and mother, too. Somewhere out there was a family of sirens wondering where their child had gone. A sister guilty over the loss of her brother.

Steve shuddered, rolling onto his side and fixing his eyes on a crack in the whitewashed wall. Loss. Guilt. He had that in common with the sirens. Had felt them both every time his father took to the sea, watching his mother fret herself into exhaustion whenever a storm rolled across the spit of Red Hook. They had counted the days together, the two of them, scanning the horizon in the hopes of seeing big, white sails.

Those sails always returned, until the day they didn’t. Steve’s guilt had doubled then. Guilt for not being with him, mostly. For choosing to stay with his mother instead.

That guilt had mounted throughout the war, when he’d chosen to leave his mother behind, just like his father. Oh, he told himself it was a worthy cause, that he was doing good and serving his country without a need for glory. But he hadn’t minded the glory, either. The renown. The esteem. It had all come crashing down when he returned home to find folks sick and starving, Sarah among them.

Guilt had kept him in Red Hook these past five years. Guilt had brought him to this place in the end. Now? Now he had new guilt from keeping the siren trapped in his cage.

More than a year, Lord Pierce had said. He'd had the siren for more than a year. Stuck in that tiny prison, most of it spent in pain, burned and tortured by a sadist who was too stupid to know he was doing more harm than good.

Steve wondered if the siren’s mother missed him very much. If she’d stayed in the shallows with her daughter by her side, keeping a constant vigil in case he came home.

When he thought of her, she had his own mother’s face.

Shuddering, Steve made a decision: There could be no bigger tank, no middle-ground reprieve. He would get the siren home, one way or another. Because the siren was a person—not human, exactly, but something in between. Something he didn’t have the words to describe.

It called to mind a memory of a man who had come to Red Hook when Steve was a boy, on something he'd called a Scientific Expedition. The words had sounded very grand to Steve and Peggy, who had been no more than eight at the time. They were fascinated by the stranger who had come to comb their beaches, collecting what small creatures lived in the tide pools. He named them 'specimens,' which was a word neither child had heard before but liked very much as soon as they learned it.

(“This toast is a fine specimen.”

“Have you ever seen such a specimen as this sardine?”

“Peggy, your hair is real specimen today.”)

The specimen talk had come after they'd made friends with the scientist, which happened about two weeks after his arrival. On the day they first spoke to him, Peggy went first, being as she was braver than Steve in most things. (Which wasn't to say Steve was timid, only that Peggy was the bravest person in the world, and they both knew it.) She had approached the stranger one cloudy afternoon as he sat on a rock, observing starfish in a pool and recording notes in a leather-bound book. Steve, who was gangly and rather small for his age, followed behind as she marched right up and said in a loud voice, "what are you doing?"

“Hello there,” said the stranger. “I guess you could say I’m stargazing.”

That was about the best joke either of them had ever heard, so they got the giggles. The man looked pleased, running a hand through his dark, curly hair, which was peppered with flecks of grey. He had a friendly, crooked smile, which he fixed on Steve, just as soon as Steve had recovered.

“You live up there, don’t you?” he asked, pointing to the bluff where the cottage was not quite visible. “I’ve seen you with your parents.”

“Yes,” Steve said. “This is our cove.”

“It doesn’t belong to you,” Peggy protested. “It’s only close to your house.”

“What are your names?” asked the man, who had undoubtedly sensed an argument starting. (He wasn’t wrong—Peggy and Steve spent an awful lot of time squabbling.)

"Peggy," she replied before tossing her head at Steve with a sniff. "That's Steve."

“I’m Bruce. Pleased to meet you both.”

“My mama says you’re a scientist,” she said.

Bruce nodded, tapping his notebook. “I’m a biologist. Do you know what that is?”

They shook their heads, inching closer, bit by bit.

“It’s a type of doctor.”

Steve wrinkled his nose. He didn’t like doctors, with their poking and prodding, taking his temperature and looking up his nose with their gewgaws and whatnots.

“We don’t like doctors,” Peggy said, as she could be somewhat overly protective. “They’re awful.”

Bruce laughed. “I’m not a people doctor. I’m a doctor of…well, I guess it’s how we came to be people.”

“What’s that mean?” Steve asked, a slight lisp of babyhood clinging to his tongue.

“It means I’m a time traveler. I look into the past to try and see where we came from.”

They blinked at him. “That’s silly,” Peggy said after a moment, eyes narrowed as if expecting a trick. “You can’t go into the past.”

"Well, no," Bruce agreed, "but …let's simplify. You each have parents, correct?"

“Yes,” they chorused.

“And your parents had parents, and those parents had parents. Back and back and back a hundred thousand years.”

Steve, who had only a few dim memories of his mother’s father, couldn’t conceive of so many parents, and leaned forward with wide eyes.

“Over all that time,” Bruce continued. “Things change. Little things. Things you might not notice, but those little things eventually add up to something big. Because people want to survive, and so the things that change lend themselves to survival. You understand?”

“Yes,” Peggy said slowly. “I think so.”

“My theory—the one I’m here to study—is that once, a very, very long time ago, we came from the sea.”

Peggy crossed her arms over her chest and sat right down on the rock nearest Bruce, not caring a whit if her backside got wet. “That’s silly.”

“It is, a bit,” Bruce said. “Most science is silly when you first hear of it. After all, who thought a carriage could get along without horses?”

Steve, who had never seen an automobile but was very interested in the subject, sat down next to Peggy. Obviously, if this man knew about autos, all his theories were sound, and he could be trusted. "How did we come from the sea?"

“My hypothesis is that everything came from the sea. Not just humans. It's—well, have you ever seen a puppy that looks a little like both its parents?"

Steve nodded, thinking of old Mr. Lee’s shepherd, which had produced a litter with the help of Mrs. Kirby’s Dalmatian. The pups that were the result of their union had the head of the shepherd, but all with speckled coats.

“That’s what I mean about the little changes,” Bruce continued. “If we all began in the sea, over time our fins turned to arms, our tails to legs. It’s one of the reasons our eyes don’t work so well sometimes—they haven’t entirely caught up, and we used to see much better under the water.”

Peggy crossed her arms over her chest and raised a brow. “I see fine, thank you.”

“I’m sure you do,” said Bruce, who looked as though he was trying not to laugh.

“And I never had a tail.”

“Well, no,” he agreed. “Not you, personally.”

"Would you like to come to supper?" Steve blurted because he wanted to hear everything this man had to say about fish and tails and dogs and specimens.

Bruce seemed pleased by the invitation, following the two of them to the cottage, where they surprised Sarah and Joseph with their guest. Steve had fallen half in love with the scientist over the course of the meal, pestering him with a never-ending series of questions. This infatuation continued for the remainder of the summer until Dr. Banner—for that was his full title—went back to work at his university.

Which, Steve recalled, lying there in his bed, as far from Red Hook as he'd ever been, was the university in Columbia. Likely Dr. Banner wouldn't be there anymore—he'd been older when Steve had known him, and undoubtedly retired by now. But still, Steve was glad to remember him and his theory. Evolution, he'd called it. A branching off. Changing over time.

Maybe the siren was another branch of that same tree. A branch which had never left the water but adapted to live within it. Learning to lure with their minds, saving their voices for song, and gaining a mythical reputation because they were smart enough to know when to hide.

It made as much sense as anything else, Steve supposed, though having a thought as to how the siren came to be, didn't do much to solve the problem of getting him home.

Lord Pierce was his best hope, but he was still traveling, and likely wouldn’t return for some time. That brought Steve back to the beginning of his frustrating tangle of troubles, and he rubbed his eyes with a groan before sitting up.

He couldn’t work out the knot overnight, but he could at least bring the siren his breakfast.

 


 

An hour later, the siren had been fed, and Steve was drawing furiously, attempting to convey his vague plan to paper. When he was through, he went to the tank and held up the first sheet. The drawing was his best recollection of the dream-memory—two sirens under the water, chasing one another. On the other half of the paper, he'd drawn the ship and the strange man in the diving suit with the metal helmet. He'd known what it was—he'd seen men using similar things in Red Hook bay—but the name of it had eluded him in the dream, as if he'd been more in the siren's mind than his own.

The siren studied the paper, then reached out a hand to touch the facsimile of his sister. Steve’s neck began to prickle, and he felt protectiveness mingled with sorrow.

“She’s free,” he murmured. “You kept her safe.”

The siren’s mouth turned down, and he made a fist, rubbing it in a small circle over his heart before pointing to his sister once more. The gesture was the same as one he’d made in the memory—the one the sister had made in return. It was also the sign Steve had mistakenly made toward him in the early days of their acquaintance, sending him into a sulk. Obviously, it had meaning—love, family, home. Whatever it was, Steve could see why the siren hadn’t liked him using it.

“I’m sorry. I’m going to get you back to them, I promise.”

Dropping the first paper to the ground, Steve held up his second drawing. This one was of Lord Pierce and Rumlow, portraits on a single page, done from memory, so not the best likeness. The siren recoiled, all the same, baring his teeth and flicking his tail against the glass, fear and rage flooding the connection.

“Stop,” Steve said, tapping the glass and shaking his head. “Hey, quit. I’m trying to show you something.”

It took some time before the siren calmed down, wariness on his face as he swam closer. Steve waited patiently, and once he was near, held up another paper alongside the portraits. This concept was more abstract, an attempt to convey a 'might be' rather than an 'already was.'

The drawing was of the cage, complete with finials on top and skull at the bottom, only it was empty. Next to it was a drawing of the coast and the sea, water fading into a far-flung horizon. In that water, Steve had drawn the siren.

The siren scrutinized both pieces of paper, as Steve nodded his head toward Lord Pierce, then at the drawing he hoped represented freedom.

“When he comes home, I’m going to ask him to let you go.”

The siren narrowed his eyes, so Steve used one hand to brace both papers against the tank before tracing the half-circle 'out' gesture onto the glass.

The look on the siren’s face at that was equal parts sorrow and resignation. Steve’s neck prickled, and sheer pity flooded the connection, the emotion so patronizing that he scowled, stepping back from the glass.

“Hey!” he snapped. “Knock it off! It’s going to work.”

The siren's lips curled, and he began drawing the same half-circle, pointing at himself, then at Steve, then at the bars.

You. Get me out. Now.

"I can't," he said, because how could he convey distance? "You can't walk, and I can't lift you, and you can't breathe up here for long." Enough to sing a song, perhaps, but not to live.

The siren turned away, covering his mournful face with his tail and retreating to the small bit of privacy he had.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, though being sorry did him no good when it came to the siren and his moods.

Minutes passed, but the siren refused to further engage. To sign or draw or look at Steve. Even Wanda’s allotted daily hour could not coax him from his hiding place.

It was the same the next day.

And the next.

On, and on, and on until nearly three weeks had gone by.

Steve hated it, this more-than-silent treatment. It might have been bearable for a day. Two. Three, even. But the siren turned his resignation into artistry, refusing to give Steve an inch, which meant they were making no progress that might impress Lord Pierce. Plus, Steve missed his company. Missed the games and the tricks and the way he'd hover when Steve was drawing, inquisitive face watching every flick of his pencil. Now, the only time Steve saw his face was when he was eating, and even then he turned his back.

"Be that way," Steve muttered on a particularly bad day when the skies were grey, and a constant drizzle was falling, so everything seemed miserable and wrong. "I need to go to town anyway."

The errand was necessitated by having just been paid, which meant a trip to the chemist, as well as to the post office. Once Steve had taken care of that business, he headed for the park, curious as to whether or not the circus was still in town.

Luck was on his side—the big top had been taken down, and most of the caravans moved out, but a few stragglers remained, including Sam and Riley’s brightly painted home on wheels.

“Hey, Steve!” Sam called when he saw him, sitting perched on the back steps of the wagon, a pipe clamped between his lips. “Didn’t think we’d see you again.”

“I’m sorry, I meant to come around.” The circus folk had been kind, inviting him and Wanda back whenever they wanted, but he’d been so preoccupied with the siren that he hadn’t taken the time. “It’s been difficult to get away.”

“I’ll bet.”

“Looks like you’re behind the crowd. When do you leave?”

“Tomorrow. Riley wanted to spend a night at an inn before we move on—we’ll stay over, then leave in the morning.”

“How romantic.”

“Wants a hot bath, more like.”

“I’m jealous.”

“No hot water at your fancy house?”

“Not enough to go around.”

“Hmph,” Sam said, offering Steve the pipe, though he demurred. “That beast of yours still giving you trouble?”

“Something like that,” he said. “Life’d be a whole lot easier if I could just talk to him, you know?”

“I guess anyone who works with animals feels that way sometimes.”

“I…yeah,” Steve said, because that wasn’t quite right, but there was no way to explain it to Sam.

“Sounds like a thankless sort of job.”

“That’s an understatement,” he muttered. “But I can’t afford not to have it.”

“Why’s that? There’s other jobs in the world.”

The question might have bothered Steve had it come from anyone else, but Sam had a way about him. “My mother’s sick. The thrux.”

Sam let out a low whistle. “Damn, Steve. That’s lousy.”

“Yeah.”

"Just…hang on a minute." He got to his feet and ducked through the door of the caravan, where Steve heard him rummaging about, reemerging a few moments later with a piece of paper held in his hand.

“Here,” he said, holding it out for Steve to take.

Printed on the paper was a list of dates and places, beginning in Columbia and ending in a town called Weymouth. Steve knew that one, as it was less than a hundred miles from Red Hook, and the largest port city in the north.

“If you get tired of that beast, that’s where we’ll be,” Sam said. “Fury’s always hiring rousties to do the heavy lifting. I can’t say it’ll pay as well as what the fancy lord’s giving you, but—”

“Thank you, Sam,” Steve said, touched by the gesture. He couldn’t accept it—he needed the money, as much of it as he could get; more than that, though? The siren needed him, even if he didn’t realize it yet. “I’ll keep you in mind.”

“See that you do. You’re good company, Steve—I’m glad to have met you.”

 


 

They embraced before Steve left, with Sam promising to write, and Steve promising to come out the next year when the circus came back to Columbia. (Privately, Steve wasn’t sure he’d be in Columbia at all by then, depending, but what was the use in saying so.)

As he walked back to the estate, Steve kept thinking about the siren, as well as Sam’s offer. If money were no object, it would have been easy to take him up on it. Leave the sulky siren to his fate. But that wasn’t how Steve had been raised—he would see his promise through to the end, bitter or otherwise.

Mostly, he just wanted a way to explain to the siren that Columbia wasn't built in a day, and he ought to be patient. Let Steve figure it out, talk to Lord Pierce. It was evident that the siren didn't think much of his captor, but that wasn't shocking, considering the situation. Shit, Steve wasn't entirely sure of the man's quality himself, and there was always the chance Lord Pierce would be unreasonable—say no, even after the situation had been explained. But Howard had recommended Steve to Pierce, and Peggy trusted Howard, so he had to believe the man could see reason.

And if he couldn’t? Well, Steve wasn’t putting all his fish in one bucket, either. Whether or not Lord Pierce agreed to help, Steve wasn’t going to break his word. Not after what he’d seen in the dream-memory. The siren being angry made things harder, sure, but he would soldier on, misunderstood and ignored by his not-quite-friend.

Although…

Huh. Now there was a thought.

It stood to reason that if the siren was capable of making Steve feel things, then perhaps Steve could push his own emotions right back at the creature using some dormant bit of his brain, lying fallow in the generations since the human branch of the life tree had grown out of the ocean. Once the thought occurred, he couldn’t shake it, and the moment he reached the house, he went straight to the yard. The siren hid when he saw Steve coming, of course, and if he was surprised to receive a visitor so late, it didn’t register on his face.

“Alright, you,” Steve said, setting down his lantern before pressing both palms flat on the glass. “Let’s see how I do.”

Summoning every ounce of earnest intent he possessed, Steve furrowed his brow, and set his forehead against the tank, feeling his promise as hard as he could.

I will I will I will I will get you OUT somehow some way I promise I promise I promise!

No floodgates opened, nor did a dam break. The connection was more of a trickle, setting his head pounding and ears ringing, every bit of earnestness he possessed pouring through the glass.

When he opened his eyes, the siren was floating inches away, wide blue eyes locked on his own.

Warmth flooded the connection, easing the pressure in Steve’s head. There was gratitude, and—maybe—understanding.

Steve stepped back with a sigh, intentions conveyed. Whatever it took, he would get the siren out. With or without the cooperation of their mutual master.

Now, he had to deliver.

 

Chapter Text

Steve’s promise brought with it an understanding and a truce. The siren was still wary, but as the weeks went on, he found himself forging an unlikely bond with the creature. Wanda was invaluable in those efforts, her daily presence serving to soothe and calm the occasionally choppy waters. Still, with her other work, she couldn’t be there as often as she might have liked, meaning Steve was often forced to reckon with his charge alone. The connection they shared, while present in the emotions passed back and forth, wasn’t strong enough for anything resembling true conversation, so he focused mostly on building their shared vocabulary and understanding.

Each new day brought with it changes in how the siren expressed himself—molding his face into every human emotion under the sun, and while Steve knew he didn't fully grasp what each expression meant, he was sure he'd figured out that a smile meant happy, while a frown meant sad. This was mostly attributed to the siren's smile reaching his eyes more often than not, though he didn't smile often.

Mostly, Steve was regarded with endless exasperation.

Never fast enough with the fish.

Never quick enough with the chalk.

The biggest complaint, however, was that Steve couldn't live in the yard, keeping the siren company at all times. Because every hour Steve spent sleeping, or bathing, or eating, or in town, was another hour the siren spent alone. The guilt of that began overwhelming Steve, and soon enough, he began spending all his spare time in the garden.

On those long afternoons, the siren would hang back at first, feigning disinterest in whatever he was doing. Eventually, though, he would creep closer; floating nearby, as if he might like to rest his head on Steve’s shoulder. A stupid notion, Steve knew—the siren would be just as likely to rip his throat out with those sharp teeth as offer any affection. For all that he was tolerated, Steve didn’t for one second think there was anything on the siren’s mind beyond freedom.

“I’ve had a letter from my mother,” he informed him one afternoon, holding an envelope aloft. The siren blinked, while Steve settled himself against the tank, backside fitting into the groove that repeated sittings had carved in the dirt.

Ripping open the envelope, he shook out the letter and noted with happy surprise that it was written in Sarah's own hand, rather than dictated to Peggy.

"Dear Steve," he read out loud, a smile creeping its way onto his face. "As you can see, we have picked up the medication, and I am much improved. You are a clever boy and I never had any doubt, though I am curious about the nature of your job—your letter was vague. But you are a hard worker and I am sure you take it seriously."

Steve glanced over his shoulder and found the siren inches away. “Hey, pal,” he murmured, touching his fingers to the glass. “She’s right. You’re real hard work.”

The siren’s response was to arch one eyebrow as high as it would go, which meant nothing to him, but made Steve laugh before he continued with the letter.

"Things are well here. I was staying with Peggy and her mother for a spell, but now I am at home again, for which I am grateful. Nobody wants to be a burden. Peggy comes to see me every day, and I think she misses you very much, though she is too much a soldier and a sailor to say so. You should write to her more often if you can spare the time. She would never ask, but it would make her happy to receive more from you."

Shit, but wasn’t Sarah Rogers a dab hand at laying down a guilt trip from half a world away?

"I had a visit from Mrs. Parker yesterday, and she wondered if you ever spend time at the university. I said I did not think so, but you know she worries about Peter. Columbia is a big place, of course, so neither of us expects you will seek him out, but if you do happen upon him, please tell him that his Aunt May sends her regards and would like more letters from him, also. Is postage very expensive in Columbia?"

Steve bit back a laugh; Sarah wasn't the only guilt-laying mother in Red Hook. Poor Peter. Steve only knew the kid through Sarah's friendship with his Aunt May, though he'd always liked him. Peter was at least a decade younger and had lost his parents young. A smart kid, he'd had a knack for taking things apart and putting them back together from an early age—Steve had figured he was going places. The scholarship to Columbia had been the talk of the town when Peter received it, and Steve had gone to his farewell party. Now, he knew as well as anyone that the city could be a lonely place, so maybe he'd see about making a trip out to the campus—look Peter up and say hello.

“Peggy and her mother are coming for supper today, and you’ll be pleased to hear I’ve been baking bread. It feels wonderful to be useful! I love you, my starfish. I miss you, but you do not have to worry about me. I am getting along just fine. I worry for you and I hope that you are happy, but I know you are doing me proud. Your loving mother, Sarah.”

Folding the letter in half, Steve placed the paper on his lap and closed his eyes, a lump forming in his throat. No words on a page could convey the warmth of her voice or the depth of her good humor. The way she spoke with her hands—or had before the disease had taken that from her. It made him unaccountably sad to think that she was able to gesticulate wildly once again, but he couldn’t see it.

Might never see it.

“Damn it,” he swore, wiping at his eyes.

Something bright bloomed at the base of his skull, and though it didn’t erase his sorrow, it was a balm—calming and soothing without taking away from his grief. As if that grief was something worth experiencing, rather than something to endure. Steve hadn’t meant to project what he was feeling, but his sorrow was so powerful that it had reached the siren all the same. Surprised, Steve twisted his body to face the tank.

“Pal—” he murmured, touching his fingers to the glass. “You didn’t have to do that.”

The siren watched him, then brought his hand to his chest, rubbing the small circle.

“Yes,” Steve said, pointing to the letter and rubbing his chest in return. “Guess that much was obvious. Thank you.”

Within the tank, the siren smiled.

 


 

There had been no word from Lord Pierce by the end of Steve's second month in Columbia, but progress with the siren continued apace, a vast vocabulary of signs developed between them, so simple conversations could be held with ease. Two fingers made into a 'V' shape, then dragged through the air in front of the body, meant fish. Steve got very used to that one, considering the siren asked for food when he was hungry, when he was bored, or when he wanted Steve's attention.

Food was important, though—indeed the most essential thing in the siren's life before he'd been taken. Steve had learned just how much of that life had involved finding food through the dream-memories, which came with increasing regularity, the siren showing bits and pieces of how he'd lived with his family, in his home. There was the one in which a group of sirens encircled a massive shoal of fish, thwapping their tails in the water to stun their prey into submission before gathering five, six, seven apiece. They treated it like a game, but then, they treated most everything like a game. Survival was a tough business, so why not enjoy it?

Another dream had the siren with his sister again, the two of them swimming to some far-flung destination where a mountain of crabs was molting. Easy pickings for hungry sirens—the crabs, which had shed their shells but had not yet hardened new ones, were vulnerable, able to be pulled apart and eaten with hardly any effort. The crab meat tasted better than any fish, and while Steve couldn't actually taste it in the dream-memory, he understood the feelings of happy and delicious. When he woke the next morning, he felt instantly regretful that all he had to offer were the usual frozen fish.

The siren's second most used signs were 'tomorrow' and 'sea.' 'Tomorrow' was based on Steve's first pantomime—a brief closing of the eyes, followed by a tilting of the head to the side, then jerking 'awake.' Steve used it with regularity: you can have more fish tomorrow. We can play a game tomorrow. You'll see Wanda tomorrow.

The siren’s life was no more than a series of tomorrows.

'Sea' came from the drawing of the coastline, which Steve had used more than once. The siren had begun to hold his hand up when he wanted to see that one, undulating his fingers in an approximation of waves, which gave birth to the sign they used.

Tomorrow sea? he would ask each morning.

Steve would shake his head every time, then make the sign for 'Lord Pierce'—a raised pinky finger held against his cheek. "Couple more tomorrows pal," he would murmur, hating himself a bit more every day.

As the second month gave way to the third, Steve began wishing he had a name for the siren. Surely they had to have some way of differentiating themselves under the water? Every time he tried to make one up, though, it felt wrong. Names meant something. What was the point of having one if the siren had no connection to it?  Mostly, Steve wished he could ask him, but since that was an impossibility, he settled on a series of increasingly nonsense nicknames, instead. Pal. Blue eyes. Funny guy when he was cooperative. Rude, jerk, gods damned goat when he wasn't.

When the third month was halfway through, with no sign of Lord Pierce, the siren’s mood began to sour once again, and he grew distant, prone to his old tempers and flashes of anger which crossed the connection and affected Steve deeply, worsening his guilt.

It was around that time that the dream-memories grew much darker, the worst one coming at the end of a particularly bad day, creeping in and settling over Steve’s sleeping mind.

He was alone in the cage. New to it, and desperate to escape. He shook the bars, which did not yet burn. Swam from side to side. Threw himself against the glass.

He was starving; hadn’t had anything to eat in so long because he had bitten a split-tail who had come too close.

The panic gave way to lethargy as he exhausted himself. He floated, listless, and then another split-tail came. Slow and grotesque as it placed something against the tank and clambered to the top, holding a brown bottle in its hand. The siren had seen bottles like that before—leaking from broken crates lying on the seabed.

When the split-tail reached the top of the tank, it fumbled for a key. Unlocked the bars.

At first, the siren thought the split-tail might feed him, so he shrank to the bottom of the cage, hunger winning out over the desire for freedom. Instead, the split-tail upended the brown bottle, sullying the water. Then, it lowered the cloth covering itself and…the siren didn't know how, but some foul water came from the beast, further dirtying the cage.

The siren burned with rage. Surged forward. Grabbed the split-tail and pulled it under the water. Held it, claws piercing its spine. Blood clouded the brine and the beast twisted. Squirmed like an ugly, bloated fish until the siren knew it had gone low. Into the deep.

Split-tails could not live under the water, but the siren had to be sure. So he used his teeth and his claws to sever the head of the beast. And because he was starving, he ate, gagging on the foul taste of the meat. Bone and gristle choked down until he was sick, further muddying the already dank water. Making it harder to breathe.

Leaving the body, the siren burst to the top of the tank. Heaved himself over the edge, which caught him in the stomach. Grunting, gills flapping uselessly in this strange split-tail place, the siren spluttered. Coughed.

There came a shout. A shriek.

They were coming.

No! Grasping the edge of the tank, the siren pushed. Nearly, nearly, nearly! But no—

Strong hands were on him now. Couldn't fight because they had made him weak. They shoved him back. Into the dirty water. The bars closed and he was trapped and sick in a stinking vat of blood and filth.

He would die here in the muck, in the mire. But he would show them he was brave. Show them what he could do. His hands found the head of the dead split-tail, bloated body still floating nearby, and he began to strip it of its skin, all the while struggling to breathe. When he was through, he released the skull, which sank to the bottom of his prison.

The siren was tired. Couldn’t breathe. His eyelids fluttered, and what scant light filtered through the water began to fade.

He heard a click.

A familiar whump.

Felt the sharp prick in his neck before the world went black.

 


 

Steve sat straight up, covered in sweat, nerves crawling from the sensation of blood and piss and booze on his skin. The choking and burning of the water. The terror of the air above. The desperate flight towards freedom. Brock Rumlow standing in his way. Pushing him back and leaving him to suffer. No wonder the siren despised him so much.

If Steve had tolerated Rumlow before, he hated him now. Rollins’ death had been no-one’s fault but his own. The siren had been protecting himself when provoked—acting on instinct, mere days into his captivity, desperate and starving.

"Oh, pal, I'm sorry," he said to the empty room. Steve had been selfish, getting angry with the siren for his sour moods. As if he had any right to be upset when he was the one who had the freedom to walk away.

Frustrated, he rose and dressed, intent on skipping breakfast and going straight to the siren with a giant bucket of fish. As he passed through the halls, however, he found the household in a tizzy, everyone running to and fro.

“What’s going on?” he asked one of the footmen.

“Lord Pierce is expected by noon,” the boy said, breathlessly. “If you’ll pardon me, sir.”

Steve stood gobsmacked while the boy scurried off. All the tomorrows he'd promised the siren would be arriving at noon, and he was faced with following through.

His stomach twisting into knots, he went to fetch the fish before letting himself out the side door. The siren was waiting with tired eyes, and he looked at the bucket, then immediately made the sign for fish.

“Good morning to you, too,” Steve said, going to fetch the ladder—beginning the usual routine and climbing to the top with the bucket. “That was some memory last night.”

The siren ignored him, grabbing the fish and pretending Steve wasn't there at all. Which, Steve supposed, he had that coming. On days like this, it was easier to let the siren be than to try and coax him into a conversation, and Steve certainly wasn't about to tell him anything about Lord Pierce's return until he'd had the chance to speak with the man.

So, as he often did on difficult days, he went inside to fetch a book, along with his breakfast, which he brought back to the garden. It was a pleasant enough way to spend a morning, his back to the cage and the book in his lap, dozing in between the turning of pages. So pleasant, in fact, that he hardly noticed the passage of time, which crept steadily on toward noon.

His eventual rude awakening caught him unawares. “Working hard, Rogers?”

Steve woke with a start, book falling from his lap, caught unawares and half-asleep. Brock Rumlow stood above him, arms folded and a smirk on his face.

“Rumlow—” Steve muttered, scrabbling at the gravel and pushing himself to his feet.

“Some life of luxury you musta been living,” Rumlow sneered. “Sleeping on the job, and the siren’s still sulking. Lord Pierce’ll be—”

“Lord Pierce,” Steve said, recovering his wits as quickly as he was able. “Is gonna be thrilled with our progress.”

“I’ll bet.” Rumlow stepped closer, and Steve glanced over his shoulder to see the siren hiding behind his tail. “How’s about you give me a little preview of this progress?”

"He's not doing it for you,” Steve shot back. “Don’t touch that glass.”

“Why not?” Rumlow said, thumping his fist on the side. “Hey, ugly. You miss me?”

“Hey!” Steve grabbed Rumlow’s shoulder, wrenching him back. “Don’t fucking do that.”

Rumlow knocked his hand away and gave him a shove in response. Steve stumbled but didn't go down, and when he'd recovered his balance, he glared at Rumlow, who was wearing a nasty little smirk.

“You oughta know,” he said. “Our expedition wasn’t so successful. Lord Pierce is in a mood, and—” he grinned. “He’s expecting something spectacular out of you and that siren.”

"He'll get it," Steve gritted, which was when the siren chose to show himself, dropping his tail and deliberately mimicking Rumlow's current posture—arms folded across his chest, a horrible smile on his face.

Rumlow did a double take. “What—”

“Huh,” Steve said, and he wasn’t sure if the siren could feel the waves of gratitude rolling off him, but he hoped so. “Guess he does wanna show you.”

“What the fuck’s it doing?” Rumlow said, dropping his arms. The siren followed along.

Steve didn’t respond. He wasn’t about to let Brock Rumlow of all people in on the siren’s secrets. That was a conversation for Lord Pierce. Instead, he stepped closer, catching the siren’s attention to demonstrate one of their earlier games—touching his nose, his ears, his mouth. The siren followed along perfectly, though he kept his eyes carefully blank.

“You see,” Steve said. “We understand one another.”

“It’s tricks, is all,” Rumlow spat. “It’s not singing.”

“We’re working on that,” Steve said evenly. “Now, if you’re through being a pain in my ass, I got a job to do.”

Rumlow’s mouth twisted into something ugly, and he looked like he might be working up a retort, only he didn’t have the brains to do so. Glowering at Steve and the siren in turn, he huffed out a grunt and stalked back toward the house.

When he’d disappeared, Steve let out a shaky laugh and turned to the siren, who had stopped his mimicking and was frantically making the signs for sea and Pierce and Rumlow, having decided that the return of the latter meant the former was there as well.

“I know, I know. I’m gonna talk to him, now that he’s home. You understand?”

The siren made the out sign, pleading with Steve across their shared connection before placing both hands on the glass.

“Yeah, pal,” Steve said, leaning his forehead against the barrier. “First thing tomorrow, I’ll ask for a meeting.”



Chapter Text

By the time Steve returned to the house that evening, rumors were flying, with those servants who had accompanied Lord Pierce passing whispered stories of the trip to those who had remained behind. Wanda, who had been picking up bits and pieces throughout the day, had plenty to say when Steve pulled her into his quarters after supper.

“It was a disaster,” she informed him. “He is furious."

“Shit. That doesn’t bode well for our conversation—”

“No,” she agreed, but then, Wanda had never been all that certain of Lord Pierce’s benevolence. “They say he was on the trip to collect a rare beast—another like the siren—but he was stopped at the border of Kiwasko.”

The name was only slightly familiar to Steve, perhaps from an aborted geography lesson in his childhood. Kiwasko was a tiny country, tucked away in the southeastern part of the continent, the inhabitants said to be poor, uncivilized folk who were fearful of strangers.

“There was an assembly of guardians waiting,” Wanda continued. “With such weapons as none of the Eascorians have seen.”

Steve raised a brow—didn’t sound much like uncivilized to him. “Oh?”

“Lord Pierce threw such a tantrum, they say.” A tiny smile crept onto her face. “He is thinking he will bully and bribe his way in, but the guardians will not be swayed, no matter how much money he has to yell about.”

“Can’t imagine he liked that.”

“No,” she agreed, smile widening. “He is not allowed to possess what he believes he deserves, so he has returned angry and sour.”

“Damn.”

“Maybe it is better if you are not asking tomorrow?”

“Wanda, I promised him.”

“Yes, but, what is a promise if you do not do your best to keep it? Ask when Lord Pierce is not so angry, maybe he will surprise you.”

Steve took her point, and they said goodnight. When morning came, he observed the way the rest of the staff spoke in hushed tones, eyes cast down, and thought perhaps she was right: it would be prudent to wait. The siren, however, did not understand delays. When Steve brought him his breakfast, impatient, accusatory eyes watched him as the siren darted back and forth in the tank, making the signs for ‘Pierce,’ ‘Rumlow,’ and ‘out’ over and over again.

“I know, I know,” Steve soothed. “I’m just waiting for my moment.”

The moment, however, came to him instead. Rumlow sought him out that very afternoon, in fact, a sneer on his face as he called out Steve’s name, catching him in the middle of playing a mimicking game with the siren.

“Lord Pierce needs to see you,” he said, more cheerful than Steve had ever known him.

“Oh?” Steve didn’t trust the look on his face, not for a second. “I’ll go up as soon as I’m finished—”

“You’ll go now,” Rumlow replied, gleeful.

Steve didn’t argue—what was the point? “Fine,” he bit out, stomach tying itself in knots as he headed for the house. He fretted a bit over why he’d been summoned as he climbed the stairs to the second floor, and when he reached the study, he knocked before stepping back to wait.

“Enter,” came the cool voice from within some minutes later, giving Steve ample time to feel anxious.

He cleared his throat and opened the door to find Lord Pierce seated behind his desk, fingers steepled.

“Welcome home, sir,” he offered.

“How kind of you to say so,” Lord Pierce replied. “And here I thought you were enjoying my absence so much.”

Confused, Steve tried a smile. “Ah, no, sir?”

“Tell me, Steve, do I strike you as a fool?”

Smile fading, he shook his head. “No, sir.”

“Strange, then, that you would treat me as such.”

“Sir?”

“Did you think I wouldn’t find out?”

Thoroughly perplexed, he racked his brain. Could this be about Wanda serving as his assistant? Going to the circus? Shoving Rumlow the afternoon before? “Sir, I have no idea—”

“Imagine my surprise,” Lord Pierce said, “to return home and discover that the person I’ve entrusted with my most prized possession, is spending the money I pay him on foolishness and frippery.”

Steve blinked. “…Sir?”

“Don’t play stupid with me, my boy, it’s not becoming,” he snapped. “Rumlow tells me he’s received reports that no sooner are your wages in your hand than you’re off to the market and into the chemist.”

Steve’s eyes went wide, struck dumb at the realization that he’d been followed and reported on in Lord Pierce’s absence.

“For that amount, I can only assume you’ve cut some backroom deal for a supply of gods know what drugs, to—”

“It’s…no,” Steve managed, interrupting before he could go any further down the false path on which Rumlow had attempted to lead him. Pride be damned—he wasn’t going to stand there and be accused of dabbling in something illegal. Whatever jealous nonsense Rumlow had cooked up to smear him wasn’t going to work. “I do go to the chemist, but it’s nothing…it’s not nefarious, sir. It’s for my mother.”

“Your mother,” Lord Pierce repeated, skepticism coloring his tone.

“Yes, sir. She’s got the thrux, and…honestly, that’s why I’m here in the first place. Columbia’s about the only city a fella can find work and medication both, plus knowing Lord Stark, and—” he shook his head, stumbling over the story. “I have the meds shipped to Penston—that’s the nearest town the railroad reaches, which costs a fair bit, so I’ve arranged for a friend to take it the rest of the way to my mother. That’s it, sir. It’s not…”

“But why wouldn’t you have told me this when you arrived?” Lord Pierce said, tone softened.

Steve shifted his weight. “I don’t need charity, sir—I can take care of her.”

“You are quite the caretaker,” he mused, and Steve had no idea what to make of that, so he stayed silent. “Still, you ought to have come to me—for pity’s sake, Steve, I run a shipping business. I can arrange to have a surplus of the medication delivered to…what was it, Penston? Sending it in bulk will be far more cost-effective than—”

“Much obliged, sir,” he said stiffly, the casualness with which this rich man undertook solving all his problems sticking like seaweed to his skin. “But as I said, I don’t need charity.”

“You won’t get it,” he replied. “I’ll be docking your pay accordingly, and I’ll have my secretary make the arrangements.”

“I—”

“This way, there will be plenty of medication available when winter comes. Did you even think about the trains shutting down in the North?”

Steve hadn’t, or at least it was a bridge he hadn’t yet crossed. But Lord Pierce was right—sending medication month by month was all well and good until the North froze over and nothing got through for an age. “No, sir,” he admitted.

“That’s alright, my boy,” Lord Pierce said, with some strange affection. “You haven’t the head for business that I do, but—” he tossed a glance to the window. “You’re a damn good trainer. I’ve been watching you since I returned, and the beast seems to like you.”

“That’s—” Steve cleared his throat. “I wanted to talk to you about that, actually, sir.”

“Oh?” Lord Pierce raised a brow. “Is it the business about the bigger tank? Because I assure you, I haven’t forgotten. You might give me a minute to catch my breath, though, as I was somewhat preoccupied with—”

“No,” Steve said, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have interrupted. But it’s not about the tank. It’s about the siren itself. Err, himself.”

Lord Pierce made a vague gesture for him to continue.

“As uh, as I’ve worked with him, I’ve discovered that he’s not…well, there’s lots of intelligent animals, sir. Dogs and horses and pigs and monkeys and elephants, I guess, even if I’ve never seen one.”

A ‘V’ appeared in Lord Pierce’s forehead, brow furrowing, and Steve remembered a moment too late the pile of elephant tusks on display in the parlor. Ah well, no taking it back now.

“The siren is smart like…he’s smarter than all those animals, and then some. He’s practically human, sir, the way he communicates. He has empathy, and feelings, and he’s been…we’ve been…well, I’d nearly call us friends, sir.” His palms were beginning to sweat, and he rubbed them against his trousers. This wasn’t how he’d wanted it to come out; things had been much more eloquent in his head.

For a moment, Lord Pierce said nothing, his steepled fingertips pressing together so hard that the skin began turning white. "It's tricking you, my boy," he said quietly. "Gets in your head. You saw it yourself that first day."

“Forgive me, sir, but I don’t think that’s true. I thought it might be, at first, but I swear the siren’s as smart as you or I, and—”

“And on what would you swear, my boy?”

“My mother,” he said without thinking.

Another softening of Lord Pierce’s expression, followed by a nod.

“He’s something special, sir,” Steve continued. “Something new. And it’s my firm belief that we’re doing him a great disservice by keeping him here as a prisoner.”

Lord Pierce stood abruptly and reached for his cane. Shit—that had been a step too far. Steve had never been good at knowing when to shut up.

“And what,” said Lord Pierce, voice eerily calm. “Would you have me do about that, my boy?”

“Send him back where you found him,” he said, fighting to keep calm, despite feeling that this must have been how many a beast felt when staring down the barrel of Lord Pierce’s gun.

For the briefest of moments, the man's mask of civility slipped, revealing rage, eyes dark and unfeeling, smile utterly false. Just as quickly as it had fallen, though, the cover returned—a placid, soothing expression settling itself across his features.

“Quite the caretaker, indeed,” Lord Pierce repeated. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. When I was your age—”

“Sir?”

"Despite what you may think, Steve, I'm not so naive as to miss the signs. Of course, I know the beast is intelligent—all the old stories said sirens are near enough to human, and then there was the way it killed Rollins, the way it watches you sometimes. Certainly, there's cunning there. Something that goes beyond mere instinct. So you're asking yourself why, then, would I keep it, if I knew such things?" Leaning heavily on the cane, he spread the fingers of his free hand wide. "I could tell you a lie, or I could tell you the truth. And being as you have been so honest with me—" he hesitated, taking a deep breath. "The truth is that the fate of this world depends on the compliance of that creature, so I am bound to keep it."

Of all the answers Steve had expected, that one had never even come close to crossing his mind, mostly because it was patently ridiculous. It took everything he had not to laugh, though he managed to hide his amusement in a cough.

“Uh, sir?”

“But you’re confused,” Lord Pierce said. “It’s a lot to take in for a common man such as yourself.”

Steve sidestepped the insult, because he needed to know more, and starting a fight wouldn’t accomplish that. He had to understand the why of it all, in the hopes that he might be able to dismantle the man’s strange notions. “I guess…well, I guess I’m wondering what you mean, sir. It’s not that I don’t believe you, it’s just—”

“It sounds mad,” Lord Pierce agreed. “It’s knowledge I’ve entrusted to very few people. Rumlow and one other select associate. Now, well…I’d like to trust you, my boy, just as you have trusted me with the story of your mother’s condition.”

As Lord Pierce spoke, two things became increasingly clear to Steve: he genuinely believed whatever nonsense he was peddling, and Steve was going to have to play along if he wanted to have any chance of saving the siren. "Sir, if you say he's important, well…I got no reason not to believe you. You've been more than generous with me. Especially today, with my mother, and…I guess I'd like to know more if you're willing to trust me."

Lord Pierce smiled, teeth gleaming in his mouth—false ones, Steve would just bet. Artifice and illusion, like everything else about him.

“I think you’d better come with me,” Lord Pierce said. “You’ll understand more once you see the burden I bear.”

A small voice in Steve’s head screamed ‘stop.’ Quit this place. Run home to your mother with your tail tucked between your legs, where you can hide behind her skirts the same way you did when you were only her little starfish, hidden away from the world.

That voice was easily vanquished. Steve screwed his courage to the sticking place before following Lord Pierce out of the study and up another staircase. The halls of this floor were lined with portraits of Pierces long since perished, all of them with a pinched, unkind look on their austere faces. They took a right turn at the end of the hall, then down another, shorter corridor to an ornate set of double doors, the air around them thick and strange, nearly making Steve gag. When Lord Pierce produced a key from the ring on his belt and opened the door, he understood why in an instant, and his stomach immediately began to churn.

Once, when he had been small, he’d brought home a beautiful, whorled shell he’d found on the beach. He had placed it atop his dresser and then forgotten about it, only to wake the next morning to a nasty stench. The shell had been inhabited—the crab within it having died some days prior, rotting over time and stinking up Steve’s bedroom along with the rest of the cottage. It took them days to get rid of the odor, with both Joseph and Sarah reminding Steve that this was what happened when one took from the sea without giving anything in return.

That same stench existed here in this room, only a thousand times worse. It was the smell of rot and decay, overwhelming Steve with its cloying, sickly sweetness that crept into his nostrils. His mouth. Coated the back of his throat and seeped down into his lungs until the mossy, green odor of death clung to him, inside and out.

He swallowed hard, fighting the wave of nausea that was still threatening to overwhelm him. Lord Pierce, unbothered, shut the doors to what Steve now saw was his bedroom, and if the living room had been a mausoleum, this was a charnel house. There were no carefully stuffed bears or tigers here, oh no: this was where the insides of dead things came to stay. Muscles and sinews and bones, packed into pickling jars and displayed as curios. Eyeballs and appendages in droves, cataloged and categorized for the amusement of a madman.

Lord Pierce was sick. He had to be. No well person could live this way. Shit, even those with interest in the macabre couldn't possibly want this

“Quit the collection, isn’t it, my boy?”

“Sir,” Steve managed, doing his best to wipe the shock from his face before turning around. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand—”

"No, of course, you wouldn't, but you'll see. All of this, it's the cure. Or, it will be when I have what I need. I'm still working on…well, but that's where you come in! Your work with the siren is going to reshape this world and—" he broke off, chuckling as he gestured to the small sitting area.

Steve sat, perching gingerly on the edge of an armchair, mindful of what material it might be made of as Lord Pierce settled across from him on a ridiculously ornate divan.

“I ought to start at the beginning,” Lord Pierce said. “You see, Steve, when I was a young man, I was a bit like you. I had a heart for adventure, though there was no war being fought to bring me renown. So I spent my time seeking new places in the world—places that would allow me to experience things no other men had experienced before me. You understand?”

Steve was reminded of what Wanda had said about men like Lord Pierce as he nodded.

“One of these expeditions brought me to the country of Noaz—you’ve heard of it?”

“No, sir.”

“It’s no wonder—tiny country. But the people there, they worship the fire god—one of the elementals, like Mother Sea in Eascor, only they’re rather more…primitive, you understand?”

“Yes,” Steve lied.

“Unlike us, however, Noaz has a second religion. A group of people that worship not the elementals, nor the Fury, but something beyond.”

“Beyond?”

“Legend says there was nothing before the Fury,” he continued, leaning forward conspiratorially. “But that’s wrong.”

“Oh,” Steve said, because what else could one say to nonsense?

“These people worshipped something that, best as I can translate, they called the monolith. It’s beyond your comprehension, I’d imagine, but I’ll try to simplify. Imagine the Fury, when it sent the loam and the fire and the wind and the water, also leaving behind the monolith, which can control all four elements. Keeping the world in balance.”

“And that’s…good, sir?” Steve offered. “To be balanced?”

"Well, certainly, it is," Lord Pierce replied as if Steve were very stupid. "But the world's fallen out of balance since then. It's changing faster than we can see. The monolith has cracked—they showed me—and the elements have dropped out of alignment."

The story would have been hilarious if Lord Pierce hadn’t posed such a danger to the siren—the babblings of an eccentric crackpot with money to burn and too much time on his hands. “I see, sir.”

“These people…this religion, they’d missed something fundamental about the monolith.” He was growing excited now, eyes bright as he waved his hands in the air. “I tried to explain it to them. Tried to make them see. But they hid the monolith from me. Cast me out of their temple. Only that didn’t matter because the monolith was never meant to last forever. The crack, you see, indicates the Fury’s return. The second coming of the creator.” Lord Pierce smiled. Steve’s stomach sank. “That’s what I could see that their primitive minds couldn’t comprehend, my boy. That new creator—it’s me.”

Steve had seen that one coming twenty paces back. All the same, his eyes widened at the outright admission, which made Lord Pierce’s lip curl.

"Don't believe me?" he spat. "No, you wouldn't—"

“It’s not that, sir,” Steve said, swiftly covering his misstep with flattery. “It’s only, I’m confused as to how you knew.”

“Ah. Simple enough—the monolith spoke to me in a dream. Told me to steal their holy book, and that all the secrets would be revealed. So I did. Stole it away before they could rid themselves of me. And it’s taken me years, naturally, but bit by bit, I’ve worked it out.”

“Worked…what out, sir?”

"The magic, the spell…whatever you want to call it. How to take control of the elements, the same as the Fury. Once I do that, I'll be reborn. You understand now?"

Steve was beginning to grasp it, yes, even if it was sheer folly.

Four elements: Fire. Air. Loam. Water.

Water.

Water.

“The siren,” Steve said. “It’s the water.”

“Yes,” Lord Pierce agreed, growing excited again. “I need all four. The song of the siren, the wings of the messenger, the riddle of the sphinx, and the eye of the storm.”

As he spoke, he gestured toward the window, above which hung a flat cage. Trapped inside was a massive pair of wings, dried blood crusted on the shining, silvery feathers near where they would have attached to whatever unfortunate creature once possessed them.

“My first acquisition,” Lord Pierce said with a smile. “The messenger fought me, naturally, but I prevailed. Cut them right off his back.”

“I…see, sir,” Steve said, stomach churning.

“I’m three for four now that I have the siren,” he continued, reaching for his cane and crossing to a side table. Another key was produced from the ring on his belt, and he unlocked a small, ornate, wooden case resting on the surface. Steve was sure he didn’t want to see what was inside—a feeling borne out when Pierce produced a jar that held a lone, blue eyeball, suspended in some viscous fluid.

“Eye of the storm?” Steve offered, fighting to keep his voice steady.

“One of the blacksmiths,” Lord Pierce grinned. “You’re getting it now, my boy. They control the lightning—the fire.”

“Ah.” Steve wished he hadn’t eaten quite so much for lunch, as it was threatening to come back on him now.

“As for the damnable sphinx,” Pierce sniffed, placing the eye back in its case. “I’ll have to try again. I know where it is now, at least.”

“Your expedition,” Steve said dully. “Kiwasko?”

“Loose lips around here,” he chuckled, seemingly unbothered. “They say the sphinx is half-man, half-panther—not unlike the siren, in that regard.”

“And when you say you need its riddle?” he asked, fearing he already knew the answer.

Lord Pierce tapped his head twice, confirming Steve’s worst fears. “Take it right out.”

“What about the siren?” he asked. “You said you need its song—”

“Ah yes, the song. The book says it lives within a siren’s heart.”

Bile rose in Steve’s throat as he fought for his voice. “But why not just kill him then, sir? Why go to all this trouble—”

“Because the song must be given freely.”

“But you were letting Rumlow torture it—”

“Oh Rumlow,” Lord Pierce scoffed. “A brute and a bully, as I’m sure you’re aware. He’s good in a crisis, but not much going on upstairs. I’d been searching a long time for a man like you—a man who could tame the beast. Convince it that it ought to make the sacrifice.”

Creeping tendrils of horror tightened around Steve's spine, and a queer, tingling feeling went through him, mind working forward and backward as it put the pieces together. Find a man who could tame the siren. Perhaps even befriend him, and gain his trust. Then, when the time was right, and the elements were all in play, Pierce would threaten the life of that friend and hope that the siren would give up his own in exchange. Too bad Pierce had misjudged what a surly fucker the siren could be—he wasn't singing for shit, much less sacrificing himself.

Still, Steve was becoming increasingly aware that he ought to be choosing his words very carefully around Lord Alexander Pierce.

“I understand, I think,” he said slowly. “You can’t let him—it—go, because it's necessary for your work. And once you've completed the spell—"

“The world is balanced on a sword’s blade. Tipping towards chaos. I plan to restore order by any means necessary.”

What a horror that would be, Steve thought—one man with the power to bend the world to his whims. To control the wind and the tides, the storms and the surges. Even a good man couldn’t be trusted with that sort of strength, and Lord Pierce was no good man. There was no benevolence in his ambitions, only the pursuit of glory. It was always glory, with men like him. Hidden behind an ethos, perhaps, but one madman begat another, and the cycle began anew.

Steve didn't believe a word of it. The world was the world, and the siren was the siren. No mysticism or magic was needed to justify his existence. He was human—or close enough—and he was Steve's friend. Whatever suffering Pierce had visited upon the wingless messenger and the eyeless blacksmith had been enough. Steve wouldn't let it happen to the siren.

Which meant he was going to have to play Lord Pierce’s games for a little while longer while he figured out what to do.

"Sir," he said, reverent as he rose to his feet, humble and guileless in his pretending. "I've lived my life as a realist. My mother was religious as a girl, and we had a few superstitions about the sea, but I didn't have much in the way of the Gods, or spiritual education. But, gosh, you're…the things you've seen. And being as how you've been so generous to my poor mother…" He shook his head, and if there'd been dirt, he might have scuffed his toe in it. "It's just a lot for me to take in, so while I might be a little slow—and for that I'm sorry—I guess I'm willing to learn if you're willing to teach me."

A smile appeared at the corners of Lord Pierce’s mouth, and Steve took that as a sign he ought to keep talking, flattery getting him everywhere.

“Now, mind you, I still wouldn’t mind having that bigger tank for the siren, mostly because I figure it might start singing if I could show it a little kindness in the time it has left,” he said with an exaggerated shrug.

Lord Pierce’s smile spread further as he took a few tottering steps forward to clap Steve on the shoulder.

“I’ll see what I can do about that,” he said, and Steve knew in an instant he was lying. “Meanwhile, you and I have much to discuss.”

"I look forward to learning from you, sir," Steve said with another shrug and a rueful chuckle, thinking perhaps he ought to be on the stage for the performance he was giving. "My mother was worried that coming to the big city might corrupt me—she'd be thrilled to know I found religion instead."

Lord Pierce smiled, grip tightening as he looked Steve in the eyes, studying him carefully. "Your mother sounds like a good woman, Steve. I don't want her to have to worry about a thing."

“Thank you, sir,” he said. “You’ve been more than generous. I feel lucky to know you—privileged, really.”

“Ah,” Lord Pierce demurred. “I only ask that you do your work well, and keep your wits about you.”

"Of course, sir. And speaking of, I ought to get back to the siren."

“Go, go!” he said with a laugh. “I’ve kept you too long. We’ll speak again tomorrow, and I’ll arrange things for your mother today.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Steve bowed and scraped his way out of the room, where he ran headlong into Brock Rumlow, who was lurking in the hallway outside.

“Rogers,” Rumlow sneered.

Steve fought to calm his racing heart, which had been beating overtime since first entering that awful room. “It didn’t work,” he said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Whatever lies you told him about me,” he snapped. “I’m still gainfully employed.”

“Crafty fucker. You think I didn’t figure that out when he brought you up here to show you his secrets?”

“Quite the collection he’s got.”

Rumlow snorted as he edged toward the door. “Sure, everyone’s got their beliefs, and Lord Pierce has plenty. Whether or not we believe it, though, that’s the question, ain’t it?”

It was a trap, though not a particularly masterful one. Steve resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “I believe that Lord Pierce knows what he’s doing, and I look forward to learning more from him. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got work to do.”

He didn’t give Rumlow the chance to respond, quickening his pace and taking the stairs two at a time. After a brief stop in his room to grab his sketches, he ran outside to where the siren was waiting.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Gods, I’m sorry for ever thinking he would—that we could—”

Catching his breath, he held the drawing of Lord Pierce and Rumlow up to the tank, then ripped it in half, and again into quarters, before crumpling the pieces and tossing them to the ground.

“You,” he said, pointing to the siren, then reversing the gesture. “Me.”

The siren floated, waiting, still as a statue while Steve drew the familiar half circle on the glass.

Out.

The siren smiled.

 

Lord Alexander Pierce portrait

 

Chapter Text

Steve could hear his mother singing in the kitchen. Could smell sizzling bacon and strong coffee in the air.

They would have a big breakfast today—his father had come home, safe and sound after a long voyage, which meant good food and new shoes and singing in the mornings.

Steve swung his legs out of bed. Stood and looked at himself in the cracked mirror above his dresser and discovered that he was quite grown up. Strange, that his father should be home, after so long away.

Only his father couldn’t come home.

Because his father was dead.

Yet his father was sitting at the kitchen table.

When had Steve walked downstairs?

Joseph was holding a newspaper in front of his face. Steve stepped closer and saw there was a gash above his temple. The white of his skull visible as blood dripped from the wound.

Steve still couldn’t see his face

“Da?”

His voice was wrong. His father stood. Turned from him and walked to the back door. Steve rushed after, only when he stepped outside, he was not in his mother's carefully tended garden but instead on the deck of a ship.

His father’s ship.

Hadn’t he wanted to be on a ship? To bring his father home?

A man stood at the prow, silhouetted by the rising sun. Steve shielded his eyes and moved forward.

“Da?”

The figure turned.

Not his father, but the siren. Standing on two legs with a smile on his face.

“It’s you,” Steve said.

The siren opened his mouth. When he spoke, he had Brock Rumlow’s voice.

“Rogers!”

Steve moaned, terror overwhelming him as the siren’s ghastly grin threatened to split his face in two. There was a pounding—as if the ship was under assault from some unseen enemy. Why wouldn’t the siren come closer?

 

"Rogers!" came again, only now the dream was fading, and Steve began to parse what was real and what was only in his mind. He opened his eyes and was once again in the basement of Lord Pierce's estate, with Rumlow relentlessly battering on his bedroom door.

“Give me a minute!” he said, voice scratchy as he sat up and shook off the strangeness of the dream, which was a true dream, not from the siren. Those sorts of dreams had been more frequent of late—his brain weaving a net, tangling itself while trying to work out something sensical from the waking nightmare his life had become in the fortnight since learning of Lord Pierce’s madness.

Those two weeks had been the longest of Steve’s life, as being part of Lord Pierce’s inner circle meant that he was finding himself a frequent guest in the man’s presence, forced to listen as he elaborated on his own greatness. Pierce preferred to hide his grand, selfish aspirations behind platitudes about the state of mankind and the chaos descending upon the world, but there was no mistaking the ego underneath.

Fighting back a yawn, Steve went to the door, opening it a crack. “What?”

“Lord Pierce wants you,” Rumlow sneered.

“Just me?” he said, never one to miss an opportunity to remind Rumlow he no longer held favored status with Pierce. Peggy, had she been there, might have warned him not to provoke, but he was tired, and angry, and could be nothing but himself.

“Yes,” Rumlow gritted.

“It’s the middle of the night.”

“You think I don’t know that? Get upstairs.”

Steve didn't question it further and pulled on some clothes before heading to Lord Pierce's horrible bedroom, where he sat, listening, blinking back sleep for hours, until the first rays of the coming dawn began to penetrate the curtains.

"If you'll excuse me, sir," he said when there was a brief pause in the pontifications. "I have to feed the fish."

Lord Pierce laughed, as he always did when Steve indicated that he’d stopped thinking of the siren as a him and once again as an it. “Go on, then,” he said. “I’ll see you this afternoon.”

Steve stifled a groan, making his escape and getting the siren’s food before heading to the back garden, where his friend was waiting, impatient as ever. Mornings were still for the two of them, but afternoons and evenings had been subsumed with Lord Pierce’s nonsense, which made planning an escape nigh on impossible. He rarely saw Wanda, rarely had time to sit and think—the only opportunity he had to catch his breath was when he was with the siren. So, as he tossed the fish onto the cage, he began puzzling over the problem, the same as he always did in those early mornings.

The trouble came down to the breathing. Steve remembered the terror the siren had felt during the escape memory; that clawing, gasping horror as he fought to find air outside the tank. Sure, maybe he could survive for a little while, like the old stories said, but it was probably like a human holding their breath underwater—something that could be done for a stretch, but not sustained.

The tail presented difficulties, too, though Steve was less concerned about that. He was sure he’d have no trouble carrying the siren, once he was out. Not forever, but long enough to get him into a waiting mode of transportation. Should they have one waiting. Which they didn’t.

Because a tank that could hold the siren couldn’t exactly be driven to the front gates. It’d have to be hidden, covered up on some side street with a third party waiting to drive it away.

Which, Steve couldn’t even begin to think about accomplices until he’d figured out the problem of a portable tank.

Which would need to be built.

Made watertight.

With enough fish to keep the siren fed on the long journey to the sea.

Plus, keeping him hidden as they traveled would prove difficult.

Not to mention how he could possibly convey to the siren that the moving tank was different from the one he was trapped in now.

Fucking fates. The problems mounted.

Steve sighed and took his thoughts back to the breathing. If he could solve that, the rest of it might fall into place.

Was there a way to test how long the siren could survive above the water? If Steve could make him understand, he could unlock the cage without worrying about him trying to escape. Allow him to surface, then time how long he could go without having to slip back under to breathe.

If, say, the siren could manage three minutes (ideally five), and the portable tank was waiting for them somewhere secret on Lord Pierce's property? Steve could get him there, he was sure of it. In the meantime, he could practice with potato sacks, hefting them over his shoulder, testing a run to an imaginary tank. The trouble was, though, that the siren wouldn't understand it was a test and was just as liable to take Steve's finger off as realize he was helping Steve figure out a means of escape.

The tank, though. That was problem number two. The cage the siren lived in now had been constructed by Lord Stark, and while Steve knew there existed another, smaller tank that had been used to transport him to Columbia, he had never seen it, nor would he know where to begin looking. For all he knew, it had been destroyed. Briefly, he’d considered asking Lord Stark for help, as he didn’t think the man knew about Lord Pierce’s idiocy. However, he couldn’t be sure, and he wasn’t about to go knocking on his door to ask if he, too, had lost his mind.

The third problem was the one he had the hardest time thinking about: Sarah’s medication. The impending loss of which had been gnawing away at the back of Steve’s mind since the moment Lord Pierce offered to have it shipped to her in bulk. He had followed through on that promise, at least, and the first shipment had already gone out—enough to see her through winter—but after that, what? Steve couldn’t imagine Lord Pierce would be feeling too kindly toward the mother of the man who’d absconded with his siren, and finding a job as a fugitive wasn’t exactly ripe with possibilities.

All the same, Sarah Rogers had raised him to keep his promises, and she wouldn’t want the siren suffering on her behalf. She would have agreed with the need to free him, he felt sure, and he could only hope that he had enough time and cunning to find some course of action that would keep her safe.

Some fucking course of action he had yet to figure out.

Time, at least, was on his side. So long as the siren refused to sing; so long as Lord Pierce had not yet captured the Sphinx.

Once breakfast was done, and the ladder put away, Steve lay his forehead against the glass, prompting the siren to do the same.

“Hey, pal,” he said, lifting his hand and waggling his fingers against the tank. “Not much progress today. How you feeling?”

The siren drew a half-circle. His endless request, breaking Steve’s heart every time.

“I gotcha. I’m working on it. I wish I could show you that I’m trying.”

Footsteps crunched the gravel behind him, and Steve jumped back. Rumlow, naturally.

“That’s cute, Rogers. You gonna sweet talk it into a performance?”

“Guess that might work better than electrocuting it,” Steve snapped, worried that Rumlow had heard too much. “What do you want?”

“A man can’t take a walk?” Rumlow replied, striding to the tank and giving his usual greeting. “Hey, ugly.”

The siren shrank back, and Steve felt a pulse of fear and hatred at the base of his skull.

“Knock it off, Rumlow,” he snapped. “You’re not helping.”

“Not my fault you’re shit at your job.”

“Lord Pierce disagrees.”

“Lord Pierce doesn’t know you’re turning his pet into a dancing monkey. That ain’t—”

“Better a dancing monkey than a bootlicking dog.” Steve knew better than to provoke, but he’d been awake since three in the gods damned morning, and a headache was beginning to develop over his right temple.

Rumlow’s eyes glittered. “Every dog has its day, Rogers.”

“What’s that supposed to—”

“Anyhow, when you’re done kissin’ on your fish, Lord Pierce wants you back upstairs.”

“He said not until the afternoon.”

“Guess he’s changed his mind,” Rumlow replied cheerfully, before turning on his heel and heading to the house.

Damn it,” Steve swore the moment he was gone.

The siren peeked over the top of his tail with such a wounded expression that Steve nearly smiled. Swimming close, he made the sign for Rumlow before pointing to the skull at the bottom of his cage.

The sentiment couldn't have been more apparent, and Steve was happy to agree.

 


 

The days marched on, and in the scant moments Steve had to work on his plan, he became sure of one thing: there was no way for him to do it alone. His slate of allies within the house, however, was limited to one.

“I need to mail a letter,” he said to Wanda one morning as they passed in the hall. “Care to join me?”

Wanda, who had been run off her feet since Lord Pierce’s return, siren-apprenticeship having come to an end, smiled at him over an armful of dirty linens. “Later? I will come and find you?”

“Sure,” Steve said.

The day proved a surprisingly quiet one—Lord Pierce was entertaining a business associate that afternoon, which meant Steve had some time to himself for once, though it was several hours later before Wanda caught him coming out of the kitchen after lunch.

“I’m ready,” she said. “But I mustn’t be long, and I’ve been told to stop at the butcher while I’m out.”

They made their way out of the house and down the long road to the front gates. Steve waited until they were nearly halfway to the market square before speaking, voice low, all too wary of being overheard. “I need to tell you something. But before I do, you ought to understand that knowing will put you in a…compromising position with Lord Pierce.”

Wanda didn’t hesitate. “Tell me.”

“I only want to make sure you think through—”

Tell me.”

“Pierce has cracked up,” Steve said simply, before walking her through an abbreviated version of the man’s beliefs, ending with, “soon as he can, he’s going to kill the siren.”

Wanda, who had remained remarkably unperturbed by the story, replied with resigned certitude and a slow nod. “I thought he might.”

Steve blinked. “How?”

"I live in this house longer than you. Do you think I do not know he keeps something secret in his room? I see that you go in, and suddenly you are always fretting."

“He’s a kook.”

“I know. I hear things.”

“What have you heard?”

“What you say—that he takes what he likes and leaves behind only pain and suffering. That he is a monster—” Her voice trembled, calm resolve crumbling as tears sprang to her eyes.

Steve got the sense there was something she wasn’t saying, and he frowned. “Wanda—”

“He is a fool,” she said before beginning to laugh—a bitter, angry laugh that she finished by spitting on the ground near Steve’s feet. “You were in that room. Did you see them?”

“See what?”

“The wings!”

He had mentioned the spell, but not the components, and her question made him widen his eyes, gormless as a recently-caught guppy. “How do you know about the wings?”

Wanda’s face crumpled, the tears that had been threatening finally spilling onto her cheeks.

Steve had never been very good with crying people, so he placed a hand on her shoulder in what he hoped was a soothing manner. “It’s alright—”

“It isn’t,” she managed. “My brother…” Whatever else she might have been trying to say ended in a sob.

“What about your brother?”

“They’re his.”

“What are?”

“The wings!”

Steve let out a sharp laugh, which wasn’t the best reaction he could have had, but it was an honest one. “What?”

Wanda reached into her pocket for a handkerchief. “Lord Pierce may be a fool, but you shouldn’t be. Do you truly think the siren is the only thing in this world that eludes you, Steve?”

“Well, no, but—”

“You know the stories. Sirens of the water. Messengers of the air.”

Stupidly, Steve’s eyes flicked to her shoulders, as if expecting great, hulking wings to sprout forth.

Wanda smiled through her tears, realizing what he was doing in an instant. “We are twins, he and I,” she said. “Messengers always are. Like the quick wind and the red—if one does not fly, the other cannot, and we lose our gifts. I did not tell you, because I am not sure if you will believe me, but now that you know of Pierce’s madness, you will understand.”

“I’m not sure that I do,” Steve said, mind still caught somewhere in the notion of her being not-quite-human.

"We are not like the stories. None of us are. We're not gods—we are born, and we die, but we are different from you. Same as the siren is different from us. Lord Pierce thinks that if he steals our wings or their voices, it will give him power. But what we are is not meant to be given over. You are human, I am not. I cannot be you, and neither can you be me."

Steve was a pragmatic man, and he’d never been much for flights of fancy. All the same, he believed Wanda in an instant. How could he be so arrogant as to think that just because he had never seen something, that something couldn’t exist? The siren had upended his belief in what was possible; she was simply expanding it further. “So you’re…”

“We call ourselves messengers, as I said.”

“Are you uh…” Steve frowned. “Magic?”

“Magic is what your people call things that you do not yet understand,” she said. “Your gifts are different.”

“So Pierce’s spell wouldn’t work,” he said slowly, as Wanda shook her head. And of course, it wouldn’t. But for one brief, silly moment, thinking of magic and mystery, he had believed that perhaps Lord Pierce—while mad—was onto something larger than himself.

“No,” she said bitterly. “Myth and legend, smoke and games. A little child playing at things he does not understand. Pierce attacked my village. Ripped the wings from my brother’s back. I am here to find them and bring them home, but without my talents, I am trapped outside the door, you see?”

“Yes,” Steve said, beginning to understand. “But even then—beyond the door—he has them held in an iron cage.”

“A wise choice,” she said. “If they were free, they would fly home to Pietro.”

“There’s a keyring on his belt—I saw it when he showed me the eye.”

“The eye?”

“That’s the other thing he needs—the eye of the storm. I don’t know what sort of thing he took it from—he said it was a blacksmith?”

Wanda’s eyes went wide, and her mouth fell open. “He is not so powerless, even if he is so stupid. To best a blacksmith is no small feat.”

Steve didn’t like entertaining the thought of Pierce being anything but idiotic in his quest—giving him any credit felt like too much. “If I could get those keys,” he offered instead. “We’d be able to grab everything and run.”

“We?”

“Sure,” he said, giving her a smile. “I brought you out here to ask for your help in freeing the siren. You already knew I was thinking about it, but I can’t do it alone, and I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I didn’t offer to help you in return.”

Wanda bit her lip, a smile of her own forming. “Then I think perhaps we are a team.”

“Just the two of us.”

“Three, with the siren.”

“True.”

“And four with Sam.”

“Sam?” Steve said.

“The circus is traveling. You have need of traveling. So we will send you to the circus.”

“But—” Steve protested, quick mind already questioning the plan. He hadn’t even thought about Sam, who had seemed so far away, living a life Steve couldn’t begin to hope for.

“It is only details,” she said, waving her hand. “You need a path to the sea. I need keys that unlock a door and a cage. We know where we must end, now we work back to where we begin.”

“I need a movable tank, too. And salt water, and a way for the siren to breathe while I get him to it…”

Wanda blinked at him. “But this is no trouble,” she laughed. “I know of sirens. They are breathing both ways.”

Steve stopped short, and he goggled at her. “What?”

“I did not know that you are not knowing,” she said with a shrug. “How else is a siren to sing without a voice?”

“Uh.” Steve blinked. “Metaphorically?”

Wanda burst out laughing, her head thrown back in a giggle. “No!”

“But Rumlow said—”

"Oh, yes," she teased. "Rumlow is knowing so much about sirens.”

"Well, how do you know so much?”

“My mama tells me stories,” she said. “And I do not know so much, but I know how a siren is doing breathing.”

"Oh. But the siren sent me an uh…dream. And he was out of the water, and he couldn't breathe…" But maybe he'd simply had the wind knocked out of him by the edge of the tank? Gods, had he been trying to communicate his ability to breathe? Had Steve misinterpreted him entirely by focusing on his panic instead? "Oh, no."

“He knows so much,” Wanda said with a wry smile. “But I am right. I promise. Now come, it is time we were at the butcher.”

 

  

The next week found Steve and Wanda working on their plan in secret, whenever they could find a moment, though those moments were few and far between, given the rush of activity in the house. Steve composed several letters to Sam, which he sent off to towns that were a few stops ahead of the current location of the circus, in the hopes that one might reach him. The letters indicated nothing of their situation, only that Steve might require a job and a place to stay at some point in the future.

The tank problem continued proving elusive to both of them. Steve believed Wanda when she said that the siren could breathe air, but that didn’t mean he could survive indefinitely out of the water. There were too many variables Steve couldn’t account for, and the last thing he needed was to plan an escape that ended up killing his friend. They needed a way to transport him, and they had neither the means nor the money to construct one. All the same, Steve’s mood improved considerably through the work, and the fact that they were heading toward something tangible did wonders for his temper.

One week into planning, they had begun laying the groundwork, even if they hadn’t yet figured out how to construct the foundation. The plan, such as it was, involved Steve working to curry as much favor with Lord Pierce as he possibly could. To gain his absolute trust, while convincing him of two things: that no one save for Steve and Lord Pierce himself ought to have access to the siren—meaning Rumlow would lose his access to the yard—and that Steve ought to be given a copy of Lord Pierce’s bedroom keys.

The latter request would take time to work up to, as the man guarded his keys with a crazed, religious fervor. The former, however, proved reasonably simple—a few well-timed musings from Steve over the next week had Lord Pierce rescinding Rumlow's yard key and privileges. Naturally, Pierce made a production out of it, forcing Rumlow to turn over his keys to Steve in front of several lower-ranking members of staff. Steve hadn't asked for that, but there was a small part of him, a part he didn't like very much, that enjoyed seeing Rumlow brought to heel, hatred in the man's eyes as he glared at Steve—the obedient mongrel usurped by an upstart in a matter of months.

Problem with kicked dogs, however, was that they sometimes bit back, and in the end, it was Rumlow who put Steve and Wanda's plans to the torch, setting events in motion that neither of them saw coming.

 


 

Three nights later, Steve was sleeping the sleep of the dead and dreamless, drifting on a current of oblivion. He was roused by frantic shaking, though just barely, and he swam to the surface of his consciousness, feeling as though someone had wrapped his head in cotton wool.

Wanda. It was Wanda shaking him awake in a panic. Her lips were moving, but in his haze, Steve couldn't make out what she was saying. "…saw him! Steve—Steve!”

She slapped him. Hard enough that he was jolted into awareness, though his limbs still felt overly-long and heavy. “Ow!”

"It's Rumlow!" she hissed, desperately trying to yank him to his feet. "He was in here—I saw him slinking out, and I thought perhaps he'd hurt you, but—"

Steve blinked, struggling to sit up. Rumlow had been in his room? But he wasn’t a heavy sleeper. He wasn’t—

“Steve!”

“Why would he…?” There wasn’t anything incriminating in his room—he burned everything that could be the slightest bit compromising. Still, the thought of Rumlow in his space? Touching his things? That was disconcerting.

“Steve,” Wanda said, her voice high-pitched. “Where are your keys?”

"Oh, Gods." Panicked, he stumbled out of bed and went to his dresser, where he opened the small box that held both the twin yard keys and the one that unlocked the siren's cage.

He fully expected to find it empty, but all three were there, just as they always were.

“They’re there,” he said. “It’s fine.”

No sooner had he said that than the back of his neck prickled and he was overwhelmed with such unbridled joy that he nearly fell to his knees.

Joy, and something else…

Freedom.

Turning to Wanda with dawning horror, he shook his head. "You didn't see him taking them—you saw him putting them back!”

Steve could see it clearly now, the fog in his head lifting further with every passing moment. It was a fool’s plan, but Rumlow was a fool. He’d unlocked the cage to free the siren, then run away to return the keys, leaving Steve to catch the blame. Steve could just about picture the scene Rumlow was hoping for: the siren, asphyxiated on the lawn in the morning, along with Lord Pierce’s inconceivable wrath at Steve leaving the cage unlocked.

Only the siren wouldn’t asphyxiate. At least, not for a while. No, the siren could breathe just fine, and if the pulsing at the base of Steve’s skull was any indication, he was thrilled to be doing so.

“The siren’s out,” he said to Wanda, grabbing the key and taking her lantern. “We have to get him back in the water before anyone—”

“Go,” she said. “I’ll try and find Rumlow.”

Steve ran, leaving unlocked doors in his wake.

If he could get there in time, he could stop the siren. And if he could stop the siren, he could fix things. And if he could fix things, the plan might still work—

The tank was empty when he reached it. The electric prod was lying on the ground nearby, ladder tipped over on the grass. Rumlow hadn’t been taking chances, it seemed, and he’d scampered the moment the lock was off the cage.

Steve turned in a circle, looking for the siren, who couldn’t have gotten far. Would he be struggling? Confused? Surely he wouldn’t understand his surroundings. Gods, he was probably terrified.

That was when Steve heard it—a low, dragging sound, far enough away that it nearly didn’t register over his heart pounding in his chest and the rush of blood in his ears.

Holding the lantern high, he followed the noise and found the siren some distance away, stretched out by the high hedge wall that ringed the inner property and separated the manicured grounds from the wooded acreage beyond. The siren was desperately dragging his claws against the hedge, taking leaves and twigs down with every swipe. When the light from the lantern fell on him, he flinched, twisting around, blue eyes wide.

"Hey, pal," Steve said, taking a tentative step closer and putting the lantern down. "It's alright. I know you're scared, but listen—"

The siren didn’t. Instead, he lashed out with his tail, sweeping Steve’s feet out from under him and knocking him flat on his ass, the breath stolen from his lungs when he landed. It took him a moment to recover, and as he fought for air, the siren began crawling away, atrophied muscles straining while he pulled himself along the ground.

“Fuck,” Steve swore, scrambling after him without thinking, throwing himself on top of the creature in an attempt to slow him down.

The siren fought his hold, and for all that he had been weakened by his time in captivity, he still managed to muster a fair amount of terror-fueled rage, twisting and bucking beneath Steve’s tight grip.

Then, there were the teeth. Steve had forgotten about the teeth.

The bite came the second the siren turned himself over, shark teeth sinking into the meat of Steve’s shoulder, where he held on with a ferocity bordering on frenzy. The pain was magnificent, and Steve screamed. Jerked his shoulder back, and placed a hand on the siren’s forehead to shove him off. That, unfortunately, resulted in a decent chunk of Steve’s shoulder and nightshirt tearing away, too, blood already bubbling in the wound.

The siren glowered, baleful and angry, then turned his head and spat both cloth and flesh onto the ground.

“Damn it.” Steve sat back, straddling the siren’s waist, keeping clear of his teeth while pinning him in place.

Problem was, he still had claws, so Steve sustained several scratches before he managed to catch the siren’s wrists and grip them together. A keening yowl left his friend’s lips once he was trapped, and he flipped his tail up in an attempt to dislodge Steve, the great weight of it hitting him in the skull. It was impossible to think, to plan, to reason, because now his head hurt, and his shoulder was in agony, and he didn’t know what to do.

“Stop, stop, stop—” he begged, body trembling as blood coursed down his shoulder. “Just listen.”

The siren made another awful noise, bucking his hips in a second attempt to get Steve off. It might not have worked, save for the fact that his tail fin happened to catch Steve on his injured shoulder, dragging right through the gaping wound. Steve gasped, falling to the side and clutching at his arm, which felt as if someone had dumped a bucket of hot coals onto his skin.

The siren took his freedom in stride, rolling back to his stomach and beginning to inch his way forward once again. He wasn't moving fast enough to make any actual progress, and Steve wasn't risking another bite, so he let him go, sitting up to catch his bearings.

He needed to be smarter about this. Needed to convince the siren it was better to return to the tank and wait. But how could he explain that the garden was walled? That the only way out without a key was up and over, which was impossible without legs?

With a sigh, Steve held the lantern aloft to track the siren’s progress, the light catching on the silvery scales of his tail, which almost looked like it was moving.

That was a stupid thought—of course the tail was moving, because the siren was moving, and the tail was part of him.

Except for how it all of that was wrong, and Steve’s initial thought had been right: the siren was moving. But the tail? The tail was changing. The flat of it seemed shorter now, scales shimmering and shifting. Which was a trick of the light—it had to be. Surely, Steve's pain and fear were masking the truth. Making him imagine wild things.

Things like seeing the seam running down the center of the tail become more of a split. Yes, most certainly a split, if Steve was going to describe precisely what he was seeing.

But the tail fins were still there! Those big, shining fins that the siren had hidden behind a hundred times. Those were fins, most assuredly, and not feet.

Until, that was, they were feet. Two of them, boasting strange webbed toes in a familiar shimmering shade of green.

A trick of the light. It was a trick of the light!

The siren rolled onto his back, and then, tentatively—as if he’d never done so before in his life—lifted his foot and wriggled his toes.

 

Chapter Text

Toes. The siren had toes. Toes, attached to feet, attached to ankles, attached to legs. Only not like any toes or feet or ankles or legs Steve had seen before, because instead of being covered in skin, they were covered in scales, shining in the dim light of the lantern, melting seamlessly into the flesh of his upper half the same way that his tail had before…before he’d had legs. Gods. The only human-like thing about any bit of his lower half, in fact, was the pale skin on the bottom of his feet, and the, well, the bits of him that proved he was, indeed, as male as Steve had supposed.

Steve cut his eyes away. The siren, meanwhile, had moved from wriggling his toes, to flexing his ankle, to bending his knee, to—with the grace of a newborn foal, all gawkiness and quivering limbs—heaving himself to his feet. 

Having temporarily stuttered to a disbelieving halt, Steve's quick mind began working again once the siren was on his feet. (Feet!) The only thing he knew for sure was that they were in danger, now more than ever, because the siren had legs, and the siren could breathe, and the siren was free, and Lord Pierce couldn’t find out. 

Damn plans and damn propriety. They had to run.

Steve could only hope his mother would forgive him.

“Hey, pal,” he said, low and cautious as he got to his feet. 

The siren, who had been wobbling his way along the hedge, ankles shaking as he found his footing, turned his head and frowned.

Steve held up his hands, the gesture meant to be placating. "I know you're scared, but I wanna help you ah—" He made the half-circle sign for 'out.'

A frown furrowed the siren’s brow, though after a moment he took one hand from the hedge and made the sign in return.

“Yeah,” Steve nodded, smiling. “Out, yeah, we just gotta—just let me think a minute.” 

The hedge was ten feet tall and dense. If they were going straight through, he’d need to fetch shears, and it would take some time to cut a hole big enough for them. Which would also mark their path clearly for the chase that would inevitably follow. They could, he supposed, go through the side gate to the front of the house, but there were night watchmen, and he didn’t fancy getting caught with a naked, be-legged siren on his hands.

“Steve!” came a hushed whisper from the darkness. 

The siren released his hold on the hedge and twisted, nearly falling over as he bared his teeth.

“Whoa,” Steve said, stepping forward to steady him, ignoring the sharp pain in his bitten shoulder. “Hey, it’s alright. It’s Wanda—you know Wanda.” 

Wanda stepped from the shadows, eyes wide, holding a small suitcase and a pair of Steve’s trousers, looking the siren up and down.

"Did you know he could do this?" Steve asked as the siren wrenched away, tottering forward on unsteady legs. For a moment, Steve worried he might hurt Wanda, only to watch in surprise as he wrapped his arms around her instead.

“Legs were not in the stories,” Wanda managed, voice muffled as she hugged the siren in return. “Hello! Goodness, but look at you.” 

The siren made a snuffling noise, intent on smelling Wanda’s hair. Steve, meanwhile, stepped forward to take the bag from her hand.

“You’re hurt,” Wanda said, nudging the siren back so she could examine Steve’s shoulder.

“I’m fine,” he said. “He got scared, is all. What’s the bag for?”

“Ah,” she shrugged, biting her lip as Steve set it on the ground. “I saw the empty tank—worried you would need to run no matter what the outcome, so I packed you a bag. But now…” she looked at the siren, who was continuing his examination of her hair, letting long strands slip between his fingers. “I think I should have packed for two.” 

“There’s no good way out,” Steve said, pulling on his trousers over his pajamas. “I promised him we’d go, and we obviously can’t stay here, but I don’t see how—” 

“Steve,” Wanda said, pushing the siren’s hand away when he placed it too close to her mouth. “Stop that, silly boy. It is not polite. Now, Steve, are there no ladders in this house?” 

Trust Wanda to be the only one with any sense. “Right. You stay with him—I’ll be back.” 

Steve ran as silently as he could across the yard, intent on making short work of fetching the ladder. However, when he reached the tank, he found that the work would be neither short nor simple, for Rumlow was lurking there, having returned to dispose of the evidence—namely, the prod, which Pierce knew Steve would never use. 

The plan had been shortsighted at best—Rumlow wasn’t one for thinking through consequences—obviously, he’d set up the ladder, electrified the prod to keep the siren in check, and unlocked the cage. Then, he’d run, fleeing the scene before the siren could do to him what he’d done to Rollins. The grand vision, undoubtedly, had been that the siren would die quickly, and Rumlow could frame Steve for the mishap. Stupid ass. It might have worked, Steve supposed, if not for Wanda, and the fact that he knew things about the siren that Rumlow didn’t. Steve still wasn’t sure how Rumlow had managed to sneak into his room without waking him, except, well, he’d been in an awfully deep sleep when Wanda had woken him. Even now, his head still felt cloudy. The more he thought about it, the more Steve was certain he’d been drugged. After all, Rumlow had been the one to tell Lord Pierce about the trips to the chemist. Stood to reason he might know a few things about illicit substances. 

Now, Rumlow had returned to clean up his mess, and he was standing between Steve and the ladder.

“Well done,” Steve said, low and harsh as he stepped into the light. 

Rumlow jumped, fumbling with the prod. “Rogers, gods damn it! You’re supposed to be—”

“What, asleep?”

“You—”

“I knew you were jealous—” Steve tutted, taking another step toward the tank. 

“Where is it?”

“Dead,” Steve lied. “Real smart—killing your master’s number one priority. You think he’s gonna believe I did this?” 

“Fuck you,” Rumlow snarled, charging at Steve with the prod in his gloved hand.

This is going to hurt was the only thought he managed to think before the electricity coursed through him, locking his jaw and sending his eyes rolling back in his head as his body went rigid. The pain of it was like nothing he’d ever experienced before, but awful and fatal weren’t the same thing, he knew, and the prod had never been intended to kill, merely to torture.

The easiest way to break contact was to fall, so he did, lashing out with one foot the moment he hit the ground to knock the prod from Rumlow’s hand. The metal skittered onto the gravel, just out of reach, a faint buzz in the air as Rumlow launched himself at Steve with a roar, pinning him to the ground and digging his thumb into the open wound on his shoulder.

Steve howled loud enough to wake the dead, because Gods, that was worse than the prod. Rumlow grinned at the cry, and dug his finger in further, pleased with his success. Steve bit his lip to keep from making another sound, realizing his mistake in an instant—screaming would only invite trouble. Everybody in the house would be on them if he wasn’t careful, and they’d find Wanda and the siren, who would never get away. Who would be imprisoned again, only now they would know all his secrets, and Steve wouldn’t be able to protect him. 

Steve took a wild swing with his good arm, landing a right hook to Rumlow’s temple, then kneeing him in the crotch with his left leg. It was a dirty move, but this was a dirty fight, the two of them scrabbling on the ground, clawing and scratching and punching when they could. In the end, Steve gained the upper hand through sheer luck, his fingers closing around one of the ceramic pots that lay near the tank. Fueled by anger and fear, he managed to smash it against the back of Rumlow’s skull, splitting it into pieces as Rumlow blinked several times in quick succession before his mouth fell open and he collapsed, unconscious, atop Steve.

“Shit,” Steve swore, shoving the heavy body away and leaning up on his elbows, every inch of him shivering. Rumlow wasn’t dead—he was pretty sure, though he leaned close to check, just in case. Once assured of the fucker’s continued existence, he wiped his bloody mouth and went for the ladder, hardly able to hold it up as he made haste to where Wanda and the siren were waiting.

When he reached them, she looked panicked and darted forward. The siren, meanwhile, had gone back to scratching at the hedge.

“Steve!” she hissed. “What happened? Why were you shouting?” 

“Rumlow,” he said, turning his head to split blood on the ground. “Fucking Rumlow.” 

“Is he...?” Wanda drew a line across her throat.

“No. I don’t think so, anyway. But…” he shrugged. “I can’t be sure. We’d better go, though. If people heard that fight…”

"I will put the ladder back once you've gone."

Steve stopped short, frowning. “Don’t be stupid, you’re coming with us.” 

“Not while my brother’s wings are here. I will find another way. Another plan.” 

“Wanda, no,” he said. “I’m not leaving you behind. It’s dangerous here.” 

“Dangerous for you, yes,” she agreed. “Not so dangerous for a little mouse who nobody is ever seeing.”

“But—” 

“I know of the keys now. I will work it through. But you—” she looked from Steve to the siren, a smile curling her lip. “You have a chance. This is not how we wanted to be, but it is how we are, and it is better, I think? Lord Pierce will be looking for his siren, and this pretty boy is no siren. He is looking like anyone else.” 

“He’s…” Steve looked at the siren’s scaled legs and raised a brow. 

“Eh,” Wanda grinned. “Once you are safe, maybe you dress him.” 

"Maybe," Steve said, which was a nonsense thing to say. Of course, he'd have to dress the siren. The siren, who was free. The siren, who had legs. The siren, who was his fucking responsibility.

“So go,” she said. “Up and over, then I will clean your mess. Tuck myself in bed and be surprised tomorrow when it is discovered that you are gone.” 

“Might not get to tomorrow—” he protested. “If they heard the fight…” 

“Then it is better that you go quickly. The backwoods meet a stream, where we do the washing—turn right, follow it, and you will find the road that leads to Polis if you take it to the left.” 

“How do you know so much?” he asked, leaning the ladder against the hedge.

“I listen.” 

“You do,” he agreed, finishing with the ladder and stepping close to place a kiss to her forehead. “You move fast, too. Get inside, get to your bed, and cross your fingers for us.”

Wanda threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly. "And when I have the wings, I will fly from this place. I promise."

“You’d better. I’m sorry—I wish I could have done more for you—” 

“You do enough,” she said. “Now please, go!”

Going proved easier said than done—Steve climbed the ladder first, dropping his suitcase over the side and straddling the hedge before encouraging the siren to climb to the top. The siren, confused by the concept of the ladder (though, small mercies, he'd at least seen one used countless times), was anxious about climbing, and could only be coaxed into trying by Steve signing 'out, out, out' a dozen times over, while holding out his hands. 

Finally, reluctantly, the siren began to climb, buoyed by Wanda keeping a hand on his scaled leg until he reached the top. Steve wasted no time, hoisting him over and dangling him unceremoniously on the other side before letting him drop the last few feet to the forest floor, where he landed with an undignified grunt.

Only then did Steve look back at Wanda, fighting the tears that pricked the corners of his eyes. No matter what she said, he felt as though he was leaving her in a hungry lion’s den. 

“Be safe,” he whispered.

"Go!" she replied, pulling the ladder away from the wall, so there were no more choices to be made.

Steve went. Dropped to the ground behind the siren and twisted his ankle on a root in the process, adding to the long list of injuries he'd accumulated in a very short time.

“Damn it,” he swore, giving himself a moment to recover before putting weight on it. Not ideal, but he’d make do.

The siren, in the meantime, had begun walking unsteadily along the hedge, keeping his back to the bush and edging away from Steve. 

"Nope," Steve said, striding forward. The siren wasn't fast but was getting better at walking by the minute, so he had to jog a few feet to catch him. Taking him by the wrist, he tugged him away from the bushes, which caused the siren to bare his teeth and make made a funny hissing noise.

“Now look,” Steve said, unmoved by the fierce display, as the siren continued to resist his hold. “I took an electric prod in the ribs for you, pal. You practically bit my arm off. Rumlow loosened a tooth when he punched me, and I just twisted my gods damn ankle. So we are going to walk this way, you are gonna stop doing this…shark faced routine…” He trailed off, because while hectoring might make him feel better, the siren didn't understand a damn word.

With a sigh, he pointed to the hedge and made the sign for 'Pierce,' then the sign for 'no.'

The siren stopped pulling, understanding that much, at least. Keeping hold of his wrist, Steve tugged him away from the estate and into the woods, which were still very much on Lord Pierce's property. Thick and imposing, the exposed roots and unkempt grounds did nothing to help his already sore ankle as they began their hike.

They had only to reach the stream. That was all. Steve wasn’t sure how far it was—a mile, two? Hard to say, considering he’d never been. 

Follow the stream to the road, Wanda had said. The road that would lead them from Columbia to Towson. 

They had no food.

They had no money.

They had no plan.

But shit, they had their freedom, and for now, that would have to be enough.

Without a lantern, their way was lit by the moon—three-quarters full, brightness filtering through the thick canopy of leaves overhead, casting dappled patterns on the ground. Steve couldn’t imagine how the siren felt at seeing such a place—confused and scared, no doubt—pulled along by a near-stranger in a world it couldn’t understand. They’d been walking for nearly twenty minutes before they were forced to make a stop when the siren ran headlong into a branch Steve had ducked beneath. He hissed, long hair tangling in the tree that had done him harm, while blood pooled in a laceration on his forehead. 

"Shit," Steve swore, assessing the damage. The siren was frantic, his efforts to free himself from the tree only making the situation worse. Steve placed one hand on each of his shoulders and bore down to calm him. It took a moment, but eventually, he settled, wide-eyed and fretful.

"Oh c' mon," Steve said with a half-smile. "You take a chunk outta my arm, and you're the one crying about a scratch on the forehead? Hold still—" Reaching up, he began extricating the siren's hair from the tree, breaking off a few small twigs in the process. Strange thing, that hair—slippery without being oily, and having a decidedly different texture than a human's.

The siren huffed, and once he was free, he rubbed his grimy hand along the cut on his forehead, smearing the blood and giving himself the appearance of some ancient warrior, wounded in battle. There were several other cuts and scrapes on his arms, and Steve felt a bit bad for that—walking through the woods in the altogether probably wasn't a lot of fun, with plenty of branches to scratch bare skin. The siren's hair, on the other hand, was a hilarious mess—a snarled pompadour of twigs and leaves sitting atop his head like some courtier in an old, stuffy portrait.

“Guess we’d better see about getting you dressed,” he said, because while they didn’t really have the time, he also didn’t want to meet anyone on the road with a naked siren at his side. 

Crouching, he began rummaging through his bag in the dark, feeling for familiar things in the tangle of clothing Wanda had shoved inside. The first thing his fingers brushed, however, was his wallet. He could have kissed Wanda for that—they weren’t destitute, at least, though Gods knew they didn’t have much. Sticking it in his pocket, he continued poking through his possessions, eventually turning up a pair of trousers as well as a plain, white shirt. 

“Alright,” he said, standing up. “Let’s try the shirt first.” 

The siren proved surprisingly biddable to the first piece of clothing, allowing Steve to coax his arms into the sleeves. Smart as ever, he made the connection between them quickly, plucking at Steve’s striped sleep-shirt before looking down at himself and touching the fabric as Steve did up his buttons. 

“That’s right,” Steve agreed. “Just like mine. Now, for the pants.”

The pants, on the other hand, proved problematic. Kneeling on the ground, Steve attempted to make the siren lift his leg, which resulted in a scaled knee to his nose.

“Ow!” 

The siren grunted, and Steve tried again. It took four attempts before he managed a foot in each pant leg, and Steve averted his eyes in the name of politeness as he drew the clothing up and around the siren’s waist.

This latter action proved wholly unacceptable to the siren, who let out a whine of protest, shoving Steve’s hands away and nearly losing his trousers in the process.

“Nope,” Steve said, slapping the clawed hands right back before buttoning the fly, trapping the siren in the confines of the clothing.

In his lifetime, Steve experience with children had been minimal. However, the siren's reaction to pants? Well, it wasn't much different than a toddler throwing a tantrum. He hissed and complained, clawing at his crotch in a way that would rip a hole in the fabric if he wasn't careful. Plus, he was vocal about his distaste—Steve's once-silent companion, showing that he had a voice, albeit one only used to articulate through grunts and whines just how he felt about his new prison. Steve allowed the protestations to continue for a minute, mindful all the while that they were still very much on Lord Pierce's property. Eventually, though, enough was enough, and he took hold of the siren's wrist, giving him a little shake.

“No!” he scolded, and Gods if he didn’t sound just like his mother.

“Nnn!” the siren replied, surprising Steve so much that he nearly forgot to be annoyed.

“Did you just—?”

“Nnnoh!”

"Well, shit.” 

“Nnnoh!” The siren repeated, yanking his wrist back and continuing to tug at his trousers.

"No," Steve agreed, shock fading as he moved to take both the siren's hands in his one of his own before making the sign for 'no.' "No."

“No.” 

“No. I mean yes, that means no,” he said. “You gotta wear clothes, alright? We can’t go anywhere decent with your bits flapping in the breeze.” Not to mention the fact that he was covered in scales. 

“No,” said the siren.

Steve sighed, letting go of his wrists and mimicking what he had been doing to the trousers, repeating, “no!” along with the sign. 

“No, no,” the siren echoed, hands going limp at his sides.

Steve wasn’t sure if he had understood and resigned himself to his be-trousered fate, or if he was simply tired of the conversation. Either way, he’d stopped picking at his groin, and a win was a win. Once again, Steve took his hand, picked up his bag, and tugged him onward.

When they reached the stream some ten minutes later, Steve could have sung for joy. He didn’t think he’d ever been so thirsty in his life, and immediately crouched by the water to scoop handfuls into his mouth. The siren did the same, and for a moment, Steve was worried he might transform right back into having a tail. Nothing happened, however, save for him placing his lips against the surface of the water to blow bubbles, which was so utterly ridiculous that it started Steve laughing like a jackal, the response no doubt borne of hysteria and fear. (Or, shit, maybe the siren having a drink was actually the funniest gods damn thing he’d ever seen.)

“Come on,” he said once they’d drunk their fill. 

They made their way along the stream, and the first hints of dawn were beginning to creep their way into the sky when Steve spotted the road in the distance, a small bridge crossing the stream. His stomach tightened in both relief and apprehension. There was a direction now. They would be off Lord Pierce’s property and could begin making their way toward…well, he wasn’t sure. Polis, Wanda had said. They’d figure the rest of it out along the way.

Quickening their pace, Steve helped the siren scramble up the bank, worried at the way he was shaking. Surely walking several miles on brand new legs after a year and a half spent floating in a tank would be wearing, so the fact that they had miles to go was troublesome. How long could the siren last in his current state? 

That was when Steve first heard the rumble of an engine.

An automobile, trundling down the road toward them. 

Damn. Pierce? Maybe. If it was, that meant their escape had already been discovered. Meant they had lost their chance of a head start. Meant there would be men combing the woods. Dogs on their trail. Discovery. Capture. 

However, if it wasn’t Lord Pierce’s auto, then it was merely an early-morning motorist, out for a drive. Someone Steve might be able to flag down. Make up a story while begging for help

The auto came around the bend, and Steve’s tired mind made the connection it should have made from the start: this auto was going in the wrong direction—headed into Columbia, rather than away from it. Not Lord Pierce, but no help to them either, as Steve had no intention of going back to the city. 

Turning to the siren, Steve found him staring wide-eyed at the vehicle, transfixed by the roar and the rumble. Shit. They ought to get off the road—hide and wait and plan. But it was too late. The auto had begun to slow, and he could only imagine how bad they looked. Two men, bloody and bruised, tangled and dirty, undoubtedly fleeing something, standing on the side of the road. 

Anyone with sense wouldn’t stop for them. 

Anyone with sense would drive to town and tell the first constable they saw about the wild men by the wayside.

Anyone with sense could see that they might be dangerous.

A voice rang out.

“Everything alright there, fellas?” 

Steve turned and found himself face to face with Anthony Stark.

portrait of Steve

Chapter Text

Anthony Stark had the face of someone who had stopped for strangers on the side of the road before. The face of his companion, however, was somewhat more perplexed.

As was Steve, considering he knew that face. Knew that boy—dark-hair, with wide, brown eyes and small, elfin features.

“Peter?” he managed, ignoring for the moment that the siren was clawing at his forearm. 

“Steve Rogers?” Peter replied. “What—“ 

Steve shrugged, having no reasonable explanation for why he was standing on the side of the road, a million miles from home, with blood coursing down his torn shirtsleeve and a hissing stranger clinging to his arm. "I meant to come and see you at school."

It was a stupid thing to say—the sort of inanity one might put forth upon meeting an old friend out shopping—but also the only thing he could think of at the moment, tired and sore as he was. Peter blinked, looking from Steve to the siren, who still had his teeth bared at the strangers.

"It's uh…good to see you, Cap," he offered, because Peter (like many of the younger folk in Red Hook) had taken to using the moniker Steve had picked up during the war, ascribing far too much weight and import to the stories they'd heard of his derring-do.

“Yeah, ah…and you…” he said. “Pal, would you stop?” That was to the siren, who had started making a whining noise, low in his throat. “No, alright?” 

“No, no,” the siren said in return.

“You know these guys, Pete?” Anthony broke in, cutting to the quick of the situation. 

“I know Captain Rogers. He’s from Red Hook, too, and he—” 

“Wait.” Anthony squinted at Steve. “You’re not the Rogers my pop was talking about, are you? Aunt Peggy’s friend?” 

Steve weighed his options and decided to lean on Peggy Carter's good name. "Yes. That's…as you can see, we've had a tough night."

“No kidding,” Anthony agreed. “Where you planning to go?”

“Uh. Polis?” He had no idea what was there, only that Wanda had said it was where the road would lead them, and being there seemed a damn sight better than being in Columbia.

“Long way to Polis,” Anthony said. “And I think you two need a doctor more than you need to be going anywhere.”

“No,” Steve said firmly.

“No, no, no, no,” echoed the siren, who had moved from baring his teeth to puffing out his chest.

“What’s wrong with your friend?” Anthony asked, eyes narrowing.

“He’s drunk,” Steve lied. 

“Uh-huh.” 

“Tony,” Peter said. “Steve’s a war hero.” 

“Well shit, Pete, I’m not leaving them,” Anthony—Tony—replied, rolling his eyes. “I just gotta know—whatever trouble you’re in, is it gonna come back on my head?”

“Err…” 

“You know what? Don’t answer that. You work for Pierce, don’t you?”

Steve hesitated. “…I did.” 

"Well, fuck me," Tony grinned. "I bet that's a story. C' mon, hop in. We're on our way to see pops for the weekend."

Steve shook his head. “We shouldn’t go back to the city.” 

“Sure you should,” Tony shrugged. “We’ll patch you up and get you on the road to Polis—nobody’ll ever know you were there.” 

“Well…” Steve sighed, finding it hard to say no. Especially when the alternative was a long walk with no end in sight, in plain view, while they were both tired and hungry. The opportunity for even the briefest of respites was too tempting to pass up. Plus, Howard had a big house—maybe they could avoid him altogether; stay in the kitchens with Ana and Edwin Jarvis. So, after a moment’s consideration, Steve nodded, stepping toward the auto, only to be jerked back by a clawed hand.

The siren was refusing to budge, a familiar mulish look in his eyes.

“No.”

Boy, he sure had picked up that word quickly.

"Pal, come on." Steve wheedled, trying to tug him forward. That resulted in the siren digging his claws in harder, to the point where he nearly broke the skin. "It's not gonna hurt you."

“Hasn’t he ever seen an auto before?” Peter asked.

"He's …foreign?" Steve offered. That explanation might allow him to pass off the siren's pointed teeth as a cultural thing, while his feet were so covered in mud and muck from the forest that there was no way Peter and Tony would notice the scales. The gills and the claws, though?  Steve had no idea where to start with those, so he was going to have to rely on the fact that most humans were too polite to point out abnormalities in others.

Tony grinned, tapping the steering wheel. “Nothin’ to worry about, friend. I’m a great driver.”

“That’s debat—” Peter began. 

Tony elbowed him in the side with a furious little “shhh!”

Steve thought for a moment about how best to coax the siren into the auto, and ended up doing what he'd done to get him over the fence—making the sign for 'out' several times, then pointing to the vehicle, himself, and the siren in turn. After some careful consideration, the siren consented, following Steve into the cramped backseat.

"Say, you wouldn't happen to have an uh…cover?" Steve asked, as the open-topped auto was somewhat exposed, with the two of them making quite the picture—memorable to any early risers watching them pass.

"Oh, sure," Tony said. "C'mon, Pete."

Wrangling the top into place took another few minutes, Steve casting anxious glances toward the woods all the while, sure a pack of men and dogs was about to burst forth. It didn’t help that the siren hated every little thing to do with the auto, protesting with a few well-timed exclamations of “no!” as Tony affixed the cover. His antics were made worse when Tony got back into the driver’s seat and cranked the engine, the auto roaring to life. Abject terror followed at that, the siren clawing Steve’s arm to the point where he was sure there’d be nothing but strips of flesh remaining by the time they reached the house. 

“So, what’s your friend’s name?” Peter asked, turning around to shout at them over the noise of the auto as it began to roll down the road.

“I…don’t know.” 

Furrowing his brow, Peter went on. “How’d you meet him, then?”

“At work.”

“But you don’t know his name?”

“No.”

“Why don’t you just ask?”

“Because he doesn’t speak any Eascorian.” 

“Oh.” Peter screwed his mouth up. “But—“ 

“Peter,” Steve said, forcing a smile onto his face. “It’s been a really long night. Can we pause the inquisition until I’ve had a chance to catch my breath?” 

“Sure!” Affable as ever, Peter turned around while he tried to calm the siren, who was clinging so close that he was practically in Steve’s lap. 

“Pal,” Steve said, wincing as the siren’s grip tightened. “You gotta…it’s just an auto, alright? It’s fine.”

How to explain 'fine,' though? Or an auto? A road? An engine and four wheels? The speed with which it could move? For that matter, how to explain a house, a door, a bed? There was a whole world out there of things the siren couldn't understand. Plus, there was the fact that Steve had no idea how long this 'having legs' business might last—what if he transformed right then and there, tail popping up over the seats to surprise Tony and Peter?

Gods, Steve was tired.

But the siren was smart. He had to remember that. Surely, they could muddle through things together for as long as it took to get him home. 

As they passed the turn that would have taken them to Lord Pierce’s manor, a shudder ran down Steve’s spine. Had the empty tank been discovered? Had the household been roused? The fact that they’d made it through the woods lent credence to the idea that nobody had heard Steve and Rumlow’s fight, which meant that Wanda had hopefully been able to get back to her bed unseen. Logic dictated that even when someone did find Rumlow and the empty tank, it would take Pierce and his staff some time to piece together what had happened. Plus, they could easily be led astray by Brock Rumlow lying to save his own skin. 

If Rumlow were clever, he would claim Steve had attacked him and absconded with the siren. However, given that the man had never proved himself to have even a modicum of intelligence, maybe he'd incriminate himself and save them all a whole mess of trouble.

Steve closed his eyes, grateful for the respite of the drive through the mostly-silent city as he puzzled through the new web of problems being spun in his mind. Working in their favor was the fact that nobody save Wanda knew the siren had legs. That, and Lord Pierce had kept the siren a closely guarded secret—telling a search party they were looking for a mythical beast would surely go against his mad ethos of confidentiality and power. 

They might, however, be told to look for an auto or other means of transportation. If Steve were Lord Pierce, thinking through what might have happened, he would assume there was a third party involved. Which, technically, there was, even if Tony and Peter’s involvement was unintentional and unwitting. Regardless, Steve was grateful for their early morning jaunt.

Howard, though? Howard’s reaction was still an unknown quantity, but Steve wanted to believe he’d be on their side. Peggy was a damn good judge of character, and for all his pompous bluster, she’d maintained that he was a decent sort. Sure, he had designed the tank, but he hadn’t known about the torture, and was as naive as Steve had once been about the siren’s smarts. Still, it probably would be better if Howard didn’t know they were in his house at all. 

The beginnings of a plan began forming themselves in Steve’s head as Tony turned a corner. Get patched up and rest. Stay out of Howard’s way. Wait for the cover of night, and then go on the run. It would be a long journey—Steve figured it would take them four days, at least, to walk to Towson, traveling at night to stay inconspicuous. Polis was probably closer, but Towson just so happened to be where the circus was being put up for another week (Steve having memorized the schedule before burning it, just in case). A train would be faster, as would an auto, but train stations and roads out of the city would be the first places checked by Lord Pierce in his search for his missing siren. No, they’d have to stick to woods and streams and anything else they could think of to cover their tracks.

If they made it to the circus, Steve could get that job Sam had promised and earn money. Keep sending something home to his mother, so she could save for spring. For once, the medication wasn’t an immediate problem—she was supplied through the winter, thanks to that first shipment Lord Pierce had sent out. However, the man wasn’t likely to be sending any more of the stuff, considering Steve had stolen his siren, which put Steve back at square one when it came to keeping her safe.

Best laid plans, he supposed. For now, though, and for the next several months, she was taken care of. The rest of it? Well, he’d figure out what to do about being a fugitive once the siren was free. That was the simple part—they’d stay with the circus until they came to a seaside town, and then the siren would be gone. Sure, the journey would take longer that way, but using the circus had been part of his plan with Wanda, too, because nobody would be looking for them there, hidden in plain sight.

So, there it was: the beginnings of a plan, along with a familiar thrill pumping through his veins. In truth, he hadn’t felt like this since the war—days spent as a tactician, nights as a government-sanctioned pirate—and he’d missed it. Missed the terror of the unknown. Of leaping off the side of the ship into the sturm and drang of a stormy sea. Most of all, he’d missed feeling useful. Having a purpose. Now, with the siren curled at his side, Steve felt renewed. He was going to get him home, whatever it took.

When they reached Howard’s manor some minutes later, Tony drove around to the back gates, which both boys jumped out to open, the squeal of rusted metal sending a shiver through the siren, who tucked himself tighter against Steve.

“It’s alright,” he said, patting his arm. 

"Peter'll close 'em up," Tony chirped as he hopped back into the driver's seat, trundling forward and into a small yard, where there was a carriage house, a drive, and a porte-cochere attached to the rear of the manor. One of the carriage house doors was open, and Tony drove right in, bringing the engine to a juddering halt, then turning to Steve and the siren.

“We’ll go in the servant’s entrance,” he said. “Come on, you can meet Mrs. Jarvis.” 

"I know Mrs. Jarvis," Steve said. "I met her when I was here to see your father."

“Ah. Well, she’s gonna be mad that you’re tracking blood and dirt on her clean floors, but she can patch you up—she was a nurse during the war.”

“Oh?”

“Sure. And don’t mind her scolding—she doesn’t mean it. Used to fix me up as a kid, when I got the snot kicked out of me. Which, that is to say, from the looks of you two, I’d say you either started a fight or ended it.” 

Perceptive kid. Steve offered him a tight smile. “Ended it,” he said, nudging the siren. 

“As if,” Peter said, strolling to the side of the auto, having caught up with them after closing the gates. “You’re not still starting fights, Tony.” 

“At least I’m not starting fires, Pete.” 

“It was only a little fire!”

“Little! You nearly burnt down the laboratory! If I hadn’t—” 

Peter protested loudly, allowing Steve to begin coaxing the siren out of the auto. Apparently, having endured twenty minutes of transit, the siren had decided he'd just live and die in the vehicle.

"Look," Steve said. "We need to go inside. It's happening. You gotta." He made the signs he thought he needed to convey the message, including 'out. Pierce. Rumlow. No.'

The siren squinted, and Steve pointed to the house through the open doors before covering his face with his hands, the way the siren had often done with his fins. Hide. He touched a finger to the siren’s chest, then his own, then repeated the first gesture. You. Me. Hide. 

After a moment’s consideration, the siren lifted his left hand and made the sign for fish

"Gods, yes," Steve repeated the sign. "All the fish you want if you'll go inside."

The siren’s countenance changed, and he smiled, then released his vice grip. 

“What uh—” Peter said hesitantly, breaking in from where he and Tony had gone unnervingly quiet. “What’s wrong with his teeth?” 

“Peter,” Steve said with a frown. “That’s rude. It’s uh…customary to file the teeth to points in his country.” Which wasn’t a lie, even if it was nature that did the filing.

“Sorry! I wasn’t trying to be rude, Cap, honest—”

“That’s alright,” Steve said, trying for benevolence as he climbed out of the auto, pleased when the siren did the same, legs wobbling just a bit when he touched them to solid ground. 

“You say you two met at work?” Tony asked.

“It’s complicated,” Steve said.

The four of them made their way toward the manor, where they heard the sound of a door opening before a tart female voice floated up from the servant’s stairwell. “I should think that if two young men are arriving at five o’clock in the morning, they might do so with a bit less noise. I should think! And on Mrs. Murphy’s day off—”

“Oh good,” Tony said brightly. “She’s up!” 

Moments later, Mrs. Jarvis’ head appeared, along with the rest of her, standing at the top of the steps with her hands on her hips. It took her precisely four seconds to absorb the scene—Tony and Peter, her expected visitors, along with Steve and a stranger, bleeding and bedraggled.

“Hmph,” she said. “Why am I standing outside, when you all should be inside? Downstairs, now, and we’ll see what can be done for your breakfast. Mr. Rogers, I am sure that you know that your shirtsleeve is torn, and Mr. Parker, I can’t imagine what your aunt would say about your having lost your top button, but I suppose we can remedy it if…my goodness.” 

The shocked exclamation came as the siren, to Steve’s consternation, made a beeline for Mrs. Jarvis. As with Wanda, he wrapped one arm around her torso in a half-hug, while his free hand moved to her cheek so he could study her face. Not to hurt her. Just to look at her. 

“I’m so sorry—” Steve said, darting forward and trying to pull him back. “He’s—” 

“What he is or is not is of no concern to me,” she said primly. “Although he does smell rather strange.” 

That was true enough—the siren smelled like salt water gone stagnant, with a hint of something fishy. Steve hid his smile as the four of them followed Mrs. Jarvis down the stairs. Interestingly, with her leading the way, it took no coaxing for the siren to try the new terrain, loping after her like he’d been born to it.

 


 

Ten minutes later, Steve was sitting next to the siren at the kitchen table, a large bandage covering the bite wound on his shoulder with several others plastered across his smaller cuts. The siren had received the same treatment, which he’d submitted to with ease, confounding Steve as much as anything else that had happened on that odd morning. Tony and Peter, as the uninjured parties, had been put to work making tea and porridge.

“I don’t suppose,” Steve said, once all wounds had been dressed. “That you’ve got any fish on hand? My friend, he really…fish are his favorite.” 

“We’ve tinned sardines,” Mrs. Jarvis replied. “Would you like them on toast?”

That query was made to the siren, who blinked, then smiled with all his teeth. Mrs. Jarvis, for her part, didn’t flinch. 

“He’d like that fine,” Steve said, because surely toast wouldn’t do much damage to the siren’s constitution? 

“Very well, then,” she said, going to fetch the sardines, along with some bread, which she put in a pan.

Tony, who was just finishing with the tea, placed steaming mugs in front of both Steve and the siren. “So,” he said, not missing a trick. “You two met at work? And you both worked for Pierce?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me he’s not one of those people Pierce picks up on his expeditions.”

“What people?” Steve frowned. 

“Servants. He swindles people into coming back here to work for him cheap. Promises them some great life and then takes advantage.”

That did sound like Lord Pierce, who had plenty of foreign-born servants at his disposal. Steve was annoyed at himself for not asking more questions, and couldn't help wondering what other things he'd missed during his time spent focused on the siren. "Ah. Yes. That's precisely what happened," he agreed, latching on to the half-truth. "That's why we ran—Lord Pierce mistreats him. Which, sure, his manners leave something to be desired, but—" Steve gestured to the siren, who had lowered his chin to the table and was staring at the steam coming off his mug with wide-eyed fascination. “He tries.”

“So how come you’re running off?” Tony asked. “Can’t you just leave? It’s not like he’s keeping slaves—” Narrowing his eyes, he leaned in. “Is he?” 

“Uh. No. But uh—” Steve stammered for an explanation.

“I wasn’t aware we served breakfast before six,” came Mr. Jarvis’ voice from the doorway, offering a blessed distraction in his robe and slippers, newspaper tucked under one arm. “Mrs. Jarvis?”

“Don’t you fuss at me, when I’ve been fussing all morning,” she replied, tone clipped as she turned the sardines. “Tony’s come home, and Mr. Rogers has come with him, so we will eat when we are eating.” 

“Morning, Jarvis,” Tony grinned, with just enough sheepishness that Steve knew he was used to getting away with this sort of thing. “You remember Peter? Steve?” 

“Quite,” Mr. Jarvis agreed, resting his gaze on the siren, who was still nose-to-porcelain with his tea. “And this…gentleman?” 

“A friend of mine,” Steve said. “We’re traveling together.”

“I see,” said Mr. Jarvis. “And how is it—” 

“They’ll be needing a bath,” Mrs. Jarvis broke in. “Some clothes.”

“And a ride,” Tony said. “To Polis. Isn’t that right, Steve?” 

“Uh.” Steve cleared his throat. “Towson, actually, if you’re offering.”

“We are not,” Mr. Jarvis said firmly. 

“Of course we are,” Mrs. Jarvis corrected.

“My dear—”

“First thing’s first,” Mrs. Jarvis went on. “Sardines on toast. How’s that porridge coming, Mr. Parker?”

“It’s still lumpy,” Peter sighed. “And it’s stuck to the bottom.”

“Hmph,” Mrs. Jarvis said, turning the sardines and toast onto a plate before going to prevent Peter scorching the pot.

The siren promptly forgot his tea, reaching out to grab a fistful of fish and bread and cramming the entire mess into his mouth. This was followed by a howl of protest, as the food was straight out of the pan. 

“Shit, pal, don’t eat it when it’s hot!” Steve laughed. “Don’t you know…”

He trailed off before he could finish the remarkably stupid question. Of course, the siren didn't know. All he knew was that he was hungry, that food was on the table, and that he wanted to eat it.

Steve reached over and lifted up a much smaller bit of toast, which he blew on before mimed a bite. The siren watched, absorbing the action, before doing as Steve did, picking up a new piece and blowing on it. His eyes lit up after attempting a bite of the cooler food, and he proceeded to wolf down the toast in three monstrous mouthfuls.

“Charming,” Steve snorted. 

“Never you mind,” Mrs. Jarvis said. “I’ll make you more.”

They were interrupted by a shout from the hallway beyond the kitchen. “What’s all that noise? Jarvis! Jarvis. Why am I awake? Why aren’t you? Isn't anyone working in this damned—"

Howard Stark had arrived, answering his own question when he stumbled into the kitchen in a pair of striped pajamas to find his son, his son’s friend, his two most trusted servants, Steve, and a stranger.

Except, the stranger wasn’t really a stranger, and Howard Stark was not a stupid man.

Steve watched as his keen eyes swept the room, then came to rest on the siren, who was looking back with a narrowed gaze.

“Good Gods,” Howard said. “That’s the—”

That was the moment the siren burst from his seat, determined to visit vengeance on one of his captors.

 

Chapter Text

The siren leaped for Howard, swiftly knocking him to the stone floor. Steve scrambled to his feet, heedless of the pain in his shoulder, concerned only with stopping the siren before he could do any serious damage.

He only just made it—the siren had already torn a nasty gash in Howard’s pajama top, claws scoring four red marks on the skin underneath. Steve grabbed him from behind, hauling him off with a grunt, though he fought mightily against the tight grip, kicking and snarling. They rolled over twice before Steve was able to pin him, holding his wrists tight to his stomach, thighs planted firmly on either side of his hips.

“No!” Steve shouted as he continued to writhe, a wrenching, desperate noise escaping him while he struggled. “Stop it! Howard’s not here to hurt you.”

The siren yowled again, lifting his head and dropping it to the unyielding floor with a heavy thud.

“Don’t do that,” Steve said, horrified as he moved back and hauled the siren up and into a tight embrace, trapping him with legs and arms to hold him fast. “I won’t let anything happen to you, but you’ve gotta stop fighting, pal—”

The siren made another pitiful noise before going limp in Steve’s arms, the fight leaving him as quickly as it had come. Steve had his suspicions—if this was a trick to get him to ease up, he wasn’t falling for it, keeping a firm hold before surveying the chaos.

Tony had rushed to his father, who was clutching his chest, blood pooling between his fingers from the scratches the siren had made. Peter, for some reason, was standing with the porridge spoon held aloft, mush dripping on the floor, while Mr. Jarvis had picked up a teapot and was brandishing it above his head like a weapon.

Mrs. Jarvis, meanwhile, had not moved a muscle and, upon surmising that the incident was over, turned to Howard with a long-suffering scowl. “You see what happens when you come downstairs? Nothing but trouble!”

“Trouble!” Howard roared, face red as Tony helped him to his feet. He made quite the picture—robe half-off, shirt torn, one silk slipper on and one halfway across the room. “Rogers! The fuck are you playing at?”

“Ah!” Mrs. Jarvis scolded, even as she strode toward Howard with a clean kitchen towel, which she pressed to his wound. “Don’t you bring your language here.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, still holding the siren, who was trembling now, prickling the base of Steve’s skull and their shared connection with every bit of fear he felt. Because Howard was one of his captors, after all. To him, there was no difference between the man spluttering in his dressing gown and Brock Rumlow brandishing a prod. “I can explain.”

“I—” Howard batted Mrs. Jarvis’ hand away. “You. My office. Ten minutes. Jarvis, with me.”

“Of course, sir,” Mr. Jarvis said, taking the cloth from Mrs. Jarvis and giving her an exaggerated shrug before trailing after a stomping Howard.

“So uh,” Tony broke the silence once they’d gone. “Your friend knows my dad?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“Huh.”

“I’m sorry I brought this—”

"Nah," Tony said, flippantly. "Distracts him from asking about how I performed on my exams. I ought to thank you."

Steve released his hold on the siren, whose only response was to slump further against him. “You’re welcome?”

“Pops doesn’t spend a lot of time with Pierce. But—” Tony shrugged. “I guess I might hold a grudge, too, if I’d seen them together and thought they were buddies.”

“It’s not a grudge,” Steve said, closing his eyes. “But it’s hard to explain.”

“Better figure it out before you have your chat with Howie.”

“Don’t call your father Howie,” Mrs. Jarvis chided. “Now. We will finish breakfast, and have no more of this nonsense. You—” She pointed at the siren. “I will make you another toast. And you—” That was for Steve. “Had better get something in your belly before you go upstairs.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Steve agreed meekly, helping the siren to his feet. Funny, how docile he was now, taking his place at the table, then digging into two more pieces of sardines on toast when they were produced. Steve, grateful for the brief reprieve, ate some of Peter’s porridge. It needed salt, but he wasn’t about to make any further requests.

Mr. Jarvis reappeared to summon Steve eventually, looking decidedly aggrieved at the turn his morning had taken. As he rose from the table, Steve glanced down at the siren, who was engrossed in the remnants of Steve’s porridge, using one claw to scrape the bowl before delicately licking at the food. Happy enough, so Steve left him be as he walked to Mr. Jarvis.

That particular action was met with an immediate protest. The siren’s chair scraped against the floor and, seconds later, his hand closed around Steve’s wrist.

“No!”

“Pal—“ Steve said. “You can’t come.”

 


 

Turned out, Steve was wrong. The siren could, in fact, come along. And he did. Mostly because he was disinclined to allow Steve to go without him, snarling when any attempt was made to make him stay behind. So, Steve conceded, following Mr. Jarvis out of the kitchen and up the stairs, siren in tow. Was he worried about putting the two of them in close proximity once again? Sure. But it had been a long night, and there was some logic in the idea that perhaps seeing the siren up close—while not actively under threat—might convince Howard to help them.

As they walked through the large, silent house, Steve was struck by just how different it was to Lord Pierce’s manor. This was no tomb—this house was alive with signs of the people who lived within her walls. Their curiosities. Their quirks. Their hobbies and their habits. Their small symbols of good humor reminding and reassuring Steve that, above all, Howard Stark was Peggy’s friend, and Peggy didn’t hold with cowards or cruel men.

“Go on,” Mr. Jarvis said when they reached the study, opening the door and ushering them in.

Steve took firm hold of the siren’s hand (just in case) as they stepped into the room. Howard was standing in front of his desk, dressed now in a fine linen suit, with arms folded and mustache twitching beneath his furrowed brow. The scowl only deepened when he saw the siren.

“Thank you, Jarvis,” Howard said stiffly. “That’ll be all.”

Mr. Jarvis shut the door, leaving the three of them to their conversation.

“I can explain—” Steve said.

“I look forward to that, Rogers. But I got a few questions of my own before you start. Number one: how? Number two: why? Number three: how?”

"Well, that's just…hey, no!" The siren was baring his teeth at Howard and had just begun to growl as well. "Be polite." Using the only language his friend might understand, Steve made the sign for 'Pierce,' then for 'Rumlow,' then for 'no' before pointing at Howard, trying to indicate that he wasn't in the same league. Steve hoped he wasn't, at least.

“Nice friend,” Howard said. “Some trick, Rogers—”

“It’s not a trick,” he sighed. “Look, you obviously recognize him.”

“I’m not blind.”

“No, I know you’re…” he shook his head. “I had no idea about any of…this.” With that, he gestured at the siren’s legs. “But we had to run, you see?”

“From what?” Howard queried.

“Shit. It’s a long story. I think I’d better start at the start.”

“I’m listening.”

"So, the first thing you gotta understand," Steve began. "Is how they electrified the tank."

Howard raised a brow; Steve commenced with the tale, which took nearly an hour, all through. He started with talk of the torture, then of the intelligence he'd noticed in the siren virtually from the start. After that, he took Howard through the drawings and the signs, the language they'd created, and the unlikely friendship they'd forged.

“And then you—geez, he’s giving me the creeps like that,” Howard said, glancing at the siren, who was glaring at him with narrowed blue eyes, apparently rather put out at him having had the audacity to ask a question. Steve might have found that funny, were he not so gods damn exhausted.

"Don't worry about the creeps he's giving you," Steve shrugged. "He's not the bad guy here. You want creeps, though, I got 'em."

That, naturally, was his incredibly subtle way of beginning a frank discussion of Lord Pierce’s mental state, and how Steve had been made privy to the monster within the man. He spoke candidly of Pierce’s unhinged religious fervor, as well as his genuine belief in his forthcoming deification.

Howard let out a low whistle at that. “I knew he was nuts, but not that nuts.”

Steve, who by then was sitting on the sofa with the siren, shrugged. “He’s a true believer.”

“No kidding. So, you’re stuck there, and you’re listening to this, and you’re thinking…shit, if he’s gonna kill your buddy, you gotta get your buddy out.”

“Yep,” Steve agreed,  before giving Howard the basics of the plan—leaving Wanda out, just in case—as well as Rumlow’s idiotic upending of it. He took him through the stolen keys. The escape. The shock of the siren’s transformation, followed by their desperate flight through the woods, up to the point where they’d been found by Tony and Peter.

“So I guess what I’m saying is,” he finished, stifling a yawn. “I’m throwing myself on your mercy. Because Peggy trusts you, so I hope I can, too. Shit, you can turn me in if you want, but…you gotta help him first. He hasn’t done anything wrong, and he’s—”

“Shit, Rogers,” Howard broke in. “You think I can’t see when I’ve fucked up?”

Steve hadn’t been at all certain of that, so he kept his mouth shut.

“I’m sorry,” Howard said to the siren. “I was a dummy, sure, but I still played a part in all this. I can’t blame you for taking a swipe at me. Wish you could understand how sorry I am—”

“You could show him,” Steve said. “Make it up to him—”

“I’m gonna try. But they’re gonna be looking for you by now, I’d wager.”

“Probably so.”

“You said you’re trying to get to Towson?”

"To the circus, like I said. I got some friends there. We can hide with them, stay out of sight, and get to the coast."

“I—” Howard shook his head. “That’s a start.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I gotta think about this plan of yours. Figure some things out.”

“So you’ll help?”

"Of course, I'll help. You said it yourself—I ought to make it up to him. But I need some time, and you two need to get off your feet."

The idea of being able to rest for a moment caused Steve to sink deeper into the plush cushions of Howard’s fancy couch as he nodded his grateful agreement. Howard smiled, then turned to a small black box on his desk, pressing a button on its surface. A moment later, Mr. Jarvis’ crackling voice filled the room, making both Steve and the siren jump.

“Yes, sir?”

“Have rooms prepared for Steve and his guest, will you, J?”

“Very good, sir.”

“And Jarvis?”

“Yes, sir?”

“We might receive a visit from Lord Pierce today. If we do, I trust you’ll be able to keep him confined to the ground floor?”

“Of course, sir.”

Howard released the button, and Steve sighed. “Thank you—”

“Don’t thank me yet. You’re a wanted man, Rogers, and Pierce’ll have the city crawling with people looking to collect a bounty on your head before the morning’s through. Still, it’s better you’re in here than out there.”

“We appreciate the beds, either way.”

“Fish in a bed,” Howard grinned, starting to laugh. “Damndest thing I ever heard.”

“Sure,” Steve agreed, laughing as well because getting the giggles was easy enough when you were exhausted.

The siren, immune to good humor, butted his head against Steve’s arm with a grunt.

 


 

Steve and the siren were left waiting in Howard’s office until their bedrooms were ready, while Howard went to speak with Tony and Peter about the situation. He wasn’t going to say a word regarding what the siren was, or why they were there, but he wanted to ensure silence from the boys, just in case Lord Pierce did come calling.

After a few minutes alone, the siren’s head dropped to Steve’s shoulder, and it wasn’t long after that when Steve noticed he’d drifted off. This was a bit of a shock, considering the siren had never before let his guard down enough to sleep in front of Steve. Mostly, it spoke to how profoundly tired they both were, and Steve decided he could take a lesson from it, following the siren’s lead and resting his head against the padded back of the sofa for a doze.

A soft “Mr. Rogers?” roused him some time later, and he opened his eyes to find Mr. Jarvis standing in the doorway of the office. “If you two will follow me?”

The siren had jolted awake at the noise, alert in an instant, every muscle tensing. Steve squeezed his hand, hoping to reassure, though there was only so much he could do.

They followed Mr. Jarvis out of the office, down the hall, and up a set of stairs to what he informed them was the east wing, where two adjoining doors stood open. “For your guest,” Mr. Jarvis said, indicating the leftmost door.

Two bedrooms had been a nice idea, but Steve knew in an instant that there was no way the siren was going to consent to sleep in a separate room. "Thank you, Mr. Jarvis. But uh…I guess we'll be sharing a room. For now."

Mr. Jarvis glanced at their firmly entwined hands and nodded. “Then I suggest you take the mahogany room, on the right.”

“Thank you,” Steve said, tugging the siren in that direction. “It’s appreciated.”

“Might I also point out that the mahogany room boasts an ensuite bathroom?” Mr. Jarvis called after them. “With plenty of hot water?”

A tactful hint as to their current stench, Steve was sure. “Thank you, Mr. Jarvis,” he called over his shoulder, shutting the door behind them and leaning against it. Not quite peace and quiet, considering his constant companion, but he was going to take a moment to close his eyes and breathe. Once. Twice. Three times.

Upon opening his eyes, he found the siren mere inches away, staring at him with no small amount of consternation on his peaky, inquisitive face.

'Out,' the siren signed, pointing at the closed door. 'Sea. Fish. Out.'

Gods,” Steve sighed, using his free hand to rub the day-old stubble on his jaw. “We’re working on it, alright? Howard’s gonna help and…fuck, I know you don’t understand a word of this, but I’m so tired, pal. I just wanna sleep. Aren’t you tired?”

He mimed falling asleep, same as he had the day he'd taught the siren the concept of 'tomorrow.' The siren considered the notion, then dropped his head to Steve's shoulder once more, closing his eyes, content to nod off right where they stood. Which, alright, sleeping in the middle of the ocean probably didn't require any special accommodations, so one place was as good as any other for napping when one didn't have to be discriminatory.

"Let's uh …let's try the bed," Steve offered, shrugging his shoulder to force the siren up.

The siren, who had been quite content where he was, gave a little grunt.

"Ah, c' mon," Steve wheedled, leading him toward the sumptuous, ridiculously ornate bed, which looked damned inviting, made up with a red and gold jacquard duvet, surrounded by a matching canopy held aloft by four ornately carved wooden beams. "You might like it."

Sitting on the bed, Steve patted the space next to him. The siren acquiesced to join him, and the moment his rear end hit the fluffy feather mattress, he let out a squawk, bouncing twice, then flopping onto his back and wriggling all over the textured bedspread.

The silliness of the action struck Steve as hilarious, and he started to laugh, falling backward to join him. The siren continued to squirm like some overexcited puppy in spring, though Steve couldn't blame him—a year and a half trapped in a tiny prison? Shit, he'd be taking comfort wherever he could.

Sitting up, Steve took off his boots, wincing as he realized that they probably ought to have taken a bath before trying out the bed. The siren had already mucked up the fancy bedspread with his muddy feet, and gods knew they both smelled terrible. In the end, however, Steve was too exhausted to care. Now that he was in a bed, no part of him could be bothered to leave it. Once his boots were on the ground, he groaned, flexing his toes and twisting around so he could lay his head on the fluffiest pillow he'd ever had the luxury of sullying.

“Much better,” he mumbled.

“No,” the siren said, sitting up.

“No?”

“Muts-bettah,” he said, playing the mimicking game they’d always played as he once again found his voice.

Sleep could wait. Steve raised an eyebrow. “Hello.”

“Uh-lo.” Bit of trouble with the H, but that was alright—it wasn’t every day one learned to talk.

Though come to think of it, the siren had likely used his voice before. Singing, according to Wanda, was quite literal. Which meant that their communication problem was really only one of language acquisition, rather than a total barrier.

That gave Steve an idea.

Sitting up on one elbow, he touched a hand to his chest. “Steve.”

The siren cocked his head, then pointed to himself. “Ssseve.”

“No.” He smiled. “You’re not Steve. I’m Steve.” Reaching for the siren’s hand, he put it above his own heart and thumped it twice. “Steve.”

"No, Ssseve!"

Damn it. Steve sat up further, pointing to himself. “Steve. Steve.”

“Stuh-heve,” the siren repeated slowly before thumping Steve on the chest hard enough to make him wince.

It made him grin, too, though, and he laughed before tapping his chest again. “Steve,” he agreed. Then, hoping against hope, he reached out and touched the siren’s chest, shrugging helplessly and looking as bewildered as he could.

The siren’s eyes narrowed as he began working through the puzzle, the same as he had with the drawings and signs he’d learned in the tank. It was easy to tell when he’d figured out what Steve was asking—eyes lighting up as he opened his mouth.

Steve had expected a name. Maybe a song. What he got instead was a noise so piercing that he was forced to cover his ears, and even then it was nearly unbearable. Shattering and shrill, tears sprang to his eyes, and he shrank back, just as an expensive-looking vase on the mantle cracked and splintered, falling to the floor in a half-dozen pieces.

The sound wasn’t dissimilar to the noise a dolphin might make, only twenty times louder and higher pitched. Which, if one was calling one’s name through the water, made sense. It was not, however, a name the siren could use on land, considering they were trying to lay low.

There was a pattern to the noise, though. An ordering of consonant and vowel sounds that Steve began piecing together from the echo of the name ringing in his ears.

“Breeeee-ahhhh-keeee?” he offered, doing his best approximation of what the siren’s name had sounded like to him.

The siren made a face. “No.” He opened his mouth for a repeat performance. Steve quickly shook his head.

"No, no, that 's—my voice uh, it doesn't work like that. I can't say it like you say it, pal."

“Payl,” the siren agreed.

"Pal," Steve nodded. "It's not…terrible, though? Bree-ah-kee?"

“No.” The siren squinted. “Payl. Bree-ah-kee?” He pointed to himself.

"Yeah." Only Bree-ah-kee wasn't much of a name. "How uh…Breaky? Bracky? Bucky?" The last one dropped the 'R' but was something akin to a real name, and one that wasn't a complete bastardization of what the siren had screeched. Granted, it was still a pretty stupid name, but it was one that wouldn't get them looked at twice when making introductions.

“Bucky?” he said again, tapping the siren’s chest. “Bucky?”

The siren considered it. “Buh-kee?”

“Yeah,” Steve laughed. “Bucky. And Steve.” One tap to the siren’s chest, then one to his own.

The siren took a moment to consider before an almost-pleased look spread across his face. “Bucky,” he agreed, touching his chest before reaching out for Steve. “Steve.”

It was a start.

 

portrait of Howard Stark

Chapter Text

Scratchscratchtap.

Steve groaned, too warm and comfortable in his bunk to contemplate what was probably a mouse, scratching its way along the wall of his cabin.

Tapscratchtap.

Where was the cat? Surely it had been there when he’d gone to sleep and—huh. His blankets felt different. Soft and heavy under his hands as he began pushing them back.

ScratchtapCRASH.

Steve opened his eyes, jolted from his half-dream by the sound of an ornamental clock ticking its last tock. Because someone had knocked it from the top of a cabinet of curios upon which it had formerly held pride of place.

The siren stood next to the mess he had made and blinked at Steve before dropping to his knees, noodling through the broken bits and pieces to examine what he’d found. (This examination mostly involved sticking various components into his mouth, then spitting them onto the carpet when he discovered they weren’t edible.)

“Bucky,” Steve said wearily, trying out the new name. “No.” 

Tired-eyed, he rose and went to where the siren—Bucky—was crouched, having vacated the comfort of their shared space some time ago. Stupid, to have believed that putting him in a bed would be enough to make him rest. But they’d both been exhausted, so when Steve had pulled the covers up to his chin and closed his eyes, he’d honestly thought Bucky would do the same. And perhaps he would have, had he been human, or used to sleeping in a bed at all. But he wasn’t, and he hadn’t, so there they were, Bucky’s sleeplessness reinforced when he looked up at Steve with red-rimmed eyes and a pale, peaky face. Probably he’d been exploring the room since the moment Steve had drifted off.

How long ago that had been, however, he couldn’t say, because Bucky had smashed the clock.

“Steve,” Bucky said, pointing to the mess before doing a remarkable imitation of the clock’s former ticking sound. 

"It's …well, it was a clock.” 

“A-cl-o-ahk.” 

“And you broke it.” 

“Brohkit.” 

“Yeah.” Steve crouched, pointing to the numbered face. “Clock.” Then to Bucky. “Bucky.” Then to himself. “Steve.” 

“Cl-o-ahk,”

“Yup.” Steve yawned, nudging his arm. “Aren’t you tired? I’m pretty tired—guess I thought you might sleep, too.” 

Bucky cocked his head, as was his habit when puzzling through something new. Steve gestured toward the bed, as Bucky had seemed to like it fine before—had curled up and put his head on the pillow, even—and he hoped he might return. The problem remained, though, that actually sleeping in it had bothered him enough not to do it, even with Steve providing an example. 

“Please?” he asked, body aching as he got to his feet, every inch of him sore. He reached out a hand, which Bucky took after a moment’s consideration. “Hey, that’s great, pal.” 

“Dats-grate, payl.”

Gibberish, but Steve could appreciate the effort as he pulled Bucky back to bed. 

“Now,” he said, once he had him settled, keeping hold of his wrist “We sleep.” 

“Slee-ip.” 

“Uh-huh,” Steve agreed, leaning back against his pillow. 

Not two minutes later, Bucky made an attempt to pull out of his loose grip. Opening his eyes, Steve raised a brow. “Bucky. No.”

“No, no,” Bucky protested Steve’s protestations, grunting and pulling harder. “No, no, no.” 

“Yes, yes, yes,” he replied, before releasing his hand with a sigh. “Or not. I’m not gonna force you to do things you don’t wanna do—you’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime. But shit…” He shrugged, yawning again. “Aren’t you tired?” 

Bucky studied him, mimicking the shrug and the yawn before making the sign for Rumlow, then pointing at the door, then Steve, and finally ending with the sign for tomorrow.

Oh. 

Oh

Steve shook his head. "No. No Rumlow. Not coming here. Not tomorrow. Not ever. It's…" He thought for a moment, seeking inspiration for how best to communicate the concept of 'safe.' The result was a complicated maneuver involving a heavy armchair shoved in front of the locked door, followed by a demonstration to show Bucky that said door couldn't be opened. Bucky got out of bed to test things, naturally, shaking the handle and using all his strength to try and force it, to no avail. Steve could appreciate the effort, though—he'd have done the same thing.

Only when assured of the room’s safety (and after making Steve shove a second chair in front of the bathroom door) did Bucky consent to sleep, or at least remain in bed, lying atop the duvet while Steve crawled beneath it. Steve didn’t care if he actually slept, so long as he stayed still, and quiet, and didn’t break any more valuables. 

Less than a minute after once again closing his eyes, Steve felt Bucky move.  Felt the covers lift before he slipped beneath them, newfound legs leading the way. There was the slightest bit of wriggling, and then to his great surprise, Bucky’s hand reached out to rest on his arm, seeking comfort as his breathing evened. 

Steve smiled, matching him breath for breath. Within a few minutes, he was asleep as well.

When he woke, it was with the disorienting feeling of not quite knowing when or where one was in the world. How much time had passed? Was it day or night? Bucky had shifted in his sleep, as had Steve, tangling the two of them together in a way that reinforced how very much they needed a bath. Bucky’s hair smelled of brine and blood alongside something horribly fishy, while Steve stank of sweat and fear and every other bit of nastiness he’d picked up along the way. He was going to have to apologize to Mr. Jarvis for the sheets, which no doubt smelled as bad as they did now. 

Yawning, he sat up to stretch. Bucky, instantly alert to any movement, opened his eyes.

“Hi,” Steve said.

“Steve,” Bucky replied.

"That's my name, don't wear it out," he agreed, the silly saying coming unbidden—something his father used to say to make him smile when he was small. "C'mon. We need a bath."

Even as he said it, Steve saw the problem: he was asking Bucky—a living, breathing siren—to hop into a tub full of water. There were a lot of potential pitfalls there, mostly because whatever had triggered his transformation was still an unknown quantity. Had it been fear? Joy? Magic? Was it something he could do at will, or something borne of circumstance? Putting him into water might answer those questions, but more than that: it might give him back his tail.

All the same, Bucky stank. He needed the bath, lest their hiding place be discovered solely through his stench. So shit, if he got his tail, he got his tail—they’d figure it out. Besides, Howard had said he’d help them; Steve had to assume that meant with or without legs.

“Bay-uth,” Bucky echoed, doing a remarkable approximation of Steve’s accent.

“Keep that up, nobody’ll know you’re not from Red Hook,” he teased, getting to his feet and going to the window to peer around the edge of the heavy curtains. The sun was setting, which meant they’d spent most of the day asleep, which was no bad thing—Gods knew they’d needed it. Bucky, who’d been sticking to Steve like glue, pressed his nose to the window, leaving behind a smear when he pulled away.

Next stop was the bathroom, which they could only enter after Steve shoved Bucky’s wholly unnecessary security chair away from the door. The bathroom itself was the height of luxury, with a new-fangled flushing toilet and a clawfoot tub the size of a small pond built against one wall. It made quite the contrast to the servant’s bathrooms at Lord Pierce’s estate, with their mostly-cold showers and threadbare towels that hardly fit the circumference of Steve’s narrow waist. 

“Oh, yes,” he breathed, grinning at the sight.

“Oh-yes,” Bucky repeated, walking past him to the counter, where there sat a bowl of small, decorative soaps, one of which he proceeded to pick up before lifting it to his mouth and biting off a hefty chunk. 

Steve waited. Tried not to laugh at the horror in Bucky’s eyes as he spat the soap onto the floor in disgust.

“No!” he yelped, glaring at Steve.

“I didn’t make you eat it!” he said. “That’s soap, goofy. You don’t eat soap.” 

“So-ap.” 

“Soap, yeah.”

“Soap.” 

“Right. Maybe ask me before you put things in your mouth. Or, uh, just don’t put things in your mouth?” 

That was likely a request too far, as Bucky had already begun eyeing the water in the toilet the same way he’d looked at the water in the stream. Steve grabbed him by the elbow before he could drop to his knees and stick his face in the bowl. “No…alright, hang on. I’ll get you water.” 

Thinking quickly, he turned on one of the sink faucets instead. The siren jumped at the sight, though when Steve let him go, he stuck his face under the stream without hesitation. It was hard to tell if he was drinking or just enjoying the sensation, but either way, it kept him busy and gave Steve the chance to start running the bath.

Bucky, naturally, abandoned his small stream for the bigger one the moment Steve started the flow from the golden taps. Leaning right over the edge of the tub, Bucky watched with wide-eyed fascination, trying one side (too hot), then the other (tolerable). Steve stepped in only long enough to plug the drain before letting Bucky be, hand beneath the cooler stream as the bath filled.  Content to have peace for a second or two, Steve turned off the sink before shucking his clothes without shame. He'd long ago lost any sense of modesty—sharing close quarters with his crew during the war meant that everyone saw everything eventually, so there was no use being shy.

Once undressed, he tapped Bucky on the shoulder to get his attention. Bucky, who had abandoned the faucet to trail his right hand through the warm bath, leaving tendrils of dirt in his wake, looked around curiously before scowling the second he saw Steve standing there.

“What?” he asked, raising a brow.

Clambering to his feet, Bucky yanked at the button on his pants, evidently displeased that Steve had become unencumbered of such burdens, while he was still forced to endure them.

“Alright, alright. Got it.” Steve grinned, moving to help Bucky strip, which was rather beyond anything he’d ever had to do for his crew members, but it wasn’t as though Bucky had any frame of reference for normalcy. 

Upon being relieved of his pants, Bucky let out a high pitched yelp of joy. Steve winced at the sound, ignoring for the time being the inevitable fight he was going to be faced with when trying to get him into a fresh pair after the bath. Although, if the tub proved detrimental to the leg-having situation, Steve supposed the problem might solve itself. “Moment of truth, pal,” he said, pointing to the water. “Let’s see what happens in there.” 

Taking Bucky by the hand, he showed him how to step in. Bucky followed his lead, the dark scales covering his legs catching the light and shimmering as he moved. Steve found he couldn’t help staring, transfixed by both the beauty of the unfamiliar and the surety that a transformation was about to begin. 

But nothing happened. Bucky stood shin-deep in the water, which was turning a muddy brown around his feet as the dirt sloughed off, smiling in his unwitting bipedality. 

“Fresh water’s not gonna do it for you, huh?” he said, relief washing over him. “I guess that’s good news.” If nothing else, this was strong evidence that Bucky didn’t need the tail or the transformation—he had been without it for nearly a day now, and seemed none the worse for wear. Whether or not that would continue, Steve didn’t know, but he was willing to take it on faith that their run of good luck wasn’t quite over yet. 

“Let’s uh, let’s sit down,” he offered, trying not to wince as he sat, the warm water making every cut on his body sing with fresh discomfort. He wouldn’t be submerging his bitten shoulder, that was for gods damn sure. 

Bucky followed his movements, ungainly as he settled in the water and began awkwardly arranging his legs to fit around the space occupied by Steve’s body. The tub, at least, was as understated as everything else in Howard’s estate—that was to say, big enough to turn a yacht in—so while it was a tight squeeze, it wasn’t an uncomfortable one.

“Alright?” he asked. 

Bucky splashed his hands against the water, then grinned at the mess he'd made. "Aw-rite."

“You better quit—” Steve laughed, splashing him back. 

“Quit!” Bucky echoed, smacking his hands against the water, the webbing between his fingers proving an effective paddle to get things churning.

Steve left him to play while he stretched to grab one of the washcloths that lay on a shelf near the tub, waiting until he’d calmed a bit before showing him what, precisely a bath entailed. “First lesson in passing for a human—you gotta scrub your face.”

To demonstrate, he ran the cloth under the hot tap before shutting it off (a necessity, as the tub was very nearly overflowing, the secondary drain sucking in excess water by the second), then rubbed it over his face. By the time he was through, one side of the bright white cloth was dulled by the dust and dirt and crusted blood of their misadventures. 

“Now you try,” he offered, passing the cloth to Bucky, who took it and mimicked his actions. Only he didn’t scrub so much as he started sucking on the cloth, drawing the water (along with the dirt) out of it as it lay across his face.

Steve stifled a laugh, reaching out to pull the cloth away. "No. C'mon. You have to—" Deciding to just show him, he began rubbing the rough cotton against Bucky's face. This earned him an aggrieved whine, as well as Bucky snapping dangerously close to his fingers with those sharp teeth.

“Hey!” Steve said. “No! That’s not nice.”

“No!” Bucky agreed. “Noh-aht-noice.” 

“You smell like shit, pal. I’m only trying to help.”

Bucky grunted and splashed him again. 

The bath devolved predictably from there. When Steve reached for the soap, Bucky slapped his hand, so the slippery bar fell in the water, which by then was so cloudy it was beginning to defeat the purpose of a bath. Deciding to start fresh, Steve pulled the plug. However, when Bucky realized that the water was disappearing, he let out a yelp of dismay. To placate him, Steve turned the faucets back on, hoping Howard had a decent reservoir of hot water at his disposal.

“Let’s try again,” he said, once the tub was refilled and he’d located the soap sitting sadly between them. Lathering a fresh washcloth, he reached for Bucky’s arm, as he’d decided that starting with the face had been a bad idea. 

"This is a washcloth," he said, just to make conversation while he scrubbed Bucky's skin. "Washcloth."

“Wosh-clo-ath.” 

“Right.”

Moving his free hand to tap the side of the tub, Bucky made the sign for cage, then frowned. 

“No,” Steve said, echoing the gesture before replying, “bath.” 

“Ba-yut.” 

“Right. Bath.” He smiled, touching the now grimy water. “And this…I guess you guys probably got about a million names for this stiff, but up here, we call it water.” 

Bucky squinted.

“Water,” he repeated, splashing.

“Woahdduh.” 

“Right.” 

“Bath. Water,” Bucky said, touching each one in turn. “Washcloth.”

“Yes!” Steve grinned. “That’s it, pal.” 

“Pal.” Bucky gave him a big smile before leaning down and parting his lips to suck in a mouthful of soapy scum.

Steve gagged. Bucky hummed, swallowing his prize before crawling over to stick his head under the tap, shaking it back and forth like a particularly happy puppy. This soaked both Steve and the bathroom, with the added bonus of Bucky’s foot slipping against the porcelain to give his upper thigh a kick in a nearly-vulnerable location.

“Shit, Bucky!” he laughed, thumping him on the shoulder. “Warn a fella!”

Bucky looked at him, a smile on his face, water dripping from his tangled mass of hair. "Steve."

“Yup.”

“Washcloth.” 

"Sure," he said, not looking a gift horse in the mouth as he passed it over. Bucky proceeded to stick his head back under the faucet, using the washcloth to scrub his face and neck. Then, to Steve's great shock, he sat back and began employing it to clean the rest of his body—a quick learner, as always. Silently, Steve reached for a fresh cloth, and the two of them scrubbed side by side until they were cleaner and the water was once again murky. It took four draining-and-refilling operations before the bath stayed relatively clear, by which point Steve was exhausted, and Bucky was delighted, splashing around and kicking his feet. (There had been one additional moment of terror during the third refill when Bucky's big toe had gotten too close to the drain. The subsequent panic had been a sight, and it had taken every remaining ounce of strength in Steve's body to keep Bucky from clawing his way out of the tub in fright.)

"What do you think, pal?" he said as the water grew colder around them. "Are we done?" Granted, Bucky had no concept of 'done,' so of course, he couldn't answer the question. All the same, Steve figured that talking to him probably helped—he was going to have to assimilate a little bit to get along until they could get him home.

Hoping to lead by example, Steve got to his feet and reached for one of the fluffy, white towels stacked on a shelf above the toilet. He wrapped the towel around his waist, then stepped out of the tub and onto the bathmat, flexing his toes against the cushy material that he couldn’t quite place.

A perturbed noise came from behind him, and Steve bit back a smile as he turned to see what could possibly be the latest cause for concern. “Hmm?”

Reaching out a hand, Bucky tugged at the towel. 

“Towel,” he explained.

“Towwuh.” 

“Yup. You want one?” He took another from the shelf, holding it out with a smile. 

Bucky rose to his feet and reached for the towel, making a game attempt at wrapping it around his waist, just like Steve had done. 

“Good job, pal,” he praised once he’d accomplished it, offering his hand to help him from the tub.

“Steve,” Bucky said once he was standing on the fluffy bathmat, webbed toes curling.

“What?”

Pointing at the tub, he made the sign for fish.

"Oh. No, it's uh…no fish in there." As he said 'fish,' he made the sign. Bucky nodded slowly—suspiciously—which made some sort of sense. What kind of water didn't have fish? Shit, he’d probably been confused when they hadn’t started flopping magically out of the faucet.

“Fiss,” Bucky echoed, repeating the gesture.

“Yeah. Fish.” 

“Fishhhh.” 

“Right.” 

“No fish?”

"No fish in the tub. But we can get you fish if you're hungry."

Bucky blinked, then pointed to the toilet. “Fish?”

Steve stifled a laugh. "No fish there, either. But, speaking of uh…that—" He'd have to show him how to use it sooner or later, and considering he hadn't pissed since the stream, this was as good a time as any to introduce Bucky to certain intricacies of the human condition.

Three minutes later found him on his knees with a hand towel, cleaning up splatters while Bucky played in the sink, blissfully unaware of the mess he’d made.

Chapter Text

By the time Steve and Bucky left the bathroom, it had been thoroughly decimated. The tub was ringed with grime, the soap was worn to a nub, and every available surface was covered in water thanks to Bucky’s discovery that, should he hold his claw against a faucet, water would fly all sorts of directions.

The fountain display had been when Steve gave up on getting the bathroom back in any sort of order, taken Bucky by the hand, and leading him out to the bedroom instead. There, he was faced with a new dilemma: the bag Wanda had packed only held one spare set of clothes, and there were two of them. Luckily, this problem was solved by forces beyond their control—namely, Mr. Jarvis and his impeccable timing. No sooner had Steve shut the bathroom door, in fact, than there came a knock at the bedroom.

Bucky flashed his teeth in a silent snarl and darted forward, which resulted in him losing his towel. Steve sighed. 

“No, Bucky,” he said, touching his shoulder. 

Turning, Bucky made the sign for Rumlow, then pointed to the door. Steve shook his head before calling out, “who is it?” 

“Mr. Jarvis.”

Which was about what Steve had been expecting. "Ah, we're …indisposed."

“I imagined you might be. I’ve brought some clothes.”

The timing was suspicious enough to make Steve think that Mr. Jarvis had been standing outside the door for a while, waiting to hear them emerge. Gods knew what he’d overheard in the interim. 

“Great! Hang on…just a minute.” Bending to retrieve Bucky’s towel, Steve thrust it at him before trying in vain to move the chair without losing his own. That proved a futile battle, so once he had the chair shoved away, he made himself decent before opening the door, trying to appear dignified despite his lack of trousers. 

Mr. Jarvis, ever unruffled, held out an armful of clothing. “When you’ve dressed, Lord Stark asks that you come to his study.” 

"That's …thank you, Mr. Jarvis." Steve took the clothes. Behind him, he heard the sound of something ripping, and briefly closed his eyes.

“That would be the curtains,” Mr. Jarvis supplied helpfully. 

“Ah. We’ll...please tell Mrs. Jarvis I’m sorry about the bathroom. And the curtains. And the clock.”

“Very good, Mr. Rogers,” Mr. Jarvis said, and Steve could swear he saw the man’s mouth twitching at the corners.

“Uh. Thanks again,” he said, closing the door with as much stateliness as he could muster. Turning, he discovered Bucky standing by the window, one clawed finger caught in the hole he’d ripped through the heavy drapes.

“I—” Steve shook his head. “Why?” 

Being as he couldn’t answer, Bucky swung the curtain back and forth unhappily, biting out a whine.

“What?” Steve dropped the clothes on the chair before going to close the ruined drapes.

Bucky made another disconsolate noise, smacking his palm flat against the closed curtains and making the sign for cage

“Aw, pal—” Steve offered him a smile. “It’s not like that here. We’re not prisoners.”

Though, weren’t they? Of a sort, anyhow. Not prisoners in this house or in this room, no, but prisoners in the world. Lord Pierce was monied, connected, and ruthless when it came to the pursuit of his dogma. It was hard not to feel like a noose had been slipped around their necks, tightening with every passing hour.

But shit, it was what it was. They were still breathing, and that had to be enough for now. 

“No cage,” he continued, signing the word before taking Bucky’s hand to lead him to the clothes. 

“Cayge,” Bucky repeated, making the sign. 

“Right.” Steve stopped in front of the chair and smiled. “This is just the first step on the path to the sea.” He signed that, too, and Bucky grinned.

“See-ee!”

“Exactly. But first thing’s first, we gotta get dressed to talk to Howard, so—” He plucked a shirt from the top of the pile. It was fancy—nicer than he’d ever owned in his life. The trousers would be just as nice, he figured, well-made and comfortable. Not likely to fray or warp the way his own did after he’d worn them for a season. Sarah Rogers was a dab hand with a needle and thread, and while she’d taught Steve to do his own mending, there was only so much a body could do when the raw goods were lacking. 

The shirt fit him well, broad enough across the shoulders, tails draping past his hips. Made for him—not some a hand-me-down from Howard. Shit, had Mr. Jarvis gone shopping for them? Steve wasn’t sure until he put on the trousers, which fell to his ankles, neither too short nor too long. 

How had Mr. Jarvis had gotten his measurements? Hard to say, but he imagined it had probably happened during the time the man had spent alone with his suitcase. If circumstances had been different, Steve might have refused the generosity, but things being as they were, well, Howard owed Bucky more than a new pair of pants for the part he’d played in the whole mess.

“Alright!” Steve said cheerfully once he was dressed, snapping suspenders into place. “Your turn, pal.”

Bucky watched placidly as he picked up the second shirt. Mr. Jarvis—who Steve was beginning to suspect was a wizard—had procured one without buttons. Easily slipped on and off, that way, without the need for claws that were deadly but not terribly dextrous. 

“Look at that,” he marveled. “Just for you. Arms up, huh?” 

Steve demonstrated what he wanted, waiting for Bucky to mimic before slipping the shirt over his head. Once again, Bucky put up no fuss to having the top half of himself dressed, likely saving his consternation for the trousers. First, though, Steve had to get him into the drawers that had been provided. However, when he held out the shorts for Bucky to step into, Bucky took a step back instead.

“No, Steve.” 

“Yes, Bucky.”

“No.”

“Fine,” Steve replied, because if they were going to have a fight, he figured it ought to be about pants rather than what went underneath them. Let Bucky chafe—on his own head be it.

Putting down the drawers, he reached for the trousers instead. “Come here,” he said, kneeling and pointing to the floor.

“No.” 

“Bucky, don’t force me to make you—”

“Steve,” he said, the name ending on a plaintive whine that turned into, “cage!”

Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. "Pants aren't a cage, you mook. Or, well…" he sighed. "I guess maybe they are, but they're customary. Shit, I'd let you wear a dress if I didn't think the wind'd blow it up to show the whole world those scaly legs of yours." That was damn truth—he couldn't have cared less about what Bucky wore, but kilts were too short, and anything longer was liable to draw attention, which was the opposite of what they needed.

“No.” 

“Bucky.” He sighed, running a hand through his hair before resorting to simple bribery. “You want fish?”

“Fish!” 

“Then you gotta wear pants.” He pointed to the trousers again. “Pants. Fish.” 

Bucky narrowed his eyes, one hand plucking at the loose neck of his shirt. “Panss fish?” 

“You put these on.” Steve shook them out. “And I will get you fish. I promise.” 

Tentatively, Bucky took a step forward. Steve held out the trousers and, after another second or two of dithering, Bucky stuck one foot in, then the other. These pants were softer than the rough trousers Steve had forced him into earlier, at least—roomier around the legs, and with more give in the crotch. No doubt Mr. Jarvis had noticed the way Bucky had indelicately and continuously been pulling at the general area. 

Once the fly was buttoned, Bucky grunted and tugged at the material, a disconsolate expression on his face. “Cage.” 

"Nobody likes pants, Buck," he said, hiding a smile as he got to his feet. "But you gotta wear 'em—it's civilized."

“Sihv-lyzed.”

“Right.” He tugged on the sleeve of Bucky’s shirt. “This is a shirt, by the way.” 

“Sirt.” 

“Yep.” He touched the waistband of his trousers and gave them a tug. “Pants.”

“Panss.” 

“Yup.” He did the same to himself, touching his clothing, along with his suspenders. “Clothes.”

“Clodes.” 

“Very good, pal.” Glancing at Bucky’s unshod feet, he shook his head. They would worry about socks and shoes later. “Now, how’s about we comb out that hair?” 

 


 

Not two minutes later found Steve wrapping a towel around a freshly-bleeding bite on his palm. 

“Fine! Let it be tangled! See if I care!”

Bucky, who had snatched the wooden comb from Steve’s hand before biting it, snapped the flimsy thing in two and tossed both pieces to the ground. 

“No!”

“You’re impossible.”

“Fish! Panss fish.” 

Fair point—Steve ought to have followed through with that promise before forcing him to endure the trial of decent grooming. With a sigh, he tied off the makeshift bandage and reached out his good hand. “Come on. We’ll go see Howard and get you some gods damn fish.” 

“Fish,” Bucky agreed, content to take his hand, now that the torture was through. His hair was something to behold—a still-damp nest of mats and tangles, piled on top of his head like some sort of wild beast. Not a lot of use for combs in the ocean, Steve figured—fingers and the water itself did most of the work. 

Mr. Jarvis was just stepping out of Howard’s office as they arrived, and he smiled upon seeing them.

“Ah, the clothes fit—excellent.” 

“Thank you,” Steve replied. “And not to impose further, but is there any chance we could get more sardines for—”

“Mrs. Jarvis has taken the liberty of preparing plates for you both,” he said, once more giving Steve the sneaking suspicion that they’d been eavesdropped upon. “I’ve left them in the office.”

“Thank you, Mr. Jarvis.” 

“Tank-oo,” Bucky repeated, momentarily distracted by the reflective metalwork on the door, same as he’d been by the mirror in the bathroom. 

“Let’s go, pal,” Steve said, pushing the door open and allowing Bucky through first.

Howard was behind his desk, looking up when they entered. A bowl and a plate lay on a small cart near the door—sardines on toast for Bucky, and stew for Steve, whose stomach gave a rumble at the sight.

“Sit, sit,” Howard said, rising to his feet. “Eat!” 

Bucky didn’t need to be given permission, as he’d already rushed forward to grab his plate, retreating to the far corner of the room, as if worried someone might stop him.

“Bucky—” Steve said. 

“Bucky?” Howard echoed with a raised brow, coming out from behind the desk. 

“I…uh. Named him? Or, he named himself. It’s as close as I could get to what he said—” 

“Was that the noise we all heard?” Howard asked, glancing at Bucky before starting to laugh. “Fury’s balls, Rogers, we thought the house was coming down.” 

“It’s…” Steve managed a half-smile. “It broke a vase. I’m sorry, I’ll pay you back—” 

“Got more vases than I know what to do with,” Howard replied, waving the offer away. “Get your food, and let’s have a chat, you and I.” 

Taking his stew from the cart, Steve went to sit on the sofa, while Howard perched on the edge of his desk. “Thank you for the clothes, by the way, we—”

“Least I can do. And I do mean least, my friend. There’s plenty more coming.”

“Oh?” Steve asked, slurping up a mouthful of the meaty stew, which was the heartiest fare he’d had in months.

“Of course.” Howard leaned forward with a conspiratorial grin. “You’re a wanted man, Steve, or didn’t you know?”

“Thought I might be.”

"Pierce came 'round while you were sleeping—wondering if perhaps you'd turned up here, and to berate me for recommending a man of such low moral character for the job. Apparently, you're some opium-addicted son-of-a-gun who stole quite a bit of cash from him before nearly killing his manservant."

“Rumlow’s not dead, then?” Steve cast a glance at Bucky, who wasn’t paying them much mind, invested as he was in his supper. 

“Not as such, no,” Howard said. “Down for the count, though. Interestingly, Pierce didn’t think to mention the missing siren—probably worried I’d try and find you myself.” 

“And you convinced him I wasn’t here?” 

“I like to think I made a reasonable case. Which isn’t to say he won’t come back when he doesn’t turn you up elsewhere. He’s had checkpoints set on every road leading out of the city. Central Station, too, and—” 

“Already?”

Howard’s expression turned serious. “Steve, if you hadn’t run into Tony and Peter last night…shit, you’d already be drawn and quartered, you understand? Pierce owns half this country, and the half he doesn’t own is still mostly in his pocket. So yeah, already. You’ve been lucky so far, and now you’ve gotta be smart.” 

“We don’t have to use roads,” he said, mind already churning through limited options. “If there are checkpoints…”

“Sure, and let one of the patrols in the woods catch you instead.”

“But—”

"Far be it from me to step on your toes," he went on. "But I've been working on a plan of my own if you'd like to hear it."

“Right,” he said around a mouthful of potato. “Sorry.” 

“Tony and Peter are here for the weekend, as you know. They’ll be going back to school tomorrow. Nobody’s going to stop them traveling—they’re students, and Tony’s my kid.”

“Right. So we go with them and—”

“Would you let me get a thought out? No, you’re not going with them. That car’s tiny and you’d be spotted in a second.” 

“Then—“ 

“You’ll be traveling with me. There’s a meeting of the Board of Governors at the university next week, and as the chairman of that board, I’m expected to be there. There’s nothing saying I can’t arrive a few days early to spend some time with my son, correct?”

Steve nodded.

“So the boys will go first, and I’ll be along a few hours later, accompanied by Mr. Jarvis. Now, normally I’d take my auto, but being as Tony’s about to go out and do something stupid that foils the engine—” 

“He is?”

“He is.” Howard glanced at the clock. “Right about now, in fact, he and Peter are headed out for the evening, and he’s been instructed to make sure the auto can’t be driven home.” 

“Because?”

“Because that’ll force me to take my carriage.”

“And we won’t be spotted in the carriage?”

“Sure, you will,” he grinned. “If you were actually in the carriage. But—and this next part might come as something of a shock—I’ve been known to ah…dabble in the transportation of select goods.” 

“Smuggling, you mean?” Peggy had alluded to as much in her war stories.

“Smuggling! That’s a crude term. How about we call it…acquisition of unique items for the edification of a select clientele.” 

“So, smuggling?” 

Howard laughed. “Whatever helps you sleep at night, my friend. All the same, my carriage sports a false bottom and a compartment that’s just about big enough for you and…Bucky, was it?” 

Having finished his sardines, and perking up at the sound of his name, Bucky abandoned his empty plate, coming to flop down at Steve’s side instead. “Bucky,” he agreed. “Steve.” 

“Hi,” Steve said. “Good fish?”

"Fishhhh," he agreed, extending the 'sh.'

“Huh!” Howard exclaimed. “Neat trick!”

“Told you he was smart,” Steve said, as Bucky speared a potato with his claw, bringing it to his mouth to nibble on. Steve very much hoped it wouldn’t make him sick, but he wasn’t about to fight him over giving it up. “Anyway: back to the false bottom?”

“Ha!” Howard grinned, watching Bucky work on the potato. “Who needs a knife and fork?”

“Howard.”

“Right! So, we’ll get you two to the university, where we’ll swap vehicles—Mr. Jarvis will take you north to Towson in Tony’s car, and you’ll hook up with the circus there.” 

“And then Mr. Jarvis drives back, you attend your meeting later in the week, and you head home without arousing suspicion.”

“Precisely.” 

It was a good plan, Steve had to admit, and he began to smile. “I like it.” 

"I thought you might," Howard said. "It's not foolproof, though—Pierce is gonna figure you've scarpered, even if he doesn't know how. He'll send out spies. Mercenary sorts—he's got plenty of contacts from the war. So you're gonna stick with the circus. Keep undercover and blend in. Grow a beard, let your hair go long—anything you can do to keep from looking like yourself."

“You sound like Peggy.” 

“Taught her everything she knows,” he said, which was so patently a lie that they both started laughing.

“I’m sure.” 

"She'd tell you the same," he grinned. "Anyhow, for now, you have the element of surprise working for you—as far as Pierce knows, the siren's either dead, and you buried him in the woods before fleeing, or you chopped him up for parts. Either that or you've got an accomplice, and you're rolling him around in a tank. However he puts it together, he's missing some key information, and that's lucky for you."

“Guess I’ll take what I can get.” 

“It’s what you’ve got to work with,” Howard agreed. “Speaking of—how much does Pierce know about your people? Peggy? Your mother?” 

“I don’t see how that’s relevant.” 

“Think about it.” He shrugged. “He’s gonna assume you’re headed home—back to your family and your friends.”

“My mother,” Steve said, a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Shit.” 

“Don’t worry. I thought of that, too, and—”

“It’s not…” he swallowed. “She’s sick.”

“Sick?”

“The thrux.”

Howard’s eyebrows shot toward his hairline.

"That's why I came here looking for work," he explained. "I was sending money and medicine back to her. Lord Pierce had it sent in bulk, to save me some of the burden, but that's not gonna last—"

Letting out a low whistle, Howard crossed his arms over his chest. “Damn, Steve. You didn’t think to have Peggy put that in your letter? I would have been able to help.”

“I told her not to. I didn’t want charity.” Frowning, he glanced at Bucky, who had moved on from the potato to the gravy, which he was drinking straight out of the bowl. “But if Pierce goes after my mother—” For all that Steve had fretted about Sarah having access to her medication, he’d never considered the possibility that Lord Pierce knew where he came from and how to find the person he loved most in the world. He could hurt her; make arrangements to cut off her supply. Or something worse. 

“I didn’t know about the thrux,” Howard said after a moment’s consideration. “But if that’s what’s burdening your mind, Steve, I can ease that weight—I’m happy to step in. It’s not charity. It's …well, friendship, I guess, and some guilt over the part I played in Bucky's …situation."

There was not wanting charity, and then there was sheer, stubborn stupidity. Steve wasn’t about to turn down the help when his situation was so perilous. “Thank you. And you won’t have to do it forever. Just until I get Bucky back where he belongs.”

“Seems to me I might as well,” Howard replied. “I got more money than sense, and it’s the least I can do.” 

“All the same, when I’m able to take care of her again, I will. If you still want to do something, shit, put your money into finding a permanent cure, or making the fix we’ve got available to everyone, or—” 

“I take your point,” Howard said. “So we’ll see what we see when we get there, and for now, she’ll be taken care of. As for your worry about Pierce going after her, well, I’ve already thought of that.”

“You have?”

“Sure I have. Just so happens Peter was telling me about you two being from the same place.”

“Ah…yup,” Steve nodded, unsure of what Peter had to do with anything.

“I haven’t told him or Tony anything about Bucky’s…unique circumstances. But neither of them are stupid, so they’ve both figured out you’re in some kind of trouble, and they want to help.”

“I’m not putting those kids in danger, Howard—”

“No, no, nothing like that,” he said, waving off the concern. “All Peter’s gonna do is send a letter home to his aunt—tell her as much of what’s going on as we can, and ask her to share the news with your mother and with Peggy.”

“I could write to May myself—” 

“Ought to be Peter,” Howard cut in. “She’ll know his handwriting—know it’s true. And this letter’s not going a traditional route—we’re gonna stick it in the boot of the fastest messenger I can get ahold of to deliver it within the week. Meanwhile, you are gonna write a letter to your mother, which will be sent from the post office in Charlestown next Saturday.” 

"Why not have the messenger take both letters?" Steve asked, frowning. The road to Red Hook was long, but a fast messenger, who changed horses often and didn't rest much, could do it in a week if they pushed themselves.

“Because Charlestown is thirty miles south of here, while Red Hook is a few hundred miles north.” Howard grinned, and Steve began to understand. “Dear ma. Quit my job. Headed south to see the world. Don’t worry a bit. Love and kisses, your little Stevie.”

“Huh. Sounds like the sort of letter that might prove useful to have, should someone show up at her door, asking if she’s heard from me.” 

“Precisely. But by the time she receives that letter, Peter’s aunt will already have had the chance to tell her and Peggy the truth of the situation.” 

“It’s a long shot—lotta things could go wrong.” 

“Lotta things could go right, too,” Howard said with a smile. “Anyhow, it’s not gonna put Pierce off indefinitely, but it’ll buy you time. With any luck, the goose chase it sends him on will be wild enough that the circus’ll make it to the seaside and you can get Bucky back home before anyone’s the wiser.” 

“It’s a good plan, Howard.” Taking the now-empty bowl from Bucky’s hands, Steve smiled. “You hear that, pal? We’re gonna get you home. Sea.”

“See-ee,” Bucky said. “Steve. Fish?” 

"One-track mind," Howard crowed, slapping his knee before going to open a drawer. "I'll see what we can do about keeping him supplied with sardines. You, meanwhile, have a letter to write."

 

Chapter Text

Bucky hated the carriage.

Specifically, Bucky hated the false-bottomed compartment in the carriage, which resembled nothing so much as a smaller version of the prison from which he’d so recently escaped. 

Steve had the good sense to realize this might be the case, so after writing the letter to his mother and handing it over to Howard, he’d requested to be shown the carriage they’d be traveling in the next morning. Mr. Jarvis had lit a lamp and brought them to where the gleaming carriage, with its lacquered sides and gold accents, lay waiting. The false bottom involved a funny bit of machinery, the seats levering up and a hidden button being pressed, exposing a rectangular hole that was barely big enough for two bodies.

“Mrs. Jarvis is working on padding for the sides,” Mr. Jarvis explained. “Pillows and blankets—muffle the noise and provide a bit of comfort.”

Steve stared into the tiny enclosure and was reminded of nothing so much as a coffin, swallowing hard. “Thank you, Mr. Jarvis.”

“There is also—and I hesitate to offer this—Lord Stark occasionally employs a sleeping draught on nights when he’s unable to rest. Perhaps your friend—”

Steve looked at Bucky, who had begun running his fingers over the shiny surface of the carriage, oblivious to what he would soon be asked to do. “Thank you. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” 

“Of course,” he replied, placing the lantern on a hook at the entrance of the bay. “I’ll leave you to it. You’ll manage to find your way to bed when you’re through?”

“Yes,” Steve agreed, and once Mr. Jarvis had shut the carriage house doors behind him, he turned to Bucky with a grimace. “Alright, pal.” 

Bucky smiled, taking Steve’s hand when it was offered.

“So this is uh…you and me, we gotta squeeze in here. And we gotta be quiet. I have no idea how I’m gonna make you understand that.”

“Fish?” Bucky replied.

“Not right now, no.” 

Bucky scowled. Belatedly, Steve realized he should have brought a tin of sardines to use as a bribe, but there was nothing so clear as hindsight. “Let’s try a demonstration,” he said instead. “Here I am, I’m talking to you. Just talking away, makin’ some noises, and now—” he placed a finger over his lips and stopped prattling. 

Bucky squinted, then took his finger and did the same to himself. 

“Yeah, but—” Steve sighed. “Uh…pants shirt washcloth no Bucky?”

“Panss sirt woshcloath...” 

Steve put his finger over Bucky’s lips to silence him. Granted, Bucky kept talking, but the last two words were muffled. 

“No,” he said. “Quiet, alright?” 

“No! Qui-yal-ride?”

Patience had never been one of Steve’s virtues, and he gritted his teeth before trying again, babbling about nothing before stopping himself, then doing the same to Bucky. It took five repetitions before understanding spread across his friend’s features. 

“Qui-yed!” he said in the middle of one of Steve’s spiels, placing his finger over Steve’s mouth. 

Steve grinned but didn’t say a word until he’d removed his finger. “You got it, pal. Quiet.” 

“Qui-yed qui-yed, Steve.” 

“Yup.” This was the easy part—the game. What came next would be harder. “We’re gonna have to be quiet tomorrow when we take a ride in here.” He rapped his fist against the inside of the compartment, and Bucky leaned over to examine the source of the hollow sound. Further examinations involved running his claws along the tipped-back seats. Poking at the spring mechanisms. Tugging on the drapes that lined the windows and, finally, peering into the box itself. 

It was only when Bucky began losing interest in exploring the carriage that Steve made his next move by climbing inside and sitting down in the space. If he could make it fun—make it something new for Bucky to learn—then it might not be so traumatic. 

“Come on in,” he said, holding out a hand. 

Cautiously, Bucky accepted the offer, allowing Steve to help him inside the carriage, where he settled in the box, crossing his legs like Steve, so the two of them faced one another.

“Good job,” he said. “This isn’t so bad, huh?”

“Bay-ud, huh.” 

“This—” he gestured. “Carriage.”

“Cair-rudge.” 

“Right. And this is where we’re gonna lie down.” Shifting in the small space, he turned on his side and curled up, back pressed to the side of the box. There wasn’t enough room to stretch his legs, and he already felt cramped as he looked up at Bucky, who had moved to accommodate him. Lying head to foot would save the most space, but there was no way he was subjecting Bucky to that much time without comfort—plus, if he had to shush him, he’d need to be close enough to whisper. 

It took a minute, but Bucky finally consented to copy the action and lie down. As he settled, his face was inches from Steve’s, a trusting smile on his lips.

“That’s real good,” he said, feeling Bucky’s bony knees knock against his own. “Let’s just lie like this for a while.”

Bucky continued to smile, stretching one foot beyond the edge of the box. “Steve,” he said, apropos of nothing. “Carriage.”

“Fuck,” Steve sighed, guilty conscience weighing heavy on his mind. “I hate this.”

“Ffffuck,” Bucky repeated.

Despite the circumstances, Steve laughed. “Don’t say that in front of Mrs. Jarvis, please.” 

"Please."

"Exactly. Alright, let's get this over with." Heart beating faster, he reached up and pulled the heavy hatch over them both. In the morning, it would be locked from above, so while he wasn't trapping them there at that moment, it must have felt that way to Bucky, who panicked, claws scrabbling at Steve's chest as he let out a plaintive howl.

“Quiet,” Steve admonished, hating himself for it.

“No, no cage!” Bucky said, so plaintively that Steve couldn’t take it anymore, throwing open the hatch to prove that they were still free. 

“I’m sorry,” he said as Bucky sat up, eyes wide and confused. “I’m sorry, but we have to. It’s…out. Sea. No cage. Sea, out?”

Bucky thumped the side of the box. “Cage!” 

“No. It isn’t. It feels like it is, but—” 

The place at the base of Steve’s neck throbbed, and Bucky flooded him with terror—the same terror he had felt in the dream-memory of Bucky’s capture. Not for the glass and copper enclosure of the prison in Pierce’s yard, but for the tinier tank he’d been trapped in as he was transported those many miles between the southern seas and the estate.

“Shit,” Steve said, heart sinking. “Fuck, pal, I’m sorry. I didn’t think—” 

“No, Steve,” he pleaded, though now it was with resignation rather than rage. As if he had begun to understand what was being asked of him.

“I’m sorry.” He could never say it enough, even if he was only saying it for himself. “Steve. Bucky,” he began, pointing to them each in turn. “Carriage.” Tapped the box and made the signs as needed. “Quiet. Out. Sea. No cage. No Rumlow.” 

Bucky slumped forward, making a mournful noise low in his throat as he covered his face with his hands. Tentatively, Steve reached out and touched his shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” he said again, hoping Bucky could feel how true that was.

 

portrait of angsty Bucky

 

The next morning brought with it a hasty breakfast, the household in a flurry. Clothes for Steve and Bucky were being packed with Peter and Tony’s things, in case they were searched. (Though, how they were meant to explain the twenty tins of sardines that Mrs. Jarvis insisted on sending with them was anyone’s guess.) Steve spent most of his morning, however, trying to get Bucky to put on shoes and socks. This proved a step too far, and with time growing short, he was forced to compromise by getting Bucky’s feet into a pair of Howard’s old slippers instead. The siren’s hair, meanwhile, remained a rabbit’s warren of tangles, made all the worse after another night’s sleep. Steve might have tried harder to fix it, except that the hair distracted from the gills and the claws and the teeth. 

Once everything was set, they said their goodbyes to Mrs. Jarvis (who had a kind word for Bucky, along with a stern warning for Steve to mind him carefully), before assembling with the others in the carriage house. Tony and Peter left first, while Steve and Bucky were faced with the darkness of the smuggler’s hold. Despite the resignation of the previous evening, it took some coaxing to get Bucky back into the box. Steve went first, holding out his arms. Eventually, like a condemned man trudging toward the gallows, Bucky entered the box with a plaintive whine.

It took the two of them a considerable amount of shuffling to find a position that was, while not comfortable, at least endurable. Mrs. Jarvis had been true to her promise, lining the box with cushions, but there was only so much she could do, as the hold had been built for merchandise, not men. 

“Alright,” Steve said when they’d settled, arms and legs tangled together, Bucky’s head tucked against his chest in a position that put those sharp, shark teeth a mite too close for comfort. Not that he thought Bucky would bite him intentionally, but Gods knew what might happen if he was frightened. 

“See you on the other side,” Howard said peering into the box, just as Mr. Jarvis lowered the lid. Steve heard it lock into place, and Bucky shuddered against him.

“It’s alright,” he murmured, stroking his thumb against the knobby line of Bucky’s spine. “You’re not alone.” 

There was a lot of talking and jostling above their heads before the carriage began to move, every bump a misery as they lay there in the dark. Steve started counting the seconds, trying to work out how many minutes were passing as they jolted along the cobblestone streets of the city. Bravery was hard while feeling helpless, but he tried—attempted to move his bravado along the connection that existed between him and Bucky. To show him that he wasn't scared, so Bucky shouldn't be, either. Truthfully, though? He was scared; he'd have been stupid not to be. Scared didn't mean cowardice—the war had scared him plenty, and he'd charged ahead anyway, foolhardy in some cases, cunning in others.

Scared made you smart and got you thinking. Scared, in Steve’s experience, kept you alive.

His hackles rose when the carriage rolled to a stop, and he heard rough, muffled voices overhead. They’d reached a checkpoint, it seemed. Gods, he wanted to do something. To burst from the compartment and throttle anyone that stood in their way. But he could only lie in wait, feeling useless, the voices impossible to make out through the padding.

Bucky, sensing his anxiety, gave a low whine that ended in a growl. Steve murmured, “quiet,” and he heeded, though his body remained rigid and tense, as ready for a fight as Steve was. 

The rough men spoke first, then Howard, whose faraway voice expounded at length about something indecipherable. A few more short, brutish sentences followed, before Howard began to shout. Steve closed his eyes, splaying his hand against Bucky’s back and trying to control his breathing, lest that be the thing that gave them away. 

Something smacked against the side of the carriage. Steve jumped, a thin trickle of sweat trailing between his shoulder blades. He wanted the fuck out of this box. Wanted to help, wanted to—

Howard’s voice gave another sharp rebuke, tone indignant in the way of an exceedingly wealthy man who is unused to being questioned. Whatever he’d said made no difference, though, as a series of bangs and scrapes began rocking the carriage. Steve prayed they didn’t have dogs; that Lord Pierce had hired stupid, lazy men, who wouldn’t notice that the floor inside the carriage did not match the height of the frame. 

Bucky twitched, one claw digging into the skin of Steve's hip, probably drawing blood. Steve bit his lip. Fought to breathe. Confident that any second he'd hear the latch release and the harsh light of day would flood their compartment.

It never happened. There was a final thump and another angry word from Lord Stark, then the wheels rocked forward, causing Steve to let out a sigh that was very nearly a sob.

“Gods,” he managed, sucking in lungfuls of air. “Gods.”

Bucky made a snuffling noise, pressing his face against the skin of Steve’s collarbone. Wanting to offer him some comfort, he began to stroke Bucky’s tangled hair. Combing his fingers gently through the strands.

It passed the time, at least, and soon the cobblestones of the city turned into the rough bumps of unpaved road that led to the university. The rhythmic turning of the wheels lulled Steve into a doze eventually, and his mother’s face came to him in his half-sleep. The familiar smile crinkling the corners of her eyes. A memory of her laughter—mirth bubbling over like water on the boil. Sarah had never been one for keeping her giggles at bay, though her laughter had come less often after Joseph’s death, even less once Steve had gone to war. With her illness, it had faded altogether.

Steve wanted to restore that laughter. To see her lose herself in her joy. He wanted to go home nearly as much as he wanted to set Bucky free. More than that, he wanted to tell her about Bucky. To see the delight on her face upon realizing that sirens were real. Sarah would agree with the actions he was taking—Steve was sure of it. She would see Bucky’s situation for what it was and demand justice, just like Steve was. Shit, she’d probably have seen it sooner and fought harder. After all, she was the one who’d instilled in him a sense of fair play. 

“You’re my good boy,” she had said to him once, after he’d had a nasty schoolyard squabble with Thad Ross. Thad had been tormenting a younger girl, shoving her into the mud and teasing her mercilessly. Seven-year-old Steve had marched right up and told Thad (who had ten pounds and two inches on him) what he thought of that. The resulting fight had been a nasty brawl, both boys scrapping on the ground, with Steve sustaining the first bloody nose of his life before their teacher stepped in to break it up.

That particular teacher hadn’t cared who started it—both boys had been whipped and sent home. Steve had turned up at the front door of the cottage, red-faced and furious, while Sarah met him where he was—angry at his being sent home from school, at first, until she heard the whole story whilst dressing his wounds.

“You’re selfless, Steve,” she’d said. “And that’s no bad thing.”

“What’s selfless?” 

“Putting the needs of others before your own.”

“I do that?”

“You did today,” she said, “and that’s admirable. But it can become a burden if you’re not careful.”

“Why?”

“You’ll find,” she said, laying a plaster across a scrape on his cheek, “that you’ll want to save everyone.”

“And that’s bad?”

“Not bad. It’s simply that nobody can save everyone. And not everyone needs saving.”

Steve had shrugged, swiping a hand across his snot-crusted nose. “I could if I wanted to.”

“Stubborn starfish,” she had teased. 

The carriage went over a rough rut, and Steve jerked awake, dream fading as quickly as it had come. “Shit,” he muttered while Bucky huffed out a disconsolate whine. “Sorry, pal—didn’t mean to fall asleep on you.”

Bucky shifted his weight in a way that forced Steve to do the same. When he moved, a cramp spasmed in his calf, and he sucked in a sharp breath. "Fuck," he muttered.

“Fuck,” Bucky agreed. 

“It can’t be much longer.” The university wasn’t that far from the city, though the checkpoint had certainly delayed them. “How about we play a game to pass the time? Check how good your memory is. Remember shirt?” He tugged at the clothing clinging to Bucky’s back.

“Sirt.” 

“Uh-huh. And where are your pants?” 

“No pants!” 

Steve grinned, stifling a laugh. “Alright, alright. No pants. How about…” He tapped his finger three times against Bucky’s back. “Finger.” 

Bucky did the same in return. “Fin-guh.” 

“Right. And uh…” he twined his hand in Bucky’s hair and gave a tug. “Hair.”

“Hhhhay-yuh.” 

“Very good.”

They continued playing the game until the dirt road turned back into cobblestones. A few minutes after that, the carriage trundled to a stop. Cautiously optimistic, Steve stayed on his guard until he heard the catch release.

“I think we made it, Buck,” he muttered as Mr. Jarvis lifted the trap door.

They had ended their journey in another carriage house, this one far larger than Howard’s, with a dozen empty bays. Steve took it all in as they sat up slowly, stretching their limbs. 

“How’d that ride treat you boys?” Howard asked.

“Like shit,” he replied, stiff and sore as he slowly, carefully made his way out of the hidey-hole, the combination of his accumulated injuries and holding the position for hours making his entire body ache. Bucky recovered faster, scrambling out of the carriage and hopping, spry, to the ground. For someone who hadn’t had legs until two days ago, he sure was fast.

“Show-off,” Steve grumbled, leaving Mr. Jarvis to close things up. 

“I’ve never seen anything like that racket,” Howard said as they stepped away from the carriage. 

“Who were they?” he asked, popping the joints of his spine.

“Not police, that’s for damn sure—at least not any official members of the force.”

“Shit. Glad they let you through.” 

“Nasty fuckers—it’s only a matter of time before Pierce sends out patrols, so you three ought to be making haste to Towson,” he continued, indicating Tony’s gleaming auto parked in the next bay.

“Probably.” Steve’s stomach gave a pitiful growl. “Don’t suppose there’s time to stop for a meal?”

As if they’d been waiting for their cue, Tony and Peter burst into the carriage house, Peter holding one of the suitcases that had been in the car and Tony a wicker basket.

“We got your stuff packed,” Peter chirped.

“And we raided the kitchen,” Tony continued. “Sixty more tins of sardines at least. That’s some diet your friend’s got, Steve.”

“Fish agrees with him,” he said wryly. 

“Fish?” Bucky asked, perking up.

“There’s some smoked herring in there, too,” Tony said. “Anything that smelled fishy, we snatched it. And uh…some sandwiches for you and Jarvis.”

“Well done, fellas,” Howard said, and Steve didn’t miss the way Tony’s spine straightened at the praise. “Get everything into the auto—no time to waste.” 

It took them a few minutes, and when it came to goodbyes, there was only so much to say.

“Thank you,” Steve began, looking between the three of them. “It uh…I don’t know how—”

“You kept things interesting,” Howard said with a smile. “Besides, Peg’d have my hide if she knew I didn’t help you.”

Steve offered him a nod. “If ah…anything happens to me…”

“I’ll make sure she and your mother know.” Howard hesitated. “And your mother…you don’t have to worry about her, alright? I have it handled.”

Steve swallowed thickly, blinking twice. “Sure, Howard. It uh…” he shrugged, clearing his throat, just as Howard tapped the side of the auto and Mr. Jarvis put it in gear, whatever awkward thing he’d been about to stammer gone unsaid.

As they pulled away from the carriage house, Steve nudged Bucky and forced a smile. “Wanna learn how to wave goodbye?” Without waiting for an answer, he twisted around in his seat to demonstrate. He waved, and Howard, Tony, and Peter, standing in the open door, began to do the same.

Bucky echoed the gesture, waving until Mr. Jarvis turned a corner and the trio were no longer in view. After that, he back around with a measure of solemnity on his face.

“Steve,” he said, laying the gentlest of touches to Steve’s arm.

“Yeah, pal?”

“Fish.”

 

Chapter Text

Travel by auto was infinitely preferable to the carriage. For one thing, the air was fresh, with a balmy breeze and a brightness Steve had been missing in the city. For another, they were free. Lord Pierce might have ringed Columbia with checkpoints, but thus far, they’d evaded him, and now there was only Steve, Bucky, Mr. Jarvis, and the auto chewing up miles of road. 

The scenery wasn’t bad, either, with the scraggly woods surrounding the university campus giving way to the fields and farms responsible for the produce in Columbia’s market stalls. Briefly, Steve wondered if they ought to put the top up, but ultimately decided against it, as he couldn’t bear the thought of being enclosed again. Besides, it wasn’t as though there were people about—most of the farms were populated by cows and sheep, with the human population limited to a few far-flung figures in distant fields. 

“How long do you think it’ll take?” He asked once they’d been driving for about fifteen minutes, the contents of the picnic basket divided between the three of them. (Bucky had been enraptured by the dried herring, and was still chewing on a hunk of it, which smelled terrible but kept him happy.) 

“We’ll get there before dark,” Mr. Jarvis said. “I’ll stay over in Towson, then head back in the morning.” 

That meant they had at least a few hours to go, being as the sun was not yet directly overhead, so Steve leaned back against the seat to relax. Bucky, fish hanging from his mouth, dropped his head to Steve’s shoulder the moment he was settled.

“Hey, pal,” he said, looking down. 

“Heypal,” Bucky replied, voice muffled around his food.

“Comfortable?” 

“Cumf-tah-bull,” he agreed, head butting his arm. 

Steve could take a hint and shifted his weight to wrap that arm around Bucky's shoulders, allowing him to cuddle close. Of all the things he'd expected from a siren, unrelenting affection wouldn't have topped his list.

“Tired?” he asked, as he was pretty sure Bucky hadn’t dozed in the carriage. “Sleep?”

“Sleep,” Bucky agreed, catching his meaning and closing his eyes, still sucking on the fish like a baby with a teething ring.

While Bucky slept, Steve struck up a conversation with Mr. Jarvis. They quickly found common ground, as they’d both been in the war and one soldiering tale was as good as any other; despite the differences in their circumstances during the fight, they both had plenty to say to one another. Mr. Jarvis had questions about Steve’s mission to supply munitions to a small band of rebels in a Vedorian port, while Steve was curious about how Mr. and Mrs. Jarvis had met.

That story—involving Howard’s exploding cigar and the liberation of a prison camp—took the better part of an hour. By the time it was through, Bucky was awake, watching their conversation the way an inquisitive dog might watch a ball being tossed back and forth. Steve knew he didn’t understand much, if anything, but listening would undoubtedly serve him well.

“There,” Mr. Jarvis said some time later, pointing to a sign. “Another half an hour or so, I’d wager.” 

“Great,” Steve said with a yawn.

“Given that we’d best not be seen in one another’s company, I’ll drop you as close as I can to the town, but you’ll need to walk the last bit on your own.” 

“You’ve done more than enough already,” he said firmly. “We’ll manage.” 

“From what I’ve seen, I’ve no doubt of that.” 

“Dowt-of-thet,” Bucky said around the fish, doing a pretty good mimic of Mr. Jarvis’ Columbian accent—the same accent Peggy slipped into when she was feeling especially superior, having picked it up during the war. 

“Funny guy,” Steve said, nudging him. “Are you done with that fish?” 

Bucky considered the question, opening his mouth and removing the slimy remains. “Fish.” 

“Yeah, it used to be,” he agreed.

“Fish,” he repeated, then turned it around to stick the unmarred tail between his teeth, clamping down, the damp, gelatinous head flopping against his chin. 

“You’re a mess,” he laughed

“Yuhrra-metth.” 

Still grinning, Steve hugged him closer, doing his best to ignore the smell. He’d take a happy mess over a sulky siren any day.

Not long after that, the rural scenery began giving way to small clusters of houses that marked the outskirts of a town bigger than three Penstons put together. Towson lay along a river, nestled in a valley, and as they came to the top of the hill that led to it, Steve caught his first glimpse of what might be their salvation, heart in his throat. 

Mercifully, the circus was still in town, and its location was conspicuous—bright flags and big top standing colorful against the sunset in a clearing outside of the main body of the town. Every muscle in Steve's body relaxed upon seeing those flags—people he knew and liked, only minutes away.

Bucky, meanwhile, shook his arm, pointing at the town while Mr. Jarvis switched gears to manage the downslope.

"That's where we're going, pal," he said. "Next stop on the 'Bucky Out Sea' grand tour we're taking."

“Bucky out sea,” Bucky agreed.

Several minutes later, Mr. Jarvis pulled to the side of the road, bringing the auto to a juddering stop. “You can cut across the field here, and I’ll continue on into the town.” 

“Perfect,” Steve said, nudging Bucky to get him moving.

Whilst retrieving their single bag, it struck Steve just how much Mr. and Mrs. Jarvis and Howard had risked by helping them. Howard's plan was solid, but Lord Pierce was powerful, and while Howard had money of his own, Steve got the sense that his money was newer and more fragile. Lord Pierce was old money, which meant power and influence that went beyond riches. Howard had known all of that, yet he'd helped them anyway. It made Steve want to say something profound; to adequately express his gratitude to the Jarvises and Howard both.

What he managed instead was a shrug and a proffered hand. “Well,” he said, as Mr. Jarvis took that hand and pumped it twice. “Thank you.”

“Very best of luck. And do give my regards to Miss Carter, when you see her.” 

The implied success was undeniable, and Steve smiled. "I will. And ah…tell Mrs. Jarvis we really are sorry about the bathroom."

Mr. Jarvis’ mouth turned up in a half-smile, and he gave them a nod before getting back into the auto. Bucky started to follow, though Steve reached out a hand to stop him.

“No, pal,” he said, shaking his head. “Say goodbye.” 

Bucky, smart as ever and remembering what that word meant, lifted his hand in farewell as Mr. Jarvis drove away, though he looked at Steve with no small amount of confusion once he’d gone. 

“Come on,” Steve said. “We’re going this way.” 

With that, he turned and headed into the field, which proved muddier than expected—Towson had gotten rain very recently—so within a few minutes, he and Bucky were spattered with filth. The slippers on Bucky's feet weren't made for enduring anything more arduous than a midnight trip to the lavatory, so they were ruined almost instantly, then lost to the muck as Bucky took one step, followed by another, leaving them behind, trapped in the mud.

“See now?” Steve said. “If you’d worn some boots, you wouldn’t have—” 

Bucky interrupted with a squeak, tromping through the tall grass in bare feet, taking special joy from the way the mud squelched between his webbed toes. In that joy, however, he lost his fish, which slipped from his mouth and into the mud during one particularly rapturous exclamation. 

Probably, Steve supposed, when your food could float inches from your mouth, you didn’t think much about gravity. As it was, he had to stop Bucky from bending down to retrieve his treat.

“No,” he said, grabbing him by the hand. 

“Steve! Fish!”

“No. Nope. That’s disgusting.” To emphasize his point, he kicked some mud on top of the forlorn little fish, shaking his head. 

Bucky groaned and groused, pushing his hands into his hair and putting on as big a production as Steve had ever seen outside of a traveling theater troupe; a tantrum in pantomime.

“Look,” he said, pointing to the distant tent. “We’re going there, and I’ll give you another fish when we make it. Come on.” 

Bucky glowered, and Steve did his best to hide his smile as they set off again. The distance was deceptive; with the mud slowing them down it took nearly forty-five minutes to arrive, darkness creeping its way across the sky. No doubt they looked as bedraggled as Steve felt—laden down with luggage, mud on their feet, and Bucky’s hair growing ever more snarled with each passing calamity. 

The circus folk didn’t give them a second glance. Probably they’d seen stranger. 

It only took a few minutes of searching before Steve spotted the familiar faded and peeling red paint that marked Sam and Riley’s home out from the others. He left Bucky standing at the bottom of the steps, then knocked on the caravan’s door. He heard a thump, followed by a swear, after which the door swung open to reveal Sam with a scowl on his face. 

“This better not—” he began, before his eyes widened. “Steve!”

“Hi, Sam. I ah…I sent you some letters?”

“Yeah, you sure did,” Sam’s eyes fell on Bucky. “And you brought company?”

“It’s uh…there were some complications. I can explain.” 

Sam didn’t hesitate, stepping back and holding the door open for them. “Come on in.”

Steve looked at Bucky, who (as always) seemed suspicious of entering any enclosed place. So he offered him a smile and held out his hand. “Come on, pal. It’s safe.”

Inclined to trust Steve as much as he trusted anyone, Bucky acquiesced, taking the three steps up and into the caravan, which was cramped and homey, with a lofted bed set high on the far wall—big enough for two men, if they squeezed. Below that sat a squashy-looking sofa, covered in patches. A set of shelves ran along one wall, bracketing a tiny cookstove. Every shelf was packed full, holding various and sundry items, while the opposite wall boasted a table and three chairs, along with a skinny chest of drawers, above which hung a cracked mirror.

“Where’s Riley?” Steve asked, the three of them moving around carefully in the small space. 

“He and Clint went to run the dogs,” Sam said, shutting the door. “There’s no show tonight.”

“Ah.”

“Sam Wilson, by the way,” he said, extending his hand to Bucky, who looked at it, then at Steve. 

“He’s uh…” Steve sighed. “Shit, it’s a long story. But he doesn’t know how to shake hands.”

To his consternation, however, Bucky proved him wrong by choosing that moment to learn something new, taking Sam’s hand and pumping it twice. Just like Mr. Jarvis had done with Steve.

“Doesn’t know how, huh?” Sam said. 

“Well look at that,” Steve said dryly. “His name’s Bucky, by the way. He’s uh…learning Eascorian.” 

“Hey there, Bucky, I’m Sam.” That time, San tapped himself on the chest. 

Bucky squinted. “Sssssa-yum.”

"Well, now that we understand each other." Sam gestured to the small table. "Why don't you two have a seat?"

Steve put their bag down by the door, pausing to rifle through it for a new dried herring before pulling out a chair at the table. Bucky followed his example, while Sam went to light a hob beneath a copper kettle and poke around a shelf for a moment or two.

“I know we’ve got tea around here,” he muttered. 

“I don’t know if he’ll drink tea,” Steve said, handing Bucky the herring, which he promptly stuck in his mouth. “But I wouldn’t mind a cup.” 

“Sure,” Sam said. “And when Riley comes home, we’ll have supper. Now—aha!” He pulled a tin of tea from its hiding place and set it on the small counter next to the cookstove.

“So uh,” Steve cleared his throat. “I got two stories I could tell you about why I’m here.” 

“Oh?”

"Yup." Steve had debated what he would tell Sam when he found him. On the one hand, he didn't know Sam very well, though what he did know, he liked, and he had always prided himself on being a decent judge of character. On the other hand, he'd had the wool pulled over his eyes by Lord Pierce for too long to feel entirely confident in his judgment. "I got a story that's the truth, and then I got a story that you're more likely to buy."

Sam raised a brow. “Interesting. But I figure the guy who trusted me enough to send me all those letters about being in trouble already knows my answer.” 

Steve smiled. “I guess I do.” Stretching his arms above his head, he yawned, the wound in his shoulder pulling uncomfortably against its dressing. “So remember the night I met you, how I had all those questions about taming animals?”

“Sure,” Sam said. “I figured out what it was, by the way.”

“Did you?”

“Yup. We all thought you were taming a lion and didn’t like to say, but then your letters asked me if the circus had ever had dolphins. So I figured, shit, he’s got himself a shark.” 

Steve grinned. “Shark teeth, maybe.”

“What?” 

“Not a shark.” 

“No?”

“Nope. I was taming a siren.” 

Sam barked out a short laugh. “A what?” 

“A si—”

“No, I know what a siren is, I just wanted to hear you say that nonsense again. You’re kidding me, right?”

“Nope.” Steve shrugged. “Besides, I don’t know how you can doubt me. Shit, you just met him.” 

Sam blinked. Steve waited. 

Realization dawning, Sam looked sharp at Bucky, while Bucky—blissfully unaware of the conversation taking place—looked right back, gnawing on his fish. 

“Uh, I hate to break it to you, Steve, but your friend’s got legs.” 

“He does,” he agreed, “but sometimes he’s got a tail.” 

“Of course. Guess he’s got gil—” Sam stopped short. “Wait. Are those gills?” 

“Good eye,” Steve said. “Hey Buck, give Sam a smile?”

Bucky looked up, and when he saw Steve grinning, he did the same, revealing all the pointy teeth that weren’t currently embedded in his fish. 

“Shit,” Sam managed.

“And—” Steve reached for Bucky’s hand, lifting it to reveal both the claws and the webbed fingers. “Thought you woulda noticed these when you shook with him.” 

“I thought...” he said weakly. “It didn’t seem polite to uh…I thought it was…”

“No, that’s good. I want people to be too polite to say. I’m counting on that quite a bit, in fact.”

“Uh-huh.” 

“His feet are a mess right now—sorry about the mud—but he’s got webbed toes, too. And scales. Legs are all scales, actually. I’d show you, but I don’t think I’d ever get him back into the pants.” 

“Naturally. Fuck,” Sam swore, taking a step closer. 

“I said you might not believe me.” 

He shook his head. “You gotta…”

The sound of footsteps on the stairs silenced them both, as the door swung open to reveal Riley, ruddy-cheeked and handsome as ever, short brown hair nearly as windswept as Bucky’s long locks. 

“Well hey there, everyone,” he said, remarkably unruffled by the full house. 

“Riles,” Sam greeted, glancing between his husband and Bucky, who had shown some interest in the newcomer, but not enough to distract him from his fish. “Uh, you remember Steve?”

“Sure,” Riley said. “What’s going—” 

The kettle chose that moment to begin screaming, the high-pitched noise causing Bucky to scream in response. Sam dove for the stove, and Steve dove for the siren, placing a finger over his mouth with a firm "quiet!"

Riley, meanwhile, shut the door behind him and waited for the chaos to calm, as if everything happening was a regular sort of occurrence. Once the screaming had been silenced, he turned to Bucky with a raised brow. “Some pipes on you. I’m uh, Riley—Sam’s husband.”

“His name’s Bucky,” Steve said.

“How is it a siren has a name?” Sam asked.

“Siren?” said Riley.

“Long story,” said Steve at nearly the same moment. 

Having spoken over one another, all three of them fell quiet.

“I guess,” Sam said after an awkward beat. “You’d better start at the start.” 

And so, for the second time in as many days, Steve told the story of how he’d come to be in the company of his siren. 

By the time he was finished, darkness had fully fallen, with Riley lighting the lamps while Sam made the tea, the picture of domestic bliss even as they grew absorbed in what was undoubtedly one of the strangest tales they’d ever heard.

“Well shoot, Steve,” Sam said, once he’d finished.

“What?”

“Now that I know everything, him being half-fish is the least crazy thing about your story.” 

Maybe it was the circumstance or the fact that Steve felt safe for the first time in days, but Sam's statement struck him as so genuinely, stupidly funny that he began to laugh—really laugh—throwing his head back as tears formed in his eyes.

Which, naturally, prompted Bucky to do the same, working his jaw while making a noise that wasn’t actually laughter , merely an approximation of Steve’s joy. Whatever it was, though, it wasn’t pretty.

“Wow,” Riley said with a laugh of his own. “You weren’t kidding about the copying.”

"No, he's—" Steve recovered a bit, shaking his head and wiping his eyes. "He does it all the… I'm sorry. I just …it's been a long couple of days, you know? It's really good to see you two again. And I know I showed up on your doorstep with trouble, but—"

“This whole place is trouble,” Sam said. “If we were in the business of turning away hopeless causes, we’d have a pretty sorry show. Now—you hungry?” 

“I…yeah, I could eat,” Steve agreed. 

“Good. I could cook.”

“I’ll go round to the neighbors,” Riley said. “See if I can’t scrounge up a couple extra bedrolls. There’s no room in here, but you can sleep under the wagon.”

"And tomorrow," Sam continued as if finishing Riley's thoughts. "We'll go and see Nick about getting you two some jobs."

“Nick?”

“Fury. As in Fury’s Modern Marvels.” 

“Oh!” The ringmaster, with his eye patch and whip and hat, all those gleaming buttons on his coat. “Do you uh, do you think he’ll hire us on?”

“Sure,” Riley said. “There’s always work going.”

“Shit work,” Sam cautioned. “Literally. Hope you don’t mind shoveling.” 

Steve shrugged and reached for his mug. “Beats my last job.” 

Though, in truth, that wasn’t saying much.

 

Chapter Text

Sam woke them early from a sound sleep—the soundest sleep Steve had slept in an age. They took a quick wash in the stream, after which Bucky had to be coaxed into a new pair of slippers (Riley’s, this time) as well as his hated pants. Once that debacle had taken place, they ate a bit of breakfast before marching across the field to Nick Fury’s caravan. While it wasn’t grand, exactly, it stood out amongst the other shabby, weather-beaten homes, sporting a coat of deep purple paint and a gold-filigreed finish that looked fancier than it was (being that what it actually was, was cleverly painted wood). 

There were a few folks up and about as they walked through the campsite—stirring pots over fires or hanging washing on lines. Steve recognized Bobbi and raised a hand to her in greeting, which she returned.

Bucky, recognizing the gesture, did the same. “Goodbye!” 

"Uh, goodbye?" Bobbi echoed, confusion etched on her features, as Steve pulled Bucky's arm down and stifled a laugh. He was about to attempt an explanation of 'hello' when Bucky rushed forward, having caught his reflection in the painted sides of Nick's caravan.

“He’s a gods damn magpie,” Steve muttered to Sam. “Every time.” 

“If my hair looked like that, I’d want to take a gander, too.” 

"Yeah, I—" Steve shook his head. Hair combing had once again proven a failure, and Bucky's bird's nest had doubled in size overnight. "We'll work on it. Hey, Bucky, don’t do that…you'll leave fingerprints."

“Does he have fingerprints?” Sam said.

“Good question.” Steve jogged the distance between them and Bucky, killing two fish with one club in pulling his hand away from the wagon to inspect it. The fingertips were short, but present, with his sharp claws sprouting from the ends “Nope.” 

"Well, there you go," Sam said. "No fingerprints."

“No finguh-prins,” Bucky repeated

“Yup. You’re one of a kind, pal.” 

“Pal,” Bucky agreed, as Sam went to the top of Nick’s steps and knocked. 

"Enter." The voice was firm but less blustery than Steve had expected, given his ringmaster persona.

Sam pushed open the door, sticking his head in. “Sorry to bother you, but do you remember the friend I mentioned?”

“The one looking for a job?”

"That's the one—" Sam stepped in, ushering Steve and Bucky along with him. Nick Fury was seated behind a small desk, staring at them impassively with his one remaining eye. The caravan was decorated with worn brocades and threadbare velvet curtains, no doubt meant to give the impression of wealth and success, though closer inspection would reveal the fact Nick Fury was only marginally better off than those he employed. Considering the cold showers and dour moods of Steve's last position, he could appreciate a man who didn't elevate himself too far above his people.

“This is Steve,” Sam said, clapping him on the shoulder. “And uh…Bucky. I didn’t know Bucky was coming, but—”

Bucky, entirely uninterested in Nick, had discovered that he liked the feel of the velvet covering the wall by the door, and was busying himself with rubbing his cheek against it. 

“—he’s uh, foreign,” Sam concluded. 

“I see.” Nick stood, moving to the other side of his desk. Four grown men in such a small space was a lot, and Steve was already beginning to sweat. Though maybe that was just the close scrutiny he was under—Nick seemed like a man who suffered no fools, and his single brown eye reminded Steve uncomfortably of the blacksmith’s missing blue one. 

“It’s good to meet you, Steve,” he said finally, offering his hand.

Steve took it, just as Bucky pulled free one of the tassels holding back a velvet curtain, making a noise of delight. 

"Sorry," Steve said. "He' s—Bucky, no. Hang on a second." Reaching over, he tried to pluck the tassel from Bucky's hand, only to have Bucky swat him away.

“He’s not hurting anything,” Nick said. “You’re both here to work?” 

“I am,” Steve said. “Bucky’s uh—” 

“Anyone wants to stay with us, works for us,” Nick said firmly. “Just so happens I lost a roustabout in Kipson, so I’m in need of another. No harm in taking on two.” 

It all seemed too easy, though Steve stammered out his thanks.

“Got a couple questions, though,” Nick said, cutting him off in the midst of his gratitude. “You bringing any trouble? Sam seemed to think there might be trouble.” 

“Errr—” Damn it.

“I don’t need trouble.” 

“Nothing…” Steve licked his lips and looked at Bucky, who was dancing the tassel across his palm. “Nothing that’s going to come down on your head.” 

“Mmm.” Nick raised a brow. “And you’ll vouch for him, Sam?” 

“Sure,” Sam said, for which Steve was profoundly grateful; they hardly knew one another, really, but Sam already believed the best of him. Steve didn’t know precisely why, but he wasn’t about to question it.

“Should trouble come, you’re on your own,” Nick said after a moment’s consideration. “But as long as you’re here, you’ll have two meals a day and a place to lay your head at night. Money’s not great, but—”

“We’ll take it,” Steve said quickly. “I’m a hard worker, and Bucky learns fast.”

“Not much to learn,” he replied. “You’ll have a sore back and rough hands, is all. Your friend’s a mite thin for the work, but we’ll put some muscle on him.” 

“He’s smart. He’ll pick it up.” 

“I’m sure that’s true.” Nick turned to Sam. “You’ll see they meet Mack?” 

“Yup,” Sam nodded. “Thanks, Nick. Come on, you two. I’ll give you the tour.” 

“Thank you,” Steve said again, taking Bucky’s arm. “Buck, come on. Give it back.”

Bucky, however, would not be parted from his tassel, and when Steve gave a firm tug to try and take it from him, Bucky nipped him on the forearm. It wasn’t the hardest bite he had received by a wide margin, but it hurt, and he hollered before yanking his arm away.

Nick barked out a laugh. “Foreign!” he exclaimed. “With teeth like that? Shit, son, you could work up an act!” 

“No,” Steve said, ignoring the blood pooling in the wound. “He’s not. We’re not—” 

“He’s shy,” Sam said. “Terrible in front of a crowd.” 

“Hmm.” Nick stepped closer to look at Bucky, who looked right back at him before reaching out a hand to try and touch Nick’s eyepatch.

“Bucky, no,” Steve said, and this time he was the one who did the swatting, knocking Bucky’s hand back.

“No!” Bucky complained.

“Where’d you say he was from again?” Nick asked.

“It’s uh,” Steve shook his head. “I dunno. One of the islands off the Covian coast, I think.”

“Huh.” Nick nodded, narrowing his eyes. “He can keep the tassel.” 

“Thank you,” Steve said, taking Bucky by the elbow to steer him out the door before any more damage could be done. “You are awful," he said to Bucky the moment they were on solid ground, and the door was shut, though he couldn't help smiling.

“Oah-ful.”

“Yeah, that.”

“Well,” Sam said, jumping from the third step. “I think he likes you.” 

“Small mercies,” Steve muttered, as Bucky waved the tassel in his face. “What, Buck?” 

The action was repeated, a question in Bucky’s eyes.

“It’s a tieback. For curtains. A tassel.” 

“Tay-sell.”

“Yeah.”

“Tay-sell, Steve.”

“So we’ve established.”

“Tay-sell.”

“Still on the same page with you, pal.” 

“Shit,” Sam broke in. “Maybe you two should be in the show. Come on, let's go meet Mack."

 

 

Mack turned out to be the head roustabout—a mountain of a man, with friendly features that belied his might—sporting a shaved head and a goatee reminiscent of Nick’s. He seemed a decent sort, and very used to new roustabouts being brought on board, giving Steve and Bucky the rundown of their duties, as well as where they could supply themselves with necessities—towels and the like. Sam led them on a tour of the grounds after that, Steve’s good mood improving with every stop. There was something exciting about seeing behind the scenes of a thing that had fascinated him so much as a child. 

They ended up by the makeshift pens where the show horses were kept, including a ring in which Bobbi had a horse on a line, working her in a circle with low words of encouragement. When she saw them, though, she stopped, waving and walking over, the horse following. 

Bucky, who had made only a brief acquaintance with the horses pulling Howard Stark’s carriage (which was to say, he had seen them from a distance), stepped back, still holding his tassel. 

“I remember you,” Bobbi said to Steve in lieu of a greeting. 

“I was at the show in Columbia—”

“He saved Lucky,” Sam said. 

“That’s right!” Bobbi grinned. “It’s good to see you again—Steve, right? What brings you to Towson?”

“I’m uh…well, we’ve recently been employed here,” he explained, gesturing to Bucky, who was having a staring contest with the horse. 

“Uh…huh,” said Bobbi. “Is…he alright?” 

“He’s never met a horse before,” he shrugged.

“Never met a horse?” she echoed.

"He's foreign," he said, genuinely sad Bucky had to be a secret, and he couldn't make a joke about seahorses. "They don't have them where he comes from."

“First time for everything, I guess,” she said, turning to Bucky. “What’s your name?” 

“Bucky,” Steve answered for him. “He doesn’t speak much Eascorian.” 

“Hi, Bucky,” she said, leading the horse closer to the fence. 

Bucky took one step nearer. Then another. Moving slowly, but without apprehension. When he was close enough, he lifted his hand to place it very gently against the horse’s velvety nose. Steve couldn’t fathom it, but at the same time, it made some sort of sense—Bucky had lived his life in a place with all manner of strange creatures. What was one more?

“She likes you,” Bobbi said, and while it was impossible to say whether or not that was true, the horse didn’t seem to be bothered by Bucky’s presence. “You want to give her a treat?” 

Reaching into her pocket, she produced one end of a carrot and showed him how to hold it. Bucky, studying her intently, stuffed the tassel into his trousers (score a point for pants) before taking the treat. The horse perked up, head turning toward the food, which she took rather delicately from Bucky’s palm.

“Steve!” he exclaimed. 

“Look at you,” Steve laughed. “What’s her name?”

“Mockingbird,” Bobbi replied, one hand moving to rub the horse’s neck. 

“Hi, Mockingbird.” Reaching out, Steve gave her a scritch just below the forelock as she chewed. He wanted to share her name with Bucky, but proper names versus names for things was something he wasn’t sure how to convey. Instead, he nodded at the horse, then caught Bucky’s attention. “Horse.” 

“Hoase,”

“Good job, pal.” 

“You ought to send him to school,” Sam said. 

“To…what?” Steve laughed. “Yeah, alright.” 

"I'm serious," he shrugged. "Fury's right-hand woman—Maria—she's one of the fire eaters. She teaches all the kids, and I bet she'd be willing to teach him."

"Maria's great," Bobbi agreed. "Honestly, she 's—aw, damn it, how'd he get out?"

The question of who 'he' might be was answered seconds later when a brown blur launched itself over the fence and onto Mockingbird's back.

“Baxter!” Bobbi shouted. “You were supposed to stay in the wagon!”

Steve's jaw nearly hit the ground. Baxter—an honest-to-Gods chimpanzee—was sitting astride the horse, a giant grin on his wide face. Sam had mentioned that Bobbi had a chimp, way back when they'd first met, but hearing about it and seeing it were very different things. “That’s—” 

“Steve!” Bucky snarled, taking a step back. Mockingbird, meanwhile, chuffed her displeasure over the entire affair. 

“Baxter, absolutely not,” Bobbi said firmly. “Come here.” 

Her tone was enough to cause the grin to fade from the chimp’s face, and he reluctantly slid from Mockingbird’s back, wrapping his long arms and legs around Bobbi’s body instead, burying his face against her neck in mock contrition. 

“Baxter,” Sam said, affection coloring his tone. “Is our escape artist.” 

“Every time I think I’ve got him wrangled, he finds a new way out,” Bobbi said with a sigh. “If it’s not him, it’s Lucky. Or Clint leaves the door open, or—” 

“Steve!” Bucky said again, pointing at Baxter.

“Yeah, he’s a…” Steve shook his head. “Uh. Chimpanzee. I think.” 

“Shim-pan-zee.” 

“Yep.” 

Bucky shook his head. “No.”

“No?” He laughed. “Whaddaya mean no? He’s right there.” 

“It’s alright,” Bobbi said wryly. “Sometimes I have a hard time believing he’s real, too.” 

“How long have you had him?” Steve asked. 

“Five years now. Picked him up from a show that shut down,” she said, cradling Baxter close. “Real shitty operation—abusing the animals. He’s not as big as one you’d find in the wild, because they never took decent care of him. When I took him in, he was starving, but he’d been around humans too long to make it on his own, or with other fellas like him. So, you know. I kept him. And now he’s my buddy. Pretty decent retirement, if you ask me.”

Baxter grinned his chimpy grin, tugging on the end of Bobbi’s braid, just as Bucky slipped his hand into Steve’s, wary enough, but curious, too.

“I ought to get him lunch,” Bobbi continued after a moment. “I’d bet you that’s why he found his way out. Sam, would you mind putting Mockingbird with the others?”

“Sure thing.”

“It was nice to see you again, Steve, and nice to meet you, Bucky,” she said, clambering over the fence with her arms full of chimp. 

“Yeah, you too. And uh, bye, Baxter.”

Bucky shot his arm into the air. “Goodbye!”

Bobbi burst out laughing, turning to go, Baxter chatting amiably all the while as they headed for the mess tent.

Once they were gone, Sam glanced at Bucky. “We have got to teach you hello. Hey, you wanna take a horse on a walk?”

Bucky did, and soon enough he was holding onto Mockingbird’s rope, leading her back to the pen where the other horses were grazing. Steve tried not to worry about what might happen if Mockingbird reared or bolted—Bucky was going to have to learn how to deal with the animals in his new job, so he might as well start now.

In the end, it was fine. Sam opened the gate, then showed Bucky how to take Mockingbird’s lead rope and halter off before sending her to the others. When the task was done, Bucky turned to Steve with a slight smile on his face. 

“Alright?” Steve asked.

Bucky just smiled, an odd wistfulness in his eyes. Steve was about to dig deeper when he heard barking in the distance.

So, apparently, it was time for Bucky to meet the dogs. Surely nothing could go wrong.

Lucky arrived first, having spotted Sam at a distance, breaking away from the pack. He bolted straight for them, barking joyfully, while Sam crouched to catch him in a boisterous hug.

Bucky took the opportunity to bare his teeth and step back. Had he been a cat, he might have hissed. Instead, his body went rigid in self-defense. Lucky, who obviously didn’t see Bucky as any sort of threat, bounded from Sam to Steve, turning circles around his legs and whimpering in delight. Steve crouched down to play, only to glance up when Bucky gave a low whine.

“Uh-oh,” he teased. “You don’t like dogs, Buck?”

That was when the rest of the pack reached them—a mess of drooling, barking, giddy canines jumping all over the place with Clint bringing up the rear and shouting apologies all the while. Bucky, panicked, scrambled up the fence surrounding the paddock, howling a protest.

The problem with Bucky's howling, of course, was that the dogs picked up on the high-pitched noise and began doing the same, leaving Steve, Sam, and Clint standing amid a chorus of off-key crooning.

“Shit!” Sam swore, covering his ears.

“I’m sorry!” Clint said for the umpteenth time.

“Easy for you to say!” Sam shot back.

“Damn it,” Clint sighed. “Fellas, come on. Shut up! Lucky, quit being a bad influence!”

“Bucky! No!” Steve tried, putting himself between the dogs and the siren, which served to quieten Bucky down, at least.

It took another minute for Clint to corral the dogs into a circle, just like he did in the show, all of them sitting and waiting for his next command.

"I'm sorry," he repeated. "They've been on a run, and they're feeling a little wild."

“It’s alright,” Steve said. “It’s uh, good to see you again, Clint.”

“You, too. I saw Riley earlier, he said you were—hey, Hawk, no way. Sit down.” 

Hawk—an older dog that looked to be part terrier—huffed a sigh before doing as he was told. 

“This is Bucky, by the way,” Steve said. “He’s uh. Dogs are new for him.”

"Well, hey, Bucky. I'm sorry about these goofballs, they can be a lot to take."

Bucky scowled. “No.” 

“He’s just learning the language,” Sam broke in. “How about you take the pack over the field and we’ll keep Lucky—start him off with the charmer.”

“Sure,” Clint said amiably. “We’ll get out of your hair, and hey, good to see you. Lucky, stay! The rest of you—let’s go.” 

Sam placed a hand on Lucky’s collar, while the rest of the pack took off running, setting up for a game of catch about a hundred yards away. 

“Wow,” Steve said once they’d gone.

"No kidding," Sam agreed, releasing the collar and looking at Bucky, who was still clinging to the fence and whining. "Look, Bucky. You're gonna have to play nice with the puppies, so c'mon down from there." He pointed at the ground. Bucky frowned and looked to Steve, who repeated the gesture. With a fair bit of protest and exaggerated reluctance, Bucky finally deigned to slide down from the fence.

"C' mere, pal," Steve said, taking pity on him, dropping to his knees and gesturing for Bucky to do the same. "Just hold out your hand, like you did with the horse."

He demonstrated, and it took a minute, but eventually, Bucky followed, sinking to his knees and putting out his hand. Sam gave Lucky the go-ahead to greet them, which he did—Steve first, giving his fist a lick, then doing the same to Bucky, whose aggrieved expression the moment the slimy snout touched his palm was priceless.

“Alright,” Steve said through a snort. “Pretty good, Buck. Let’s try giving him a scratch on his chest, huh?”

It took some time, but with help, Bucky eventually began rubbing his palm over the soft fur of Lucky's chest. Surprising no-one, the dog's coat was as pleasing to Bucky as the tassel had been, so once he'd discovered he liked it, getting him to stop proved impossible. Lucky, naturally, was thrilled with the attention, and within a few minutes, the two of them had become fast friends.

"Dog," Steve said when Bucky looked to him for the name.

“Doag.” 

“Yup.” Steve hesitated, then pointed to Lucky again. “Lucky.” 

Bucky frowned. “Lucky. Bucky?”

Steve smiled. “You’re a poet, pal. But no. Lucky. Dog.” 

“Luckydoag?” 

“Not quite.” He tried again. “Dog.” He pointed across the field, where Clint and the rest of the pack were still playing catch. “Dogs.” Then, he touched his own chest. “Human.” He pointed to Sam. “Human.”

“Hyoo-mun.”

“Right. Steve, human. Sam, human. Lucky, dog.” 

Bucky’s smile widened, things clicking into place. “Lucky. Dog.” A point across the field to the pack. “Dog.” Then Lucky. “Dog. Lucky. Steve hyoomun. Horse?” 

“Uh. Mockingbird.” 

“Mockin-bird.” 

“By gum, I think he’s got it.” Sam teased.

“Bucky,” Bucky said, touching his chest before letting out another earsplitting noise that, presumably, meant siren. Sam and Steve immediately clapped their hands over their ears, and Lucky gave a sharp yelp, then ran in the direction of his pack. Not that it mattered—by the time Bucky finished, every dog in the field was braying at top volume once again.

Shit, Bucky,” Steve managed. “Uh. Let’s try, you know…” he touched Bucky’s chest. “Siren.” 

“Soy-ren.” 

“Bucky. Siren.” 

Bucky shrugged, getting to his feet. “Lucky?”

“You scared him off,” Steve said, standing as well and putting a hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “Sorry.” 

“Soar-ee,” Bucky agreed. “Steve.”

“What?” 

“Dog.” He pointed to the pack again. “Lucky.”

"Yeah, alright," Steve agreed. For a fella that had been shit-scared of the dogs not ten minutes prior, he sure had fallen for them quickly. "Let's go see if we can teach you to catch."

Bucky, as it happened, was a speedy study, picking up the game quickly, with remarkable aim for someone who'd spent his life living underwater. By the time the game was through, the three of them had worn themselves out, along with Clint and the pack.

After a quick lunch, the rest of that first day was spent setting up their small campsite beneath Sam and Riley’s wagon, including a rudimentary platform of planks to keep them elevated above any rainwater that might fall. It was a tight fit, but it would be warm and comfortable at night, which was all Steve wanted.

Later, once evening had fallen and supper had been supped, Steve and Bucky crawled into that small nest, settling themselves beneath the blankets. Bucky immediately moved close, tucking his head against Steve’s chest and throwing an arm around his waist, ever casual with his affection, and with his trust. That trust was something new for Steve—something he wasn’t quite sure what to do with. Yes, his men had trusted him during the war, but they’d been capable of taking care of themselves. Of making their own way in the world. Bucky was different, though what precisely that meant, he didn’t know.

“Steve?” Bucky said, voice low and lazy in the darkness, interrupting his thoughts.

“Mmm?” 

“Gunnite.” 

Steve smiled, giving his hand a squeeze. “Goodnight, Buck.” 

 

Chapter Text

It was hard to believe they were actually free, Steve found, as the first day turned into the second, then the third. Hard to believe that they’d been taken in and hidden away amongst people who didn’t care where they’d come from, only that they worked hard and did their part to contribute to the success of the show. 

Those early days passed in a blur, with both Steve and Bucky learning what was expected of them. The work of a roustabout was cyclical: setting up in a new place, maintaining and repairing things while they were there, managing the crowd on show nights, then tearing down and packing up the wagons for the move to the next town. There was no denying that the work was hard, but Steve didn’t mind—he’d spent his life doing difficult things, so it was easy enough to keep his head down and do as he was told, whether that was hauling, hammering, or holding things in place. In truth, there was part of him that had missed working with a crew. Being with the rousties wasn’t anything like captaining a ship, but there were similarities—mostly in the quick humor and good company, days spent sweating under the late-summer sun forming quick camaraderies. 

The other rousties, albeit wary of newcomers at first, welcomed them into the fold once they saw that they were hard workers (as well as funny ones, thanks to Bucky and his strange habits). These men and women—especially those who had been on the job for years—were full of useful information, too. For instance, they knew the schedule back to front, and unlike Steve's rote memorization, that knowledge included interesting facts about every town along the route. Towson would be their base for another week, then Steve and Bucky would experience their first travel days. The next stop was Millington, a town famous for a specific type of tweed, according to Mack, who had a very nice coat made from it.

“You’ll get your first wages at the end of this week,” he’d said at breakfast on the fourth day, looking Steve up and down. “You ought to invest in some tougher gear. As for your friend—” A glance at Bucky, who was slurping porridge straight out of a bowl. “Some shoes might not go amiss.” 

“If I can get him to wear them.”

Bucky’s eccentricities were already well-known throughout the camp: no shoes, very little Eascorian, wild hair, and a propensity for stealing every soft, shiny thing he found. 

But Bucky was learning, too. Learning the work of a roustabout by copying Steve's example, learning to speak by listening to those around him, learning behavior by watching how people reacted to him. Although weakened by his time in captivity, he grew stronger daily as he poured every earnest ounce of himself into each new task or chore. The other roustabouts could respect the effort, even if the strength wasn't there, and so accepted Bucky into the fold, same as they had Steve. Plus, Bucky wasn't entirely useless those first few days—he proved extremely adroit at specific tasks—his razor-sharp teeth were helpful in a pinch, and while his claws couldn't manage a button, they proved to be surprisingly good at untangling knots.

On their sixth day in camp, a particularly burly roustie named Logan offered Bucky a puff on the cigar that was perpetually clamped between his lips. Steve watched with a raised brow as Bucky took the cigar and sucked on the end, just like he’d seen Logan do half a hundred times. His face proceeded to turn as green as the scales on his legs before he vomited his recently-eaten lunch on the ground at Logan’s feet.

“No,” he croaked when he was through, handing the cigar back to Logan. “No, no.” 

For a moment, Steve worried that Logan might be offended, so it came as a relief when he started to laugh instead. The story of Bucky and the cigar made the rounds through camp, and from that point forward, of the two of them, Steve was sure the other roustabouts liked Bucky best.

Endlessly inquisitive, he was constantly asking Steve for words. As the first week turned into the second and they made ready to leave for Millington, he started asking other people, too. Bobbi taught him the word “what” one evening over supper, and it soon became his constant refrain. 

“What?” 

“Tree.” 

“Shree. What?” 

“Branch.” 

“Braynch. What?”

“Flower—aw, Buck, you don’t eat it.” 

“Fla-wah,” Bucky said around a mouthful of petals. 

At least, Steve supposed, he was funny—sometimes even intentionally—which came as a relief, considering that having him as a constant shadow could be trying. He and Bucky slept together, woke together. Took breakfast together. Lunch together. Supper together. Bathed together. Shit, they even shat together. In some ways, it wasn’t so different from sharing close quarters with his crew, save for the fact that nobody on his crew had ever wanted to hold his hand, nor had they insisted on cuddling him at night.

It was lucky for them both, then, that their circumstances forged a friendship rather than sparking enmity between them. Steve soon discovered that he liked Bucky—would have liked him regardless of the situation forcing them together. Kind and curious, charming and cheerful, Bucky made friends wherever he went. Bobbi adored him, Sam and Riley took great pleasure in teaching him new words, and the other performers showed him everything from how to turn a clumsy somersault, to how to imitate a bird call (Bucky’s attempt at which sounded more like a dolphin song). 

On their last night in Towson, Steve finally took him to see the show, which he'd kept him away from thus far, worried he might be anxious or (worse) run into the middle of the ring when he saw his friends. But Bucky kept asking to see, so Steve was forced to acquiesce, only to find he should have given Bucky more credit. Transfixed by the spectacle, Bucky sat still as a statue, hands fisting the material of his trousers for the entire duration of the show. The only times he moved were to grab Steve's arm, or to cheer, taking his cues from the rest of the crowd. Afterward, he went to Sam and Riley, hugging them both and making signs to indicate that he wanted them to show him how to swing on the wire.

“We’ll see, pal,” Steve said, at the same time Sam replied with, “sure!”

 


 

They began the journey to Millington the next morning, Steve and Bucky waking early to finish breaking down the lot. They were kept busy, running back and forth, folding and packing and getting everything ready to go. Once the caravans were loaded, the long wagon train got on the road, led by Nick’s purple coach. Steve and Bucky rode with Sam and Riley, because the roustabout van was cramped, and their friends had made the offer. 

Which meant, naturally, that Sam let Bucky sit on the bench at the front of the wagon and learn how to drive the horses. Steve stayed with him, even after Sam retreated inside, because a lot could go wrong in a hurry with horses, and he wanted to be there in case something happened.

As Bucky drove through the outskirts of Towson, Steve felt utter delight blooming at the base of his skull—a pleasant, if unexpected surprise. The dream-memories had stopped since arriving at the circus, and the connection which had once bloomed so strongly between them had faded, replaced with a different sort of bond. One made of words and touch rather than memories and feelings; one Steve liked better in many ways, because it meant Bucky was adapting. Meant they could really talk, rather than make wild conjectures about what the other one meant. It also put to rest some of Steve’s initial worries that Bucky would be fearful or anxious around humans, given his experience with them. But Bucky seemed to have come to an innate understanding that most people were decent, given a chance. Not that it mattered—Steve was taking him home, and he never lost sight of that. No matter how comfortable Bucky got in his new life, the circus would reach the sea, and he would be gone.

 


 

It took four days to travel to Millington, where Steve and Bucky found themselves busy once again, this time with the hard work of setting up the big top and all the smaller midway tents. On their second day in the new town, Steve finally took Sam up on his offer of introducing Bucky to Maria. Rumor had it that Maria and Nick were secretly married, but due to their contrasting temperaments, they kept separate caravans, with hers being several doors down from Sam and Riley. Steve had seen her in passing, and obviously during her act in the show, but he’d not yet spoken to her. Turning up at her door with Bucky hanging from his arm, he found he liked her immediately. She was a keen-eyed, no-nonsense sort of person, at least at first glance—the type that stayed silent and forbidding before setting forth a joke so funny the entire room began to laugh. Steve knew that sort, and he’d always appreciated a dry sense of humor.

Maria sized Bucky up in an instant, agreeing to take him on before sending Steve to sit on a small sofa in the rear of the caravan as she began to assess the capabilities of her newest pupil.

Three weeks later, she had Bucky speaking in halting sentences. Eloquent, they were not, but Bucky soaked up every bit of information relayed to him, his facility with Eascorian improving every day. Maria had quickly discovered that the key to Bucky’s heart was in his stomach, so she’d begun rewarding him with food, giving him the chance to sample all sorts of delicacies she kept in her larder. 

Which was all well and good until they got to the chocolate. 

Bucky had pounced on the sweet treat and, to Steve’s dismay, discovered that his stomach couldn’t handle the richness of it less than an hour later.

“Steve,” he complained from the bed of leaves upon which he’d fallen after relieving himself of his burden. “No choc-it, please?” 

“Nope,” Steve said, crouching and brushing some still-tangled hair back from Bucky’s forehead. “No more chocolate.” 

“Thank, Steve.” 

The manners were new—part of Maria’s early agenda in teaching Bucky how to get along in the world. Steve didn’t know if he understood the reasoning behind the pleasantries, but he’d taken to them easily, and by the time they reached the small city of Cynwyd, he was capable of asking for what he wanted politely, which made a nice change from outright demands. 

“Fish Steve please,” was his most oft-used refrain, followed by, “see Lucky please?” or “SamRiley, please?” or “Bobbi, please?” or “Logan, please?” (It was never, however, “Steve, please?” because Steve was always there.) 

Things weren’t perfect, of course. Remnants of the horror Bucky had suffered remained with him, in small troubles and large ones, some of them evident to everyone, others things only Steve could see. When Bucky slept, his dreams were fitful. Loud noises bothered him, and objects that remotely resembled the electric prod sent him skittering in the opposite direction, dragging Steve by the hand. There were no tears in those moments—what would be the point of tears for a siren—but he would huddle in on himself, shivering until the fear passed, before emerging bright-eyed and cheerful, as if nothing had ever hurt him at all. Steve didn’t understand it, but he didn’t question it, because in so many ways, Bucky was still a stranger to the world, prone to bursts of frustration and reactions borne of instinct. He refused to let Steve near his hair with a comb, and he’d yet to acquiesce to anything other than a pair of ratty old slippers on his feet. If Steve tried to press the issue, his wilder side shone through, and so Steve found himself the recipient of an occasional bite or scratch as the weeks wore on.

"No. Biting." The caution left his lips time and again, usually during their daily fights over whether or not today was the day Bucky was going to be allowed to go without pants. Steve sympathized, he really did, but for all their freedom, they still had to be cautious. Taking Howard's advice, Steve had grown a beard and let his hair go longer than he ever had before. Bucky, however, had more to hide, and fewer good excuses. With trousers on, he was passable, but not perfect—Steve explained the gills away as tattoos, and while his teeth and claws were strange, most people didn’t press when Steve said they were common in his country. The webbed toes were mostly hidden by his slippers, and while his webbed fingers were strange, at least they didn’t have scales.

On their third day in Cynwyd, they were approached after lunch by Bobbi, who invited them to join her in visiting the marketplace. Steve demurred, as he always did when an offer to leave camp was made. Better that they should stay out of sight, amongst people who knew them. Strangers might invite more questions, and he didn’t want to risk it. 

“Suit yourself,” Bobbi said with a smile. “Bye, Bucky.”

“Bye!” Bucky said, before turning to Steve. “Bobbi come?” (Despite his newfound facilitation with the language, Bucky occasionally used opposite words to mean the same thing—“come” and “go” being a prime example.) 

“Yeah, pal,” Steve said. “She’s going to town.”

Bucky narrowed his eyes. “Tow-un. We come?” 

“No, we’re not—”

Bucky stood from the table and tugged on his hand. “Bobbi come, please? Steve?”

“You might as well take him,” Sam said, looking up from his newspaper. “Change of scenery.” 

“Thanks, Sam,” Steve said drily. “We’d do just as well staying out of sight of—” 

“Steve!” Bucky said. “Bobbi, please?” 

Sam grinned. Steve rolled his eyes. “Well, shit,” he muttered. 

“What’s the harm?” Sam countered. “Plenty of weirdos in town, I’m sure.”

“Most weirdos don’t have scales.”

“You lifting their hems to check? For all you know this whole place is sirens—” 

“Siren!” Bucky agreed.

“It’s not—”

Please, Steve.” 

“Yeah,” Sam laughed. “Please, Steve?”

Steve rolled his eyes. “I know when I’m licked.” 

It was probably fine. How much trouble could they find in one small town’s market? 

 


 

They caught up with Bobbi on the road, strolling the half-mile to the market square, which turned out to be a cacophony of colors and noise and people and things. The latter proved the problem, because Bucky adored things—the stupider, the better. Tassels and scarves and anything soft or shiny. This love of beautiful trinkets was all well and good in camp, where everyone indulged him in his whims, allowing him to take his treasures, so long as they were small and wouldn't be missed. But here, in a strange town, with strange people, who expected to receive money for their wares? It wasn't ideal.

“Bucky, no,” Steve said, as he lunged toward a tinker’s stall selling pots and pans, gleaming metal glinting in the sun. “You can’t touch this stuff.” 

Bucky turned to glower. “Steve no no go!” 

“No,” he repeated. “Not yours. No touching.”

“Oh yeah,” Bobbi said under her breath. “He’s real good with the concept of ownership.”

“Then I guess that’s what he’s learning today,” Steve muttered, taking Bucky by the elbow to steer him away from the tinker’s stall and toward an apple cart. “How about an apple, pal?”

“App-puhl,” Bucky echoed, biddable enough as he went right over and picked one up.

“Wait, wait…” Steve shook his head. “This is…alright, Buck, we’re gonna learn about commerce.” 

Bucky blinked, then whined when Steve plucked the apple from his palm and put it back. “Steve! App-puhl!” 

“I know, I know. But—” he turned to the stout woman manning the cart and smiled. “My friend’s uh…he’s learning.” 

“So I see.” 

“If you wouldn’t mind indulging us?” 

“Passes the time,” she said, a half-smile on her face.

“Thank you.” Steve dug into his pocket for a coin (the ownership of which was a pleasure in and of itself—circus pay came as currency rather than checks that needed cashing). “Buck, hold this.”

Bucky took it. “Money.”

“That’s right, just like Maria showed you. Now, say hello to the lady.” 

“Hello,” he said, lifting his hand.

“Hi, honey,” the woman replied, leaning forward, as it seemed nobody was immune to Bucky—teeth notwithstanding, he wasn’t bad looking, and he could be pretty gods damn charming when he wanted to be. “You want an apple?” 

“Yes. Apple?” 

“Here you go.” Picking up the one he’d already touched, she held it out.

“Thank you!” Bucky said, taking it from her and tearing a bite out of the top, stem and all, before turning to walk away.

“Nope, no,” Steve said, steering him back. “You gotta give her the money.” He mimed handing it over.

Bucky frowned because the coin was awfully shiny. "No. Steve?"

“Yeah, sorry pal. Hand it over.”

As was often the case when absorbing a new concept, Bucky took a moment to look around, watching transactions at other stalls, before studying the coin in his palm.

“Money,” he said, handing it to the woman, who dropped it into a box before pulling out two copper pennies in change and dropping them into Bucky’s waiting palm. 

“So now,” Bobbi said from behind them, “he thinks he gets a treat and two bright and shinies with every transaction.”

“You wanna explain economics to him?” Steve asked with a raised brow. 

“Nope,” she grinned. “He’s heading back to the tinker, by the way.”

“What? Aw, Bucky, damn it—” 

Steve took a few quick steps away, catching up to him before he could attempt to pay for a saucepan with the two pennies in his palm. 

The rest of the afternoon continued in much the same fashion, and several hours later, they returned to camp with two new shirts for Bucky (whose claws were reducing the old ones to ribbons), three apples, a purple scarf made of dyed lambswool that Bucky had wrapped around his neck and refused to take off, along with the shiny metal saucepan from which Steve had been unable to deter Bucky’s interest. 

The pot, at least, made a perfect apple holder.

The outing had taken longer than Steve had expected, so he hurried Bucky to the caravan once they returned, while Bobbi went off to dress for the show. Rubes were already milling around the midway, and they needed to get to work—checking the spotlights and securing a few last minute things. 

Bucky lay the scarf and the saucepan on his bedroll, kneeling and considering them both before picking up the scarf and turning to Steve with hands outstretched. 

“For me?” Steve asked, laughing a little.

“Yes. Is good. Steve is Maria?” He mimed putting the scarf around his neck, which yeah, it was like Maria, who often wore a scarf during lessons.

“Thank you, Buck,” he said, taking it from him and putting it on. “It’s real pretty.” 

“Welcome, Steve. Show?”

“Yeah, absolutely, show.” He waved him off, and Bucky loped in the direction of the tent, a grin on his face, stopping every few feet to make sure Steve was still following. 

 

Chapter Text

The trouble with spending endless time with Bucky was that, in the end, Steve was spending endless time with Bucky. After a while, that much time together would wear on anybody. Even a man with the patience of tide weathering shells into sand would find himself growing weary of the constant companionship, and Steve was no tide. 

Of course he liked Bucky. Enjoyed his company and found him charming. But shit, sometimes a fella wanted time to himself. Even in sleep, Steve wasn’t alone, due to Bucky’s habit of tangling them together, as if worried Steve might float away in the night. Which was probably a real gods damn concern when one slept underwater, but wasn’t so applicable on land. 

Things hit the boiling point about two months into their stay at the circus, on their first morning in a new town, when biology intersected with Steve’s growing frustrations at never having a moment to himself. Namely: Bucky woke with an honest-to-gods erection. This phenomenon was impossible to miss, given the way the length of it was rubbing against Steve’s leg, though it took him a moment to realize what he was feeling upon opening his eyes. Bucky was holding him close and emitting fitful little whines, moving his body in fits and starts. It wasn’t unlike the twitches he sometimes made when dreaming, but as Steve looked over, he saw that Bucky was very much awake, mouth curled up into a pleased little expression as he jerked his hips. 

The second thing Steve realized was that he, too, was sporting a stiffy.

This wasn’t the first time it had happened—shit, he was human, and Bucky slept practically on top of him. But when it had occurred before, he’d hidden it, letting the cold water of the various streams where they made their morning ablutions take care of the problem. Nothing wrong with it, in his opinion, just a private sort of thing. 

But what Bucky was doing sure wasn’t private, and Steve grunted before nudging him back. He hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about Bucky’s particular proclivities in that area—which in retrospect was a stupid thing not to have pondered. Bucky had a prick for a reason; logic dictated that if he could use it to piss he could use it to do any number of things. Still, what went on down there brought with it more questions than answers, considering Bucky’s unique biology, and so he hadn’t really let his brain drift down that path.

One obvious answer, however, was still poking him in the leg, Bucky having refused to move when pushed. 

“Bucky, get off,” he said, irritated, shoving him harder this time.

“Steve,” Bucky complained, wriggling, which wasn’t doing a damn thing to help either of their situations.

“Don’t do that to me.” He angled his body away, turning onto his back. “Take care of it yourself.” 

“Steve,” he repeated, and this time it came out a whine. “Good? Steve—want?” 

“No,” Steve said, fixing his eyes on the underside of the caravan. Bucky didn’t know enough to know what he wanted; shit, he’d only learned the word ‘want’ last week. “I told you—fix it yourself.” 

‘Fix it’ was clear enough instruction, and Bucky gave a grunt before beginning to rub himself over the confines of his trousers, unself-conscious about the act. Steve, meanwhile, rolled onto his opposite side and yanked a pillow over his head, willing his own not-so-little problem to calm down, because this wasn’t a barrel of monkeys he was ready to let loose. He had no idea what had spurred Bucky’s awakening, but the politics of a healthy fuck weren’t exactly something they could sit down and have a conversation about. Steve could, however, find a way to teach him the basics, like not humping other people’s legs without permission. 

Which wasn’t to say he was a stranger to sex and desire—there had been fellas during the war, but those had been trysts, lasting the length of a furlough or time spent in a port. And while he hadn’t been celibate since then, the opportunities had been few and far between. These days? Well, even if he’d wanted to try and talk someone into a tumble, Bucky wouldn’t leave his side. 

Bucky, whose breathing had picked up speed. Who was making the most ridiculous noises. Bucky, with his mess of hair and his naiveté and smiles so big they just about split his face. Of course, Steve had looked. Wondered. Thought him handsome a time or two. But he wasn’t human; wouldn’t know what he was signing up for. Something about it felt like taking advantage of the trust Bucky had placed in him. Anyhow, it wasn’t like Bucky was doing it because Steve was Steve. Siren or human, Steve was willing to bet that rubbing up against something felt better than rubbing against your own damn hand. Bucky was just acting on instinct, was all.

Behind him, Bucky inhaled sharply, then groaned. Steve’s erection, meanwhile, had begun to flag out of a preponderance of guilty pondering.

“Breakfast,” Bucky said a minute later, starting to wriggle out from beneath the caravan.

“Might want to think about a different pair of pants first, pal,” he muttered. 

After a quick trip to the stream, and changing out of their nightclothes, they settled next to Sam and Riley in the mess tent. Bucky hadn’t said three words to Steve since leaving their bedrolls, which was unusual, but Steve figured he might be embarrassed about what had happened. Or confused. Or gods knew what else. Which was a problem he was gonna have to get over on his own. 

“You gonna eat that, or play with it?” Sam said, teasing Bucky, who was picking apart a sausage with sharp claws, investigating the ingredients within the casing. Bucky’s table manners, while better, still left much to be desired. He didn’t like silverware, and tended to use his claws as both knife and fork. They had, at least, gotten him to stop licking his plate.

“Play,” Bucky muttered, grabbing a handful of fried potatoes from his plate and sticking them into his mouth. “What?” He asked with his mouth full, pointing to a tiny spot of red he’d found in the sausage innards.

“I think that used to be a pepper,” Sam said.

“What?” Another point.

“Pretty sure that’s what used to be a pig.” 

“What?” 

“Geez, Bucky, I dunno. An onion?” 

Steve caught Riley’s eye across the table, both of them trying not to laugh. It was too bad for Sam that Bucky in a sulk meant that Steve wasn’t the recipient of his endless inquiries. 

“Un-yon,” Bucky repeated. “What?” 

“Damn it, Bucky, you ate sausage yesterday…” Sam said. 

“Yeah, but he didn’t dissect it yesterday,” Steve supplied. 

“No Steve,” Bucky snapped.

“Oh, what?” he said. “Now I’m not allowed to talk to you?” 

“No is Sam,” he hissed.

“Wow,” Riley said mildly, reaching for a piece of toast. “You two in a fight?” 

“If we are, it’s one-sided,” Steve replied. “He’s—” 

“What?” Bucky said, cutting him off and pointing across the yard, to where Bobbi had just given Clint a good morning kiss. It seemed their on-again off-again romance was back on for the time being. 

“What, what?” Sam replied. 

“Is—” Bucky touched his lips, then pointed to Sam and Riley. “SamRiley what. Bobbi Clint what.” 

“That’s a kiss.” Sam said. 

“A kih-sss.” 

“Kiss, yeah.” 

“Kiiiiss.” He frowned. “Is what?” 

“It’s uh…” Sam looked helpless. Riley put his forehead on the table. “Kinda romantic?” 

Bucky squinted, looking at Sam closely. “Do, please.” 

“You want us to kiss?” Sam laughed, knocking Riley on the side of the head. “Hey, honey. We got ourselves a voyeur.” 

“Kinda romantic,” Riley practically giggled, tears in his eyes as he lifted his head. “Sam, you charmer.”

“Aw, shut up—” Sam protested, taking Riley by the shoulder and giving him a peck before looking at Bucky. “There, you see? Kiss.” 

“Kiss,” Bucky agreed. “Is no bite.” 

“Not in public,” Riley muttered, which got him an elbow in the side.

“No bite,” Steve agreed.

“No Steve,” Bucky repeated.

“So now I’m not allowed to talk at all?”

“No.”

“Have it your way,” he replied, going back to his food, of which he managed another two bites before a shout rang out across the field.

“Rogers!” Mack hollered. “You two planning on getting to work today?” 

“Maybe!” Steve shot back. 

“Hammer!” Bucky exclaimed, shooting to his feet, interest in kissing forgotten, as today was the day they were putting up the big top. 

“Guess that’s our cue,” Steve said, shoving another bite of egg into his mouth. “C’mon, Buck.”

Bucky gave him a peevish look before leading the way across the field to where Mack was waiting. After that, whether or not they were speaking was moot. Putting up the tent was convoluted and dangerous, with lots of moving parts. The tent pegs were driven into the ground in steady rhythm—three men around a metal pole, each with a hammer. Bucky worked with Mack and Logan, his irritation with Steve once again made manifest by his refusal to partner with him. (Though, being as they were only one peg over, it wasn’t as though there was any real distance between them.)

Watching Bucky work, it struck Steve how much he’d changed in the time they’d been with the circus. His muscles had gained strength, thanks to his robust diet and the strenuous work. No longer the gaunt, tired, sad siren of Steve’s first acquaintance, now he was lively and funny and healthy, once again the dream-memory Bucky who had played games with his sister before protecting her from the men who’d come to steal her away. For all Steve’s annoyance with him that morning, seeing him healthy made him happy, and he whistled to himself as they continued the work of raising the tent.

The sun was high in the sky by the time the tent was up, sweat dripping off Steve’s brow. Bobbi, miracle that she was, chose that moment to stop by with a pitcher full of lemonade, freshly made, courtesy of herself, Maria, and Clint. 

“Hey, Buck,” Steve called, hoping to make peace over a drink. “You want to—” 

The peace offering was interrupted by an unearthly scream coming from within the newly-raised tent, the sound of it setting the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end.

“What the fuck…?” Mack said sharply, bolting for the entrance. Steve and Bucky did the same, along with anyone else who’d heard. 

Another scream rang out as they entered the big top, and it didn’t take long for Steve to locate the source: Baxter, trapped high in the scaffolding and, apparently, terrified of heights. Rather than clinging to one of the thick, load-bearing poles that held the tent in place, he was attached to one of the support struts, meant only to bear small bit of weight as it supported the trapeze net, sharing the load with three others.

“How’d he get up there?” Steve said, eyes wide.

“He musta been hiding in the rigging when we pulled the ropes,” Mack said. “Shit, if he falls—”

“Baxter!” Bobbi had just darted through the flaps of the tent, panic in her voice as she realized what had happened. “I thought he was at home. Oh, gods…”

In a flash, she rushed for the ladder that led to the scaffolding. 

“Bobbi, wait!” Clint called. “The net’s not up yet!” He was on her in a second, pulling her back, the ensuing fight enough to draw the crowd’s attention. 

“Steve?” Bucky said, tugging on his sleeve.

“What, Buck?” 

“Baxter?” 

Baxter and Bucky’s relationship hadn’t improved since that first day—Bucky genuinely adored Bobbi, but he treated the chimp with suspicion when he wasn’t ignoring him entirely. Currently, though, he looked genuinely concerned about Baxter’s predicament, and Steve offered him a tight smile. 

“It’s alright, pal. We’ll get him down.” 

Baxter chose that moment to let loose another plaintive shriek, clinging to the strut, his terror palpable even from that distance. Steve craned his neck, letting out a low whistle, then turning to Mack, speaking over the noise of Bobbi and Clint’s argument. “If we got the net up, you think we could convince him to drop?”

“Probably not. More likely we’ll need to send someone up. None of it’s stable yet, though, and Fury’d have my ass if I let Bobbi go.”

“I uh…” Steve swallowed. “Look, I don’t love heights, but I’ve climbed the rigging on a ship a hundred times. I could probably get up there and—” 

“Hey, lookit Bucky!” came a shout.

Steve whipped around to find that Bucky was already halfway up one of the load-bearing poles, using the strength in his legs and his claws for support. 

“Bucky!” He shouted. Wouldn’t that be the thing? Save Bucky from torture and certain death just to watch him fall and split his head open in some misbegotten act of heroics. 

Bucky gave him a cursory glance before continuing his ascent. Higher and higher, until just looking at him gave Steve a bit of vertigo. Despite his offer to Mack, climbing the rigging had always been his least favorite job on board any ship, after an incident in his childhood when his foot had gotten caught and he’d dangled twenty feet above the deck for what had felt like an eternity, until his father had cut him down. 

“He’s nuts,” Mack said, as Bucky reached the top of the beam, leaning out and catching hold of the rail to which Baxter was still holding firm. When Bucky released his legs and swung himself over—barely catching hold—a collective gasp went through the crowd.

“Gods damn it,” Steve swore, heart thumping in his chest.

“Baxter,” Bucky called, voice as low and sweet as Steve had ever heard it. “Come, Baxter.” 

Baxter was not inclined to take Bucky up on that offer, and let out another frightened cry. Undeterred by the refusal, Bucky scooted closer, the rail bending under his weight. How much did he weigh now? For that matter, how much could the beam handle? 

“He’s gonna fall…” Steve muttered, voice thick in his throat. “I gotta get up there. I gotta—”

“Wait,” Mack said. “Listen.”

The sound of Bucky’s song was quiet to start—sung so low it could hardly be heard over the concerned murmurs in the tent—but as it rose in volume, everyone fell silent beneath the soothing lull, the cadence and rhythm of which were the moon and the tides and the sea spun into notes as ancient as the world itself, borne of fate and fury. A siren’s song, used not to trick or trap but to coerce and coax, drawing Baxter in with the wordless power of its melody.

Bucky remained focused on the chimp, who relinquished his vice grip on the beam and slowly inched closer to his extended hand. Every eye was trained on them as Baxter slowly clambered onto Bucky’s back, clinging while he continued to sing. They made their way to the sturdy wooden support, and Bucky began climbing down as if he’d been born to it.

When they were maybe ten feet from the ground, Bucky brought his song to an end, dropping and landing gracefully. Bobbi rushed forward and Baxter reached for her, allowing himself to be wrapped in her shaking embrace. 

Tears in her eyes, Bobbi took Bucky’s hands in her own. “Thank you, Bucky. You…the way you—” 

“Welcome,” he said, patting her hand. “I help.” 

“I’ll say,” Mack said. “That was—” 

“Dumb,” Steve interrupted, the fear coursing through his veins turning to anger as he glowered. “Of all the stupid things you coulda done…” 

“Steve,” Bobbi said with a frown. “He’s—”

“No dumb,” Bucky snarled. That word, he knew, thanks to Sam teaching him a number of insults, and hearing it bandied about by the other rousties. 

“Yes, dumb,” Steve said, using the slight height advantage he had as he loomed over Bucky, arms folded. “You could have gotten hurt.” 

“No hurt,” he snapped, narrowing his eyes as the crowd began to gather (some to see Baxter, others to witness yet another fight during what was turning out to be an eventful morning). “I help.” 

“Doesn’t make it less dumb,” he countered. “We were figuring it out. You don’t know how dangerous it is, and I coulda—” 

“Not Steve!” Bucky shouted, pushing his shoulders—a remarkably human gesture, considering that he usually resorted to teeth or claws or both. “I help, I help.” 

“You can’t just do shit like that!” Steve was being irrational, but gods damn it, he’d hated feeling helpless.

“Yes, do!” Bucky yelped. “Steve is do and do, talk and talk! I help!” It was the most complicated sentence Steve had ever heard Bucky string together, and there was real anger in his eyes as he snarled out the last couple words. “I done!” he continued, stomping in the direction of the tent flap where, for the first time since they’d gone over the garden wall, he disappeared from Steve’s view.

“Hey! I’m not done talking to you!” Steve called, starting forward, only to have Mack catch him by the arm.

“Hang on a second,” he said. “Don’t rush off half-cocked.”

“Bucky didn’t get hurt,” Bobbi agreed, tone placating. “I know you’re panicked, but you need to—”

“I don’t need to do anything,” he snapped, shaking off Mack’s hand and following Bucky out of the tent, only to find him already a good ten yards away. Steve ran to catch up with him, taking him by the arm and spinning him around.

Bucky turned with a snarl and a snap of his teeth, his rage reminding Steve of precisely who—and what—he was. 

“No!” He snarled—his first word and his favorite—shoving Steve once more, this time with  considerable force. Steve went down, landing on his ass with a shout, while Bucky continued ranting. “I go, you no go.” 

“Fine,” he snapped, sore and angry. “I’m tired of you anyway.” 

“I tired you,” Bucky growled, getting in the last word before stalking down the half-finished midway.

Steve made a very rude gesture at his back before getting to his feet and brushing himself off, stalking in the opposite direction, angrier than he’d been in an age. It wasn’t the fierce, righteous anger he’d burned with when Pierce had been outlining his plans, though. Wasn’t even the roiling hatred he’d felt around Rumlow. No, this was a familial anger—a Peggy anger or a ma anger or even a crewmate anger. The sort of anger that sat with you and gnawed at your gut, half guilt and half fury, because mostly that anger? It was all mixed up in caring.

Turned out, that sort of anger could only carry a body so far. Steve’s righteous rage took him into the wooded area near the edge of camp, stomping along the path, unable to stop thinking about the hurt in Bucky’s eyes. The embarrassment. Steve hadn’t been kind, scolding him like that in front of everyone. Bucky might not have understood the concept of shame, but he certainly had his pride, and he had only wanted to help. He’d seen something that needed doing, and had acted without thinking. Same as Steve would have, had Bucky not beaten him to the punch. 

That was it—the crux of the trouble. Bucky had done something as foolhardy as Steve might have on his worst days. Charging into a situation, figuring it out as he went along. Shit, Steve’s anger might as well be at himself. 

“Fuck,” he swore, stopping short. Bucky had scared the shit out of him, sure, but he hadn’t done anything wrong. He’d been a hero, and Steve had been an overprotective prick. Which meant Steve owed him an apology, so he turned back to camp, intent on finding him and delivering it. He might have managed it, too, save for for the masked stranger dropping out of a tree and onto his shoulders, thighs clamping like a vice around his neck. 

“What?” Steve squeaked, just as his attacker used their weight to twist him around and force him to the ground, where he landed on his back with such force that the breath was knocked from his lungs. He saw black, gasping for air as the stranger pinned him, red curls tumbling from beneath a burgundy-lined hood as a knife was held to his neck.

“Lord Pierce said he’d take you dead or alive,” came a woman’s voice. “I think I’ll let you choose.”

 

Chapter Text

"Wait—" Steve squeaked, his voice a rasping whisper as he swallowed hard against the blade.

"Dead, then."

Time slowed. He wondered if it would hurt. If she'd kill him quickly, or delight in his suffering. Whether she knew about Bucky—whether Pierce knew about Bucky—because if she was killing him, it stood to reason she might not…but Sam! Sam knew. Sam would get Bucky home, so long as…Gods, Steve wished he hadn't left while he was angry. Wished he'd been less stubborn, less prone to temper, less—

She hadn't killed him yet.

Why hadn't she…?

Why was she looking over…?

A hurricane hit—a whirling snarl of limbs and hair and teeth and rage, knocking the assassin from her perch, rolling her over and over into the dirt. 

"Rumlow," Bucky snarled at his prey, and while it was the wrong accusation, Steve could appreciate the sentiment.

The woman had dropped her knife when tackled, so Steve grabbed it, clambering to his feet and making for the brawl. Whatever upper hand Bucky had gained through surprise had been lost, his brute strength no match for her superior skills. This one wasn't afraid to fight dirty, grabbing a handful of leaves and flinging them into Bucky's eyes, then bringing her knee up between his legs. Bucky snarled, digging his claws into her skin and screeching one of his unearthly screeches before rolling her again.

Luck and chance convened to place a rock in their path. The woman's temple struck it, and she let loose a brief moan of pain. Bucky, taking no chances, used that bit of leverage to shake her hard, smacking her head against the stone once more. This time, it knocked her out.

Triumphant, Bucky turned to Steve with a muddy, bloody grin, lip having been split during the fray. Steve might have thanked him, but Bucky didn't give him the chance, turning back to his spoils instead, where he lowered his head and opened his mouth, intent on finishing the job.

"Bucky, no!" He said. "That's not Rumlow." 

Bucky hesitated. "No Rumlow. Is bad bad." 

"Yeah, she is," he agreed, limping forward. "But she's—" He made the sign for Lord Pierce, then shrugged. "She works for him. So we need to talk to her, find out where she came from. How she found us."

Bucky grunted, shaking the woman's shoulders before letting her go, once more making Steve think that he understood a lot more Eascorian than he was capable of speaking. "Bad talk." 

"Maybe. But…look, Buck, generally you wanna leave folks alive. Even the bad ones."

"Why?"

"Because…" Steve ran a hand through his hair. "The ones that don't make it—especially if you're the reason they don't—they stick with you." 

Bucky sniffed, then sighed, sitting back on his heels and looking down at his quarry. "Yes."

"Thank you," he said. "And…thank you. For saving me. I…" 

"Steve is…" Bucky screwed up his face the way he often did when he was struggling to find a word. "Angry?"

"Yeah."

"I angry."

"Yeah, you were." 

"Steve…" he hesitated. "Shitty?"

Steve barked out a laugh, offering Bucky a hand. "I was, yeah. I'm sorry—I shouldn't have yelled at you about Baxter. You were a real hero, Buck." 

"What ee-ro?" 

"Someone who helps." 

"Help," he echoed. "Help Baxter. Help Steve." 

On the ground, the woman gave another moan, and Steve narrowed his eyes, looking around for something they could use to tie her up. He settled for his suspenders, unclipping them from his waistband. "Hey, you remember those knots I taught you?" 

"Yes, knots." 

"They work just as well to tie up a human as to tie down a tent. C'mon, let's get Lady Cutthroat here back to camp." 

 


 

Circus folk were Steve's favorite sort of folk. Because when he and Bucky returned to camp with the limp form of a hooded, masked stranger slung over Steve's shoulder, they received no more than a few curious looks. Granted, they'd gone a circuitous route, avoiding the most populated parts of the field, but still—live and let live was taken to an extreme among that crowd.

Sam and Riley weren't at home, so Steve and Bucky had the caravan to themselves. Steve placed the woman on one of the dining chairs, securing her bound hands to the wooden slats. As prisons went, it wasn't very secure, but it would do. Once she was bound, he took a step back to look her over. She was bleeding from the temple, but it wasn't a deep cut, and he was reasonably sure she wouldn't die. Not that his medical knowledge was robust, but she was breathing steadily, which was a good sign, in his experience. 

"Go get me a washcloth and a bowl of water," he said to Bucky. 

Bucky obliged, scooting out of the caravan without a second glance. It was only when the door had shut behind him, that Steve realized it was the second time that day they'd been separated—an entire wall between them. If nothing else, their fight had proven to Bucky that he was capable of existing outside of Steve's presence. 

Which was good. A positive outcome. Steve was glad for the freedom, but he was also glad when Bucky returned minutes later with a basin full of water and some washcloths he'd taken off the line.

"Thank you, Buck." He gestured for him to set everything on the table before he went to work cleaning the woman's cut, pushing back her curtain of curly red hair to do so. The blood had trickled from her temple past her mask, so he pulled that off in the interest of expediency. Beneath it, he found a young woman—very young, mid-twenties if she was a day—with porcelain smooth skin and deceptively innocent features that he imagined were useful in her line of work.

When he saw her neck, however, he jumped back in surprise.

"Oh!"

"Oh?" Bucky repeated.

There was a brand on the skin just below her ear, puckered red and slightly raised. An old mark, long since healed, of two overlapping triangles joined together in the center to form an hourglass.

Steve knew that symbol. Knew that it marked her as a Black Widow—a member of an elite band of Vedorian assassins, so named because they carried death with them wherever they roamed. The Widows had been both legendary and feared during the war, rumors lending credence to the idea that they could slip in unseen and kill an entire platoon as they slept. It was said, by some, that if you saw a Widow's mark, it would be the last thing you ever saw.

Now here Steve was. Facing a Widow down.

In Eascor.

A young Widow. A ruthless Widow.

A Widow with hair the color of the sunset.

It was that latter fact that made Steve think he might just know this Widow. Or, well, know of her. 

Indeed, if forced to place a wager on the identity of the slight young woman slumped in the chair before him, Steve would bet his life on her name being Natalia Romanova, known to her nearest and dearest as Natasha.

She was also known, to him at least, as Peggy Carter's greatest loss.

 


 

The story of Peggy and Natasha had been told to Steve only once during the five years since the armistice. After the war, he had returned to Red Hook first; when Peggy returned some months later, she was changed. They both were, of course, but Peggy in particular had been skittish and angry, entirely too prone to losing herself in her remembrances at the bottom of a bottle. 

She had refused to speak of her time in the war for a full year, closing herself off whenever Steve asked questions or recounted his own experience. Over time, though, that had changed, and while the girl Steve had grown up with was gone, she'd become a new sort of Peggy, one who found ways to move beyond the trauma and the sorrow. One who reclaimed her life as best she knew how. 

After a year, she had begun to allow Steve and others to tell their stories in her presence. Not long after that, she began to share her own. Never sad ones, though. Only dashing tales of derring-do, ripped from the pages of an adventure novel, where everyone was saved, and nobody suffered.

However, on two occasions, and two occasions only, Peggy had gotten herself rip-roaringly drunk and spoken to Steve at length about the truth of her experience.

The first time, she had recounted to him—pale-faced and shaking—every life she'd taken in the line of duty. She hadn't killed from afar; hadn't shot a cannon or laid down in the trenches. Her victims had been close enough for a knife slipped between the sheets. A bullet from a gun pressed to the temple of a confidante. Poison in the glass of a general being toasted at a fete. Such was the life of a spy, she'd said. Necessary work. She remembered their faces all the same. The young ones, especially—those that hardly knew what they were living for, much less what they were dying for—some of them no more than boys who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, standing between her and the information she needed. 

The guilt, she'd said, came from how much she'd loved the work. It haunted her because she couldn't be sure she'd done any good; couldn't know if the killing they'd told her was noble had been worth the price paid. And wasn't that (she'd said while raising her glass) a fucking pisser? 

The second time she spoke to him of her losses, she'd told him about Natasha.

During the waning years of the war, she and four of her best men had been sent on a reconnaissance mission to a facility deep within Vedoria. The orders had been clear: gather intelligence that could be used for an eventual infiltration, but do not engage. When they'd arrived, however, they found the facility already abandoned. Peggy, not wanting to miss any clue left behind, had given the order to move in anyway, supposing they could find something amongst the detritus.

What they found was Natasha. A sixteen-year-old girl left to defend the ruins of the facility where she'd been trained from childhood as a Widow. 

She had come from the shadows. A ruthless machine, cutting through the ankles of two of Peggy's men, then slitting their throats before they'd finished falling to the ground. 

"She went for me next," Peggy said. "But I was wearing my lipstick—"

"I'm sorry?" Steve said, half-drunk.

"Howard, he made—it's, err, when you kiss someone. It knocks them out and…"

"You kissed her?" 

"Shoulda killed her," she slurred in response. "No prisoners." 

"But you didn't." 

"She was a baby." 

"Old enough to murder." 

"Steve, that place. What they'd done to them—to children."

"We all heard the stories about Widows, Peg, but—" 

"Little girls stolen from their families." She dragged her finger through the dirt and grime of the bartop, creating an hourglass made of two intersecting triangles. "They brand them with this when they're eight. Eight. They call them soldiers, but they're no better than slaves." 

"So you let her live."

"I had to," she said, raising her hand to order another two shots of whiskey, downing both before continuing.

They had taken Natasha as a captive, but over time she been turned into a reluctant comrade. Peggy's brusque manner, combined with her innate kindness, had helped Natasha unlearn the lessons of her childhood, undoing the worst of the damage done to her by her own people. 

"I couldn't be sure," Peggy said. "Couldn't be certain she'd truly changed. But she was…she was so different, after a while. So…she was funny, never left my side."

"Did you trust her?"

"Yes." Peggy frowned, staring into her glass. "But we were still at war."

Which meant that Peggy had a job to do, and having Natasha at her side made doing it harder. Mostly because she was always trying to keep Natasha from seeing the worst of it; to spare her from the horrors to which she'd been exposed her whole life. Because while Peggy couldn't take away the things she had seen, she could keep her from sustaining further damage.

"I wanted to keep her safe," she explained. "I kept sending inquiries, through Howard, back to Columbia. I needed to find a place I could send her until the war was over. But finding someone willing to take her took time, and all the while, she was, we were—" Her shoulders slumped, and she looked down at her hands. "She fell in love with me."

"And?"

"And I knew better. She didn't know what she didn't know."

"Peggy…" 

"A year. A year we were together, all the while trying to find someone who would look after her." There were tears in her eyes by then, which she wiped away with a shaking hand. "Of course, I loved her, too. But I was older than her, and I never—I never would have acted on it. Especially not knowing that she'd…she'd gone from slave to captive, and she only felt what she felt for me because I was decent to her, I'm sure. It wouldn't have been fair for me to take advantage. Not when she'd never had the chance to know freedom, or to discover what she wanted for herself. She was hardly seventeen at the end, and—" 

"Did you ever tell her?"

"What?" Peggy glared. "Absolutely not."

"I only meant—"

"What I felt for her was…shit, there's no good name for it, Steve. Love's probably the wrong word. Protector, savior, sister, friend. It all gets mixed up, but…" At that, she laughed, bitter as a bracing wind. "Howard finally found a woman willing to take her—an old acquaintance of his who ran a school. Natasha fought me when I told her she was going. Used all the tricks they'd taught her, begging and pleading. She asked to stay, said she'd be useful. That she'd never forgive me if I sent her away. But I wouldn't ask her to stay with me. I couldn't. So I let Howard take her, and I promised her I'd come and get her as soon as I could. I was going to bring her home here—" she let out a shuddery breath. "You would have liked her."

"What happened to her?" He asked, a sinking feeling in his stomach.

"She never made it to the school. The moment they were off the ship in Eascor, she slipped away. Howard spent ages searching, but when you're someone…someone like her, the one thing you know how to do is disappear." 

"I'm sorry." 

"She was right." Peggy looked up, eyes damp. "I shouldn't have sent her away. If I'd listened to her, instead of thinking I knew what was best..." Trailing off, she reached for Steve's beer and took a swig. "I miss the fuck out of her every day. And I'm sorry she never knew how much I cared about her." 

Steve felt awful the loss Peggy had suffered, but more than that, he felt sorry for the girl, who couldn't help what had been done to her. "Maybe you could find her? Surely she's somewhere—" 

"I've tried," she said, mouth twisting into an unhappy grimace. "She's a ghost."

 


 

After that sour night, Peggy had never spoken of Natasha again. In the intervening years, when Steve had thought of the girl at all, he hoped she managed to find some small measure of peace. That she'd eked out a living somewhere in Eascor. That she was happy.

Now, though, he knew the truth—Peggy's little ghost had ended up right where she'd begun: a mercenary assassin, killing indiscriminately. All Peggy's good work undone. 

Watching her, slumped in the chair, Steve began to suspect she wasn't actually asleep. Probably she had twelve blades hidden all over her body, and she was waiting for the opportunity to cut her bonds and smash the chair over their heads. 

He'd be damned if he gave her the chance. 

"Steve?" Bucky said, touching his arm. 

"I know her," he said, more for Natasha's benefit than Bucky's, being as she was likely listening. "Her name's Natasha." 

He watched to see if she'd react. Not even a flinch. Gods, she was good. 

Bucky rolled the name around in his mouth. "Na-sha?"

"Yeah. You see that mark on her neck?" 

Nodding, Bucky reached out a hand as if to touch it. Steve caught his wrist and shook his head. "I wouldn't. That mark means she's a Black Widow—means she's dangerous." 

"Dangerous," Bucky echoed solemnly, knowing that word well, thanks to the incident in which he'd discovered that cookstoves remain hot long after the kettle boils.

"She'd sooner kill you than look at you," he continued. "And this particular Widow is the sort that likes to run away and squander second chances, so that's even worse." 

"Skwan-duh?"

"It means fuck up," he explained. "And I should know—nobody who's happy in their life ends up working for a man like Alexander Pierce." 

Bucky gave a low hiss at the name.

"Which is too bad, considering there's at least one gods damn person in the world who cares about her. And when you got someone like Peggy Carter on your side—"

There it was. The slightest hitch in Natasha's breathing. Nearly imperceptible, but then, Steve had been watching her very closely. 

"And Peggy is on her side," he continued. "Shit, I know all about this girl, Buck. Everything about what she did—what she is. The only thing I didn't know is where she ended up after running away from the people trying to help her. Shame to see she's just another merc. I don't know what Peggy saw in her after—" 

"Mother preserve us." Natasha lifted her head, lips drawing up into a smirk. "And here Peggy said you were the strong, silent type. It's Steve, isn't it?" 

Folding his arms across his chest, Steve raised a brow, while Bucky began to vibrate at a low hum of a growl (a trick he'd picked up from Lucky). "Guess I can't keep my mouth shut when I got my hands on someone who betrays their friends for—" 

Natasha snorted. "Peggy Carter's no friend of mine." 

"Bullshit."

"She was a means to an end."

Steve might have believed the blunt dismissal, if not for the way Natasha had reacted to hearing Peggy's name. So, he played along—Peggy had taught him a few things about subterfuge over the years, and while he'd never be a spy, he could at least pretend she'd gotten to him. "That's real nice. Bet you'd love to tell her so—she spent years searching for you, you know." 

"I'm sure," Natasha replied, betraying no emotion. "She talked about you a lot, when I knew her. Steve with the good heart, and the noble soul, and—"

"Shut up." 

"—I bet she'd be disappointed to discover you're no better than a thief and a vagabond. Stealing from Lord Pierce—how common. Granted, I didn't know you were Peggy's Steve when I took the job, but the world's an awfully small place, don't you think?" 

Steve narrowed his eyes. "How'd you find me?" 

Natasha ignored the question, turning her attention to Bucky instead. "You're a dirty fighter."

Bucky kept growling. 

"Bucky," Steve sighed. "Stop?"

"Is dangerous, Steve," he protested. "Na-sha no." 

"Huh." Natasha raised a brow. "Lord Pierce said you might be traveling with an accomplice or two. This wasn't what I was expecting."

"What's that supposed to—" 

"The circus, though. That's clever. They handle plenty of animals." She stopped, frowned, then took a moment to study Bucky more closely.

"You don't know what you're talking about," he bluffed, angling himself between Bucky and this clever, canny young woman. A Widow, yes, but more than that, someone who had been trained by Peggy in how to read people and situations, making connections along the way. 

Steve would bet one Peggy against a thousand Widows any day of the week.

"Oh!" Natasha exclaimed. "He's got gills!" 

Well, shit.

Natasha portrait

Chapter Text

Steve stared, horrified, as the smug look on Natasha’s insidiously innocent face settled into something hard and knowing. 

She didn’t miss an opportunity, and what happened next happened quickly. One second she was staring back at him, placid and calm. The next, her right leg kicked out, catching him high enough on his thigh that he doubled over, hardly realizing what she’d done before she sprang forward and slammed her head against his own with such force that he saw stars.

Turned out, the chair to which she was bound could be utilized as an effective weapon, despite the small space. She moved as gracefully as Sam and Riley on the trapeze, spinning around the tiny caravan, everywhere and nowhere. There would be no upper hand this time—whenever Steve thought he might get hold of her, she would move somewhere else, leaving him snatching at air. The cheap chair splintered against the wall eventually, leaving her holding one of the broken legs in her left hand and a knife in her right. 

“Wait—“ He shouted as she rounded on Bucky, who was recovering from a well-placed kick to the jaw. “Don’t!” 

Which was the moment that Sam opened the door, whistling to himself, stopping short at the sight of his home, shattered, with a bloody, weaponed stranger threatening his friends. 

“Uh,” he said, because what could one say in a moment like that? 

“Sam, go,” Steve begged. 

“No,” Natasha said, unnervingly cheerful as she took stock of her situation. “Sam, stay.” 

Sam, inclined to listen to the lady with the knife, inched inside, shutting the door behind him. “Now, listen, if you’ve come to rob us, we don’t have much, but—” 

“She’s with Pierce,” Steve blurted. “She’s here for me, not you. Not Bucky. Just me. We’re gonna go. Together. Right now.” 

“Shit,” Sam swore. “Look, lady…” 

“You,” Natasha said, ignoring Sam while rounding on Steve and pointing the knife at his chest. “You’re not wrong. Let’s go.” 

“Sure,” Steve said, anxious to get her away from Bucky and Sam. “Sure, absolutely. Just…yeah, we’re going. Sam—you uh, let us out. It’s alright.”

“Uh, no,” he said, putting himself between Natasha and the door. “There’s no way…” 

Sam,” he said, pleading now. “It’s fine. But…you gotta get Bucky home? If I’m…promise me that?” 

“Steve?” Bucky queried, voice small. 

“It’s alright, pal.” Steve forced a smile onto his face. “Natasha and I, we’re gonna take a walk. Sort this shit out. I’ll be back before you have time to miss me, huh?” 

“I come?” 

“Not this time, Buck,” he replied. At least, after the fight they’d had that morning, Bucky would probably be willing to stay. “You help Sam clean up here. I’ll…I’ll be back soon.” 

Natasha, who maybe didn’t want to tussle with a siren again, or maybe was just tired of fighting, sheathed her knife and dropped the chair leg. “We’re just taking a little walk, ah…Bucky, was it?”

“Bucky,” Bucky agreed, narrowing his eyes. 

“Don’t you worry. I’ll take good care of your friend.” She offered him a smile, and it was a testament to her skills as a liar that Steve might have believed she meant it under other circumstances.

“It’s alright, pal,” he agreed. “We’ll be fine.” 

Bucky grunted, but let them go, which was a measure of the trust that existed between them. Steve had no intention of returning to Lord Pierce without a fight, but that fight could take place once he and Natasha were clear of the circus. Maybe he’d die for it, but at least it’d be on his own terms. 

Natasha, wise to all tricks, let him take the lead as they left the wagon behind, knife reappearing the second they were outside. “Walk.” 

“My pleasure,” he muttered. “You might’ve let me put on better shoes. I’m not gonna be much use to you if you’re dragging me—” 

“You talk too much. Lord Pierce didn’t say he needed you delivered with a tongue.” 

Steve shut his mouth.

She stayed close for nearly a mile, but when they reached the river, she left him, going to crouch by the stream, rinsing the crusted blood from her hair. Wary of a con, Steve hung back, arms folded over his chest.

“Uh—” he said, blinking. 

Looking over her shoulder impassively, Natasha regarded him with an arched brow. “Drink,” she said. “We’ll speak after.” 

“But…?” 

“Peggy never said you were stupid, only stubborn. So I think you’re capable of following instructions. Sit down. Drink some fucking water. Then, we’re going to have a chat.” 

The day couldn’t get any stranger. Steve did as he was told, crouching by the stream and scooping a few handfuls of water into his dry mouth, rinsing and spitting thrice before settling back on his heels and looking at Natasha, who was pulling her mass of curls into a thick braid. 

“Alright,” he said, clearing his throat. “Let’s talk.”

“Yes, let’s,” she agreed, sheathing her knife. “I’m going to tell you a story.”

“A story?”

“Mmmhmm. A story about a woman who was hired to find a thief. This thief—that’s you—" she stage-whispered out the side of her mouth. "He'd stolen something priceless from a powerful man."

“I didn’t steal anything.” 

“The woman,” she continued, speaking over him. “Asked what the thief had stolen, as she wanted to make sure the compensation for her efforts was fair. This powerful man, because he knew the woman was very good at keeping secrets, told her that the thief had run away with a rare and exotic creature that lived beneath the sea. Granted, he didn’t tell her the precise nature of the creature, but she’s not stupid, this woman.”

Steve kept his mouth shut, difficult as it was to do so.

“Now, as she began to follow the extremely obvious trail left in the woods by the thief, she was surprised to discover that there were signs not of one person, but of two. Yet, no signs of a tank, or any means of transporting this supposed exotic, aquatic beast. A mystery, to be sure, but the woman likes a challenge. She had to ask herself: if the man had an accomplice, how could they have gotten a creature that could not breathe air such a distance without killing it? So, she began to develop a theory: they’d killed the creature, these two idiots. Chopped it up to be sold to the highest bidder. She didn’t share this theory with the powerful man, as he was operating under the assumption that he could somehow recover the beast.” At that, she flashed Steve a vicious little grin. “I’d imagine whatever this creature was, it would have had some impressive gills. A bit like the ones on your friend, don’t you think?”

Something awful twisted in Steve’s stomach, and he swallowed hard. 

“The woman began following the trail of the idiots—and as she went along, she discovered that they weren’t so stupid. They did a good job of covering their tracks once they’d left the woods, but not a perfect job. There were witnesses, and though it took her some time, eventually the woman discovered that the idiots were traveling with a circus. Which she found intriguing, as the circus would be a novel way of hiding a creature that lived in a tank. Don’t you think?”

Steve shrugged, a scowl etching itself on his features

“Only, now? Having met the two idiots…” she grinned. “The woman figured it out. There’s no creature; leastways, there’s no tank. There’s just Bucky. And Bucky, well…if the woman had to guess, she’d say he was a siren. Given the claws. And the teeth. And the gills. Not so sure about the legs, but the world is a mysterious place.” 

A muscle in Steve’s jaw twitched.

“Now, the woman is left with a choice,” she continued. “She was sent to bring back Steve Rogers, dead or alive. And, on the off chance she managed it, to find the missing creature. It strikes me that she’s done both, and yet is only leaving with the former. Seems to me she might as well go back and fetch herself a siren.”

“I didn’t steal him,” he said, meeting the challenge of her empty eyes with fire in his own, terror in his gut at the prospect of her posing further danger to Bucky. “You can’t steal someone who belongs to himself. Pierce took him—ripped him away from his family. I’m only setting him free. Surely you, of all people, can understand that—” 

Natasha’s half-smile faded. “You don’t know anything about me.”

“I know some things,” he said, chancing his luck. “I know you were given a chance at life rather than consigned to an early death. I know you were stolen from your parents—” 

There was a flash of red, and suddenly Steve was flat on his back, Natasha crouched over him with a knife pressed to his throat for the second time that day. “What else?” she said. “Do you think you know?” 

“I know I’m not dead,” he said, fighting to keep his voice even. “Dead or alive, you said it yourself, and I’m not—” 

“Dead men are harder to transport,” she replied, sitting back on his hips and lifting the blade. “You care for him, this siren?” 

“Yes.” 

“If what you say is true, then I don’t hold with what was done to him,” she admitted. 

“Which part?” He replied, bringing a hand to his throat and rubbing his raw skin.

“You can’t steal someone who belongs to himself,” she mimicked, small teeth clicking in perfect imitation of Steve’s accent. “As it happens, I agree. All the same, I’ve been given a job to do, and I always deliver.” 

“But—”

“But,” she echoed. “You mean something to someone who once meant a great deal to me. Someone to whom I owe a debt—a life. One life. Yours or his. I’d imagine Lord Pierce will pay me handsomely for either.” 

“His,” Steve said without hesitating. It was an easy choice; he’d made it once already in the caravan when agreeing to leave with her. 

Natasha smiled before sheathing her blade. “Are all Peggy’s friends so noble, or are you a special breed?”

Steve shrugged. “If it’s my head versus his—least I know what I’m getting myself into.”

“Then I accept,” she said. “Your siren will go free.” 

Signing his life away proved as simple as a handshake, Steve’s mouth set in a grim line as he met Natasha’s grip with his own. He didn’t intend on dying—leastways not at the hand of Lord Alexander Pierce—but this bargain at least bought him time to figure out an alternative while they traveled. Gave Sam the chance to get Bucky home. 

“Good,” she said once the deal was struck, pushing herself from the ground with ease. Steve rose as well, already dreading what was sure to be a long night of travel. 

To his very great surprise, however, Natasha turned back toward the circus. 

“That’s…” Far be it from him to assist in signing his own death warrant, but he couldn’t help raising the question. “That’s the wrong way…?”

“Is it?” she said, one hand on her hip as she tossed her braid over her shoulder. 

“Uh, yes?”

“You’re mistaken. I intend to see my end of the bargain fulfilled, so I’ll be going with you until your siren has gone home. Then, you and I will see what we see about Columbia.”

Steve scowled, puzzling through any trap she might be setting. “Why?” 

“I owe Peggy a life, as I said. And unlike her, I keep my promises.” 

With that, she marched away, leaving him no choice but to follow, scrambling up the riverbank and toward camp, where they ran into Sam and Bucky, hot on their trail, the admonishment to stay put having been ignored. Stupid, sure. Foolhardy, too, but the gesture tugged at something in him all the same.

“Steve!” Bucky called, delighted, sprinting the short distance between them and hugging him tightly. 

“Sam—” Steve said, catching Bucky to return the hug. “What…?”

"He didn't want to clean up," Sam said. "Lasted about ten minutes before he decided he wanted to find you. I couldn't talk him out of it."

“Loyal,” Natasha said.

Bucky rounded on her with a growl. “Na-sha no.” 

“Watch your fish,” she snapped. 

“Bucky,” Steve said wearily. “No biting, alright?” 

“No fish,” he replied, though he hadn’t actually gone after Natasha, as he was currently more interested in clinging to Steve. 

“What.” Sam broke in, arms folded across his chest. “Is happening? And don’t think I forgot that you—” He pointed at Natasha “—owe me a chair.”

“My apologies,” she said with an exaggerated bow. 

"Natasha's decided to stay," Steve said. "It uh…she knew a friend of mine during the war. We had a little chat and…" he shrugged, knowing the excuse was flimsy, but the exhaustion of the day had caught up with him, and he couldn't be bothered to think of something better.

“When I heard how mistreated…” Natasha said, gesturing at Bucky. “Well, I couldn’t have that on my conscience.”

“Mmmhmm,” Sam said. Notably, he hadn’t unfolded his arms. “You mind giving us a minute?”

It wasn’t really a question, and Natasha smiled another of her sharp smiles before making a show of stepping away. Sam didn’t bother to hide his disdain, taking Steve by the elbow and angling him to the side, Bucky holding tightly to him all the while. 

“Steve,” he said. “What in Fury’s name…”

“It’s not a lie,” he said wearily. “You remember I told you about Peggy?” 

“Sure.” 

“During the war—Natasha was someone she saved. Someone she knew pretty well, actually, and…” 

“And what? Now she’s a mercenary for hire?”

“Beats starving, I guess.”

“Steve, come on, you can’t expect me to believe—” 

“Believe me. She’s no danger to you, or Riley, or Bucky. Or anyone else.”

“Including you?” Sam asked, one brow arching.

“Let me worry about me.” 

“Because that always works out.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “The thing is, Steve, I actually kinda like you, so if you’re in trouble…” 

“I’m handling it.” 

Sam’s eyes betrayed his skepticism, boring into Steve’s own before, with a sigh, he relented. “You know where to find me if you need me.” 

“Thank you, Sam.”

“As for you—” he continued, wheeling around to face Natasha. “Nobody stays who doesn’t work. I don’t care who you are.” 

“I wouldn’t dream of imposing,” she said, all wide-eyed innocence. “Happy to do my part.” 

“I’ll just bet. You’d better come with me.” Turning to Steve, he shrugged. “I’ll bring her to Fury. Can you two clean the caravan before Riley gets home?”

“Yes,” Steve said, guilty conscience working overtime. “Gods, Sam, I’m sorry—”

“It’s never boring,” he replied with a tight smile, before tossing his head at Natasha. The two of them headed toward Fury’s caravan, while Steve looked at Bucky, wondering how much of the conversation he’d picked up. Bucky smiled at him, showing every one of those pointy teeth, and Steve found it was impossible to tell.

“Come on, pal,” he said, bumping their hips together. “We better go clean up the mess we made.” 

Bucky kept a tight hold on his hand as they headed home and set to work on the disaster that was the caravan. Some things—including a vase—were broken beyond repair, but others could be mended. Still, Steve felt terrible, and resolved that he'd visit the next flea market they found to try and replace everything they'd ruined.

“Some mess, huh?” He said after they’d been working for a while.

“Mess,” Bucky agreed. “Steve?”

“Yeah?”

“Na-sha is…friend?” 

How to answer that one? He shrugged, picking up a stack of books and setting them on their shelf. “Kinda. She’s staying here, which doesn’t make her a friend, but it makes her…here. She’s not…not like Sam and Riley, or Bobbi. She’s…” he squinted, trying to think of how to explain the concept of wariness. “She does tricks, like the magician in the show.” 

“Tricks.” 

“Sometimes what you see—” he tapped his temple. “Isn’t the truth. Like…a conjure. You understand?” 

Bucky squinted, puzzling it through before putting both hands in front of his mouth to imitate Natasha’s mask, then over his head for her hood. “Is a conjure.” 

“Yeah. So…you don’t bite her, and she won’t bite you. But you don’t…” he sighed. “Be careful, is all.” 

“Cayuh-fuhl,” he echoed. “Is in dangerous.” 

“Yeah.” 

“I careful.”

“I know you are,” he smiled. “And hey, if I scared you before, when I went away, I’m sorry.” 

“Steve away with Na-sha,” he agreed. “Is dangerous.” 

“You ain’t kidding,” he laughed. “Hey, how about we see if we can get a fire started from what’s left of that chair she broke?” 

“Yes, fire.”

The two of them headed outside to combine the broken chair with some kindling, giving it a proper sendoff in the pit. It seemed a shame to have a fire without supper, so Steve sent Bucky to scrounge for food and supplies. Never quite satisfied with Steve’s answers about anything, Bucky started in on a new line of questioning as they worked on a pan of bacon and eggs.

“Steve?” 

“Yeah, Buck?”

“Nasha is tricks. Is…hurt?”

“She won’t hurt you, no.”

“Mmm. Hurt Steve?” 

Perceptive as always. Steve shook his head, pulling Bucky against his side, grateful for the warmth against the oncoming chill of the early autumn evening. “No,” he said, rubbing a hand up and down the length of Bucky’s arm. “She won’t hurt me.” 

It wasn’t quite the truth; the bargain he’d struck had already begun to weigh on his conscience, but there was no reason to burden Bucky with that knowledge. After all, he’d be long gone by the time the debt was paid.

“Steve?” 

He braced himself for another onslaught of inquisitiveness. “Yeah, Buck?” 

Hungry.” 

That made him laugh—the first decent laugh he’d had all day—and he leaned his forehead against Bucky’s shoulder. “Sorry, your majesty.”

“What may-jes-tee?”

 


 

By the time Sam and Natasha returned from Fury’s caravan (with Riley in tow), Steve had taken Bucky through a brief history lesson of Eascor’s former monarchy. Bucky was retaining maybe one word in twenty, but it felt good to talk about something that wasn’t the imminent danger in which they now found themselves. Natasha’s appearance brought with it a reminder of the world outside—their safe haven wasn’t so safe, and the sooner they reached the sea, the better it would be for all of them.

Except for Steve.

But he wasn’t thinking about that just yet. 

Natasha seemed pleased when she approached the fire, having obviously secured employment, and Steve found himself unaccountably annoyed at it being so easy for her. What would have happened if Fury refused to allow her to join them? Would she have followed in their wake, circling like some dead-eyed shark and waiting for the right moment to strike? The thought was unsettling, and when it came down to it, Steve decided he would rather have her in plain sight, even if it meant enduring her company.

Endurance didn’t mean enjoyment, though, and it sure as shit didn’t mean he had to be nice to her.

“Something smells good,” Riley said, projecting false cheer over what was obviously an uncomfortable situation. 

“Is beans,” Bucky said. “Not for Nasha.” 

Steve hid his smile as Natasha’s faded. “You’re hired, I take it?” he asked. 

“I’m working up an act,” she replied. “Until then, I’ll be a roustabout.” 

“An act?” He snorted. “You gonna murder people for a crowd?”

Sam laughed, flopping down by the fire. “Thanks for cooking,” he said to Bucky, both of them pointedly ignoring Natasha. “You happen to remember plates?” 

“No,” Bucky said. “Riley get. Majesty.” 

“What?” Riley said, one eyebrow shooting up.

Steve grinned, knocking Bucky in the side and making him squawk. “You jerk,” he teased. “Go get plates, right now.” 

“No!”

“Yes.” Steve smiled. “Cause I’m a king and you’re…” 

“Prints?” 

“Yeah, a prince. And that means I get to tell you what to do.” 

“No, Steve. Is…majesty.” 

“What,” Sam said, confusion writ large on his features. “Did we miss?” 

“Long story short,” Steve said. “Bucky’s instituting a monarchy around here.”

“I can get plates…” Natasha offered, her voice silencing their laughter in an instant.

Riley and Sam exchanged a glance, and Bucky gave a grunt before pushing himself up from the ground. “I go,” he said with a derisive sniff in Natasha’s direction. “No for Nasha.” 

“Guess you’d better get over to the mess tent,” Steve said evenly. “Fend for yourself.” 

“Fine,” she replied, her face a carefully calculated mask. 

“Talk to me on a day you didn’t try to kill me,” he replied. “See if I feel differently about serving you supper.”

She said nothing further, simply turned and disappeared into the darkness.

“I feel like I missed something,” Riley said once she’d gone. “Sam, you said she was Steve’s uh…estranged cousin…”

“Oh, darlin’,” Sam said. “It has been an evening.” 

Bucky returned with the plates, and they ate their fill as Sam and Steve filled Riley in on the details. Riley took the news of Natasha’s employer and her sticking around about as well as Sam had, which made Steve exceedingly glad to have him as a friend. Sure, none of them knew the whole truth about why she’d stayed, but they knew enough to be suspicious, and to hold her at arm’s length.

Later, once the dishes had been done and the fire doused, Steve and Bucky crawled beneath the caravan, where Bucky barnacled himself to Steve’s side in the usual fashion, arms and legs anchoring him to the ground. 

“I’m glad we’re not fighting anymore, pal,” Steve murmured, brushing a hand through his ever-tangled locks.

“No fight.” 

“And I’m sorry for…yelling. For Baxter. For everything.” 

“Is…” Bucky yawned, a mannerism he’d picked up from the humans around him. “Is no. I say.”

“Sure,” Steve teased. “Makes total sense. Hey, in the morning, you wanna let me comb your hair?”

“Mmmno.”

“No?”

“No thank you.”

"So polite," he laughed, pressing a kiss to Bucky's temple, because it was the sort of thing his own mother might have done after an exceptionally long, trying day. "Goodnight, pal. See you in the morning."

“Goodnight, pal,” Bucky echoed, already beginning to drift away.

Steve had nearly joined him when he heard it—the sound of someone settling on the ground near the caravan's steps. A redheaded menace, creeping closer as if she'd been invited. Which, in a way, she had.

With a shiver, he pulled the blankets tighter around them both before closing his eyes.

It was a long time before he slept.

 

Chapter Text

It was easy enough to ignore Natasha.

Steve carried on with his life and his routine as though she had never come to them at all. He rose early, ate meals, took care of the work that needed taking care of, and watched the show on show nights before retiring to bed. This routine didn’t deviate at all through the first week she was with them. Then the second, and into the third.

Bucky followed Steve’s lead, both of them steadfastly ignoring the stranger who lurked at the periphery of their lives. But no matter how much they ignored Natasha, she developed a habit of turning up like a bad penny. Reminding Steve that he was being watched. Marked. That maybe-not-in-this-town and maybe-not-the-next, but soon enough they’d reach the sea, Bucky would be gone, and he and Natasha would return to Columbia.

And while Steve didn’t intend to go quietly, neither had he come up with an alternative plan.

So he stewed on it, plight ever-present in his mind even as they paid Natasha no attention.

They weren’t the only ones.

The warm welcome afforded to Steve and Bucky upon their arrival at the circus had happened for two reasons. Sure, part of it had been Steve’s work ethic and Bucky’s ability to learn. But as Steve watched Natasha try and fail to ingratiate herself with the other rousties, he soon realized that the second reason they’d been so quickly accepted had been Sam and Riley spreading the word that they were to be trusted. Natasha had no such champions, so when Steve, Bucky, Sam, and Riley didn’t give her the time of day, others followed suit.

Steve should have been happy to see her sleeping alone, washing alone, sitting alone, and being given tasks that necessitated solitude. Her exile was as much as she deserved, considering who she was. What she’d threatened. The man she worked for. 

But he wasn’t happy.

As the weeks wore on, he began feeling guilt instead. The first pang of which struck him one morning when Natasha found herself on the receiving end of a sharp rebuke from Logan. She bore it, of course—she always bore it. Held her head high and walked away from her reprimand in stone-faced silence.

Steve felt something churn in his belly at the sight of her stiff shoulders. The proud jut of her chin.

Because he of all people understood what she was and what had been done to her. Knew the horrors she’d seen and the cruelty she’d endured before she’d been old enough to know anything different. This woman who had no true face, only a series of masks.

Except with Peggy. She’d shown Peggy her real self, Steve was sure, and it bothered him to think of what Peggy would have to say about how he was treating Natasha. 

What would it hurt? argued the Peggy-who-was-his-conscience. To show her some kindness?

Why should I?

Because she’s had precious little of it in her life.

She’s going to hand me over to Pierce without a second’s remorse.

Is she? 

Yup.

You are a pillock, Steve. Don’t you think you ought to at least try being decent, for the sake of saving your own skin?

Didn’t work before, won’t work now.

Didn’t it?

She ran away from you.

She didn’t kill you when she had the chance.

And so on, and so forth. The imagined debates kept him up at night, staring at the underside of the caravan while Bucky slept deep and dreamless at his side. The argument, such as it was, centered on Natasha’s capacity for empathy. Peggy’s Natasha had once been a girl capable of love. This Natasha? Steve wasn’t sure. 

However, the fact remained that she hadn’t killed him. That was what he kept coming back to, the thought festering over the course of another week as they packed up and moved on, loading the wagons and traveling to the next town. As always, Bucky and Steve rode with Sam and Riley. Natasha was elsewhere—walking, perhaps, or hitching a ride on one of the lorries full of bleachers. 

“Steve?” Bucky asked, clambering out the front of the caravan and onto the bench seat next to him as he drove. 

“Hey, Buck,” he said, offering a smile and scooting over to give him some room, glad for a respite from his restless mind. 

Bucky settled in, making a big show of stretching his arms above his head the way Mack did before glancing over. 

"What?" Steve laughed because it was a funny sort of look.

“Mmm.” Bucky touched a finger to his temple. “Inside. I see you?” 

The sign was familiar—one they’d been using since the tank—but the language was new, a phrase created in whispers in the dark beneath the caravan, meant to indicate that Steve was projecting an emotion strongly enough for Bucky to pick up remnants through the telepathy they still occasionally shared. 

"Sorry, pal," he said, offering him a half-smile. "I didn't realize I was doing it." Steve was sure he'd never understand the way the bond worked, but maybe he wasn't supposed to. The occurrences had lessened, as Bucky's growing ease with Eascorian meant they had other means of communicating. And that was a good thing—less of a bond to break when they were left to say their inevitable goodbyes.

Bucky rubbed his fist over his heart. “Is…I see you?”

“What’d you see?” He asked, wondering (not for the first time) if it felt different for Bucky. More powerful, somehow. It was his native language, after all, while Steve was but a rudimentary practitioner. 

Bucky shrugged, looking out at the road and the line of caravans stretching as far as the eye could see. "No sad. No angry.” He shrugged. “Is what?” 

“Uh, guilty, probably,” he supplied, naming the emotion for what it was.

“Gill-dee,” Bucky echoed. “Is what?” 

"Guilty is—whoa, ladies, it's not a race," he said, tugging the reins to slow the horses a tad, lest they try and overtake the wagon in front of them. "It's  …guilty's feeling bad about something. Being sorry."

“Steve is sorry? Is guilty?” 

“Yeah, pal.”

“Why?”

He smiled a little. “I guess it’s because I think maybe I’m not, you know, living up to my own code.” 

“Is what co-hud?”

“My ma would say it’s treating other people well, even if they aren’t good to you. That everyone deserves to be…a person.” That, along with a few proverbs about fish and bait that would probably go over Bucky’s head.

Bucky thought about it, then quirked an eyebrow—an expression he’d perfected after watching Sam do it a million times. “Guilty for Nasha?” 

Steve looked over sharply. Maybe one of these days he’d stop being shocked at his friend’s perceptiveness—the way Bucky could intuit things despite his limited grasp of the language—but not today. “What?” 

Bucky reached out and poked his claw into Steve’s temple. “I see Nasha.” 

“You see her?” he echoed. 

“See. Is…” Touching his hand to his stomach, he made a fist and knocked it against himself a couple of times. “Broken.” 

“Yeah,” Steve frowned. “You remember I told you about Peggy? Drew you a picture?” 

“Yes, Peggy.” 

“I told you Peggy knows Natasha, but not how she knows her. The thing is, Peggy rescued her, once, a long time ago.” 

“Steve is rescue Bucky,” Bucky echoed, having learned well the words for his own story. 

“I didn’t rescue you, though. You rescued yourself.” 

Squinting, Bucky shrugged. “Is same.”

“Sure, gimme all the credit,” he teased, nudging his arm. “But Peggy really rescued Natasha. And they were uh…you know how Sam and Riley are?” To demonstrate, he made a kissing face.

“Yes.” Bucky imitated the smooch. “Kissing.”

“Yeah. Natasha wanted to kiss Peggy.” Which was an oversimplification, but it served its purpose. “And Peggy wanted to kiss Natasha, too, I think. But she didn’t.”

“Is husband?”

“No.” Steve smiled. “Well, maybe. But Peggy wanted to let Natasha be free—like how I want you to be. And where they were, it was dangerous. So she sent Natasha to where it was safe. You understand?”

Bucky furrowed his brow. “Nasha…safe?” 

“Right. But Natasha got angry about being sent away. So she ran off on her own. Alone.”

“Alone,” Bucky echoed, and it was hard to say whether or not he understood the significance.

"Yeah. So I'm feeling guilty because nobody's ever been very nice to Natasha. Except for Peggy. And I don't think Peggy would like me being so mean."

Quick brain making short work of the situation, Bucky began filling in the gaps. “Nasha is angry Peggy. Is go. Alone. See…Pierce?” At that, he made another kissing noise.

“No!” Steve said quickly. “No. It’s not like that.” At least, he hoped it wasn’t. “Pierce is uh…for money?” 

“Money!” Gods knew Bucky understood money—his obsession with marketplaces had only grown since the first one, and he spent the shiny coins he earned with reckless abandon, amassing a hoard of ridiculous trinkets that he carried with him in an old, burlap sack.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed, slashing a finger across his throat. “Money. She kills for it.”

“Oh.” Bucky’s gaze darkened. “Mmm, no, I see.”

“What no?”

“Nasha is no for Pierce. For money.”

“She’s not?”

“No. Nasha is for Peggy.”

“Well, sure, or she used to be.” 

“Is stay here.” 

“Yep.” 

“Stay for Peggy.” 

Steve could see why Bucky might reach that conclusion, being as a vital piece of the puzzle was missing from his understanding. "Right."

“Steve,” Bucky continued. “Is guilty. For Peggy. And Nasha.” 

“Nothing gets by you, pal.” 

Bucky grinned with all his teeth—Steve’s favorite sort of grin—before butting his head against Steve’s shoulder and grunting, obviously still working something out. Eventually, he looked up, a furrow carved into his brow. “Nasha is for Peggy. Rescue.” 

“Yeah.”

“Bucky is for Steve.” 

“No, that’s—” Steve shook his head. “Buck, you don’t owe me anything.” 

“Bucky is for Steve,” he repeated. “Nasha is same. Rescue. Is…” he touched his heart, then his head. “Same.”

“Natasha’s the same as you?”

“Yes.” 

“That’s not exactly—”

“Same,” he repeated with surprising firmness.

“I—” Steve shook his head. “Alright.” 

“Guilty. No good. Find Nasha, say no guilty.” He scooted to the end of the bench, swinging his legs over the side, and while there was no danger to it—the caravans moved slowly, and it was easy to hop on and off at will—Steve didn’t especially want him running off to find Natasha.

“Bucky—” he called, but it was too late. Bucky was gone, weaving through the line until he found whatever hidey-hole in which Natasha had tucked herself away.

Maybe half a mile later, Steve heard footsteps approaching—a swift jog, before Bucky swung himself onto the seat, followed by Natasha, who sprang up with ease. It was only when she’d settled that Steve saw she was holding onto the small canvas bag that contained her scant belongings.

“Now just a minute—” he protested.

“Nasha,” Bucky said, presenting her with a flourish. 

“Yeah, I see that, pal.” 

“Steve is nice.”

“I’m always nice,” he muttered. Natasha gave a snort, and he narrowed his eyes. “To people who haven’t tried to kill me. Twice.” 

“The second time was debatable. Bucky said you wanted to talk?”

“Yes, talk,” Bucky agreed. “Steve guilty.” 

“Oh?” Natasha raised a brow, which Bucky mimicked, the two of them turning on Steve with eerily identical expressions.

“Fury’s balls,” he muttered, tightening his hold on the reins. “I only wanted to say that if you’re here, you might as well…that is to say, we might as well—”

Be decent, and start saving your own skin, head-Peggy hissed.

“Stay,” Bucky finished, patting the back of Natasha’s hand. “Is nice. Is for Peggy.” 

Natasha, who hadn’t been expecting Peggy’s name to fall from Bucky’s lips, flinched. Steve didn’t miss it, and he looked over at her with a half-smile. He didn’t trust her—definitely didn’t like her—but there was some wisdom in the notion of keeping enemies close. 

And shit, Peggy had loved her, once upon a time. That had to count for something.

“Yeah,” Steve said, clearing his throat. “Stay.” 

 


 

Things began to change after that.

Bucky, identifying Natasha as a kindred spirit, accepted her with immediate and unquestioning generosity. Sam and Riley took longer, though they raised no objection when Steve asked if she could sleep beneath the caravan rather than on the ground nearby. Having her join them for meals took more getting used to, but they got there in the end, greeting her each morning with nods and grunted pleasantries. For her part, Natasha took to her changed circumstances with careful consideration, choosing to put her best foot forward. Perhaps recognizing a chance when it was given, or perhaps just playing another part, she was helpful, polite, and occasionally funny. None of them trusted her (save Bucky), but their tolerance soon grew into begrudging acceptance and even occasional enjoyment. 

None of it made her less likely to turn him in, Steve knew, but it made life more pleasant in the interim. Plus, it assuaged the guilt in his gut and, more importantly, made Bucky happy.

Very happy, as a matter of fact. Bucky and Natasha became faster friends than Steve could have anticipated, their camaraderie growing day by day, as bits and pieces of Natasha’s real personality began to slip through, her comfort with Bucky bringing down her guard, little by little.

Their friendship was truly cemented on the day Steve and Bucky returned to the caravan after mucking out horse stalls to find Natasha sitting on the ground, knife collection arrayed before her as she meticulously cleaned each one.

Bucky, ever eager to learn a new skill, plopped down next to her with a toothy grin. “Show!” 

Which was how Steve found himself supervising target practice, Natasha in good humor as she showed Bucky how to fling a knife toward a tree. To Steve’s surprise, Bucky was a natural marksman, taking to the knife-throwing with ease.

"That's pretty good, pal," he said when Bucky's tenth throw embedded itself near the center of the trunk.

Bucky shrugged, dragging the toe of his slipper against the ground to draw the crude outline of a fish. “Is fish,” he said. “Catching.” 

Of course, Bucky would know how to target something with pinpoint accuracy—he'd spent his life in search of his next meal, and Steve had seen in the dream-memories that the sirens used weapons when stalking their prey. Translating those skills to a new environment wasn't easy, but Bucky was nothing if not determined and adaptable, picking up new talents wherever he went. Thinking of it made Steve sad, in some ways, because no amount of halting conversation could convey the depth of a culture. Bucky had lost more than his family and his home when Pierce plucked him from the depths. Steve found himself suddenly grateful to Natasha for bringing some of that life to him.

Grateful, and a mite annoyed. Why should Natasha be the one to figure Bucky out? Steve could have bought him a knife. Could have taught him to throw. It was only that Bucky had never asked. Frowning, he turned from their game and went to the caravan, annoyance deepening when Bucky didn't give him a second glance; typically, Steve leaving him on his own got at least a cursory whine. 

But that was good! Bucky ought to have some independence. Ought to be able to be alone. Or, not alone. With Natasha. That was fine.

“Where’s your shadow?” Sam asked, looking up from where he was sitting at the table, costume on his lap and a needle between his fingers.

“Assassinating trees.” 

“So that’s what that noise is,” he grinned. “Natasha?”

“Yeah.” 

“You know, she’s alright, once you get to know her.” 

Steve grunted. “She’s fine.”

“Bucky likes her.”

“Bucky likes everyone.” 

“Hmm,” Sam said.

 


 

Bucky and Natasha were the same—Bucky had said it himself—but Steve didn’t understand what that meant until he began losing his siren to Natasha. Hour after hour. Day after day.

Which was…first of all, that was a stupid thing to think. Bucky wasn’t his anything. Bucky belonged to himself. So it was great that he was choosing to spend so much time with Natasha—great that he was making choices at all! And if Natasha wasn’t the person Steve might have picked for Bucky to confide in? And if he trusted her about as much as a lobster trusted a pot? Well, that was Steve’s problem to solve, because Bucky was happy. Cheerful whenever he returned from their daily outings. Full of new signs and new words and chatter about what they’d done. 

Honestly, Steve was grateful for his newfound time alone, he truly was. Found plenty of things to occupy his days. Didn’t even miss Bucky all that much as he began reading the books on Sam and Riley’s shelves. Teaching Mack some new knots. Having Bobbi show him how to gallop on a horse.

He kept busy, and so did Bucky, and that was fine.

Until it wasn’t. Until Steve’s unnamed jealousy met Bucky’s joy head-on one day over lunch, when Bucky and Natasha strolled up to him, hand in hand. Steve’s eyes flicked from his plate to their entwined fingers, then traveled to Bucky’s grinning face. 

Something was different. Wrong. It took Steve a moment to realize.

Bucky’s hair.

It was glorious. The matted rat’s nest of knots and debris that had been sitting atop his head since the day he escaped the tank had been tamed. Now, it shone, a gleaming mass of brown waves and curls, with several intricately pinned braids adorning his thick locks. 

“Steve,” Bucky chirped. “Look.”

“Yeah, I see,” Steve grunted, heart thumping a strange lub-dub in his chest as he shoved back from the table. “I gotta get back to work.”

“Steve?” he said again, smile fading. 

“Wouldn’t want to keep you two from…whatever it is you’re doing,” he said, clearing his throat, then stomping in the direction of the big top, neck hot and heart continuing to beat an erratic rhythm.

 


 

Natasha found him half an hour later as he swept the already-clean bleachers, appearing from nowhere and just about startling the piss out of him.

“Damn it,” he swore. “Don’t do that!”

“Do what?” 

“You know what! Don’t you have places to be?” 

She grinned. “I might.” 

“Then go be there.” 

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because there’s an idiot that needs telling what an idiot he is, so that takes precedence.” 

Steve’s hands tightened on the broom, though he said nothing. Continued to sweep, even as his ears went hot. 

“Do you want me to teach you?” She asked after a moment. 

“Teach me what?” he muttered. 

“How to braid his hair.” 

"That's  …he's not—" Steve spluttered

“He was excited to show you earlier. Says you’re always after him about it.”

“I don’t—”

“Pride’s an ugly color on you, Steve.” 

Steve gawped; Natasha said nothing further, only turned and left him to steam and stew in his own juices.

It wasn’t pride—it wasn’t. Bucky could do whatever he wanted; he wasn't Steve's to control. But sure, yeah, it was frustrating that Steve had been asking him for months to comb his fucking hair, only to be met with contrariness and tantrums at every turn. But a request from Natasha, and suddenly he had the capacity for change?

That wasn’t Steve being proud. That was Bucky making a choice. 

Which bothered him to the point that he left his broom behind and went to find Bucky and Natasha, determined to tell Bucky exactly what he thought of his finally deigning-to-groom-himself. He found them near the caravan, where Natasha was drawing pictures in the dirt, and as he drew closer, he could see that they were letters, arranged into simple words for Bucky to read.

They looked up when they heard Steve coming, and the expression on Bucky's face was a punch in the gut—a mixture of hesitance, hurt, and anger. Which caused all Steve's righteous indignation to fade, leaving him about as puffed as a three-day-old jellyfish washed onshore. Bucky was a lot of things, but intentionally malicious wasn't one of them.

“I’m sorry, Buck,” he said, and found that he meant it. “You look nice. I shoulda…well, anyway. Thank you for combing your hair.”

“Is no comb,” he muttered. “Is brush.” 

“Your comb was hurting him,” Natasha said, getting to her feet. “A brush is better for long hair.” 

Bucky confirmed her words with a shrug. The remnants of Steve’s irritation evaporated in an instant, replaced with familiar self-reproach. Fuck, he was an idiot. An idiot who kept his hair relatively short and his beard trimmed. Yeah, there were a few tangles, but nothing that couldn’t be combed through with minimal muss and fuss. 

Conversely, Bucky had resisted the comb at every turn, which Steve had assumed was out of some misguided stubbornness—had thought maybe Bucky liked his hair tangled. Not once had he ever stopped to consider things from Bucky’s perspective. 

All this time, he could have gone to Bobbi or Maria for a brush. Shit, he could have bought him one at any number of marketplaces. But he’d been too self-centered, and Bucky hadn’t realized there were alternatives to the comb. 

“Shit,” he said. “Bucky, I’m sorry.”

Bucky shrugged, tracing his finger over an ‘A.’ “No com-plin,” he said, voice halting over what was obviously a new word.

“No, you didn’t complain,” he agreed. “But I shoulda…I guess I wasn’t thinking about it from your side of things.” 

“You can make up for it now,” Natasha said, pointing to the caravan steps. “Sit.” 

Steve sat, and Bucky moved quickly, settling himself on the ground between his legs. “Nasha show,” he said.

“I did the hard work for you,” she said, retrieving a brush from her satchel. “It took us over an hour to get through the mess. Lotta twigs in there.” 

“It looks good already—” Steve said. “I don’t want to mess up your work.” 

“It’s hair,” she said wryly. “It’s not that difficult—I’ll show you how to do it without hurting him.” 

“You can manage it yourself, Buck,” Steve said, even as the brush was put into his hands. “I don’t wanna mess it—”

“No,” Bucky said. “I like.”

Natasha stepped closer, beginning to untie the leather strips she’d used to bind Bucky’s braids. “Use your fingers and take those out.” 

Haltingly, Steve began to undo the plaits. To his great surprise, Bucky let out a happy little sigh the moment Steve’s fingers scratched against his scalp. 

“See?” Natasha said. “He likes it. Just like he said.”

“Yes,” Bucky agreed. “Nice.” 

“I—” Steve looked at her. “How do I uh—” 

Natasha sat on the step above and showed him—how to start at the bottom, holding the hair above so it wouldn’t pull on Bucky’s scalp. Soon enough, Steve had worked through what scant few tangles had accumulated throughout the day.  Eventually, he had the whole mass gleaming, with Bucky letting out contented little grunts every time he ran the brush against his scalp.

“Pretty,” Steve murmured without thinking, following the brush with his fingers on its final pass.

“It can be,” Natasha agreed. “With a bit of care.”

“Care,” Bucky said, looking over his shoulder with a grin. “Braid?” 

“Yes,” Natasha said, taking a section of hair and nudging Steve to do the same. “You start by separating it into three parts…” 

 

Bucky portrait

Chapter Text

The next day, Steve took Bucky to a market and let him pick out a hairbrush of his own. Steve insisted on paying, as he still felt terrible about the entire brushed hair affair, though he wasn't sure Bucky understood the difference between using his own money and using Steve. He dithered over which brush to choose for an age, but the wait was worth it when—thrilled beyond measure—he handed the brush to Steve and turned around right in front of the market stall, wanting his hair brushed in front of the Gods and everyone in the tiny village of Almtown.

Steve convinced him it would be better done at home, and from then on, hair brushing was part of their routine, with Steve spending time before breakfast brushing through the smooth length of Bucky’s hair. The braiding wasn’t his strong suit—Natasha was better by far—but he learned fast, and soon he could manage a few plaits on his own. Bucky, who had always liked seeing his reflection, grew vainer about it, often preening in the mirror above Sam and Riley’s washbasin. 

“You know,” Sam said one morning, watching Bucky turn circles to see himself from every angle. “A fella might think you liked looking at yourself.”

Bucky grunted, running his claws along the length of a braid before muttering, “good,” and stepping back. Steve, who’d been patiently waiting, hid a smile. 

“I guess if I looked like him, I might look, too,” he countered.

Sam and Riley exchanged a glance before Riley cleared his throat. "Breakfast—better eat up!" he chirped. "Show day!"

An important show day, at that. The city of Dixon was the last major city of the season—they’d spend two weeks there, then perform in a series of smaller towns before the circus packed up and hibernated for the winter. The weather was growing colder the further north they traveled, bringing mornings so chilly that they could see their breath in the air. The nest Steve and Bucky had carved beneath the caravan was warm enough, but there was a limit to how long they could stay sleeping outdoors. Not that it mattered much for Bucky—Dixon led to Green River led to Brighton, their first seaside stop. Where Steve would be saying goodbye. To Bucky, yes, but also Sam. And Riley. And Bobbi. And Clint. Because Natasha, for all her friendliness to Bucky, had given Steve no indication that her mind had changed regarding their eventual return to Columbia.

Leaving Sam and Riley would be hard—they’d been good to both of them—and he’d miss them more than anyone else at the circus. Most of all, though, he’d miss Bucky. He could admit that to himself, in private moments, with nothing but the thoughts in his head weighing him down. Delivering on this promise—the first promise he’d ever made Bucky, in the time before he’d truly known him, when he’d been merely a myth trapped in a cage—was of paramount importance. But that didn’t make the thought of losing him any easier. 

Bucky knew they were coming closer to the sea, though Steve didn't like to talk much about their inevitable separation, pushing it to the back of his mind and focusing on spending as much time with him as he could. Which made the fact that Bucky continued to spend time with Natasha all the more frustrating. Sure, Steve and Natasha had reached a certain peace, but that didn't mean his annoyance with (or wariness of) her had dissipated entirely. Especially when she and Bucky began disappearing for longer and longer periods, with hours turning into entire days spent hiding away somewhere. The two of them usually left the moment morning chores were done, returning in time for supper, speaking in a language all their own—using signs Steve didn't know and was too proud to ask the meaning of. The prickle of annoyance which had so upset him over the hair brushing wasn't gone, and try as he might to be rational, he found that he couldn't help his mounting frustrations. Couldn't help wanting these last few weeks to be his time with Bucky, not hers. 

There came a day, however, where their absence was noted. A day when things went wrong in the big top—a rope snapped, and all hands were needed. Steve volunteered to find Bucky and Natasha; not to spy or seek out their secrets, but to remind them that they had jobs to do. So it was with that righteous sure-footedness that he set off in the direction they always went—into the woods near camp. Finding them took longer than expected, though, and it was only when he heard Bucky’s boisterous laugh in the distance that he got some sense of where they’d gone. Bucky wasn’t ever going to be a natural at laughing, as he’d acquired what small skill he had by watching the humans around him, imitating their brays with one akin to what sound might have been produced should a dolphin bed a goose and a donkey together. 

Steve loved that laugh, both because it was funny and because it made Bucky easy to find. He smiled to himself, following the sound to a small clearing.

The first thing he saw was Natasha throwing a knife at Bucky’s blindfolded head.

"Hey!" He yelped at the wrong moment, his shout making Bucky flinch. Which allowed the knife to graze his cheek, rather than missing him altogether, which Steve quickly realized had been the point. The tree Bucky was standing against had five blades already embedded in the bark, creating an outline of his head and shoulders.

“Damn it, Steve!" Natasha swore while Bucky yowled in pain, grabbing at his cheek and pulling the blindfold down. "Are you crazy?"

“Are you?” He shouted right back, rushing forward to yank Bucky’s hand away from his cheek. “Shit, pal—”

“Steve!” Bucky protested, twisting away. “No yell.” 

“What is this?”

Natasha reached into her pocket for a handkerchief, which she handed to Bucky. “It’s our act.” 

“Your act?” He spluttered, taking Bucky’s grooved chin in his hand to turn his head from side to side. The cut was shallow, albeit long, and he snatched the handkerchief, pressing it to the wound. “He’s not some performing—” 

“Is our show, Steve,” Bucky protested, wriggling out of his grip and stepping sideways to put some distance between them. “Nasha throw.” 

“You—“ Blood pounded in his temples as he rounded on Natasha. 

“I told Nick I’d work up an act,’ she replied placidly, arms folded across her chest. “Which is exactly what I’m doing.”

“Bucky’s not a fucking sideshow—” 

“Don’t you think you ought to ask him?”

Steve’s spine stiffened. “Come on, Buck,” he snapped. “We’re going back to camp.” 

“No,” Bucky said. “No, no.” 

“What do you mean, no?” 

“I no,” he repeated, voice rising in pitch. “No camp no Steve. We show.” 

“Bucky,” he said, tone clipped. “You’re not gonna be in the show. We’re keeping you out of sight. That’s the whole point—” 

“Yes, yes, show!” He shouted, putting both hands on Steve’s chest and shoving him back. “I help.” 

“Bucky!”

"Away! Away, Steve!" Taking a deep breath, he looked to Natasha, who shrugged. Grunting in frustration, he smacked his left hand against his heart. "Steve say, and Steve say, and Steve say, and say and say and I am no listen. I am—” He hit himself again, eyes wide and gaze furious. “I fix, I help. I show!”

“Pal—” Steve placated, holding up his hands. 

“No pal,” Bucky roared, before letting loose another stream of rambling rage. Only this time, his learned language began to desert him, voice rising into his native register. Suitable for life beneath the waves but liable to break glass and set dogs howling on land. 

Steve and Natasha clamped their hands over their ears, and Steve bleated an, “I’m sorry!” (Not because he was sorry, but because he’d do just about anything to calm Bucky down and end the torture.)

Bucky’s ranting ceased at the plea, and he closed his mouth with a final snarl before stamping one slippered foot, then turning to Natasha. She shook her head, offering him an apologetic smile, which made Steve want to scream. 

“I go,” Bucky said. “Steve is not go.” Huffing out a breath, he turned in the direction of camp and stomped away.

“Bucky!” Steve called after him.

“I wouldn’t,” Natasha warned.

“I don’t need advice from you,” he muttered. 

“Gods, you’re fucking stubborn,” she said with a wry smile, stopping him in his tracks. He’d meant to go after Bucky, but he was never one to pass up a provocation.

You’re the one throwing knives at his head.” 

“Yup,” she agreed. “Like he said, we’re working up an act.” 

“Real nice, Natasha,” he snapped, glaring. “Taking advantage of him when he doesn’t know any—”

I’m taking advantage?” she said with an infuriatingly calm smile. “Steve, I know you’ve heard this from me before, but you continue to be an idiot, so once again, I’m forced to remind you.” 

Steve saw red. “You got some nerve…”

“Bucky,” she continued. “Suggested this.”

“Bullshit.” 

“Believe me or don’t, doesn’t change the truth.” 

“He wouldn’t…” Steve scowled. “And even if he did, he wouldn’t know what he was asking for—”

“Mmm.” She cocked her head to the side. “How very patronizing of you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what I said. You assume he doesn’t understand things.” 

“He doesn’t!”

"He understands more than you think," she said, anger tinging her tone for the first time. "He understands that performers make more money than roustabouts—that Sam and Riley have a caravan, and the three of us sleep on the ground. He understands money well enough to know he costs you something, so he wanted to do this to pay you back."

Steve's heart thumped hard, and he swallowed. "He doesn't  …that's …if he thinks that, he's wrong."

“He’s not doing it because he thinks he has to,” she said slowly. “He’s doing it because he wants to. This—” at that, she gestured at the tree and the knives. “—was going to be a surprise for the last show of the season.” 

“Bucky won’t be here at the end of the season,” he snapped.

“That’s still the plan, then?” She said coolly.

“Of—” Steve spluttered. “Of course that’s the…that’s always been the plan!” 

“And have you spoken with Bucky about that?” 

“Yes! He knows he’s going home. He’s—”

“Steve,” she said, the admonition surprisingly gentle. “You don’t give him much credit.”

“Of course I do!”

“No, you think you do, but you’re the only one of us who treats him more like a pet than a person.” 

Fists clenching, he took a step forward. “Take that back.” 

"I won't because it's true."

“What would you know about it?” he snapped. “You only just met him, and let’s not forget that you’re only here to collect the bounty on my head.” 

Natasha smiled, tutting her tongue against her teeth and turning to pull her knives from the bark. “Must be nice, knowing everything.” 

Steve glowered. “Shut up.” 

“Did it ever occur to you?” she said, tugging a blade free and tucking it into its scabbard. “That Bucky might be capable of making a few of his own choices?” 

“He makes his own choices all the time—” he protested. “But he’s not…you know. Human.”

“No,” she agreed. “He’s not. And I can appreciate everything you’ve done for him. But take it from someone who’s been a stranger in a strange land—if you died tomorrow, Bucky would manage just fine.” 

Steve's first instinct was a spluttering protest; a denial of the charge. But even as his lips formed the words, he realized she was right. "Before …he'd've…maybe now, but when we first started, he would have ended up right back in that cage.”

Natasha’s expression softened. “Maybe he would have, then. But lately—Gods, you’re so blind to it, Steve.”

“Blind to what?”

“The reason he puts up with your coddling him.”

“I…what?”

“It’s because he’s in love with you.” 

Spluttering an immediate protest, Steve laughed out loud at the sheer nonsense of the statement. 

“He is,” Natasha pressed. “You don’t realize it because you only see him as something to be saved, but any fool with eyes can see that’s how he looks at you.”

“He’s not,” he said again, mind unwilling to engage with the idea. 

“For his sake, I wish he’d picked someone less obtuse to love. But for whatever reason, he’s picked you.” She pulled her last knife free with a grunt. “Did it never occur to you that maybe he thinks you’re the one that needs saving?” 

With that, she left him, marching toward camp with her knives and her knowledge, leaving him there with his world turned upside down.

Bucky wasn't in love with him. Couldn't be. Bucky didn't know what 'in love' was. Because if Bucky was in love with him, then Steve might be forced to reckon with the feelings he’d been trying so damn hard to ignore. The truth of just how much he was going to miss Bucky when he was gone. The fact that he’d never felt so close to another person before, and that being with Bucky made him happier than he’d ever been. 

Which didn’t mean love. None of that meant love. He couldn't be in love with Bucky, and Bucky couldn't be in love with him. It wouldn't be fair. Not now. Not with Bucky's home so close. With the end of the journey in sight. Bucky had an infatuation, that was all. The bonds of close companionship conflating with something more significant in his mind.

Still, love aside, Natasha’s other comments had struck a chord. Perhaps he hadn’t been fair—hadn’t allowed for the possibility that Bucky might know and understand far more than he realized. Shit, Steve had known him longer than any of the rest of them. Had seen him at his most vulnerable.  His most damaged. He’d been the one to watch him take his first stumbling steps into this unfamiliar world.

It was no wonder he had treated him with kid gloves after that.

All the same, it wasn’t fair, and Steve knew it. Bucky was no longer the pale, sickly siren trapped in a tank. He was Bucky—utterly and entirely himself—and he had been coming into his own for months. Much like the comb and the brush, Steve had simply failed to notice the obvious. So, once again, he owed him an apology. 

(And fuck if that didn’t feel like it was turning into a regular old song and dance.)

 


 

On his way back to camp, he ran into Sam, who insisted he wasn’t seeking him out. But seeing as he had no other reason for being in the woods, Steve had his suspicions.

“Bucky’s in a mood,” Sam said. “He and Nat are helping with the big top, and he looks like someone killed his, you know, pet dolphin. Did you two get into it again?”

“Yeah,” Steve admitted, falling into step beside him. “I really can’t get it right lately.”

“You spend enough time together, it’s bound to end in a fight sometimes.”

“Yeah,” he agreed, glancing over. “I guess so. Hey, I uh…can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“How’d you know you were in love with Riley?”

If Sam was surprised by the question, he didn’t show it, though he did take a moment to consider his answer. “We fooled around for a long time,” he said finally. “Said it wasn’t anything serious—just having a little fun. Blowing off steam after a hard day’s work.”

“Uh-huh.”

“But then there came this one day, where we were practicing something new—you know that maneuver with the double twist?”

The death-defying stunt still sent Steve’s heart into his throat every time he watched them do it, and he nodded. 

“I fucked it up. And Riley ended up hitting his head pretty gods damn hard on one of the poles. Suddenly there’s blood everywhere, and I’m panicking. So I drop down, crawl over to him, and all I can think is…if he dies, I die. And that’s how I knew.”

“Wow.”

“Moment he came around, I asked him to move into my caravan. He hasn’t left.”

"So, you were sure? You knew, and it was just…you knew?”

Sam hesitated, turning to him as they reached the edge of the camp. "No, I'd known,” he said. “But having the piss scared outta you has a way of clearing the mind of all the clutter. All the reasons why not.”

“Ah.”

“As a means of self-discovery, I wouldn’t recommend it,” he went on, tapping his head. “Riley still has a scar, and I feel guilty every gods damn time I touch it.” 

“I’ll bet.” 

Shrugging, Sam pointed toward the mess tent. “Bet I know where you can find Bucky, if the big top’s stable.”

Steve smiled, bumping his shoulder against Sam’s. “Thanks. I’ll see you later?” 

“You owe me a rematch.” 

“Yeah, yeah,” he agreed, giving him a wave before jogging in the direction of the mess. 

Bucky was, in fact, eating lunch with the rest of the rousties, rope crisis averted (no thanks to Steve). The cut on his cheek had crusted over, and as Steve looked at him sitting there, laughing with his friends, he realized how long it had been since he’d really looked at Bucky. There was nothing now separating him from the others. Save for the claws and the teeth, he was as muscled and tough and strong as any of them. He could joke, tease, and carry on conversations, understanding more than he said and knowing more than he ever let on.

Steve had been overlooking him. He was ashamed of himself for it. 

Determined not to waste any more of the time they had left in a fight, he approached the table with a smile. “Buck?”

Bucky’s grin faded when he looked up. “What?” 

“Can we take a walk? We can wash your fa—that is to say, I was gonna go wash up. If you want to join me.” 

Was that patronizing? Everything sounded patronizing now. Shit, how long had Bucky been putting up with Steve’s leading him along, when he’d been perfectly capable of leading himself? 

Bucky looked at him carefully before getting to his feet. Steve reached for his hand out of habit, but Bucky didn't let him take it. That stung, but he had it coming. Bucky was silent as they headed for the stream, which was deserted, save for the two of them. Happy for the relative solitude that allowed him to show his scales, Bucky pushed his pants to his knees and perched on a flat rock, letting his legs swing through the current.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, crouching to wet his handkerchief.

“Why sorry?” 

“For yelling at you. For saying you couldn’t be in the show. I got scared when I saw Natasha throwing that knife, is all.” 

“Is a game,” he muttered, kicking his feet so Steve was splashed.

“Hey!” The water was frigid, so he flicked some back in Bucky’s direction. “Quit.”

“Quit,” he echoed with a half-smile. “Thank you, sorry.” 

“You’re welcome.” Steve lifted the handkerchief toward Bucky’s face before thinking better of it, holding it out for him to take instead. 

“You do,” Bucky said, turning his head to the side. 

“I don’t have to…”

“Yes, do,” he repeated.

Steve bit his lip, wiping at the dried blood while trying his best not to reopen the wound. "I uh, I think your act is great. I shouldn't have …it's only that sometimes I forget that you had this whole other life before I knew you. You're new to things around here, but you're…" Not a pet, but a person. “You’re capable.” 

“Cay-puh-bull?” 

“Means you can take care of yourself.”

Bucky hummed. “Nnn, good. Smart, brave—” he reached out to catch hold of Steve’s hand. “I am for Steve.” 

It wasn’t the first time Bucky had said that phrase, though Steve hadn’t entirely figured out the sentiment. “You are smart, and you are brave. I’m gonna try and be better about remembering that, and letting you…do stuff yourself. Without me.”

Grunting his displeasure, Bucky shook his head before rubbing his fist in a circle against his chest. “Not say without.” 

Steve attempted to parse his meaning while he rinsed out the handkerchief. “So you don’t mind when I do stuff for you? Or help you?”

Bucky shrugged, extending one leg to flex his foot. "Yes. But—" he tapped his temple. "I can do, but no do.” 

“Why?”

“Steve likes,” he offered.

“Shit.” He smiled, standing up. “So you let me take care of you because you think it makes me feel better, huh?” 

A shrug. 

“Alright—” Steve could recognize a nail when he hit one on the head, and he laughed a little. “I haven’t been listening to you much, have I?” 

“No much.” 

“I’m sorry, pal...” he began, the word catching in his throat. “You uh…sorry. You didn’t like it when I called you that earlier. I don’t have to—” 

Bucky touched his chest before leaning over to wrap his arms around Steve’s waist. “Angry, no pal. Now…pal, please.” 

Smiling, Steve ran his fingers through Bucky’s hair, working through a tangle on the way down. “Pals again, then?” 

“Pals-gain, then.” 

“Good. Maybe later, you and Natasha can show me more of your act?”

“Yes,” Bucky grinned. “If Steve is brave.” 

“Oh, Steve’ll try.” 

 

Chapter Text

Steve had lived his life by the rhythm of the waves. Salt air had surrounded him from the first moment he’d drawn breath. Taught to swim before he could walk, as a child he would plunge into the water at the first hint of spring, emerging blue-lipped and shivering, grinning through chattering teeth while his mother briskly rubbed his frozen body with a rough towel. 

When the sea had taken his father from him, Steve had not hated her, because she was an impartial mistress, giving and taking in equal measure. No ritual or routine could stand longer than her ceaseless tide. 

The sea had given him purpose. Leaving her behind for Columbia had been like leaving a friend—albeit one that was tempestuous and wild, angry that he’d dared turn his back on her. It had only been in his leaving, though, that he had found something—someone—snatched from her depths. Mother Sea was out of balance with the loss of her son, and Steve was bound and determined to right that wrong. To give back what had been stolen and reset the scales. Beg forgiveness from her infinite depths. 

That did not, however, mean he had to enjoy it. That he couldn’t grieve his loss even as the circus trundled towards its first seaside stop. But if this was to be the end—the last time he would see her shore before returning to Columbia and facing Pierce’s wrath—he could at least go with the knowledge that he had given Bucky back to her. That he had treated her well from his beginning to his ending.

Bucky, conversely, had been in a cheerful mood since the conversation in which Steve had told him they would arrive at the ocean—at his water—in a matter of days, chirping about how he was going to swim, and go, and see. He seemed delighted at the prospect, in fact, so Steve was determined to be cheerful about his going. There was no use being morose: this had always been the plan.

Out.

Sea.

Gone.

They arrived in Brighton on a Tuesday, passing a sign in the early afternoon that indicated the town was a mere two miles ahead. Bucky, sitting on the bench next to him as they drove the caravan, was practically vibrating with glee. 

“Steve!” He exclaimed not twenty minutes later. 

“What, pal?” Steve replied, only to realize in an instant what had roused Bucky’s excitement—the first whiff of sharp, salty air, so familiar that he’d failed to notice its arrival. “Ohh—” 

Rising with a wild grin, Bucky undulated his fingers in the old, familiar sign. “Sea!” 

“Yeah,” Steve said, forcing a smile onto his face as he reached up to tug Bucky down. “We’re almost there—don’t spook the horses and drive us off the road before we arrive, huh?” 

“Yes,” Bucky agreed, sitting and turning to holler into the cabin. “Na-sha!”

Ten seconds later, Natasha’s head appeared in the gap. “What?” 

“Is sea!” 

“I’m sure we all needed to be woken for that.” 

“Yes,” Bucky said placidly. “Nice. Sea.” 

“No, thank you,” she replied, disappearing while Steve started to laugh.

Less than a mile later, the caravan rolled up and over a rise where they discovered a meadow running to the edge of a cliff. Beyond that? Nothing but endless blue, spanning the horizon. To the north lay Brighton, with its mid-sized port and market square. To the south, open farmland. Bucky had eyes for neither, his gaze fixed straight ahead as he clutched Steve’s arm.

“Go, sea. Go?”

“Yeah,” Steve said, with another forced smile. “But let’s uh…let’s get camp set, first? You can say bye—” 

Bucky nodded, but he was only half-listening as Steve drew the caravan in behind Clint’s. It had hardly stopped before he was jumping down, running right to the edge of the cliff and throwing his arms wide, buffeted by the winds whipping off the water below.

“Gods,” Steve muttered. The last thing he needed was Bucky plummeting to his doom on the same day they reached the ocean. “Bucky, come back!” 

His words were carried away on the wind, but a few minutes later, Bucky returned on his own, cheerfully assisting with his duties as they set up camp.

"You're not usually this helpful," Sam teased while he and Bucky tied down the overhang they used to protect themselves from the rain on wet days.

“I help,” Bucky said with a grin. “Then go. Swim. Out.”

“Pretty decent of you,” Sam agreed.

"Mess is up," Riley called, coming back from where he'd been sent to check on lunch. "There's pasties and plenty of them."

Steve's mouth watered because, despite his growing trepidation, a hard day's work overcame a lot of anxiety. Glancing at Bucky, he offered a half-smile. "You wanna uh…one last meal for the…well, not the road. But, you want to eat?"

“No,” Bucky said. “No eat. Out!”

“Guess I got my marching orders,” he said with a weak chuckle. “You three go on. I’ll uh…catch up?”

What followed was as awkward a farewell as had ever been orchestrated. Sam and Riley, prone to affection, stepped forward to give Bucky hugs, which was easier said than done, considering he was just about jumping out of his skin with excitement. Natasha, meanwhile, only put her hands on his shoulders, whispering a Vedorian word Steve didn’t know, which made Bucky laugh his great, honking laugh before pushing her away.

“Mack says the path that leads to the beach starts just north of camp,” Riley said, clearing his throat.

"Thanks, Riley," Steve said as if it were welcome information.

"So, I—" Sam cleared his throat. "Well. Bucky. We'll miss you plenty, you know. And if you ever wind up…though, I suppose you wouldn't. Just…good luck."

“Good luck, Sam,” Bucky agreed. “Steve, go now?”

“Yeah,” Steve said, offering an apologetic shrug to their friends. Whatever mystic siren call was tugging Bucky toward the sea sure wasn’t leaving much room for sentimentality. But maybe that was a good thing—sending him home would be easier without having to make a big, dramatic thing of it. So, clapping Bucky on the shoulder, he pointed toward the path. “Go on, I’ll catch up.” 

Bucky let out a whoop of joy before breaking into a sprint, twenty paces ahead of Steve in an instant. 

“Sorry,” Steve said, turning to the trio. 

“He’s happy,” Sam replied. “It’s alright.”

“You’d better go, he’s getting pretty far ahead,” Riley cautioned. “He’ll be in the water before you get there.” 

“Mmm,” Natasha nodded. “Yes. Not one for long goodbyes, it seems.” 

Something in her tone bothered Steve, and he narrowed his eyes at her before going after Bucky, stumbling down the steep path in his wake, picking up the trail of clothes he had left behind him. First, slippers. Then, his shirt. Finally, his trousers, discarded on the sandy shore, button ripped off in his haste to undress.

Gods, but he was already in the water. Still with legs, and only up to his ankles, but Steve's heart leaped into his throat at the thought that Bucky might leave without saying goodbye. "Hang on, Buck—" he called, dropping the clothes and rushing forward.

Bucky turned at the sound of his voice, waving both arms, a grin splitting his face in two. “Steve!

Making his way to where Bucky stood, Steve saw that he was shaking with anticipation, legs trembling as he held himself rigid in the surf. “Hey, pal,” he said. “I uh…” 

“Come?” Bucky asked, taking him by the hands, as if it could be so simple. Would that Steve could walk into the water and grow himself a tail. Live his life alongside Bucky, all the while evading the long line of locked doors he’d left in his wake.

“I can’t,” he said, bitter wind whipping brine from his eyes. “I don’t work like you do. Besides, it’s too cold for me.” 

Bucky grunted. “No cold! Come!”

“No, pal,” he said, forcing good cheer into his voice before he pulled Bucky into a bruising hug. “Be safe out there, please?”

Bucky squirmed out of the embrace with a smile, then pressed a smacking kiss to Steve’s forehead. “Safe,” he agreed. “I go. Promise.”

“Good,” Steve said, false smile frozen on his features. “Thank you. That’s…well, you…I’m glad…” A million things to say, yet he couldn’t manage to form a sentence.

“Bye, say bye.” Bucky nodded, pulling away, then turning to the water.

“Bye—” Steve choked, as Bucky rushed forward and into the waves without a second glance.

A peal of braying laughter floated back to Steve, carried on the wind as Bucky dove beneath the blue. And then, there it was: that glorious tail—no longer curled and confined within a cage—bursting from the waves, its power propelling Bucky into the depths. And then? He was gone.

Gone. 

Gone.

Who did Natasha think she was fooling? Someone in love didn’t leave without looking back.

Gods, but it had happened quickly, and it was strange there, standing in the after, instead of the before.

Before, when Bucky had been at his side. After, when Steve stayed still while the tide rose, frigid water lapping at his feet, which grew numb as the rest of him, crushed by the weight of what he’d lost. The understanding that the very best parts of him had been carried by Bucky as he slipped beneath the sea.

What could remain now, when Bucky had taken everything? His heart and his lungs and his spleen and his guts—the very marrow of him belonged to Bucky, he knew now. Had belonged to him since the moment Steve first touched his hand to the glass of his prison. But this belonging was no trick. No spell. This was something more ancient than any magic. Purer than any siren’s song. 

Only Steve had been too stubborn to let himself see it. So focused on the ending, that he hadn't realized what had been beginning.

His eyes were open now.

Now that it didn’t matter.

Now that everything was over.

Because of course, Steve was in love with Bucky, while Bucky had been trying every way he knew how to show Steve that he was loved in return.

And Steve? Steve had taken him to the edge of the world and told him to go.

So while it was true that love didn’t leave without a second glance, heartbreak might. Sorrow, too. Yes, any number of things might have kept Bucky’s eyes fixed on what was ahead, rather than what he was leaving behind.

Steve had waited too long, and it was too late.

 


 

At least an hour passed before he returned to camp, Bucky’s crumpled clothes carried in his arms while he staggered his way up the path. The first person he saw upon reaching the caravan was Natasha, who sat on the wooden steps, a supper plate balanced on her knees. Eating her fill as if she hadn’t a care in the world; as if she wasn’t at all bothered by the loss of her so-called friend.

Probably she hadn’t even liked Bucky. It had all been an act, meant to buy her time until she could hold Steve to his end of their bargain. At least, he supposed, they could both drop their facades now—she could be the mercenary once more, and he could stop putting up with her for Bucky’s sake.

“Afternoon,” she greeted. 

Glowering, he tossed the pile of clothes beneath the wagon, angling his body away so she couldn’t see his red-rimmed eyes. 

“Not talking to me?” she asked, arching a brow. 

“No more than necessary.” 

“Was it something I said?”

“Or something you didn’t,” he muttered. “I guess you’ll be wanting to leave in the morning?”

“Oh?” 

“We’ll need to get back to your master before the snows fly,” he snapped. “Wouldn’t want to—” 

Natasha’s plate hit the side of the caravan, shattering in an instant, her aim so close to his head that a chip of porcelain cut his jaw. Shocked, he rounded on her and found she had shot to her feet with a rare show of venom on her usually-expressionless face.

“You,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “Don’t know half as much as you think you do. But have it your way.” 

“I know you’re—”

“You still don’t know anything about me. But yes, alright. If you’re so eager to leave, we’ll go in the morning.”

“Fine.” 

“And clean that up,” she said before stalking away, muttering to herself in her native tongue.

Steve contemplated shouting something rude at her retreating form, then decided it wasn't worth the effort. Gods knew he'd have plenty of opportunities to fight with Natasha in the weeks to come. So, with a sigh, he began scraping the remnants of her meal from the side of the wagon. At least that gave him something to focus on that wasn’t the bone-deep ache left behind by Bucky’s absence, and he’d nearly stripped the paint from the wood by the time Sam found him, perhaps half an hour later.

“You’re gonna wear a hole in that,” Sam said, voice pitched low like he was approaching a skittish colt.

“Thanks,” Steve gritted, telling himself to be kinder to Sam. After all, Sam hadn’t tried to murder him (twice), nor was Sam planning on turning him over to Pierce. Sam had been nothing but a loyal friend, and if this was the last night they had together, Steve was determined not to squander it. He’d done enough squandering for a lifetime

“Bucky’s gone?” He queried.

“Yeah.” 

“How’d uh…how’d that go?”

“About as well as you’d think,” Steve said. “You saw how excited he was.”

“Sure. Guess I’d’ve been pretty excited, too.”

“Yup.” Steve dropped the sponge into the bucket at his side and turned, jaw locked and shoulders rigid. 

Sam reached out to touch his arm, giving it a squeeze that threatened to undo him. “You alright?” 

“I—” Steve frowned. “I don’t know what I expected.”

“What do you mean?”

“I thought—” He cleared his throat. “Him going, that was the point, wasn’t it? Of all of this. I thought I’d feel…better. Knowing he was safe.” 

"Knowing he's safe doesn't make letting him go any easier," Sam said, patting his arm one last time before pulling back.

“I’ll miss him.”

“We all will.”

“Yeah, but—” he shrugged, mouth twisting into an expression that did a piss-poor job of keeping his threatening sorrow at bay—the face he’d made countless times as a kid, willing himself against crying about the soreness of a scraped knee. Adulthood, with its deeper wounds, couldn’t be so easily guarded against with a stiff upper lip.

“But it’s different for you,” Sam finished, so Steve didn’t have to. 

“Yeah.” 

“I’m sorry, Steve. I wondered, when you asked me about Riley.” 

“Thanks.” Exhaling sharply, he fought to keep his voice steady. “Uh. In the morning, you should know, Natasha and I—we’re gonna go.”

Sam’s eyes flashed, sharp and perceptive. “Go? Where?”

“Does it matter? We’ve imposed on you and Riley long enough, and—”

“I know you don’t think I’m that stupid. We both know who Natasha worked for before she came here.”

“It’s not that,” he said. “Well, it is that, but—she’s gonna uh. Help me. Deal with Pierce.” 

The lie wasn’t even good, and Sam’s nostrils flared once before he shook his head. “Steve, what you think I don’t know could fill an ocean. But go on, do what you think you need to do. Just…understand that Riley and I would fight for you to stay. You’ve got a home here for as long as you want it.” 

Steve nodded, making a vague gesture toward his bedroll. “I…nap, uh. It’ll be. I’ll just…”

Sam looked like he wanted to say something else, but ultimately acquiesced, leaving Steve to crawl beneath the caravan and into his sorrow all the same. Into the place that held the smell of Bucky on the clothes he no longer needed to wear. The bag of trinkets he no longer needed to carry. The bedroll upon which he’d no longer sleep. 

Steve submitted himself to the torture. Gathered Bucky’s belongings to his chest and huddled around them, succumbing to his grief and exhaustion. Gods, he was tired. Tired of pretending he was fine. Tired of living in denial. Tired of being a good man, because what the fuck had it ever gotten him? A lonely bed and a ticking clock, alongside a life of guilt and a thousand regrets. 

Eventually, he drifted into a fitful sleep, which was broken with strange dreams of muted colors alongside feelings of worry and confusion. He tossed and turned, the sounds of camp floating around him until, some time later, someone kicked the sole of his boot. 

“Hey,” came Natasha’s voice. 

Steve grunted into awareness, jerking away and rolling over to bury his nose against Bucky’s pillow. 

“Hey!” she repeated. “Get up.”

“Why?” he spat.

“Because we’ve got a long day tomorrow,” she said drily. “And you need to eat—keep up your strength.” 

“Shit, I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you—” he started, just as his stomach gave a growl.

“Sam’s roasting a chicken.” 

With that, she walked away, leaving Steve to battle his annoyance with her against his genuine hunger. The latter won out in the end, and he crawled from his nest in a sulk and went to join Sam, Riley, and Natasha at the fire, where a bird turned on a spit. 

“Hey, Steve,” Riley said, offering him a smile and a swig of the flask he always kept on his hip.

"Thanks," Steve said, taking a pull of whiskey alongside a seat on the stump furthest from Natasha. "Was Mack looking for me? I ought to see him before we go. Explain things."

“So that’s…real?” Riley asked, glancing at Natasha, then Sam, then Steve. “You’re leaving?” 

“So it would seem,” Natasha replied. “We’ll have to put on some speed—get someplace safe before the snows fly.”

“And what if we don’t?” Steve shot back.

“Then we’ll hole up for the winter. There’s enough money for that, and I’m sure I’ll be compen—”

“Sure,” Steve agreed. “Blood money.” 

“Steve,” Sam said sharply. “You said—”

“What?” he replied. “You practically guessed it before.” 

“Gods,” she snapped. “Stubborn.” 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he shot back.

“Nothing.”

“Why are you here, anyway? You might have given me some time alone, to say goodbye to Sam and Riley.” 

“You and Peggy Carter,” she snapped. “No wonder you get along. Neither of you can see beyond the nose on your face.” 

“Where do you get off—” He started.

“Steve!” came a roar from behind him.

A familiar roar.

“What—” He stiffened.

“Oh no,” Sam said, as Riley started to guffaw.

Because the roar could belong to nobody but Bucky. Naked, damp, two-legged Bucky, firelight glinting off his scales as he stood at the edge of the circle, glaring at Steve with a look that could carve out a still-beating heart. 

“…Bucky?” Steve squeaked. 

“Is. No. Pants,” he snarled, stomping up the steps of the caravan and slamming the door behind him. 

 

Chapter Text

Riley couldn’t stop laughing. No matter how hard Sam elbowed him, his giggles continued apace, tears of mirth threatening to spill onto his cheeks. Steve, meanwhile, stared at the closed caravan door with wide eyes and a pounding heart.

Bucky had come back.

Bucky had come back

“I’m sorry—” Riley gasped. “I’m sorry. But the…oh shit, the look on his face. The—” 

"Fuck." Steve got to his feet and whirled on them, focusing his attention on Natasha, who was sitting calmly, a mug of tea between her palms. "You—you knew!”

She took a sip. “Did you really think?” she said slowly. “That dropping him off in any old patch of ocean would somehow, magically, be his patch of ocean?” 

Steve blinked, a frown creasing his features. “I—” What had he thought, precisely? “I figured he’d find his own way, once he was out there,” he offered, the words sounding ridiculous as soon as he said them. 

“And you two?” she asked, turning to Sam and Riley. 

“Uh—” Sam, who was cradling Riley’s still-shaking shoulders, shrugged. “I thought he and Steve had discussed it.” 

“Assumptions all around,” she said. “So let me see if I have this right—if I were to take you, Steve, to the highest mountain in Threali and leave you there, you’d be perfectly capable of finding your own way home?”

“Well, no,” he frowned. “But Bucky’s—”

“He’s not magic! He’s…” She threw up her hands, betraying her emotions in a way he hadn’t yet seen from her. “Making the best of it, surrounded by idiots.”

“Hey!” Sam protested. 

“You don’t mean to be. It’s only…” With a resigned shrug, she gestured at the closed door. “Go talk to him. But more than that, listen.” 

Cowed, Steve went to retrieve Bucky’s clothes from beneath the wagon before climbing the steps and knocking. “Buck?” 

A growl greeted him, and he pushed the door open to find Bucky curled up on the lumpy blue armchair Sam had haggled for in a tag-market some towns back, the light of a kerosene lamp casting a glow over his scales. 

“Hey, Bucky.” Shutting the door behind himself, he held out the bundle of clothing. 

“Take!” Bucky yelped, bursting from the chair and charging, yanking the clothes from Steve’s arms. “I swim, I go, no pants.” 

So much for the lack of shame; Steve's cheeks burned—he'd taught Bucky that clothes were necessary, then played a nasty trick by stealing them away. Sure, he hadn't meant to do it, but it must have been a shock for Bucky to emerge from the water, finding both Steve and his belongings gone.

“I’m sorry,” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets as Bucky dragged his shirt over his head.

“Why take?”

"Because…I thought you were leaving! You…we're at the sea. I figured you'd, you know. Go. Find your family?"

Bucky squinted, picking up his trousers. After a moment, he cleared his throat and spoke slowly, enunciating every word. “I say go, swim! You say go, I go! Swim!”

“Shit, pal,” he said, leaning against the door and scrubbing a hand over his beard. “I’ve been looking at this whole thing upside down.”

“I swim,” Bucky repeated. “Go. Swim. Go home.” 

"Yeah, you were supposed to go home," Steve agreed, going to one of the dining chairs and sitting down, kicking himself for overlooking the fact that 'go' and 'come' were two of Bucky's most commonly mixed-up words. "You going home was always the plan. I assumed you'd know what to do when you got there." As if Bucky had some homing instinct within him that would draw him across hundreds of miles of ocean to find his family. As if he'd be fine on his own for as long as that took. As if all danger would evaporate the moment he hit the water.

Stupid, indeed. 

“Yes, go home,” Bucky agreed, his expression softening as he, too, put the pieces together, sinking back into the armchair. “Steve is—see?” He tapped his temple. “Sad? Is think…I go far?”

“Yeah, pal.”

Steve,” he clucked, leaning forward and placing his hands atop Steve’s. “Is…SamRiley caravan, you see?”

“Sure,” Steve said, not sure at all.

“We go. Roll along? Tent up, tent down. Go. Come. Go.” 

“Right.”

Family go. Warm, cold, move, hunt. Go, come, out.” 

A switched flipped, and Steve finally understood. “You’re nomadic,” he said. 

“Is nuh-mad-ick?”

“Your family, you move around. You don’t stay in one place.” Which explained a lot of things—not least of which was why Bucky’d fit in so well with the lifestyle of the circus.

“Yes!” He grinned. “Is nuh-mad-ick, yes.”

“But Buck—” Steve frowned, the implications of that knowledge hitting him hard. “How can we find them? If they’re moving, and you don’t know where, you’re gonna…how are you ever gonna get home?”

Bucky smiled, giving Steve’s hands the slightest of squeezes. “I say…first alone. Out. Sea. No family. But…now, say Steve is home.”

Steve’s heart tumbled over itself, fighting valiantly to escape his chest, too full to be contained. “You want to stay with me?”

Bucky released his hands, only to throw his arms around his neck instead, words muffled against his skin. “Yes. Stay.” 

Steve hugged back. Felt the solid weight of Bucky beneath his hands—the pale wisp he’d first met giving way to this person that he loved. This person who loved him in return. He hoped, anyway.

There were myriad ways the situation could go pear-shaped. A million things to discuss.

But for now, all he could focus on was the fact that Bucky wanted to stay.

They could worry about the rest of it in the morning. 

Pulling back from the embrace, Steve found himself bashful as he studied Bucky's earnest face. It seemed a shame not to kiss him, really, so he did—the mashing of their lips and noses bringing with it a squeak of surprise from Bucky, who jerked back, ending the kiss as quickly as it had begun. Namely, because Steve caught his lower lip against one of Bucky's sharp teeth, slicing it open.

“Shit,” he swore, laughing as he brought a hand to his mouth. “That’s one kinda first kiss.”

Bucky’s eyes registered concern. “SamRiley is kissing,” he said, reaching into Steve’s pocket and pulling out a handkerchief, which he pressed into Steve’s palm.

“Yeah,” Steve said, voice muffled against the cotton as he held it to his bleeding lip. “Humans do that when we’re in love.” 

Bucky cocked his head to the side. “Love…” he said carefully, raising his fist to his chest and rubbing a circle. The same gesture he’d made for his sister. His mother. The gesture Steve had thought meant family, but now realized simply meant love. 

Heart thumping, he lifted his fist and mimicked the sign, waiting for Bucky’s reaction. 

“Oh,” Bucky said, a pleased smile creeping across his face. “Yes. Love. I say…I am for Steve. Is love.” 

“If you’re for me, then I guess I’m for you.” 

“Yes?” Bucky’s smile widened. “Is say.” 

“I love you.” 

“Steve is for Bucky.” 

“Yeah.” 

“Bucky is for Steve.” 

“Yup.”

“Love.” 

“You got it,” he said, pressing his tongue against his wounded lip. “I uh, that’s why I was so sad, when I thought you were going away.” 

“Not go. Stay. Go home.” 

“Yeah, I know, I was just upset, and—”

Steve,” he said, making a big show of putting a hand to his forehead, then rising to stagger around in a decent impersonation of Steve when he was being somewhat dramatic. (Not that he was ever dramatic.)

“Hey!” he protested. 

“Is sad.” 

“Don’t be mean.”

“Take pants is mean,” he shrugged, stepping closer and dropping one hand to Steve’s shoulder. 

“I thought you were gone forever—I couldn’t leave them,” he said, cheeks heating. “You must think I’m pretty stupid, huh?”

A shrug, and Bucky squeezed his arm, the press of his claws evident against the fabric. “No.”

“No?”

“Is…” he waved his opposite hand. “Smart, yes. Steve sees. Has…big plan? Out, sea. Rescue. No—” Furrowing his brow, he sighed. “Not see small plan? Not say.”

That made a certain sense, as most things did, once one deciphered Bucky’s logic. Steve had been so focused on getting Bucky home that he hadn’t allowed himself to appreciate how things had changed. Or the fact that everyone around him—Natasha and Bucky especially—had been waiting quite some time for him to come around to the obvious. “I can’t see the reef for the coral, you mean?”

Bucky shrugged, then moved with lightning precision to bash his forehead against Steve’s, hard enough to hurt. A siren’s way of showing affection, it seemed, which probably made more sense under the water, where the force of the blow wouldn’t be quite so harsh. 

“Ow!”

“Is love!”

“That’s a rough way of showing it, pal.”

“Kiss is bleeding.”

“Well, yeah.” Steve grinned. “We’ll work on it.”

“Work,” Bucky agreed, straightening up with a yawn before rubbing his stomach. “Hungry.”

“I love you, I’m hungry,” Steve said. “Real romantic.”

“I know roman-tic!" He exclaimed, because Sam and Riley had gotten that notion firmly planted in his head. "Steve show?"

“I’ll uh…I guess I could feed you your dinner?” He said, at something of a loss. He’d never needed to be romantic with anyone before, much less with someone whose concept of romance came from two old-marrieds and a couple that spent more time fighting than friendly.

“Dinner,” Bucky agreed. “Go, now. Chicken.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

They left the cabin to find Sam and Riley still sitting by the fire. Natasha, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found. Settling in so Bucky could eat a belated supper while they explained the misunderstanding to Sam and Riley, Steve couldn’t keep but nurse a niggling worry. Surely Natasha wasn’t still going to expect him to leave with her, was she?

 


 

The worry stayed with him throughout a fitful night's sleep, and when morning came, he was on edge from the moment he crawled out from beneath the caravan. By the time he, Bucky, Riley, and Sam made it to the mess tent, he was convinced Natasha was about to jump out from behind someone's caravan with a knife, forcing him forward in a quick march back to Columbia.

To his surprise, they discovered her sitting at their usual table instead, a plate of bacon and eggs in front of her, coffee steaming as she took a sip. As if nothing was amiss. As if Steve hadn’t been a rotten shit to her the afternoon before.

“Good morning,” she greeted. 

“Is it?” Steve said. 

“Might be.”

“Steve,” Bucky interrupted. “Scones!”

“Oh yeah,” he agreed, nudging him. “Why don’t you go and get some?” 

Good sense overridden by good food, Bucky loped off to join the line, while Steve, Sam, and Riley sat down at the table. 

“Are you speaking to me today?” Natasha asked once they’d settled. “I wasn’t sure.” 

“Look,” Steve said. “The thing is, Bucky’s staying—”

“Mmm,” she agreed. “I’m well-aware. Being as I never thought he was going.” 

“So you said. But if you knew, why’d you—”

“What was in your head, exactly?” Natasha said, apparently not done giving him a hard time, the lilt in her tone having a tinge of Peggy to it. “That he was going to return to the sea forever after hardly taking the time to say goodbye?”

“I thought…” Steve frowned. “Well, shit, I thought it was, you know. The pull of the sea. Drawing him home.”

Riley snorted. 

“It sounds stupid when you say it like that,” Steve muttered.

“Because it is stupid,” she sighed. 

Looking to Sam for help, Steve found none—he’d begun to giggle along with Riley. 

“Thanks for the support,” he muttered. 

“Farewell, Bucky!” Sam said. 

“Goodbye forever!” Riley laughed. 

“You two thought he was going, too!”

“For a minute,” Sam said. “And then he came strolling back in nothing but his skin and I felt pretty dumb for buying into your melodrama.”

“It wasn’t—” Steve said weakly, looking back and forth between the three of them, his cheeks growing hot. They were ridiculous—Riley with his giggles, Sam with his snorts, and Natasha letting loose an undignified bray. “You’re all awful people.”

“Better watch out, Steve,” Sam teased. “He’s been gone a couple seconds now—probably abandoned us forever.”

"You know what…" Steve began before some combination of relief and exhaustion broke him and he, too, started laughing.

Bucky returned before they’d recovered, arms full of scones which he dumped unceremoniously onto the table. “What joke?” he asked, taking a seat at Steve’s side.

“Steve,” Natasha said, wiping her eyes. “Being stupid.”

“Not stupid,” Bucky said defensively, then thought twice about his surety and squinted at her. “Why stupid?”

“Because he thought you were leaving,” she said, picking up a piece of bacon and pointing it in Steve’s direction. “And because he’s still worried I’m going to try and drag him back to Columbia before this is all said and done.”

Bucky gave her a sharp glance, while Steve’s head snapped around in surprise. “What?”

“To my utter shock and surprise, I like it here,” she went on, “and I like you, Steve, despite your numerous shortcomings. So I’ve decided not to kill you. Or turn you over to Pierce. Today, or any other day.” 

“Uh,” Sam began, just as Riley squeaked out, “wait, that was an option?” 

“Yes,” she said, as though her particular murderous motives hadn’t been Steve’s chief concern for the better part of two months. “Steve’s been telling you it wasn’t that serious, but Pierce sent me to kill or capture him, as I’m sure you’ve guessed—preferably the latter, since my understanding is that he’d prefer to ah…torture him mercilessly for years on end? So when I found Steve, naturally I was prepared to turn him over. But then—” she shrugged, popping the last bite of bacon into her mouth. “I decided not to.”

When?” Steve squawked.

“Oh. That first day, by the river.”

“What!”

“I asked you to choose—your life, or Bucky’s. You chose his without even hesitating. I liked that. So I decided not to finish the job.”

"But!" Steve protested as Bucky stiffened. "You've been threatening me! Daily!"

“Have I?” 

Had she? “Last night, you said—” 

“I don’t recall mentioning any specific destinations.”

“You’ve—” Steve was drawing a blank. Had she ever explicitly stated her intentions after the river, or had she simply spoken in riddles? "Why wouldn't you just tell me?” 

“We’re friends, aren’t we?” she said, reaching for a knife to butter a scone. “It was meant to be funny!” 

Steve dropped his forehead to the table, rolling it back and forth. Natasha’s idea of hilarity left much to be desired. “If you—but what if Bucky had gone? What were you going to do?”

“First of all, I knew he wasn’t going. Second of all, I’d still have stayed. Mostly because he’d have wanted me to. You need someone looking out for you—just because I’m not going to turn you in doesn’t mean Pierce won’t be out for your blood.”

Steve lifted his head and cast a glance at Bucky, who was holding himself rigid, an inscrutable expression on his usually animated face. Turning back to Natasha, he raised a brow. “You are something else, you know that?”

Natasha grinned a sly little grin. “Did you really think I was going to kill you?”

“Yes!”

“That’s—” she laughed. “You’re terrible at jokes.” 

“Natasha!” he said, taking the opportunity to throw a scone at her head.

Which was the moment Bucky chose to explode, rising from his seat to point a trembling finger at Steve while snarling “no!”

“Uh…Buck?” 

“You say,” he exhaled, as Steve was hit with a wave of anger so powerful the sensation nearly knocked the breath from his lungs. “You say my life is…nnn, more for your life?” 

Shit. “Bucky, that was before we—” 

“No!” he said, pushing back from the table. “No trade! No!”

“Wait—” Steve rose to his feet and reached for him. “Bucky, hang on.”

“No touch!” Jerking back, Bucky scrambled away from the mess and stalked in the direction of the caravans. The message was clear, but this time, Steve wasn’t going to let him stomp off alone. Not when he’d just gotten him back. So he stood as well, keeping his hands at his side as he followed a few paces behind. 

“Buck, we need to talk about this.” 

"No talk, no touch.” 

Steve shut his mouth, lest he be outright banished from Bucky’s presence. They needed to talk, but he could bide his time until Bucky was ready. He owed him at least that much. Shit, he owed him everything.

The walk continued in stony silence, Bucky leading them to the beach path, which he took at a run, leaving Steve no choice but to chase after him. When they reached the shore, Bucky rounded on him with bright, angry eyes. 

“Sit,” he said, pointing to the sand. “Wait. I go.” 

“Buck, you don’t have to go, I can—”

“Sit.” His voice came out a growl. 

Steve sat. Folded his hands in his lap and watched as Bucky strode to the edge of the water, wading to his ankles and standing still as a statue while an eternity passed them by. It was torture to wait. Torture to know Bucky was angry and there wasn’t a gods damn thing Steve could do about it. Finally, though—mercifully—Bucky’s shoulders slumped, and he turned around, face drawn and expression weary.

"Oh, pal, I'm sorry," Steve murmured upon seeing the look in his eyes. He'd hurt Bucky before, but this was different—a deeper hurt. An angrier one. If the situation had been reversed—if Bucky had been the one offering his life for Steve's—would he have been able to forgive him for striking such a bargain? He wasn't sure.

But Bucky was a different sort of person than Steve, and after a moment or two, he lifted his hand, beckoning Steve over. There was no stopping Steve then, and he pushed himself up, sprinting across the sand to stop a few feet from Bucky’s storm cloud countenance. Not touching. Not talking. 

Bucky drew himself up. “Bucky is for Steve. Steve is for Bucky. You say love. See love.” 

Steve nodded, swallowing around the lump in his throat.

“Life is for life,” Bucky continued. “For Steve, for Bucky. Same.”

“Pal…” Steve took a hesitant step closer. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I was scared for you. Worried. But I never should have promised her—”

“No.” Bucky shook his head before placing his hand in the center of Steve’s chest. “Life.” He then reached for Steve’s hand, putting it on his own chest in return. “Life. One life.” 

Steve could feel Bucky’s heart thrumming beneath his fingers as the meaning of the gesture became clear. One life for Bucky, one life for Steve. One life to be shared, not traded away in secret. So while he didn’t regret the bargain he’d made with Natasha—not when it had saved both their skins (or so he’d thought at the time)—he regretted the subterfuge. Regretted that it had taken him so long to understand how much Bucky meant to him, and what he meant to Bucky in return. 

It was a strange thing, to love. To be loved.

“One life,” he echoed, words catching in his throat. “I’m sorry, Bucky. I should have told you.” 

Stepping closer, Bucky lay his forehead against Steve’s, the corners of his mouth twitching before he spoke. “You say, I say…Nasha is not do. You worry. I help.”

“Yup, you would have,” he agreed. “You figured Natasha out pretty quickly.”

“Nasha sister,” he said, brushing his lips against the cut on Steve’s mouth. “She is sad, guilty. Like Steve. I know.” 

“Smart guy,” he murmured. “I could learn a few things from you.”

Bucky nodded. “Yes, I know. Again, say no trade. No, ahh…se-cret?” 

“Yeah, good,” Steve said. “That’s the right word.”

“No good secret.” 

“I’m sorry.”

“I see, says sorry,” he smiled, tapping his chest. “See sorry.” 

“Yeah,” he grinned. “All the same, I’ll keep feeling guilty for a while, if you’ll allow it.”

“Nnn,” Bucky clicked his tongue against his teeth, then glanced over his shoulder. “No guilty, please. Swim, please?”

“Yeah, sure,” he said with a smile. “Go on. I’ll wait for you this time. I won’t take your pants.”

“No,” Bucky grinned, tugging on Steve’s hands with obvious intent, drawing him nearer the water. “Swim.” 

 

Chapter Text

The trouble with swimming was that Brighton was a northern port. Not so far north as Red Hook, which spent more than four months of the year under an icy blanket of sleet and snow, but northern all the same. Meaning that the water in which Steve had just agreed to swim was extremely frigid, shocking him the moment he stuck in his toes.

“Fuck!” he yelped, leaping back.

“Steve!” Bucky insisted, stripping out of his trousers and tossing them onto dry sand, alongside his shirt. “Go swim!”

“Yes, absolutely. Swim.” Regretting his choices, Steve tugged off his sweater and began unbuttoning his shirt. Swimming in the north was a summer-only affair, and even then, it was never what one might call pleasant. Yet there he was, weeks away from the first snow, stripping off his clothes to tear after the crazy siren who seemed to feel no cold. Bucky plunged into the water with a yell, legs transforming back into a tail at some point, though Steve missed it once again. When he resurfaced, it was with a grin, tail bobbing into view a few seconds later. 

Steve shucked off the rest of his clothes and waded into the water, which stung like a thousand knives cutting into every inch of his skin. He was smart enough to know that too long spent in such temperatures could be dangerous; stupid enough to do it anyway. But shit, he wanted to feel Bucky’s scales beneath his fingers. To hold him and be held. To swim with him, the way he’d imagined half a hundred times before. 

“Steve!” Bucky called again.

“I’m c-c-coming!” he managed from behind chattering teeth, submerging himself to his neck. Every hair on his body was standing on end, and goosebumps raised themselves on his skin while his prick shriveled to a fraction of itself. He couldn’t blame it.

Forcing himself to move, he paddled to where Bucky was waiting, plastering a grin on his face even as his body threatened to shut down around him. Foolhardy—came his mother’s voice in his head.

“H-h-h—” he said, unable to finish the greeting. 

Bucky, meanwhile, was happy as a clam, swimming several quick circles around Steve, a bright grin plastered on his pale face as he worked out his initial excitement. Once he was done showing off, he moved in front of Steve, where he flicked his tail and used the fans to cover his face. “Steve! You rememoring?”

“I r-r-member,” he said, Bucky’s old trick as familiar as his smile. Kicking his legs to keep warm, Steve used his numbing arms to inch forward, then ran his fingers over the webbing of Bucky’s fins. Nearly translucent, the fans looked almost as if they were pulsing as they shimmered in the light filtering through the cloudy grey sky. 

Bucky’s tail was different from how it had been in the tank. The silvery green scales were vibrant and striking rather than muted and dull. No longer tinged by fear, pain, loneliness. Hunger. Every bit of him was alive now, and he was beautiful. Clamping his jaw shut, Steve continued to explore, though Bucky, lowered his tail after a moment or two, pulling Steve close to wrap strong arms around his shivering torso, keeping them both floating with minimal effort.

“Steve,” he said, his voice the only warmth available. 

“Hi,” Steve bit out, leaning in to breach the gap between them and kiss Bucky, lips touching the corner of his mouth. He was shaking too much to attempt a proper embrace—didn’t need another split lip. 

Bucky rumbled a low note, pulling back and touching the tip of a claw to Steve’s lips, no doubt concerned by the blue tinge they’d be developing. “Is—?”

“C-cold,” he admitted.

“Steve!” Dismayed, Bucky shook his head the way Clint sometimes did when Lucky had accomplished something dumb.

“I’m f-f-f—”

“No fine,” he scolded, moving with a shocking swiftness to drag Steve back to shore. The waves carried them onto land, where Bucky used his considerable strength to shove Steve onto dry sand, while he remained in the shallows, flopping his tail around. 

The sharp shock of the breeze on bare skin sucked the breath from Steve's lungs, and he briefly wondered if this was how fish felt, caught in a net—unable to move, breathe, or do much more than panic over their circumstances. With a groan, he dragged himself to his clothing and pulled his sweater over his shoulders before curling on his side. It wasn't much in the way of warmth, but it was better than nothing.

“Not think!” Bucky called, voice holding a reprimand. “Ridic-luss!”

"It w-w-wasn't …th-that b-bad!" Four words that took an eternity to spit out.

“Cold!”

Steve turned his face against the sand, granules coating his beard. When he felt he was able, he dragged his trousers on, more sand rubbing against his skin in endless grainy irritation. “Y-you never get cold, huh?”

Yes I cold.” Bucky rolled onto his back and looked at Steve upside down, making him smile. “Some cold. You…big cold.” 

“You mean more cold. Colder,” he corrected, voice returning to something resembling normal, while his hands and feet began turning a healthy pink, the knives more pins and needles now.

“Yes. Col-duh.” 

“That’s biology, I guess.”

“What bee-ah-lodj-ee?” 

“Uh…” Considering that his sum total understanding of the science came from that long-ago summer with Dr. Banner, he wasn’t sure how to explain. So he settled for a shrug. “Siren. Human. Different?” 

“Mmm,” Bucky agreed. “Steve?”

“Yeah, pal?” 

“Why?”

“Why what?” 

“Why swim?”

“Oh. Because you asked me to?” 

Steve. No! Is cold!”

“Yeah, I got that.”

“No for me. No swimming.”

“Believe me, I’m not going in there again. But—” 

“What?”

“I wanted to touch your tail,” he admitted with a sheepish smile.

Bucky squinted, as the great, long mass of that tail lifted from the waves, then flopped down with a crash, sending the water flying. “Touch here. I come.” With that, he dug his claws into the sand, using the strength in his arms to drag himself next to Steve. Who, for his part, managed to assist with the last little bit, hooking his hands under Bucky’s armpits to haul him up. “How uh…how long does it take you to change back?” 

“Nnn,” Bucky shrugged. “Long.”

Long. Suitably vague. That explained why he’d dragged himself all over Lord Pierce’s back garden before transforming. “Oh.”

“Touch,” Bucky said, grinning up at him. “You say.”

“I…thanks, pal,” Steve said, sinking to his knees, feeling awkward as he ran both hands over the length of Bucky’s tail. It wasn’t so different from any other fish, and Steve had handled plenty in his life. The novelty came from it being Bucky. Steve’s Bucky. This person he was allowed to touch. To be touched by. Probably it was the same for anyone who’d fallen in love. You lived your life touching all sorts of things—handshakes for strangers, hugs for friends—but when you found your person? Shit, that was a transformation.

Bucky leaned back on his elbows and watched, content to let Steve explore, though when Steve’s fingers began to investigate the place where scales melted into flesh, he squirmed, making Steve laugh. 

“What?” he teased. “Ticklish?”

“Is…” Bucky shrugged. “Nice, but—nnn?” 

Not ticklish, then. “Do you not want me to touch you there?” 

“Is good. Only is…” Gesturing to where the apex of his legs would be, if he’d had legs, he shrugged again. “Nice.” 

“Oh.” Theory confirmed, Steve pulled back. “Uh. Sorry.” 

Bucky grinned. “Now say oh. Before say no, no. Not polite” 

"Yeah," Steve said, remembering with no small amount of embarrassment the morning of Bucky's rubbing against him. There had been a few more hard-wooded wakings since then, but Bucky had taken to handling things on his own. "That's …we can talk about that again."

“About?” 

“The uh…well. I don’t—” How was he supposed to have the fish and the clam conversation with a siren? “I was…how do sirens…” 

“Steve?” Bucky was looking more confused by the minute.

“Where do siren babies come from?” he blurted, cheeks growing hot like he was a school-kid.

Bucky blinked. “Babies?”

"Yeah," Steve said, miming the rocking of a child in his arms. Bucky was familiar with the concept, as there were a fair few circus folks with small children.

“Oh.” Bucky shrugged and sat up, holding out his hand, index and middle fingers pressed together. “We go. Out sea…” He split his fingers in two. 

“You…get legs, you mean?”

“Yes, legs.” 

“Oh. And then you—”

I say,” he said, cutting him off, reminding Steve that he was trying to do better about letting Bucky tell his own story. “Go. Land, where…safe? Is…” Another gesture, this one cruder, and transcending language. 

“Ah. So, that part’s the same.” 

“Go come home. Soon, baby.” 

Steve had approximately ten thousand additional questions. In the end, though, he only asked one, figuring that some things were better not to know. “So, when you were in the tank…you knew about your legs. That you could transform?”

“Yes.” 

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I say. Steve is not see.” 

“You absolutely did not say—” 

“Steve is not for Bucky in…before,” he said, as gently as he could, before leaning over to scratch two simple drawings into the sand: a stick figure with legs, and a siren in a cage. A repetition of the first things he’d ever drawn for Steve 

“I say.” With that, he drew the arced half-circle between the figures. “Legs. Out. Legs. Out.” 

“Oh, Gods,” Steve managed, realizing with a queasy punch to the gut that Bucky hadn’t been asking him to bring him out to be with him, he’d been saying that if he came out, he’d be like him. “Bucky, I’m so sorry…” 

“Is done.” He used the palm of his hand to wipe away the drawings. “Free now.” 

“But I wasn’t listening, and I—” 

Bucky grunted, leaning so his forehead once more cracked against Steve’s with brutal force “No sorry! Not unner-sand, is not…no listening.”

Steve half-smiled. “Pal—“ 

Another grunt, and Bucky’s face twisted up in discomfort as he ground the bones of their skulls together. For a moment, Steve was confused—the grinding hurt far less than the smashing—only to realize what had happened a moment later: Bucky’s tail had turned to legs once more.

“Shit, that happens fast,” he laughed. 

Bucky smiled, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Fast.” 

“You alright?”

“Is…” he shook his head. “No hurt, but—”

“But?”

He waved his hand, pulling away and clambering to his feet. “Is fine.”

“Not if you’re making that face,” Steve countered, standing and following Bucky over to his clothes. 

Bucky sighed, tugging his shirt on first, then turning with a rueful little smile. “Is…strange? No bad.

“Strange.”

“New,” he clarified.

Steve opened his mouth to ask just what he meant by that when the first raindrop of the day landed on his head. Seconds later, the sky opened, and a deluge poured down, wind whipping the fast-moving storm in from the water.

“Shit!” he laughed. “Come on, pal. Let’s find someplace dry to ride out the storm.” 

 


 

There weren't many dry places to be found, meaning that they ended up in Sam and Riley's cabin, assuring their friends that the fight had been resolved. Natasha seemed especially interested in said resolution, and after a muttered apology from Steve (along with enduring a few glares from Bucky), she sat down and taught them a Vedorian card game that involved a lot of yelling. And laughing. But mostly yelling.

By the time the storm subsided, it was time to put up the big top, which took the rest of the afternoon. Sam and Riley joined them for dinner, with Natasha nowhere to be found. She hadn’t turned up by the time Steve and Bucky retired to bed, the small wooden platform beneath the caravan having saved their bedrolls from the worst of the water, meaning they were as warm and comfortable as they could be, curled together beneath the blankets. 

“Steve,” Bucky said, stroking his hand as they settled. “Kiss?” 

Steve smiled. “Do you like kissing, or are you just asking because you think you’re supposed to?” 

Bucky shrugged. “Is love. SamRiley do. We do.” 

“I know it’s what Sam and Riley do,” he agreed. “But what they do isn’t…” He cleared his throat. “What do sirens do?”

Bucky’s teeth gleamed, caught in the dimming glow of the fire beyond their berth. “Touch. Nice.”

“Like how I touched your tail?”

“Yes.” 

“And when you have legs…is that uh…just for babies?”

“No just,” he said. “Most.” 

“Ah. And you…” There was no delicate way of asking the next question. “Do you have any babies?”

Bucky growled his Lucky-growl. “I am for Steve.” 

“Right, but you just met me, and—” 

“Bucky,” he repeated. “Is for Steve. No share.”

“I’m not asking you to share! I’m only asking…” 

“One is for one.” 

Huh. “Always?” 

“Most.” 

Steve thought that over, logic pointing the way to a conclusion he needed to verify. “So uh, when you escaped, and you got your legs, you acted like they were brand new…” 

Bucky kicked at the blankets, a smile hidden in his voice. “One is for one.”

“So you never had legs before?”

“No.” 

“But you’re—” 

“One is for one!” he repeated. “Not have one!”

For someone with a limited vocabulary, Bucky certainly had a way with words. “You weren’t in love, you mean?”

“No Steve.”

“That’s—” Steve grinned, a hysterical little burst of laughter escaping. Bucky had another thing coming if he thought he’d been waiting for Steve before starting his life. “You know I can’t uh…have a baby, right?” 

Exasperated, Bucky scoffed out a, “yes.” 

“Alright, alright, I only mean ah…you said the legs were for uh. Making babies. And you were waiting for your one, so—” 

Steve,” he scoffed, pushing himself up to lean on his elbow, looking down with an expression that was equal parts incredulous and fond. 

“What?” He laughed. “I’m only saying—” 

Most for babies,” he repeated, dipping to kiss Steve, sharp-toothed and inquisitive as he figured out what worked and what didn’t when it came to his ridiculous human. 

Steve knew he wasn't much of a teacher—all his conquests had been quick and lacking in any real romance. Fun, yes, but none of them particularly memorable. Euphemistically speaking, he had grown legs a dozen or so times, but quick fucks in back alleys and storerooms weren't the same as exploring what it meant to take care of someone you loved.

Breaking the kiss, he smiled at Bucky, brushing his thumb over his cheek, then trailing it along his bottom lip. “Sharp teeth,” he teased. “Hard to kiss.” 

“Easy bite,” he grinned.

“No foolin’. But—well, here. Lie down.” Tugging Bucky to the blankets, Steve reversed their positions. “Kissing’s not all about the mouth.” To demonstrate, he pressed a line of kisses down Bucky’s sharp jaw and across his neck, where his lips grazed the gill slits sitting flat against his skin. Bucky shuddered at the touch, a keening whine slipping past his lips. 

“S’good?” Steve teased. 

“Steve,” he grunted, angling his body so there was some contact between his lower half and Steve’s thigh. 

Part of Steve wanted to push his luck—to touch, to tease, to show Bucky what it meant to 'have legs,' as it were. But a bigger part wanted to take his time. To learn Bucky and allow Bucky to learn him in return. They had the opportunity now—more of an opportunity than Steve had ever allowed himself to hope for, and if it all came crashing down around them in the end, well, he still didn't think he'd be sorry that he took things slowly.

Slow didn't have to mean nonexistent, however, and Steve let the fingers of his left hand slide down Bucky's flank, pulling their bodies flush while he continued to kiss Bucky's neck. There was something captivating about the gills, so he ran his tongue across the folded seams, curiosity driving him in his exploration of the foreign and the fascinating. Bucky responded with another trembling, full-body shudder, hips rolling so Steve could feel the press of his half-hard prick against the inside of his thigh.

“Pretty good kissing, huh?” Steve murmured, repeating the action as Bucky thrust up against him.

“Nnn,” Bucky replied, fingers catching hold of Steve’s hip, holding him tightly in place while attempting to achieve some friction.

“What’s wrong, Buck?” he teased. “You need something?” 

Bucky’s response was another grunt, rubbing himself against Steve’s leg the same way he had on that long-ago morning. This time, though, Steve didn’t stop him. But he didn’t touch him, either, mostly because he wanted to see what Bucky did. Wanted to see what he looked like when he came apart. 

Only Bucky didn’t fall apart. Instead, to Steve’s surprise, he took charge, sliding his right hand between their bodies, slithering it down to cup the bulge forming in Steve’s trousers. 

“Is good?” he asked.

Shit," Steve swore because it had been a long damn time since anything but his own hand had visited the area. "Yeah, Buck. It's good."

Bucky huffed out a pleased little sigh before redoubling his efforts. More friction than grace, but he still had Steve biting down hard on his shoulder, pressing himself against the heel of Bucky’s hand. Turned out Bucky was fine with being on the receiving end of a bite, letting loose a happy moan as his claws tugged at the button of Steve’s trousers. 

“No pants,” he muttered.

For once, Steve was on his side, and he reached down to assist, fumbling until he could push away the fabric covering their respective pricks. Mindful of Bucky’s claws, he nudged his hand back, taking hold of them both instead, feeling the strange sensation of the scales at the base of Bucky’s prick against his skin. The actual business end of Bucky’s, well, business wasn't so different from his own—a little slimmer, perhaps, and a touch longer—and Steve found that they complemented one another nicely, when it came right down to it.  

Bucky groaned, and Steve bit him again, tasting salt and sea as he kept working them over, both of them huffing and straining toward something new, there in the close, comforting dark of the nest they’d built for themselves, tucked away from the world. It was tough to get any leverage. Tough to manage more than quick strokes, anticipation building. 

Eventually, though, Bucky wormed his hand in alongside Steve’s, feeling out what he could until—shit!

Steve yelped, jerking back while accidentally giving both their cocks a rough squeeze. Bucky snarled, and Steve shut his eyes with a pained groan, cognizant of just how narrowly he’d just averted disaster. 

“No, no, Steve,” Bucky chided.

“Don’t you lecture me, pal. I’m the one that just about caught a claw in the balls—watch it with those things.”

Bucky hummed, shifting his weight to press their bodies back together, mercifully pulling his hand from its precarious location. “I help.” 

“It uh…” Having one’s sack split open by an errant claw wasn’t so much a help as a hindrance, but he could appreciate that Bucky was trying, and gods knew he wasn’t about to discourage his newfound enthusiasm. “You are helping, Buck. Just…not like that.” 

Bucky scowled, then thrust his hips forward, not content to let the pleasure abate for long. “How help?”

“Letting me touch you is helping. Being close is helping…if you just…stay there?”

“Steve…” he protested, which was when Steve, hoping to end the debate, decided to see whether the head of a siren’s prick was as sensitive as a human’s.

Turned out, it was, and Bucky made a keening noise that could have been the start of a song before melting into a toothy kiss. Thoughts flitted through Steve’s mind as he continued to stroke—thoughts of closeness, safety, wanting. Possession. Bucky was for Steve, and Steve was for Bucky, so Steve would lay claim to those guttural cries and that lock-limbed shivering, exuberance evident in the heaving of Bucky’s chest more so than the volume of his cries. 

In the end, when he came, it was with a whimper, scaled hips stuttering out an uneven rhythm as his prick pulsed against Steve’s hand. Steve eased him through it, his own pleasure still some distance away, and as Bucky came down the other side, shivering in the aftermath, he pressed his nose against Steve’s cheek and panted his name. 

“You’re alright, pal,” he said quietly, releasing his hold on Bucky’s softening shaft before wiping his hand on his trousers. “I’ve got you.” 

Bucky clung to him until the fluttering of his heart began to slow, and his breathing evened. For a moment, Steve thought he might have fallen asleep, but then he lifted his head, bumping their foreheads together and smiling.

“Good?” Steve teased.

“Nnn.” 

“I’ll take that as a yes.” He kissed his forehead. “You wanna sleep?” 

“No,” Bucky said, shifting so his leg brushed against Steve’s cock. “You?” 

“Doesn’t matter, it’ll…go away.” 

“Steve,” he frowned. “More.” Going back to the oldest trick he had—mimicking Steve’s every move—Bucky wrapped his fist firmly around his prick. Steve, while still slightly concerned about the claws, managed to overcome his fears. Mostly because of how fucking good it felt. Bucky’s technique, while inelegant and clumsy, was made up for in enthusiasm, rubbing Steve with such concentration that it would have been funny if it hadn’t been so earnest. 

It didn't take long—Steve had already been close—and within a couple minutes, he was biting back a shout, every muscle in his body going rigid. The rush poured over him, setting every bit of skin aflame as he spilled into Bucky's hand, the pleasure fading as quickly as it had come, leaving him sated and smiling, hazy in the afterglow.

Delighted at his success, Bucky continued to stroke until Steve pushed his hand away. “Too much. Afterward…you gotta…” He shrugged, not quite sure how to explain.

Bucky didn’t seem bothered by the dismissal, and he smiled, tipping his head to meet Steve’s eyes. “Good?”

“Yeah.” 

"Sleep?" Bucky opened his mouth wide in an exaggerated yawn, playacting to make Steve smile. Even in the near-dark, he could see all the way down his throat—he would never get yawning right, the movement learned and always ridiculous.

“Sure, pal. It’s been a long day.”

“Long day.” 

“Tomorrow—” he turned on his side, letting Bucky cling like moss on a rock. “We’ll go to town and do some shopping?” 

“Yes,” Bucky agreed, burrowing against his chest. “Steve?”

“Yeah, pal?”

“I am for you.” 

Steve smiled. “Yeah, Buck. Love you, too.”

 

Chapter Text

Love proved to be a pretty good distraction. 

Steve found himself folded into the warm embrace of adoration as he and Bucky drew closer to one another than they had been before—all the things that had once made him yearn for a moment’s peace now made him happier than he could ever remember being. But being in love didn’t change the fact that he was a wanted man. Didn’t change the fact that the circus was rolling toward its final stop of the season, each day bringing them closer to the end of the line. Didn’t change the fact that winter was nearly upon them, frost coating the ground beneath their bedrolls when they woke in the mornings. And it certainly didn’t change the fact that Steve had no idea what he and Bucky were going to do when the circus closed up shop and left them homeless until the spring.

For months, his entire focus had been on returning Bucky to the sea, so when it turned out he had no interest in leaving? Well, shit. That was a stumper. 

Steve had always been a planner, but under the hazy glow of new love, the only thing of which he was certain was that he would rip out his own heart and lay it, beating, at the feet of the Gods before allowing Bucky to end up in Lord Pierce’s clutches. Which was all very earnest, but wasn’t actually a concrete idea for the future. 

All the same, the days came, and the days went, and eventually the circus set up camp in its final destination of Weymouth—that bustling port city Steve had read on the flyer outside Sam’s caravan all those months before. Not so large as Columbia, but no small town, either—Weymouth was the largest city in the north. To Steve, it felt like home, full of people who spoke with accents similar to his own. Men with rough beards and weathered faces, women with ruddy cheeks and good cheer. Salt people. Sea people. People whose mothers had crooned the siren’s lullaby while rocking them to sleep. It did him good to spend time among them, and he took Bucky on a number of long walks through the city, stopping at stalls or stepping into shops simply to hear the conversations.

On their fourth morning in Weymouth, Sam caught Steve’s arm after breakfast, tugging him away from the table while Bucky looked after them impatiently, eager to get on with his day. 

“Can I borrow you?” Sam asked. 

“Uh…” Steve nodded. “Sure. Buck, you’ve got stuff to do with Natasha, right?” 

Bucky, who always had something to do, or someone to see, shrugged. “Yes.”

“I’ll come find you for lunch,” Steve said, giving him a wave as Sam steered them away from the mess and toward the path that led to town. “What’s going on?” He asked once they were on the road, the specificity of Sam’s seeking him out making him curious. 

“Just…let’s take a walk,” Sam said.

“You’re being kinda weird—” 

“I need razor blades,” he said drily. “Figured we could shop and talk at the same time.”

“Oh.”

“Always looking for the mystery,” he teased, keeping up a light stream of conversation while they walked. 

When they were about halfway there, though, Steve couldn't stand to wait any longer. There was no doubt in his mind that Sam had something to say, and he wanted to know what it was. "What's wrong?" He asked, interrupting Sam's thoughts on the merits of a particular strain of pipe tobacco.

“Why does something have to be wrong?” 

“We don’t take a lot of walks together, for one thing.” 

“Maybe nothing’s wrong. Maybe I just want to spend some time with my friend.”

“Mmmhmm.” 

Sam snorted, glancing over. “It doesn’t have to be something wrong for it to be a conversation, is all I mean.”

“If it’s not wrong, then what is it?”

“Let’s call it concern.” 

Steve raised a brow. “Oh?”

“Couple concerns, actually,” he said. “First of all, you two need to come sleep inside at night. I know the other rousties’ll call you soft, but—” 

“No. Sam, we’ve imposed so much already. We’re fine where we are.” 

“You’re freezing.” 

“Bucky doesn’t get cold as easily as Natasha and I do,” he pointed out. “And it’s not so bad, once you get under the blankets.”

“Natasha’s already been sleeping inside.” 

“What?” Steve frowned. Sure, Natasha had been giving him and Bucky a little bit more privacy at night, but he figured she was bunking up with the other rousties, not taking advantage of Sam and Riley’s hospitality.

“Good sense of self-preservation, that one.” 

“Typical,” Steve sighed. “But—” he shook his head. “No. It’s only another week until things wrap up. We’ll survive.”

“Uh-huh. And what’s your plan when that happens?” 

“Stay here, probably. Bed down where we can find it. A boarding house, or—” The ground, if they had to. 

Sam shook his head. “You’re crazy, you know that? What are you gonna do, walk the streets all winter, playing hide and seek with fate?” 

“No.” Steve scowled. “I have a plan.” 

“Do you?” 

“I’m working on a plan.” 

“Uh-huh.” 

“I am! Anyhow,” he shrugged. “You said you had a couple concerns. What’s the other one?” 

“Don’t miss a trick when you wanna change the subject, do you?” 

“Nope.” 

“Alright, then. The number two thing is that Riles and I have been talking through where we’re gonna put up for the winter. It’s too much of a journey to get to Riley’s people at this point, and mine are long gone.”

“What do you usually do?”

“Some years we end up in cities closer to his family, or we traipse after Bobbi and Clint, try to squeeze in wherever someone’d have us. But this year…we were thinking of someplace a little more scenic.” 

“Where’s that?” 

“Well, that’s the thing. I seem to recall you mentioning that your friend—Peggy, right?”

“Uh-huh.” Steve didn’t like where this was going.

“—that Peggy runs some sort of boarding house in Red Hook. Which, as you know, isn’t so far off from here—”

Subtle, thy name was Samuel. “Nope.” 

“Hear me out. You and Bucky are gonna be heading back there anyway—”

“No, we’re not.” 

“Yeah, you are.”

“How’d you figure that?”

“Because it’s the only thing that makes sense.”

Steve scoffed, shaking his head. “Maybe we’ll end up back there eventually, I guess, but not now.” 

“Why not now?” 

“Because it’s dangerous! It’s the one place in the world Pierce knows I might go, and I’m sure he’s got a half-dozen men as skilled as Natasha ready to strike when he finds out I’m there.” 

Unimpressed, Sam crossed his arms over his chest. “You gonna keep running forever?” 

“No, but—” 

“Because it sounds like you’re gonna keep running forever.” 

“You don’t know him, Sam,” he shot back. “The man’s unhinged. He’s a fanatic. Going back there would be putting every one of you in danger—”

“Way I see it,” Sam broke in. “You’ll have a few months respite—even if he’s spying you out, he’s not gonna be able to get north once the snows fly.”

“Sure, and then he’ll be able to show up with an army in the spring.” 

"Aw, c' mon, you pessimist," he teased. "You got a six-foot-tall siren with teeth and claws, an assassin with more knives on her thigh than I got teeth in my head. Shit, you were a soldier, weren't you? And didn't you say Peggy was a spy?"

“Sam…”

“Riley and I, we’re more lovers than fighters, but we’re quick, and we’re pretty good in a tight spot,” he continued. “You’re not defenseless, Steve. And you’re not alone.” 

“In theory,” he muttered, more touched by the speech than he was likely to let on. 

“In theory, Pierce might not even be looking for you anymore."

“He’s looking,” he replied quietly. “I don’t know much, but I know that.” 

“Then we’ll deal with it,” Sam said, clapping a firm hand on his shoulder. “You told me about your mama, and I know you worry about her. Don’t let fear be the thing that keeps you from her side—especially not when you know Bucky’d be upset to find out he’s the reason you won’t go home.” 

“I…” he trailed off, shoulders slumping under the weight of Sam’s steady grip. “I gotta think about it.”

“Sure,” he agreed. “You think, I’ll buy my razors.” 

As Sam went about his business, Steve had plenty of time to mull over the proposal. There were so many what-ifs and whyfors—a million reasons not to go. Lord Alexander Pierce was not the sort of man who let things lie. Even if he’d given up on getting Bucky back, he wouldn’t give up on punishing Steve for stealing his prize. So long as Sarah Rogers remained in Red Hook, Pierce’s gaze would periodically sweep across it, checking to see whether Steve had returned home.

Sam had a point, though. Going home would, if nothing else, mean an end to it all. An end to the running and the worry and the low ache of anxiety that had churned in his belly from the moment he and Bucky had dropped to the other side of the garden wall. Killed, captured, or triumphant, at least it would be over.

Bucky, though? He should be allowed to make his own choice. Steve didn’t keep secrets from him anymore, so all he could resolve to do was tell him of the danger and let him decide. This wasn’t Bucky’s fight, after all—he’d been the victim in Pierce’s madness from the beginning, and he ought to have the opportunity to stay safe, and hidden, and free if that was what he wanted. 

“Alright,” Steve said as Sam stepped out of the apothecary, bell ringing above his head, a brown paper parcel under his arm. “Let’s go to Red Hook.”

“Yeah?” Sam smiled. “Gonna show Bucky off to your mama?”

Steve shook his head, not quite ready to deal with the possibility of telling his mother that not only was Bucky a siren, but that Steve had fallen in love with him. “Only if he wants to. I’m going home, but him coming with me—that’s his choice.” 

“Huh,” Sam said. “Guess you do listen.” 

Steve rolled his eyes, knocking their shoulders together with a snort. “Come on, there’s a cider stall around the corner. My treat.” 

 


 

Shocking no-one, least of all Steve, Bucky was instantly amenable to the plan when it was explained to him later that day.

“Yes,” he said. “See Peggy. See ma.”

“You’re sure?” 

“Yes.” 

“And you understand what I mean? That Pierce will probably come there—come looking.”

“Come,” Bucky replied, parting his lips to show every one of his teeth in a grin that was in no way a smile. “See. I show.” 

“Bucky—” 

“Steve,” he said, clicking his tongue in a way that managed to be both patronizing and funny. “SamRiley, Nasha. All go. See Peggy. See ma. Is good.” 

"It's dumb," he said. "It's asking for trouble, and it's—"

Bucky shut him up with a kiss, crashing their mouths together before finishing things off with one of those awful forehead-bashings he was so fond of. Steve was sure the front of his skull was going to cave in under the weight of Bucky’s aggressive affection one of these days. 

“We go,” Bucky said. “See Pierce, Rumlow, I—” he snapped his jaws together twice. “Mmm, Steve?”

“Yeah, you’re real tough, pal.” 

“No, Steve…hungry.” 

Gods, Steve wished he could see it as simply as Bucky did: see Pierce. Kill Pierce. Eat dinner. Still, he smiled. “You’re always hungry.”

“Yes. Dinner.” 

“Alright, alright,” he laughed, marking the end of the discussion. 

They made their way to the mess tent, where they filled their plates before finding seats with Sam, Riley and Natasha, the latter of whom they hadn’t seen all day. 

“What’s the verdict?” Sam asked the moment they were settled.

“Bucky’s on board.” 

“With what?” Natasha asked.

"Oh, uh…Sam and Riley figure we all ought to winter over in Red Hook."

Natasha visibly startled, viciously ripping the slice of bread she was holding in two. "It's …what? That's stupid. Why would you do that?"

Steve looked at Sam, then shrugged. “You’re welcome to join us, of course,” he offered.

“But not—” she cleared her throat. “It’s not smart. To travel there. Before the winter. We ought to…if it snows. We ought to just stay here.” 

“We, huh?” Steve smiled, for once in his life having the upper hand with her. “Nah. Won’t take us more than a few days for the journey, since we can move faster with just the one wagon. Wouldn’t you say, Sam?”

“I would absolutely say, Steve.” 

“Well, it’s just…I just think,” she said. “Your mother won’t have put up enough food for the winter, and it’s not…we’d need to give them more time to prepare.”

“Them?”

Her. Your mother.” 

“Uh-huh.”

“Nasha scared,” Bucky broke in cheerfully. 

“I am not!” she said, voice icy within the brittle shell of her nonchalance. 

“Yes. Scared. See Peggy, see Peggy.” 

“Take it back.” Natasha’s blue eyes bored a hole into Bucky’s as she reached across the table to pin his wrist.

“No.” Staying remarkably calm, Bucky dragged a claw from his free hand down her forearm—not to hurt, but to remind her that she ought to be careful about grabbing. “Nasha is for Peggy.” 

“It has nothing to do with that,” she said, fighting to draw her features back into indifference as she pulled her hand away. “You haven’t considered…the situation. If you’re going home, you’ll need a plan for dealing with Pierce. Have you even thought about that?” 

“Yes,” Steve said evenly. “We discussed it, actually. I figure it’s better to face the inevitable than to keep running from some bogeyman at our backs.”

“No boo-gee-man,” Bucky agreed. “No run.” 

“You’re going to get yourselves killed.” 

"Maybe, but I got a fair amount of faith in the folks around this table." Catching her eye, Steve offered a half-smile. "All of 'em."

Natasha’s expression softened by the slightest of margins, and she looked at her lap, fingers twitching against the wood of the table. “If—I shouldn’t go with you. I want it on record that I think it’s a bad idea.” 

“Duly noted, thank you,” Riley teased.

However,” she continued. “If you’re going to be so idiotic as to go ahead with this nonsense, I suppose I’ll have to come along. For your own safety.” 

Steve smiled. Let her have her pride—didn’t matter, so long as she came. And wasn’t he just looking forward to Peggy’s reaction? “Thank you for your benevolence,” he said, reaching for his coffee. “We’re eternally grateful.” 

“What eddurn-a-lee grade-foo-al?” Bucky asked, snaking a hand out to steal one of Natasha’s fried potatoes.

“It’s uh…thankful forever. For always,” Sam said.

Bucky laughed out loud, popping the potato into his mouth and shaking his head. 

“What’s so funny?” Steve asked. 

“Not always,” Bucky explained. “Nasha see Peggy, she is edurn-ally grade-ful.” 

“Shut up, Bucky,” Natasha snapped.

“No,” Bucky replied, sticking his tongue out—a gesture learned from the children around camp, (and Clint Barton). 

Natasha, ever self-possessed, threw the rest of her bread at Bucky’s head, the two of them devolving into a sibling-like squabble. Business as usual.

 


 

The final week in Weymouth passed quickly, the five-some making plans for their journey all the while. They fortified the caravan, bought supplies, mapped their route, and had endless debates over the best road to take. Steve, being from the north, thought he knew best. Natasha, being Natasha, thought she did. Their arguments were legendary, but relatively good-natured—the animosity that had existed between them settling into an acerbic friendship. It wasn't the easy rapport Bucky and Natasha shared, nor was it the camaraderie of Steve, Sam, and Riley, but it was mutual respect, along with admiration. Natasha had proven herself loyal, and despite their occasional clashes of temper, Steve was beginning to see why Peggy had loved her. He was glad she was coming with them, both for the skills she brought and the fact that he would have otherwise missed her company.

They weren't the only people making plans. Bobbi and Clint—whose rocky relationship had remained intact for most of the season—would be going to her sister in Brixton. Mack and the other rousties would mostly stay in Weymouth, picking up odd jobs over the winter before joining with the caravan train in the spring, where they'd head south to start things all over again in Columbia. As for Nick and Maria, they and a skeleton crew would take down the tent after the last show, finish up some business, and winter in the south. It was a strange thing to watch everyone make plans to splinter in different directions, knowing that only some of them would be returning.

On the day of the last show, Steve was feeling the tug of premature nostalgia, knowing that this was likely to be the final time he would stand at the side of the bleachers and watch his friends perform. As a result, he spent much of the afternoon in a melancholy funk, which was exacerbated by Bucky who, when asked by Steve to attend the show with him, informed him he was “sad” and “sick” from lunch. Not an uncommon complaint, but an unfortunate night for constitutional troubles.

The show wasn’t the same without Bucky, Steve found, standing by himself, listening to the roar of the crowd. He missed the way Bucky’s eyes would light up every time he saw a friend appear; how he’d call out the name of every one of the horses as Bobbi propelled herself from mount to mount. Bucky loved the circus nearly as much as he loved Steve, so the fact that he’d had to miss his final chance to see it made Steve unaccountably mopey.

Which, in retrospect, had probably been Bucky’s plan—catch him off-guard, so when Fury stepped into the ring near the end of the show and announced a new act, Steve wouldn’t see it coming. 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Nick boomed, his arms sweeping a wide arc. “I give you! The Widow…and the Wolf!” 

Steve’s momentary confusion gave way to shocked giddiness as Bucky and Natasha (because of course, it was Bucky and Natasha) emerged from the performer’s entrance. The crowd oohed and ahhed—for good reason—as they revealed themselves. Natasha wore a macabre costume of black and red, reminiscent of some storybook pirate with a wide red sash around her middle and a pair of black boots that went well over her knees. Her long hair tumbled from beneath a veil, and when she turned a circle in the ring, the lights caught on the intricate beadwork woven into the lace. 

Bucky, meanwhile, was resplendent in a black suit that Steve would just bet had been pieced together from bits of Sam and Riley’s old costumes. The material was cut so that a fair bit of his sternum was exposed in a deep V, while his sleeves were furred and the bits of his legs that might have otherwise been visible were covered in thick, black stockings. On his feet were actual shoes—albeit soft-looking ones that made Steve think of what a dancer might wear—and his mass of hair had been twisted into thick braids and curls that fell over his shoulders. Making his circle to the crowd, Bucky bared his terrible teeth and snapped as ferociously as any hungry wolf. That brought forth gasps and squeals, exacerbated when he lunged at a little boy sitting between his parents on the lowest bleacher. The boy gave a yell, as did Natasha, though hers was part of the act. She was holding a knife, drawn from…well, Steve’s eyes had been on Bucky, so he hadn’t actually seen where she’d been hiding the blade, which was probably the point. 

Thus began their act—a pantomime in which the widow tamed the savage wolf. Drawing him away from the crowd and into her web, which she spun around him with surprising grace, lashing him to a sturdy wooden board. Bucky played his part well, falling deep into her thrall, allowing himself to be trapped, doe-eyed and adoring before she secured a blindfold over his eyes. The routine culminated in the knife-throwing display Steve had seen them rehearsing in the forest, though it had changed somewhat since then. For all that he trusted Natasha, he still found himself feeling a little queasy every time one of her blades landed with a dull thud mere centimeters from Bucky’s skin. 

The moment they finished—with nary a knife out of place—the crowd broke into rapturous applause, stamping their feet on the boards and cheering. Steve joined them, lifting two fingers to his mouth and whistling as loudly as he could. Bucky knew that whistle, and once Natasha had him untied, he whipped around to catch Steve’s eye. Steve lifted his hands in a wave, making Bucky grin his favorite grin. It was hard to say when he’d ever looked happier.

The duo took their bows, after which they exited the ring, at which point Nick returned to announce the last performance—Sam and Riley, as always. Steve stayed to watch, his heart thumping the way it always did as they soared through the sky together, perfectly synchronized. All the performers returned for the final bow, including Natasha and Bucky, smiling and waving to the crowd. Once they’d disappeared through the curtain, and Nick had ended the show, Steve rushed to find them. Bucky was waiting just inside the flap, a massive smile on his face as he threw his arms around Steve’s neck. 

“Steve!”

“Some trick, pal!” Steve said, hugging him fiercely, then pulling away to tap the furred sleeves. “I almost didn’t recognize you.” 

“Surprise surprise!” Bucky grinned. “Is me!” 

“You were so great, Buck, just—” he laughed, and sure, maybe he was crying a little, but he’d be hard-pressed to admit it. “Perfect.” 

“Seemed a shame to work up the act and never use it,” Natasha said, coming to join them. “Nick figured we ought to go out on a high note.” 

“He was right,” Steve said, the joy of the moment moving him to lean over and kiss her forehead before tugging the end of one of Bucky’s braids. “Good trick.” 

“I say so sad, so sick,” Bucky laughed. “Is surprise, Steve.” 

“No kidding,” he teased. “Where’d you come up with the idea of being a wolf?” 

“Nasha say,” he replied, wrapping an arm around Steve’s waist and baring his teeth. “Wolf tooth.”

“Shark tooth,” Natasha corrected. “But wolf sounds better with widow.” 

“Is…” Bucky scrunched up his face. “Sh-ow-mun-sup.” 

“Right,” Natasha said. “Showmanship.”

“From your lips to Howard Stark’s ears,” Steve agreed, ignoring Natasha’s confused expression. “Should we find Sam and Riley?”

“We shall,” she agreed.

“Shall,” Bucky nodded.

Finding Sam and Riley led to revels the likes of which hadn’t been seen all season. The last show and the last night brought drink and song and stories told around a bonfire until the first rays of dawn began to peek over the horizon. Steve and Bucky said goodbye to everyone thrice over, making promises to write, to think of fondly, and to see one another again. 

There was no time for sleep, so when the fire died, and the sun rose enough to see by, the five of them readied the wagon and hitched up the horses. Steve let Sam take the first shift driving, Riley at his side while he, Bucky, and Natasha settled by the rear door, leaving it open, eyes fixed on the flags of the big top until they disappeared from view.

 

Widow and Wolf poster

Chapter Text

It took the better part of a week to reach Red Hook, the delay mainly attributed to a thunderstorm that descended upon them the second day, leaving the wagon wheels stuck in such a mud pit that it took all four men pushing to unstick them. (Natasha, meanwhile, sat on the driver's bench, urging the horses onward while shouting back to tell them what a rotten job they were doing.) Progress came slowly after that, mud coating the road and the wind blowing fiercely as they plodded their way north along the coast. It was a winter's wind, and Steve could just about smell the snow in the air. He could only hope they'd have time to coorie in with Sarah before the first storms hit.

As three days turned into four, then five, Steve found himself growing ever-more irritated with the company of his compatriots. The caravan, while homey and well-appointed, was much smaller than a ship, affording few opportunities for solitude. Didn’t matter how close you were to another body—living in each other’s pockets would wear anyone down. Bucky, however, never much minded the closeness, his good-humor remaining even when squabbles over who was snoring loudest threatened to upend the entire affair. 

“You’re used to this,” Steve said to him early one morning as they sat up front together. 

“Use-da what?” Bucky asked, reaching over to take the reins. 

“Being around people all the time,” he said, testing a theory he’d been working on regarding siren culture. “It doesn’t bother you, sharing space.”

Bucky flicked the reins and shrugged. “Nnn…is family?”

“Yeah—” Steve smiled at the term. “But still. Families fight.” 

“SamRiley fight, Nasha fight. Steve fight. I am…” he twisted his mouth up, searching for the word. “Keeping smiles.” 

“Keeping smiles, huh?” Steve laughed. “I like that. Does that mean you’re faking it, though? Being happy all the time?” 

“What fay-kin?” 

"Ah …fake's like…you say happy, but you're sad. You say angry, but you're happy."

“Mmm.” Bucky considered that before shaking his head. “No fay-kin. Why sad? This is…” he gestured around with a smile. “Sea. Steve. SamRiley. Nasha. Happy.” Transferring both reins to one hand, he reached over to poke Steve’s cheek, forcing his mouth into a half-grin.

Steve laughed, knocking his hand away and tossing an arm around his shoulders instead. “Suit yourself, pal. I’m still gonna hate Sam’s snoring.” 

 


 

On the sixth day, Steve found himself someplace he recognized, which shocked him right out of his doldrums. All the villages and small towns they’d passed along the road thus far had been nearly identical, with weather-beaten grey clapboard houses and a salt sea smell in the air. But this town? This town was one he knew. This was Westerleigh—fifteen miles from Red Hook if it was an inch—a place he'd been to once or twice as a boy (Penston was closer, albeit in the opposite direction). Steve remembered the statue in the square, and he absolutely remembered the name of the tavern on the north side of it, as his six-year-old self had found the notion of an establishment named 'The Tide Down' to be the height of hilarity.

“Bucky!” he exclaimed. 

Bucky, who had nodded off against his shoulder half an hour earlier, grunted into awareness. “Steve,” he complained. “Sleep.” 

“I know, pal, but this…I know where we are!”

“Yes,” Bucky agreed. “Town.” 

“No, but—” Steve rolled his eyes, tamping down a smile. “I know this town. It’s called Westerleigh.”

“Wes-duh-lee.” 

“Yeah. “

“Steve,” Bucky said as if he couldn’t believe he’d been woken up for that bit of nonsense. 

“It’s close to Red Hook,” he clarified. “Close to Ma.” 

“Ma!” Bucky said cheerfully, as he was exceedingly attached to the idea of meeting Steve’s mother. “Soon!” 

“Yup. But first—” Steve turned the caravan, seeking a place to hitch the horses, preferably close to the tavern. “How about some breakfast?” 

“Yes,” Bucky said, grinning and turning to holler their plans into the cabin where everyone else was still asleep.

Sam, Riley, and Natasha managed to forgive being woken when presented with the opportunity for a substantial meal, as well as a chance to stretch their legs. 'The Tide Down' boasted standard northern tavern fare, and soon enough Steve was tucking into a plate of kippers and eggs, while Bucky went for fish and chips. A curious breakfast choice, but he wasn't about to argue.

“I think we’ll make it today,” he declared as they ate. “Might be nearly dark by the time we get there, but the horses are in good spirits.” 

“How far’s your place from town?” Sam asked, reaching for his coffee.

“We’ll reach the turn-off for home first,” he said. “The road branches about two miles before you get to Red Hook proper, and then there’s a path to the cliffs.” He’d described the area to them often enough—a tiny jut of land that held the cottage, and the cove it overlooked. Though for all that he could explain the geography, home could only be experienced, with the battering wind screaming at the walls while he and Sarah sat tucked up safe inside. The warmth of her kitchen. The smell of the seagrass in summer. The memory of his father. 

Sam nodded, exchanging a glance with Riley. “We were thinking—” 

“Hmm?”

“Originally, we were going to have you leave us in town,” Riley said, continuing Sam’s thought without missing a beat. “Have you take the caravan and unload. We’d get set up in the boarding house, then you’d bring it back to us in the morning.”

“But, if we’re getting to your ma’s place first,” Sam went on. “You ought to hop down and walk the last bit. We’ll head into town from there.”

“But you should come and meet my mother,” Steve said, frowning.

"Well," Sam continued. "We will, eventually. But the thing is, we're the only two members of this party that wouldn't be recognizable to Pierce or uh …who's the other fella? Rumlow? So in case they're about, it's better for us to head on to the boarding house and find this Peggy of yours—see if there's any reason for you to keep your head low for a while."

“Smart,” Steve said. 

“I—” Natasha cleared her throat. “Peggy. You think she’ll be at the boarding house?”

"Ought to be," Steve said, not bothering to hide his smile. If the medication were doing its job, Peggy wouldn't be checking on Sarah with any regularity anymore.

"I suppose I'll go with you and Bucky, then," she said. "Sam's right—Pierce and Rumlow would know me, so…it's only logical. Or, if they were…setting a trap at your mother's house, you might need me." She lifted her chin as if daring Steve to point out that she was once again delaying the inevitable.

“Fine with me,” he said instead, reaching over to snag a chip from Bucky’s plate. 

That set off an argument about whose chips they were—Bucky’s position being that they were his, while Steve maintained a much more communal view of ownership—that took the rest of the meal to work through. After breakfast, they set off, with Steve urging the horses along, hour after hour, until at last, he saw something wonderfully familiar in the stump of an old, burnt tree that looked like a big bear, looming into the road. Then came the Dugan family's fence line, winding its way along the road before cutting northwest across their property. The Three Big Rocks came soon after—so named by Steve and Peggy when they were small because they were, well, three very big rocks.

Another quarter mile brought them to the fork in the road, which was marked by a solitary cairn that stood as the only remnant of some long-since lost signage. Steve brought the caravan to a stop, flexing his fingers against his thighs and letting out a breathless laugh, anticipation and nerves twining together, body thrumming with excitement. Now that it came down to it, he found he couldn’t settle. So much was riding on his assumptions—that his mother would be well, that May Parker had received Peter’s letter, that Peggy was a good enough spy to read between the lines. That Pierce hadn’t already done something awful in the interim, and that Natasha’s fear of a trap was more her putting off Peggy than an actual possibility.

“Steve?” Sam said, poking his head out from the caravan. “Why’d we stop?” 

“Ah,” he chuckled, letting go of the reins. “Sorry. It’s only…this is it. The turn-off. So uh, we’ll take what we can carry and go on from here.” 

It took some time to load themselves with luggage, with Bucky taking the heaviest load, as he was loath to part with any of the trinkets and baubles he'd collected. Steve had to spend nearly ten minutes talking him out of carrying every saucepan he'd purchased, promising that Sam and Riley would bring them soon. Eventually, he got him bargained down to one big, canvas bag of tat and nonsense. Steve and Natasha, meanwhile, had a knapsack each, full of clothes and (in Natasha's case) a bevy of sharp objects.

“We’ll be back in a few hours for supper,” Sam said from the wagon seat, Riley at his side.

“Be careful,” Steve said. “Pierce might not know you but—” 

“I know, I know,” Sam teased. “Not to be underestimated, and so on and so forth. He’s probably not even there.” 

Steve couldn’t help smiling—Sam had a way of diffusing even his most self-serious moments. “True enough. Hey, tell Peggy I brought her a present.”

“Oh, yeah,” Sam laughed. “I’ll let her know you’ve got a big surprise waiting.” 

Natasha frowned. “If it’s all the same to you,” she said, her voice as serious as Steve had ever heard it. “Don’t tell her. Just…when she comes, then she’ll know.”

Sam’s expression softened, and he shook his head. “I’ll keep your secret, don’t you worry.” 

“Thank you,” she said, with enough sincerity that Steve was somewhat taken aback. 

They said their farewells after that, and the trio watched until the wagon was out of sight. After that, they took the right fork toward the cliffs. 

Toward home.

Steve’s home, at least, if not theirs, but with his two vagabonds in tow, he found he liked the idea of it belonging to them as well. 

The cottage came into view a way down the road, standing stalwart, undimmed by time or tide. They quickened their pace, turning away from the grooved road and cutting through the trampled seagrass that marked the well-worn path to the door. Steve could see that the shutters had been repainted, which said something about Sarah's condition. He hoped so, anyway. Heart lightened, he reached for Bucky's hand.

“Ma?” Bucky asked, gesturing to the house.

“Yeah,” Steve said, unlatching the gate to let them into the yard, then tugging Bucky the last few feet to the door, which was locked. That was something of a surprise—a good one, mind. Sarah had rarely locked it before, but he’d cautioned her in his letter to be wary of strangers. 

“Hello?” he called, knocking three times. “Ma? It’s me!” 

"Steve?" came a voice from within. His mother's voice, reducing him to a child with scraped knees and ruddy cheeks, holding out a bunch of muddy-rooted wildflowers he'd yanked from the ground to make her smile.

He heard the sound of her footfalls. The slide of the lock. And then? There she was. The very sight of her striking him dumb. No longer the frail, frozen woman he’d left behind, Sarah stood with shoulders squared and color in her cheeks. Her hair, once brittle as a bird’s nest, shone golden and glossy, falling in waves nearly to her shoulders, while her emaciated frame had filled out, dress fitting her properly for the first time in years. 

“Ma?” he said, hardly able to believe it.

“It’s me,” Sarah said, blue eyes sharp and a smile on her face as her gaze flitted between Bucky and Natasha in an instant. Wasting no more time, she leaned up to pull Steve into a hug, holding him in a way she hadn’t been able to for years. “Mother’s mercy, Steve, I’ve been so worried.” 

“Ma,” he repeated, tongue incapable of saying anything else. 

“It’s alright, starfish,” she soothed before releasing him from the hug and stepping back. “You’d better come inside, all of you.”

They crossed the threshold, and she shut the door after them before locking it fast. Steve, who was fighting back tears, took Bucky’s hand and squeezed it tight. 

“Ma,” Bucky said, squeezing back and giving Sarah his very best smile. 

“You must be Bucky,” she replied, keen eyes taking in their entwined hands before she gave a short nod. “Peter’s letter said you were traveling with Steve. It’s good to meet you.”

(Strange, to think that on the day Peter had penned that letter, Bucky had only just decided on his name. Now, Steve couldn’t imagine calling him anything else.)

“Good to meet Ma,” Bucky said, releasing Steve’s hand so he could step forward and hug her. “Steve say home, is home.” 

“He uh…he means he’s happy to be here,” Steve said, finding his voice as he swallowed the last of his tears. 

“I understood him perfectly,” Sarah replied, then turned to Natasha. “You, however—you weren’t mentioned.”

“We ah, picked her up along the road,” he said, choosing not to mention the murder just yet, bygones being bygones and all.

“Natasha,” she greeted, extending her hand.

“Natasha—“ Sarah murmured. “That’s a pretty name. Didn’t Peggy know a Natasha?”

“Peggy knew this Natasha,” Steve said, surprised his mother remembered the story. He had told her what happened in broad strokes, years ago, because she loved Peggy like a daughter, and had been worried over her melancholy, but he hadn’t expected she would remember the intimate details. 

“Is that so?” Sarah said. “Sounds like you three have quite the tale to tell.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Steve admitted.

“Funnily enough,” she said, “I’ve got an interesting story of my own. So how about I put the kettle on, and we’ll catch up over tea?” 

Sarah Rogers held to the convention that all of life's essential conversations ought to happen over a cuppa, so at Steve's nod, she went to work, bustling about the kitchen in a way that he hadn't seen since her illness had begun limiting her ability to stand and bend and take care of what needed taking care of. It was wonderful to watch her—to marvel at the ease with which she moved, pouring boiling water into a teapot, covering it with a cozy, and bringing it to the kitchen table so they could gather around.

"Now," she said, once the cups had been distributed. "I'll start my bit first, which begins with a letter. Two letters, in fact—one from May Parker, whose nephew had written to her with a curious story." At that, she glanced at Bucky. "Something about a captive servant and Steve on the run, with an admonishment to watch out for Lord Alexander Pierce, and reassurances about my medicine, courtesy of Lord Stark. Now," she blew on her tea. "I knew you'd found employment in Lord Pierce's house, but beyond that, I was thoroughly mystified—and worried."

“I’m sorry,” Steve said. “If there’d been any other way…” 

“Water falling in the sea,” she said, waving her hand. “But you can imagine my surprise when, two days later, I received a second letter—this one from you, starfish, telling me that you’d decided to head south to seek out a different sort of work. Peggy and I pored over both letters, let me tell you, trying to piece together what it was you were attempting to do with the second. It wasn’t until Lord Pierce himself turned up on my doorstep that it made some sense.” 

Steve’s heart flipped a somersault in his chest. “Shit.” 

“Indeed. Such a charming man, I’m sure. Humble as you please, feeding me some mussel and shoal story about you being accused of a crime in Columbia, and how he didn’t believe it was true, but you’d run off before he could offer his assistance.”

Steve snorted, while Natasha hid a smile against her cup. 

“I never fancied myself an actress,” Sarah continued. “But I put on a performance that day—shock and horror, all through. Oh, but I hoped he’d find you! And goodness, but I’d just received a letter from you the other day!”

“Awfully convenient,” Natasha muttered.

“You’d think he might have thought so, but he took me at my word. Nobody expects a woman like me to lie to them. Too pure of heart, and all.” 

“Pure of something,” Steve teased, which got him a swat on the arm. “And he left, after that?” 

"Pretty soon after. But first, he had me make him a promise—canny of him, taking advantage of my fears over your fate."

“What was the promise?” 

“That I’d have a telegraph sent if you ever turned up,” she said wryly. “Which, of course, I was happy to promise, being as clearing your name was of utmost importance to me.” 

“Undoubtedly,” Natasha agreed. 

“Then there was the matter of my medication.”

“Your—” Steve frowned. “Howard was supposed to—” 

“He did, and Peggy’s been seeing to the details,” she replied. “But Lord Pierce didn’t know about that, and he was concerned that I not suffer because you’d run off. And believe me, he was very keen on making sure I understood that you were putting me at risk by your actions…”

"It was—" Steve blew out a breath, and while he knew she didn't believe the lie, he felt guilty all the same. "Things happened fast. I didn't have time—"

“Starfish, I’ve no doubt you had your reasons,” she replied. “And we’ll hear them in a minute—I’m nearly done. Lord Pierce assured me that he’d continue to supply my medication as a gesture of goodwill. Making me a bargaining chip, no doubt.” 

“That would do it,” Natasha nodded. “Then, if Steve didn’t show up, or he thought you were harboring him secretly, he’d threaten to cut off your supply to try and bring him out of the woodwork.”

“Probably,” Sarah agreed. “But he doesn’t know about Lord Stark, and between the two of them, I’ve more than I need.” 

“I’m sorry,” Steve said. “It was my responsibility.” 

“Steve,” she said, laying her hand on his arm. “Never for one second did I think what you were doing was for reasons that were anything less than noble.”

“Yes, ma’am, but—” 

“No more wallowing.” Her voice was firm, and she squeezed his forearm before pulling away. “I’m well enough, and no harm done.”

“As soon as I’m able, I’m gonna get back to work. Fix this whole mess.” 

“I’d imagine that won’t be happening until you’ve dealt with being a wanted man,” she said wryly.

“You said Pierce left,” Natasha broke in. “Did he leave anyone behind?” 

"Not that I know of," she said. "But then, I don't know everyone in town. Although even if he had, it's too late in the season to make a journey north from Columbia—the trains will stop running any day now, so even if he found out you were here, he wouldn't be able to reach us until the thaw."

“That’s what we thought, too,” Steve agreed. “Or hoped, anyway. For all we knew, he’d be sitting in your rocking chair waiting.” 

"I'd have liked to see him try," Sarah said with a smile. "But this is …it's good that you're home. Now, when he comes, we'll have a plan ready."

“Oh?” Steve smiled.

“You think Peggy and I haven’t been puzzling this through? That letter from Peter indicated you were in trouble, and while we might not have had all the details, we surmised a few things. Now that you’re here, we can put all the pieces together and figure out our next steps.” 

“But—“ 

“Now,” Sarah went on, turning to Bucky, who had been following the conversation without contributing, which often happened when lots of people spoke at once. “Bucky. Peter’s letter said you’d been…a captive of Lord Pierce? A servant? And that Steve helped you escape?” 

Bucky grinned with all his teeth, and if his smile unnerved Sarah, she didn’t show it. “I escape, Steve escape. Run and run.” 

“I’d imagine so,” she agreed. “But what Peggy and I couldn’t figure out was…why you were being held captive?” 

“Well.” Steve shrugged, stroking the back of Bucky’s hand with his thumb. “The thing of it is, ma…Lord Pierce is a collector of the exotic, and Bucky’s not exactly uh, human?” 

Sarah raised a brow. “I beg your pardon?”

“It’s a long story, but he’s, well—

Bucky broke in, pointing to himself proudly. “Siren.” 

Sarah goggled, a breathless laugh leaving her body. “I’m sorry?”

“Siren,” Bucky repeated, then pointed at Steve. “Human. Siren. Steve. Bucky.” 

"I know it sounds crazy," Steve said. "But it's true. When I first met him, he was trapped in a glass tank, and Pierce was torturing him. Trying to make him sing."

Sarah Rogers—who had spent a childhood immersed in the myths of the Fates and the Fury, who believed in the elementals and the rituals of Mother Sea, who had sung her child to sleep with the song of the siren—sat faced with proof of her deep and abiding faith. And that proof was sipping tea across a table while holding fiercely to the hand of her only son.

“Steve,” she managed, voice wavering bur firm. “He’s got legs.” 

Steve couldn’t help grinning—Sam had pointed out the exact same thing. “Yeah, that part wasn’t in the legends,” he admitted. “But it happens, when he’s out of the water for long enough.”

“I show?” Bucky asked, guileless as he turned to Steve with a smile.

“It’s getting dark, pal,” Steve said, lifting his hand and kissing his fingers. “You can swim tomorrow.” 

“Yes,” Bucky agreed, looking at Sarah, who was staring back at him with wide, uncertain eyes.

"Is he…" Sarah swallowed. "But the stories …they're dangerous. Sirens. They—” 

“Only if you don’t keep to the old ways,” Steve said quietly. “You taught me that. Bucky’s not—he’s not dangerous. He’s really not so different from us.” 

Slowly, Sarah rose from her seat and moved closer, taking in all the things her conscious mind had overlooked. All the things that were just a little bit off about Bucky—the gills, the claws, the teeth. Helpfully, Steve leaned over to tug on the cuff of his trousers, exposing the scaled flesh beneath. 

“I know it’s a lot,” he said. “I hardly believed it myself, at first.” 

“You have—” Sarah said, straightening her spine and taking a deep breath. “Honey, you’ve been a lot of things over the years, but I've never known you to be a liar. So…Bucky, it's just …it's just so nice to meet you." 

Steve’s loved his mother very much.

“Nice,” Bucky agreed, taking Sarah’s hand and pressing an exaggerated kiss to the back, which Steve thought was laying it on a little thick. “Steve is say ma. He love, I love.” 

“What a charmer,” Steve muttered, making Natasha snort.

“He did, huh?” Sarah said, ignoring the aside. “And here all Peter told me about you is that you’re foreign.”

“Well, he is. In a manner of speaking,” Steve said. “I guess you’ll want me to start from the beginning?”

“Please,” she agreed, releasing Bucky’s hand before taking her seat.

Steve nodded and started from the beginning. Nearly an hour passed before he'd finished telling the tale, interrupted by Bucky's exclamations ("no pants!” or “Lucky!”), Natasha’s clarifications (“I wasn’t actually going to kill him.”), and Sarah’s constant questions. 

When he got to the story of the day he thought he was saying goodbye to Bucky forever, only to discover Bucky had only gone for a swim, Sarah was laughing so hard she was nearly crying. “Oh, Steve.” 

“I thought he wanted to go home!”

“Am home,” Bucky said, butting his forehead against Steve’s shoulder. “Steve home.” 

“That’s—” Steve’s cheeks went hot, and he glanced at his mother. “We uh…the two of us, that is—” 

“You’re in love,” she said, a smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. “Did you think I hadn’t noticed?” 

“Steve thinks everyone is as oblivious as he used to be,” Natasha broke in. 

“What oh-blih-vee-us?” Bucky asked.

“Being blind to what’s right in front of his face.”

“Oh. Yes. Steve oblivious.” 

“You two ought to take that act on the road,” Steve said, rolling his eyes. “Though, speaking of acts…”

That brought them to the story of the Widow and the Wolf, which was cut short by the sound of hooves on the road. A lone rider, judging by the speed, so not Sam and Riley. Steve held his breath, rising from his chair and turning toward the sound. 

Less than a minute later, the visitor used a key to unlock the door, flinging it wide. Peggy stood there, grinning and breathless from her ride, hair a windblown tangle and two spots of color high on her cheeks. Upon seeing Steve, she let loose a happy cry, rushing forward and wrapping him in a wordless hug. Steve clutched her close, breathing in her familiar warmth. 

“I missed you,” he murmured, squeezing her tight.

“I missed—” she began, only to stop short, breath hitching. 

Which was, of course, the point at which she looked beyond him and saw Natasha.

Chapter Text

For a moment, Steve wondered whether Peggy might faint. Never before had he seen his unflappable friend so, well, flapped. Which wasn’t to say she was incapable of showing emotion—the day he first met her, she’d been shouting at a boy twice her size who’d had the temerity to pull her pigtails—but even in the most trying of times, she retained a certain poise. 

That poise had abandoned her now, though, and Steve gripped her by the elbows to keep her upright while all the love and loss and abandonment she'd buried down deep churned its way to the surface.

“Peggy—” he said, voice splintering the silence.

“Don’t,” she managed, tremulous. “I…how?” 

“It’s a long story, maybe you oughta—” 

Peggy shook off his grip, crossing the room in two sweeping strides to take Natasha by the arms, fingers clutching like a transplanted root as she pulled her to her feet. “You’re fucking real,” she said, breathless, giving her a shake. “I thought you were dead.” 

Natasha lifted her chin. “You sent me away.” 

Peggy barked out a bright peal of hysterical laughter as she pulled Natasha into a crushing hug. “You ridiculous girl. Where have you been?” 

Steve saw the exact moment it happened—the crumbling of Natasha's tough facade—shoulders slumping as she accepted the embrace. They stayed holding one other for what must have felt like an eternity to them, though in truth, it was less than a minute.

Even when Peggy broke the hold, she kept Natasha at arm’s length, studying her face and reaching to brush away an errant curl. “Gods, Natasha. I looked everywhere for you.” 

“I didn’t think you would,” she said, as vulnerable as Steve had ever seen her. “I thought you’d forget me.”

“My girl,” Peggy began, clearing her throat twice, then glancing around the room, as if only just remembering they had an audience. “I…how is it that you’re here?” 

"Steve," she said. "He' s—we found each other."

“It’s a long story,” Steve amended. “I figured I’d…well, I figured she’d be a pretty good peace offering for uh…scaring the shit out of you.” 

“That’s—” Peggy nodded, eyes flicking to Bucky. “You must be Bucky.”

“Peggy,” Bucky said, grinning with every one of his teeth and stepping forward to wrap both women in a hug, belying both his generous nature as well as his utter lack of nuance. “Bring Nasha home. Steve say.” 

“It’s very nice to meet you,” Peggy managed, no doubt squashed too close for comfort against both Natasha and Bucky, neither of whom had taken a proper bath all week. 

“Steve say, Peggy,” Bucky continued, playing the oblivious card. Steve knew that game—diffuse the tension by being disarming. Canny, his Bucky. “Nasha say no home, is come. Eternally grateful.” 

Steve snorted, and Natasha glared. “Bucky!”

“Did you not want to come?” Peggy asked, hurt in her eyes.

“No, I did!”

“But you weren’t ah…” Her smile tightened. “That is to say, it’s chance that you’re here. You weren’t seeking me out.”

Natasha looked at the floor. “Chance and a job—that’s what put me in Steve’s path.” 

Peggy’s fond expression disappeared entirely. “What sort of job?”

“I—”

Bucky cut her off, undoubtedly trying to be helpful. “Scared. Nasha is…nnn, no see, now see. Is for Peggy.”

“Bucky,” Natasha snapped. “Let me speak for myself.” 

Bucky shrugged, releasing his hold and stepping back. “Not say.” 

“Because you won’t stop talking!” 

“I think,” Sarah said from where she’d been quietly observing the dramatics. “You all ought to sit down and talk. Steve, it’ll do me no harm to hear your story again, and I think Peggy might be especially interested in the part about Bucky being a siren.” 

Peggy blinked and looked, at first, to Steve, who shrugged. Then, she turned to Bucky, who gave her another bright grin. 

"Hello," he chirped.

“What?” she said, voice coming out just above a whisper.

“Sit,” Steve offered, “and I’ll catch you up.” 

For once in her life doing as she was told, Peggy perched on the small, squashy sofa, while Steve sat down in an armchair, Bucky reclining at his feet. Natasha, meanwhile, remained standing.

“Do you remember Dr. Banner?” Steve began, figuring he ought to start at the start—Peggy wasn’t a person of faith like Sarah, and it seemed prudent to open with the practicalities.

“I…yes,” she said, which was all the opening he needed to begin. 

By the time he’d finished telling the tale, Natasha had moved to sit at Peggy’s left side. Close, but not too close. For her part, Peggy (an utterly reasonable person) accepted the truth of Bucky with minimal fuss. She had no reason to mistrust Steve, and there were those strange artifacts of Bucky’s aquatic origins to consider. Naturally, she had plenty of questions, but relaxed throughout the spinning of the yarn, even making jokes at Steve’s expense. 

“Sam and Riley were the ones who told me you were back,” she said as the story caught up to the present. “They came in, asked for me by name—said they’d brought you home. Now, I had some questions—”

“You didn’t scare them, did you?” Steve asked.

"Peter's letter," she continued, voice rising as she spoke over his protests, same as she'd been doing since they were small. "Said that you'd be traveling undercover with a companion named Bucky. So of course, I had to verify that they were who they said they were since I didn't know anything about them."

"How?" Steve asked, warily.

“The birthmark.”

“Peggy!” 

“What?” she said, eyes dancing. “Anyone you were traveling with would have seen you in the altogether once or twice.”

“Sam and Riley aren’t staring at my—”

“Looks like a star on his hip,” she retorted. “Sam knew in a second.” 

"That doesn't …for all you knew, they'd kidnapped me and uh…"

“Steve?” Bucky broke in. “Embarrassed?”

“How intuitive of you, Bucky,” Peggy said. 

“Really missed you, Peg!” Steve shot back, smiling in spite of himself. “You see how she respects me?” 

“Mmm,” Bucky nodded, knocking the back of his head against Steve’s knees. “Where SamRiley?” 

"They said they'll be along, but they wanted to settle into their room. We're discussing a longer-term arrangement in the morning."

“Steve,” Sarah broke in.

“Yes, ma?” 

"Am I to understand that we're expecting seven for supper when I was planning for only myself?"

“Uh. Yes, ma’am.” 

"I see. Then I suppose you'll be going out and pulling the last of the potatoes in the garden. As for you two—" (that was for Peggy and Natasha.) "—bring in more wood for the fire, please. And you—" A finger pointed at Bucky before her face softened. "You know how to set the table?"

Turned out Bucky, who was still as likely to lick a plate clean as use silverware, was content to be ordered about by Sarah as she showed him how things ought to be arranged. Funny, how he never questioned certain people’s orders, but when Steve was the one making reasonable requests, he found plenty of reasons to be obstinate. 

Sam and Riley arrived half an hour into preparations. The potatoes had nearly boiled, and Sarah had cobbled together a hodgepodge of food from the pantry—mostly dried fish, alongside a variety of pickled vegetables. The meal would cut into her winter stores considerably, and Steve felt terrible about it, determined to go into town as soon as he was able to replenish what he could with the last of his circus pay.

Introductions were made all around, and Sam and Riley pitched in to take care of a few outstanding items. The meal they sat down to was nothing fancy, but the food was solid, and the company was fine, with Sam and Riley further livening the boisterous mood.

“How did you two meet?” Sarah asked near the end of the meal, once she and Sam had bonded over the lean times they’d faced during the war.

“I grew up in the circus,” Sam said. “My mother was a trapeze artist, too—taught me everything I know. But she uh, she died when I was sixteen, and my pop was already gone. Left me without a partner for the act. Nick kept me on, doing odd jobs and roustie work, mostly, but I missed being in the show, so I kept an eye out for…well, and then this guy shows up—” 

"I was a menace," Riley said, picking up the story. "My parents tried their best, but I was a rebellious sort of kid. Ran away when I was twelve and ended up in Columbia, where I was in and out of trouble for years."

“Picking pockets,” Sam supplied.

“Picking pockets,” Riley agreed. “One pocket in particular—” 

“Nick Fury’s.”

“That’s the ringmaster?” Sarah clarified. 

“Yup,” Riley said. “And once he’d finished scaring the shi—sugar out of me—”

“You can say shit,” Sarah said. “I was a sailor’s wife.” 

Riley grinned. "Shit, then. So I'm standing there quaking in my boots, sure he's about to call a constable when he offers me a job. I mostly took it cause I figured it'd get me out of Columbia, where it was getting harder and harder to scrape by."

“And that’s where he met me,” Sam said. “I took one look at his skinny little arms and thought, hey, there’s a fella I could toss around pretty easily.”

Riley lobbed a napkin at Sam’s head. “What he means to say is, there’s a fella that’s twice as talented as me on a trapeze.” 

“Half as talented, Riles. You meant to say half.”

“If that helps you sleep at night,” Riley replied, neatly dodging the elbow aimed at his side. 

Bucky, ever tactful, looked between them. “Sam is best.” 

Steve stared at his lap to keep from laughing, while Sam crowed and Riley shook his head at the betrayal, muttering under his breath that he’d helped braid Bucky’s hair that morning. Natasha followed that up with a crack about Riley looking better in the skintight costume, which set off a good-natured argument about who was more fashionable.

Content, Steve sat back and watched it unfold, happy to stay silent, warm and full-bellied and home in his little cottage, which hadn’t been so full of life in years. The last time he could remember so many people gathered had been the day of his father’s funeral. That day, though, was only a wisp—remembered in broken moments of muted grief—in which they’d lowered an empty casket into the earth. His shoes had been caked with mud from the graveyard, which he’d tracked through the house without realizing. Sarah, upon noticing the mess, had burst into tears, turning to Peggy’s mother, Amanda, who had been standing stalwart at her side since word had come of the ship’s demise. Amanda Carter knew a few things about dead husbands, so she’d gone about the business of cleaning up the muck without a second thought.

Shivering, Steve pulled himself from his reminiscences, choosing to focus on the joy of the moment instead. He had Bucky at his side—fated to meet, fated to be together in their unconventional way—and he was home, happy, well-enough for now. No use focusing on the future or the past.

Bucky turned to him, the glow of the fire dancing in his blue eyes. “Steve?” he said, no doubt wondering why Steve wasn’t participating in the conversation. 

“Sorry, pal,” Steve said, sotto voce, before leaning over to kiss his cheek. “Why don’t we do the dishes?” 

“Yes,” Bucky agreed, and they stood to begin clearing plates and bowls from the table, stacking them by the sink. The conversation continued as they worked, though eventually, Peggy cleared her throat to catch their attention.

“I think,” she said. “We ah…well, supper’s been lovely. But Natasha and I are going to go.” 

“Natasha and…you,” Steve echoed, turning to face her, soap dripping from his hands. Natasha, meanwhile, had the smallest of smiles playing across her face. 

“She’s going to stay with me,” Peggy said. “It’s practical—you three don’t have enough room for her here, and it’s only mum and I at ours.” 

“Mmmhmm,” Steve nodded. 

“That, and Natasha and I have things to discuss. Don’t we?”

Natasha, whose cheeks were turning an interesting shade of pink, got to her feet. “I. Thank you for dinner, Sarah. We’ll—” 

Steve could get used to seeing her flustered—retribution for all those times she’d left him chasing the scraps of whatever plan she’d been ten steps ahead on executing. “We’ll see you tomorrow,” he said with a grin. 

Bucky, who had been watching with a worried frown, went to Natasha and put his wet hands on her shoulders. “Tomorrow. Yes, come? See Nasha?”

“Of course I’ll come back tomorrow,” she said, giving his arms a squeeze. “You’re going to show Peggy how you swim, aren’t you?” 

“Yes,” Bucky said. Natasha and Sam and Riley had been privy to the act once or twice, so Bucky’s tail was nothing new to them, but it was still fun to witness someone seeing it for the first time. “Peggy, Nasha, see swim.” 

“We’ll come as early as we’re able,” Peggy said. “I will, anyway. Natasha’s free to do as she pleases.” 

Natasha ducked her head, another smile flickering on her lips while she went to fetch her coat (which had once been Clint’s coat, won in a card game).

“We might as well head out, too,” Sam said. “It’s been a long day, and I’d rather follow Peggy back into town until I know the way.” 

“Of course,” Peggy said with a smile. 

Tomorrow,” Bucky said, anxious. “SamRiley, come?” Obviously upset, he wrapped Natasha in another of his breath-stealing hugs. Upon releasing her, did the same to Peggy. 

Steve moved to lay a reassuring hand on Bucky’s back, where he heard Peggy murmur, “I’ll take good care of her, darling. Don’t you worry.” 

“Yes,” Bucky agreed, pulling back. “Care. Is…care.” 

Peggy gave his hands a squeeze before Bucky went to give hugs to Sam and Riley in turn. The foursome headed out after that, leaving a fretful Bucky pacing back and forth in front of the window, watching as the horses disappeared into the dark. 

portrait of Peggy Carter

“It’s alright, Buck,” Steve said, slipping an arm around his waist. “They’ll be back tomorrow.” 

“Is sleep. Dark. Away…” 

The anxiety made sense—Bucky had clung to Steve since the first night they’d spent together, while Sam and Riley had slept no more than a few feet above their heads since the day they got to the circus. Once she’d joined them, Natasha had been either in the caravan or resting on the ground nearby.

“They’re not far,” Steve said, reaching for Bucky’s hands to stop him twisting his fingers into knots. “And they have each other.” 

“Nnn…” He tugged his hands away and shook his head. 

“Bucky,” Sarah said. “Why don’t you and Steve finish the washing up, and I’ll make you another cup of tea for when you’re done?” 

Steve thought sure Bucky would resist the instruction, but instead, he did as he was told, the two of them working in tandem to wash, dry, and stack the dishes while Sarah boiled water for tea. After that, they settled in front of the hearth, mugs in hand. Bucky sat first, tossing a pillow on the ground to recline near the armchair. Steve took the hint and the chair, smiling as Bucky wrapped an arm around his calves, laying his head on Steve's lap like some overgrown cat. It wasn't the first time he'd done it—it had been a nightly occurrence in camp—but having him do it in front of Sarah left Steve's cheeks warm all the same.

“He ah…” he stumbled. “He likes having his hair played with. So uh…” 

“It’s lovely hair,” Sarah said smoothly. 

“Thank you,” Bucky said, accepting the compliment like another shiny trinket, magpie that he was. 

Sarah settled on the sofa, where she yawned and stretched her arms above her head. To think, not even a year ago, those arms could hardly rise to bring a forkful of food to her mouth.

“You look so well, ma,” Steve said, voice cloudy.

“Well enough,” she replied.

“We’re going to figure everything out,” he said, the familiar worries creeping in. “Sort out this whole mess.” 

“Starfish, it’s late, and we’re all tired. There’s no sense planning now.” 

“But—”

“Steve,” she laughed, eyes dancing as she lifted her teacup to her lips. “Are you arguing with your mother?” 

“No, ma’am.” 

“Thought not. Though I do have one question for Bucky.” 

“What?” 

“Where did you come up with the notion of a wolf?” 

Bucky grinned, shifting his weight (yet keeping Steve in prime hair-stroking position) before beginning to explain the logic. Steve had to step in a time or two to translate—understanding Bucky wasn’t like speaking a second language, but he was better than any of them at interpreting the metaphors and words Bucky used to make his points.

The story of Natasha naming him a wolf led to a tale Steve hadn't heard before. A tale that pre-dated his time in the cage, in which Bucky and his sister had cornered a vicious shark. Sarah, intrigued, ended up asking a lot of questions about Bucky's family, which he answered readily, the conversation winding on. Eventually, though, Sarah began to yawn, triggering Steve to do the same. Bucky, as always, did his imitation of a yawn instead, charming Sarah as much as it had charmed her son.

“Let me put you to bed, ma,” Steve said when the clock struck eleven, releasing the braid he’d been twining into Bucky’s hair.

“I’m perfectly capable,” she said.

“Humor me,” he teased. “It’s been a year.”

Despite an aggrieved sigh, she took his hand when he offered it, leaning on him a bit once she was on her feet. The medicine was a gift, but it wasn’t a cure, and after a long, busy day, she was showing her exhaustion.

Once on her feet, she turned to Bucky with a smile. “Goodnight, sweetheart.” 

Bucky cocked his head. “Nnn…where go?”

“Just to her room,” Steve explained. 

“We go?”

“No. We sleep upstairs..” 

That got a whine of consternation from Bucky, who shot to his feet. “No alone.” 

“Yes, alone,” he said firmly.

“I’m used to it, Bucky,” Sarah said gently. “I’ll be right nearby.” 

Huffing out a breath, Bucky growled. “No good.” 

“You don’t have to like it, but it’s what’s happening,” Steve replied.

Bucky glared at him, then moved to hug Sarah, after which he allowed Steve to take her to her room. Once she'd changed into her nightgown behind a screen, he settled her in bed, tucking the covers around, even as she protested he was fussing too much.

“Do you need anything?” he asked once he was through. “Water?”

“I’m fine,” she said, patting the bed to indicate he should sit, which he did, smiling when she reached up to touch his whiskered cheek. “I’m so glad you’re home, starfish.” 

“Me, too. But I know I’ve brought a load of worry—” 

“Don’t borrow trouble.” She ran a finger along his jaw. “The beard suits you—I meant to say earlier.” 

“Oh.” He shrugged. “Howard thought it’d be a good disguise. I could get rid of it now, but...”

“But?”

“Bucky likes it.” 

“Ah,” she said. “I can’t blame him. I was always partial to a beard on your father.” 

“Ma,” he said, ears growing hot at the implication. 

“I like Bucky,” she continued. “Does my heart good, to see that you found him.”

Steve leaned into her touch and shrugged. “Found’s the wrong word—got shoved right in his path by fate, more like.” 

“Stranger things.”

“I guess. Still, it feels like a lifetime ago he was in that tank. Like some other version of him, some other version of me. He was this myth, and now he’s just…Bucky.” 

"It's always different when someone starts being yours," she agreed.

“That’s what he says,” Steve laughed. “Steve is for Bucky, Bucky is for Steve.” 

Sarah’s brow creased. “Hmm.”

“What?” 

“Nothing. It’s only…well, that’s almost scripture.” 

“Oh?”

"It's part of the traditional wedding vows—flesh and blood, one for the other, something like that… I'll look it up in the morning."

“Thanks, ma,” he said, kissing her forehead. “Sleep tight. I love you.” 

“Love you, too, starfish.” 

 


 

Bucky was sitting on the edge of the armchair when Steve returned, and he stood quickly, anxiety creasing his features. “Safe?”

“Yeah, pal,” Steve said, holding out a hand. “I’m sorry. I know this is all new for you.” 

Bucky took hold of his fingers and moved closer. “Nasha go, SamRiley go…” 

“I know. This might take some getting used to, but we’re…well, look. There’s one good thing about it.” 

“What?” 

“You and I? We’re gonna get to sleep in a real bed.” 

Bucky, whose experience of 'real' beds was limited to the one they'd used at Howard's house, seemed sufficiently intrigued, following Steve to the steep, narrow attic steps. Climbing proved easier said than done, with Bucky refusing to let go of his hand, despite the steps not being wide enough for two. They managed in the end, though, and Steve's heart hitched when he reached the top, taking in the familiar long, narrow room with its sloped plaster ceilings and sparse furnishings illuminated by the lamp he carried.

“Oh,” Bucky said, taking a long sniff of the musty air. “Is Steve!” 

“Yeah,” he laughed. “It’s my old room.” 

“Is—” Bucky turned in a circle and held up his hands. “All.”

“Sure,” Steve agreed, not entirely sure what he was getting at as he went to set the lamp on the bedside table. The bed would be a tight fit for two, but it was still a damn sight better than the cold ground beneath a caravan. With a yawn, he began to undress. They’d left the luggage downstairs, but shit, it was his house—he could sleep in his skin. As could Bucky, who would no doubt still want to cuddle close and keep warm. 

For all that Steve was quick, Bucky was quicker at getting out of his clothes. After which his attention was caught by something on the dresser at the far end of the room. He moved to it, picking up the painted wooden frame that was displayed on its surface and studying the picture within.

“Steve?” he asked after a moment, voice taking on a queer quality.  

“Ah, yeah,” Steve said, tossing his shirt to the floor and going to stand at Bucky’s side. The picture was simple—one he’d seen nearly every day of his life—and served as the only proof left in the world that Joseph Rogers had been real; had lived and breathed and loved his family dearly. All three of them stared out of the frame—Steve, a gangly twelve-year-old, stood at his father’s right side, while a smiling Sarah stood at his left. Joseph had been dressed to the gills in his only good suit, hair and beard neatly combed, one hand on Steve’s skinny shoulder, the other around Sarah’s waist. 

The booking with the photographer had been a gift—purchased by Joseph for Sarah on the occasion of their fifteenth anniversary. Expensive and impractical, but the haul had been good that year, and he had insisted she deserved something special. Two years later, he was dead, and Sarah had been too brokenhearted to bear looking at the picture. So Steve, young and grieving, had secreted it away to his room, where it had remained ever since. 

Bucky tapped the frame, recognizing Steve and Sarah, but obviously curious about the man. 

“That’s my father,” Steve said. “I told you about him.” 

“Jo-seph,” Bucky frowned, making a few disconsolate noises. 

“What is it?”

“Is…gone?” 

“Yeah. He died. You knew that.” 

“Nnn. How?” 

Steve frowned, because he was sure he’d told Bucky that story as well. “His ship was caught in a storm. He drowned.” 

Bucky’s agitation was palpable as he placed the photograph back on the dresser. “He is Steve.” 

“You mean we look alike? Ma said the same thing—I guess it’s the beard.”

Bucky reached up to stroke his chin, eyes still somewhere distant. “Yes. Same.” 

“You know what’s funny—”

“Funny?” 

“I’m nearly the same age now as he was when that photograph was taken.” 

“Why funny?” 

“Well, I guess it’s not funny funny. It’s kinda sad.” 

"Yes." Bucky agreed, a frown marring his features. "Sad."

“I still miss him.” 

“Steve miss. Sarah miss.” 

"Yeah." He pressed a kiss to Bucky's forehead and sighed. "Let's go to bed, huh? I'll tell you more about him tomorrow if you want."

“Yes,” Bucky agreed. “More tomorrow.” 

Steve went to tug the covers back, releasing a cloud of dust from disuse that he couldn’t bring himself to care about. Not when months away and the exhaustion of the journey were bearing down on him like so much baggage. Crawling beneath the familiar weight of the quilts, he pressed his back to the wall, leaving as much room for Bucky as he could. 

“You coming?” he asked. 

“Yes, coming,” Bucky agreed, consternation on his face as he slipped in beside Steve, one arm snaking around his waist. 

“Tight fit, huh?” He teased.

“Nnn.” Bucky nodded. “Nice, is warm.” 

“Says you, cold toes.” 

In response, Bucky pressed those cold, scaled feet against Steve’s calf, making him shiver. 

“You jerk!” 

"Is jerk," Bucky agreed with a half-smile.

“We’re gonna have to get a bigger bed.” 

“No. Small is good.” 

“It’s good, huh?” He laughed, glad to see him smiling again as he leaned over to kiss the tip of his nose. “You would think so.” 

“Soft,” Bucky replied. “Warm. Smell Steve. Good.” 

“I guess I can’t argue with that.”



Chapter Text

The siren's head broke the surface of the water as another bolt of lightning tore the sky, illuminating the boat full of split-tails running to and fro. The vessel was lost, he knew, but those on board did not have to be. Because there were markings on the hull showing that this one was one which kept to the old ways. More than that, the siren had seen this boat before; he knew these split-tails. For season upon season, when his family traveled to this place, he had seen it floating in the water above his head. And though his mother had warned him not to swim too close, curiosity had gotten the better of him more than once, for he liked to look at the split-tails, in all their strangeness. One had hair orange as a brightfish and often showed all his teeth. Another had dark hair and a sad face, with a mouth that never turned up its corners. There were small ones, round ones, ones with long hair like his own, and ones with short hair like children. These ones, he knew, must have suffered some great loss.

The siren's favorite split-tail was one of these short-hairs. The one that looked to be in charge of all the others, showing his teeth as he moved around the ship, with hair the color of sand on the shore covering both his chin and his head. This split-tail was strong and kind, and the siren thought he must be good, because of the way the others held him in high regard. Held him in regard even now, as the storm surged and the ship shuddered.

It was a shame that such circumstances had brought the siren his first glimpse of these split-tails in many years. In the past, he had surfaced only when he thought it safe, keeping to the shadow side and observing in silence. Then came the day his mother, who was more than wary of split-tails, discovered him at the surface and forbade him to return.

Forbidding was different than warning, so he had heeded her words.

But they would not say hidden today. Not when the storm meant that the ship would be lost. The sirens had been called by the sea to sing some low while saving others—a benevolence brought by the keeping of these split-tails to the old customs. Immutable and revered, the sirens’ sacred duty was far more important than his mother’s personal fear and hatred. 

Another flash of lightning. A crack of thunder. Closer now, the water roiling and churning. Dangerous for the ship to be there. Why hadn't they gone back to the shore and the sand? Why had they stayed in the rain and the wind, searching for their suppers? Even the bravest siren knew it was better to be in the deep when the storms came.

A hand touched his shoulder; he turned to find his mother. 

Save who you can. The instruction echoed through the connection between all the members of his family as they began to surface, dark heads breaking through churning seas. Sing low the rest. 

There were always some to sing low, these ones who kept to the ancient ways, who gave thanks to the salt and the sea that provided their sustenance. Not like the two-tails who had grown grotesque and boastful, forgetting the life given to them by Mother Sea. The ones who had sent a stick through his father’s heart, with their great, belching beastly boats that dirtied the water and stole from the sirens. When storms came for those ships, the sirens neither sang them low nor saved them. No succor provided to such scoundrels.

Dive low! Sang his mother. The final wave had come, singing its own song as the sirens dove down, down, down to escape its destruction while it sent every occupant of the vessel into the sturm and drang of the writhing waves. 

Once the vessel was belly-up to the sky, the sirens went to work, seeking out those split-tails who had lived, dragging them from the depths and setting them afloat on drifting bits of the ship. Delirious and frightened, these split-tails likely thought their saviors no more than a dream.

On his second dive, the siren caught sight of the split-tail with sand-colored hair. Redwater pooled around him, and as the siren swam closer, he saw the source—the split-tail's chest had been pierced by a jagged piece of his own ship.

Dead, he thought, in the same way as my father, only this was not-yet-correct. Then split-tail’s hands fluttered as he struggled in the water, trying to push himself off the debris keeping him trapped. 

It was too late for him. Fate had made its choice, and he would not survive his wound. 

The siren swam closer all the same. The split-tail startled, meeting the siren’s light eyes with the dark blue of his own.

There was no panic on his face. No struggle.

Brave, this split-tail.

The siren made a choice. Broke the already-splintered wood where it attached to the ship. Dragged the split-tail away from the wreckage of his once-proud vessel, beam still protruding from his chest. Upon reaching the surface, the split-tail pulled in great, deep air in the way of surface-breathing, which was never so simple as life below. The blood was flowing freely now; it would attract hungry creatures, which would endanger the living split-tails in the water. That would not do. Hooking an arm around the split-tail's broken body, the siren swam and swam, making for the small island others used when they had need of legs. Not much more than a mound of sand, populated by a few scrubby plants and rocks, it provided no shelter from the lashing wind.

All the same, it would do for a death. 

The siren used every bit of strength he had to drag the split-tail onto the sand before looking down at him. Seeing how quickly he was sinking deep. Fight and fire dimming in his eyes, even as he struggled to make split-tail noises. 

“Sss…” he said. “Stuh…Sarah.” 

Sar-rah. It was a strange noise. The siren frowned and touched the split-tail’s hand, though he knew it was dangerous. Knew he was forbidden to build a bridge between them. Touching one so close to the deep could have consequences, but he was desperate to know. To understand. To share in the pain and take it away if he was able.

There was a sharpness in his belly. Agony covering every inch of him, bright hot and terrifying as he closed his eyes and saw…

Saw another, showing her teeth, holding the hand of a small split-tail with hair the color of the one who was dying. Happy—they were happy—because he had come home to them. To the warmth of the hearth and the comfort of her bed, where she would love him and—

The split-tail’s sharp cry pierced the air, turning to a gurgle as the blood from within became blood from without, choking him as it bubbled from his gaping mouth.

It was time.

The siren raised his voice. Drew the pain from the split-tail’s body until he was gone low, slipped away to the grey mist that lies beyond the waves and the water. 

 


 

Steve bolted awake, sitting straight up while his hands flew to his chest, clawing at a non-existent wound. 

A dream.

A dream.

It had been a—no, not a dream. 

A memory. 

Bucky’s memory. 

Beside him, Bucky whimpered, brow furrowed as he slept. Still half-panicked, Steve shook him, tasting blood in his mouth and seeing himself in his father’s mind’s eye. 

“Bucky—” he rasped, the moment Bucky’s eyes opened. “You sent me…why did you send me that?” 

Bucky moved fast, throwing his arms around Steve’s waist and burying his head against his lap. “Sorry, no, sorry,” he said, frantic and fretful. “No, sorry, no…not mean, not mean—” 

The sharing hadn’t been intentional, that much was clear. Despite his panic, Steve exhaled, putting both hands on Bucky’s back, the remnants of the dream clinging to his mind and making him shiver. “It’s…of course you wouldn’t have done that. I was only…shit, pal. That was real, wasn’t it? You…?” 

“Yes,” Bucky choked. “I see. I see.” Shivering, he turned his head and pointed at the portrait on the dresser. “I know.” 

“Fuck,” he managed, everything in the room going hazy as he wound his fingers into Bucky’s hair. 

“Sorry, sorry—I see, I see!” There was panic in Bucky’s tone, as if Steve might take him outside and pitch him right off the cliff and into the water.

“Bucky,” he said, taking hold of his chin to turn his head up in the hopes of quelling his panic. Strangely, having to calm Bucky down was doing him good—hard to dwell on the sheer horror of the implausible thing he’d seen with a panicked siren at his side. “It’s alright. But…why didn’t you tell me last night? When you saw the picture?”

“Tell today,” he said, eyes gone wide. “I forget this face. This father face. But I see…and he is Steve. How am I not see?”

“It’s not…” Steve sighed. “Buck, I’m only half-awake, and I still don’t really understand. But I’m not angry, alright? I just don’t know why you didn’t tell me last night…” 

“No words! I say, I think. Say tomorrow, I think. But then—” he tapped his head, and Steve could figure it out from there—he’d been working out how to tell him, but his anxiety over the entire incident had lowered whatever wall separated their minds and passed the memory along unbidden. 

“Oh, Bucky,” he said, releasing his chin and pulling him closer. “It’s alright. You’re fine.” 

“No. No alright. I not…rescue.” 

And there it was—no wonder he’d put off telling Steve what he’d realized. Steve could relate—for years, he had carried the burden of guilt for his father’s death. A thousand what-ifs playing out in his mind. Now that he knew the reality of it, though? He wouldn’t let Bucky berate himself. “You couldn’t have saved him. He was already gone.” 

It was the truth, he knew it as he said it, his own guilt lessening like a heavy yoke being lifted from his shoulders. There had been no coming back from the wound Joseph had sustained, and Bucky had done the right thing in getting him away from the surviving crew before something hurry could descend upon them.

A funny thing, fate. He wasn’t religious, but he could see coming around to his mother’s way of thinking, having been through what he’d been through the past few months.

Something was still niggling at him, though.

Some detail. 

Some—

Nearby. 

Bucky’s family had been nearby.

Steve’s grip tightened. “My father’s ship wasn’t so far out when it went down. Your family…this is near where your family comes!” 

Bucky pulled back from the embrace, a guilty look on his face—as if he’d already considered that possibility, but had been hoping Steve might not realize. “No,” he said. “Is…nnn, only some.” 

“What’s that mean?” 

“We come for the boat. To sing low.” 

“Oh.” Steve’s face fell. “But surely you must have been close enough that—” 

“Not know,” Bucky interrupted, looking down at his hands. 

“Buck—” he began. “I’m not stupid. That island you took him to, you knew where to look for it. You’d seen it before.” The emotions that came with the memories were as real as the images themselves, after all.

“Never…” Bucky frowned, shrugging. “Yes, I know. Is…family, yes. Come near, for red claws. When…” he pointed to the ceiling. “Spring, nearly summer?” 

“They come in the spring,” he worked out slowly. “Bucky, that’s…that means they’ll be here, or close to here….” 

“No soon!” He shook his head. “Winter!”

“Yeah, I know, but in the spring—” 

“Steve,” he interrupted, agitated. 

“What?” 

“Nnn. I show?” 

“Show me what?” 

“Is…swim, I show…oi-land?”

“The island?”

“Yes.” 

“Yeah, it’s…I can get out the rowboat,” he agreed, which was all the acquiescence Bucky needed to practically leap out of bed and retrieve his clothes from the night before.

That wasn’t obvious at all. Steve was well aware that Bucky was trying to distract him from a larger conversation, but as a diversionary tactic, it wasn’t bad. There were things he wasn’t saying, though. Things they had to discuss, especially if his family was going to be nearby in a matter of months. If nothing else, it complicated the situation. Plus, Steve couldn’t help wondering why Bucky wasn’t happier about the realization that he was so close to home. Part of him suspected he wouldn’t like the answer.

If an early morning excursion meant putting that off, he was willing to indulge Bucky’s deflections. For now. 

Steve snuck a glance or two at the photograph of his father while they dressed, trying to reconcile what he’d experienced in the dream with the recollections of the men who’d survived the shipwreck. The thing of it was that every single one of them had said Joseph drowned. Tim Dugan had been sure of it—Joseph had been shouting instructions to the last, saving as many men as he could before the wave capsized the boat. After that, none of them saw him again, which the prophecy dream that had first come to Steve on the night of the shipwreck confirmed: a vision of his father’s last moments before he slipped beneath the waves forever.

And yet, Bucky’s memories didn’t lie. Steve had seen his father lying on the sand, breathing his last in the open air. He’d heard Bucky’s song as he sang him low. 

“Steve?” Bucky said, drawing him from his thoughts. 

“Sorry, Buck,” he replied with a half-smile before joining him to descend the stairs.

Sarah was already awake, making coffee and puttering about the kitchen. Steve kissed her cheek, trying to mask the discomfiting morning he’d had with good humor. “Bucky wants to swim, so I thought I’d get the rowboat out and go with him.” 

“Sounds fine. I’ll bring the others down to the beach when they arrive.”

Steve had nearly forgotten about that, and he was grateful for his mother’s help. “Thank you. I don’t think we’ll be out too long, but—he gets restless.” It wasn’t exactly the truth, but it was close enough.

“I’d imagine so,” she said, turning to Bucky with a smile. “So, honey, how about kippers and toast for breakfast?”

Bucky grinned. “Yes. What hun-nee?” 

By the time the honey explanation was finished, breakfast was on the table. Bucky, for all his earlier fretfulness, still managed to put away the lion’s share of the food. After they’d eaten, it took several trips to bring blankets, towels, a picnic basket that Sarah insisted on packing, and the rowboat to the shore.

“Put it down there,” Steve said, showing Bucky where to set the bow, then beginning to fit the oars into the rowlocks. 

Bucky, meanwhile, studied the shoreline, turning to inspect the jagged cliffs overhead. “I know here,” he said after a moment. “See before.” 

The ridge was the same as any other stretch of coast in that part of Eascor, but home was home—Steve would know it anywhere, too. The particular jut of the rocks, the jagged edge of the northern corner, with its giant boulders tumbling into the sea, cutting off their cove from the rest of Red Hook Bay. Put him on any ship, and he’d recognize it the moment it came over the horizon.

“Yeah?” He said, smiling as he used some rope to secure the supplies against the burden boards. “I played down here all the time when I was little. Maybe you were out there, looking back.” 

“No. Not so close. Far away. No see. Is—” he shook his head and grunted. “No.”

Surprised at the surety of his answer, Steve shrugged. “Guess not,” he said, pushing the rowboat out as far as he could without getting wet. “You wanna help me get this into the water?” 

“Yes,” Bucky said, stripping out of his clothes, placing them carefully under some stones, before splashing into the sea. 

“Not too cold for you, is it?”

“No.” He reached for the tie rope on the bow and looked back at Steve. “In, please.” 

“Aye aye.” Steve settled himself on the thwart and grabbed the oars. 

Bucky began to pull, and when he reached deep enough water, he sank beneath the waves. This time, Steve watched, sure he’d be able to see when the transformation happened. But once again, he was thwarted—Bucky’s tail flicked out of the water, and he turned around with a grin. 

“Hi,” Steve called. 

“No help,” Bucky said in response, pointing to the oars. “I do.”

“It’s a long haul, pal.”

“I strong.” 

Steve raised a brow, but pulled the oars out of the water as requested, after which Bucky turned and began to swim, proving Steve wrong in a matter of seconds. 

Yes, he was strong. But more than that, he was fast, cutting a smooth path through the choppy waters. At first, he skimmed the surface, but once they were out past the shallows, he disappeared beneath the waves, the only sign of him in the tautness of the rope. They left the coast behind, the cottage on the cliff fading to a speck and then to nothing at all as they traveled further than Steve would ever have dared go on his own in a vessel this small. The wind on the open water was biting, and he was forced to pull up his collar and tug his warm, knitted cap further down his brow, grateful for his coat and sweater.

Nearly an hour had passed before he saw the island—the small, sandy mound rising from the water, same as in the dream-memory. Perhaps forty feet long, if that, with no signs of life beyond a few wind-worn plants. All the same, it was real

Bucky towed them in, then got behind the boat and shoved it onto the sand. Steve hopped out to grab the tie rope, hauling her in the rest of the way. Bucky did the same to himself, dragging his body onto the damp sand of the shore.

“Hang on, pal,” Steve called, making sure the boat was secure, then going to hoist Bucky up to the dry sand before collapsing at his side. “That was…you’re fast.” 

“Yes,” he said, rolling over so he could rest his chin on Steve’s chest, tail flopping against the edge of the surf. “Is here, island, you see?” 

“I see,” he said, touching his cheek. “Thanks for bringing me.” 

Bucky gave him a half-smile, then looked around and, upon spotting a few large rocks, began dragging himself across the sand by his forearms. 

“Buck—“ Steve said, scrambling to his feet. “Hang on a second.” 

“No,” Bucky said. “You see!” 

Steve did see—as he drew closer to the rocks, he saw that they were a makeshift memorial, meticulously arranged.

"You did this?" He asked as Bucky reached the first rock.

“Sing down,” Bucky said, flipping it over to reveal something small and shiny beneath.

Steve leaned in and saw that it was a compass. 

Legs suddenly incapable of bearing his weight, he sat down hard on the sand while Bucky reached for the instrument and held it out. 

“Is for you, now,” he said. 

“Bucky…” He managed, allowing him to press the compass—his father’s compass—into his palm. 

“I sing him,” he said quietly, the rusted metal cool between their hands. The mechanism had long since rusted shut, but Steve knew what lay within the case: an inscription, from his mother to his father, imploring Joseph to always find his way home. 

“Thank you, Buck,” he said, voice cloudy with unshed tears. 

“I sing him,” Bucky repeated. “Take him low. To the sea. Give him home.” 

Steve nodded, blowing out a breath and squinting into the sun to clear his head. It was too much, all of this, setting his heart swelling and thickening his tongue with grief. Seeking words and finding none, he kept hold of the compass, releasing Bucky’s hand only to him into a tight embrace. They leaned back on the sand together, Steve bearing Bucky’s weight, running his hands down his back, over the scales and fins and muscles and bone that made up every perfect piece of him. 

“I sing him,” Bucky said for the third time, reaching out his arm to touch each of the stones in turn. “Is wind. Fire. Loam. Sea. Yes?”

"Yes," Steve said, because he might not have understood the ceremony, but he understood the significance. "He…I always thought he was alone when he died. I—"

“No alone,” Bucky said. “He is here. We are here.”

Steve nodded, turning his eyes to the sunlight, which splintered into fractals through his tears.

 

Chapter Text

Steve and Bucky lay silent and still for ages on the sand of that small island, time marked only by the ebb and flow of the tide and the occasional call of a gull. Steve wondered what it would be like if they stayed there forever; an eternity spent trailing his fingers over the long, lean line of Bucky’s lithe form. Tracing the imperceptible ridges where skin became scale.

The sun rose higher, the soft light of morning becoming the harder edge of an early winter’s day. Wind was whipping hard across the tiny atoll, so Steve pulled Bucky closer, doing his best to shelter them both. As if Bucky needed the help—as if he hadn’t swum for miles through frigid northern waters without showing the slightest signs of fatigue. Reminding him that for all he was Bucky, he was also a creature Steve might never fully understand. Gods, but life was strange. Every bit of fate between sea and sky conspiring to get them here. That thought sat with him, twisting its way around his mind like a pilot fish, eager for scraps of comprehension that might drift by.

Eventually—perhaps inevitably—his mind turned to the notion of Bucky’s family. He ought to be happy about their coming, he knew—his entire purpose for months on end had been getting Bucky home. That plan had only changed when it became apparent that finding said home was nigh on impossible. Now, though, Bucky’s home and family was a season away, and wasn’t that good? It should have been good.

Except Bucky hadn’t seemed overjoyed, and he couldn’t help wondering why.

“Hey,” he murmured, twining a hand in Bucky’s damp, tangled locks. 

“Mmm?” He said, voice muzzy with sleep.

“Sorry, pal, didn’t mean to wake you.” 

“Is good,” he said, pushing himself onto his forearms. He still had his tail, though it had long since dried, which made Steve think that at least part of his transforming was a choice. “Cold?”

“I…” There was no use in lying. “Little bit.” 

“Blanket,” he said. “Go.” 

“Yeah, yeah.” Steve grinned, extricating himself from Bucky’s embrace and going to fetch one of the woolen blankets from the bottom of the boat. Upon returning, he draped the material over them both, drawing Bucky against his chest. “Better?” 

“Not cold, Steve cold. Better.” 

“You take such good care of me,” he teased, pressing a kiss to the salt of his hair “Can I ask you something?” 

“Yes.” 

"You…how're you doing?"

Bucky’s hand moved to his stomach, tugging at a button on his coat. “Is fine, thank you.” 

“I don’t mean in general.” 

“What mean?” 

“I mean, about ah…finding out your family’s gonna be here?” He hesitated. “You’re happy about that, right?” 

That didn’t garner an immediate response, and Bucky continued to fiddle with the button. “Is…happy to see,” he said finally.

“Uh-huh.” 

“But is—” he took a deep breath and lifted his head to meet Steve’s eyes. “Nnn…com-pluh-muh-cate-ud?” 

“You mean complicated?” 

“Yes. Complicated.” 

“Why?”

“You dream.” Bucky brought his hand to press one clawed fingertip to the skin between Steve’s eyes. “Remember?” 

Remember was the wrong word. The dreams came to him in a language he could understand—Bucky’s thoughts and culture translated into concepts that made sense to his understanding. “Some of it. I’m not sure how much is you, and how much is me…uh. Interpreting.” 

“Is me.”

“How can you be so sure?” 

“I know.” 

Steve smiled, nudging him up to kiss the tip of his nose. "Alright, then. If that's the case, I guess I remember everything."

“Ma?”

“Sure,” he said. “She was there. She was the one who told you to go to the boat.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “Is go for the storm. But not—to look, to see?”

Steve had gotten that impression—some humans were for saving, but Bucky wasn’t supposed to interact with them otherwise, at his mother’s behest. 

“Ma is not…happy with human,” he explained. “They are take my father.”

Frowning, Steve ran a fingertip around the curve of Bucky’s ear, remembering a specific sense of grief from the dream. “You told me your father was dead.” 

“Yes. Dead.” He touched a hand to his gut, then punched the skin there. “Human say, is big fish.”

“And they…?” Steve mimicked the sign, shuddering at the thought of what could only be a harpoon.

“Dead.”

“You never said how—” 

“Never need say. I am small. Sister is small. We are not see. But ma—” 

“She saw it happen?”

“Mmm. She tears the rope. Takes him low. After, she says…no human. No close.” 

“I don’t blame her. But you got close anyway? You watched the ships?”

“Yes, until she finds and says…no more.”

“Gods. So after you got stolen away, she musta been…” Apoplectic.

“Angry,” Bucky said, supplying the word he knew for the emotion. “But before…after my father, she is not want to be where humans go. We are not go, when they come. You see?”

Steve could just about work it out: if humans spotted a siren, or showed up anywhere along their migratory routes, they didn’t return to the same spot. Which meant that even if he had gotten Bucky back to the place from which Pierce had stolen him, his family wouldn’t have been there. “That uh…that makes a lot of sense. But I don’t—” 

Bucky broke in, drawing Steve to the inevitable conclusion. “When family is come. In spring? I see them. Say my story. Ma is say…come home. We go. Away from humans. From Steve. Not come again.” 

His stomach sank like a stone. "Surely not…" he laughed, the sound of it small and unsure, carried away on the wind. "I wouldn't …none of us would share that there are sirens nearby. Couldn't you just…you could convince her to keep coming. In the spring."

As he said it, he realized how stupid he sounded. Giving voice to the sentimental hope he’d clung to all morning—that Bucky, despite having lost everything, would choose Steve over his family and his old life. And it was a choice: his family, or Steve. He couldn’t have both. No wonder he hadn’t wanted to talk about it when he realized how close they were. It was easy to give up the idea of home when home seemed lost, but now, with the opportunity to see his people just a few months away, things were far from simple.

Bucky dropped his gaze. “If we go, we are gone. Go far. Not come here.”

"I…" Steve swallowed. 'Shit."

“She will say no. I know ma. For anger.” 

“Can’t blame her,” he muttered. A partner murdered and a son stolen—he wouldn’t like humans either. “That’s a lousy choice, pal.”

Bucky sighed, pressing his forehead against Steve’s. “Maybe stay? Not see—” 

"No." That one was easy. "You gotta—you know you gotta see 'em, Buck. They're worried about you. They need to know you're safe."

Bucky narrowed his eyes. “Say…go?”

For as much as a tiny voice in his head was screaming at him to be selfish—to beg Bucky to say—he couldn’t. It wasn’t fair to ask so much, after all he’d suffered. “I’m not happy about it. But, you know. You—that's home, pal. Those are your people." There was no bitterness in the words, and as he said them, he found that he meant them: he loved Bucky too much to force him to stay.

“Steve say go,” he repeated, blue eyes boring into Steve’s own. “I think, long. See and…choice. But not yet. No spring.”

“Oh,” he said, forcing a smile. “Yeah, we got a few months.” A frozen tundra between them and the choice; Steve planned to cling to that short time with both hands. 

“Months.” Bucky returned the smile with a hesitant, halting one of his own. “Is…time.” 

“For what?”

“Remember,” he replied, pressing his mouth to Steve’s insistently. “Done talking?”

That got a genuine smile out of Steve, along with a laugh. “You want to be done talking?” 

“Yes. More later. Kissing now?” 

It was an effective enough way to end an impossible conversation, but Bucky was nothing if not blunt. 

Steve hesitated before leaning into the kiss, though, just for a moment, his eyes catching on the rocks that marked where his father had gone to his rest. Was it disrespectful to give into Bucky’s wants? To find some joy in a place that had been home to such sorrow?

Maybe, maybe not. Steve couldn't imagine his father begrudging him the chance at a bit of happiness. Not when that happiness sought him out and allowed him to cling to Bucky for as long as he had him. Kiss him as often as he was able. Love him as best he knew how.

“Yeah, pal,” he said, to Bucky’s newly-concerned expression. “Kissing now.”

Bucky grinned, pulling back and bumping their heads together with utter predictability. Steve took advantage of the moment to flip them, using the arm he had wrapped around Bucky’s waist. From there, it was easy to straddle Bucky’s hips, looking down with a triumphant grin. Fuck talking, and fuck leaving; they had today, and the island, and Bucky wanted a kiss. Which, Steve realized as he sat astride him, was in his power to allow or deny. 

“Steve!” Bucky protested. “Kiss.” 

“Well now, I don’t know. That’s not a very polite request.” 

“Steve,” he grinned. “Kiss now.” 

“You better ask me nicer than that, pal—” 

The next thing he knew, something smacked him on the back so forcefully that it knocked him forward onto Bucky’s chest. 

“Hey!” he hollered, as Bucky’s tail—because that was what had hit him—flopped back down to the sand. “That hurt!”

“Now kiss.” 

There was no mistaking that tone of voice, and Steve laughed, kissing the corner of Bucky’s grinning mouth. After a moment, he let his kisses trail down his jaw and across his neck. Bucky lifted his tail again, this time bringing it to rest gently against Steve’s back, holding him in place as the tail fins furled and fanned across his broad shoulders. The movement sparked some kindling, deep down low that set Steve’s prick swelling against his thigh in an instant. For all that they’d fooled around beneath the caravan, the novelty of the tail was stirring something novel.

Or, rather, something old—bone-deep and familiar. The ache that had existed in him since the first time he'd seen Bucky bare his teeth in that cage. All that beauty and anger, lashing out before hiding behind his sinuous tail, which had been everything back then—an extension of Bucky's psyche—capable of expressing what he could not yet say. He'd twisted it, flicked it, and turned it to show equal parts pleasure and displeasure. Steve, meanwhile, had learned to read the signs, denying his attraction even as he was falling in love.

“Bucky…” he murmured, cheeks pink, lifting his head; there was no missing the effect the introduction of the serpentine length was having on his body. Bucky’s response, naturally, was to use the minute control he had over his tail’s movements to ripple his fins across Steve’s back, the intimacy of the motion felt through three layers of fabric. 

“Steve,” he teased, hand sliding from the buttons on Steve’s coat to the buckle of his belt. “Feel you?” 

“Shit,” Steve stammered, pushing Bucky’s groping hand away. Didn’t seem fair, was all. He was present and accounted for, while Bucky wasn’t sporting the right equipment for copulation. “Don’t you wanna uh…get the legs out?”

"No," Bucky said with a slight grin. "You like.”

Not bothering to deny it, Steve shrugged sheepishly. “Yeah, I kinda got a thing for your tail. That a problem?” 

“No problem. Is…” Trailing off, Bucky reached for his hand, drawing it to the space just below the start of his scales—the place where the base of his prick would be under other circumstances. The place where Steve had assumed a prick had to be for Bucky to feel any pleasure. He was quickly disabused of that notion, however, as Bucky lifted his hips and pressed himself against Steve’s palm, eyes fluttering shut. 

“Oh good—” He hissed. 

Well, now. That was interesting. Steve curled his fingers against the spot, finding some small give—not an entrance, but a dip which, when stimulated, conveyed sensation outside of sex. His knowledge of women’s anatomy was sparse, but in his limited understanding (mostly thanks to Peggy), he got the sense that this wasn’t unlike that. Maybe. Hard to say. Whatever it was, Bucky was enjoying himself, tail thudding against Steve’s shoulders as he writhed. 

Wonders never fucking ceased, and Steve sure as shit wasn’t going to spend time worrying over the mechanics. Instead, he kissed Bucky once, quickly, then shifted his weight to look down at him.

“Mind if I try something new?” he asked.

“What new?” Bucky asked, curiosity writ large on his features. 

“Lemme just—” He bit his lip, reaching down to finish the job Bucky had started, undoing his fly and pushing the flaps to the side, then angling his prick so it lined up with the dip. They fit together perfectly—as if Bucky had been made for him, and he for Bucky. 

Bucky let loose a happy sigh, tail tensing as he rocked against the length of Steve’s prick. “Please?” he whined. “Please, please?” 

“I’m right here, Buck,” he laughed. “How about you let me see about making you feel good?” 

“Yes,” Bucky said. “Please, Steve?” 

“Whatever you want, pal,” he murmured, beginning to move his hips. At first, it felt ridiculous, but got easier when he realized whatever he was doing was working. Bucky’s breathing had quickened, eyes taking on a glassy quality—the blue disappearing so they were nearly black—mouth falling open to show all his teeth.

It didn’t take long for Steve’s body to warm, sweat pooling in the small of his back as his prick slid against the smooth ridges of Bucky’s scales. The friction felt damn good, and while it wasn’t quite like a fuck—not so warm and slick as all that, considering the scales were rough on one side—that didn’t matter when it was Bucky writhing beneath him, convulsing into a series of happy shivers which seemed to indicate a release. 

“Buck?” He asked, unsure as to whether or not that particular reaction had been good, bad, or transcendent. 

“Again,” Bucky managed, groaning as he jerked his hips. 

“Fuck,” Steve laughed. “Alright, alright.” 

Bucky grabbed him by the back of his neck then, using his tail to force him down and into a kiss that was decidedly more bite than bliss.

“Ow—” Steve yelped, the coppery tang of blood filling his mouth. “Bucky!”

“No sorry, please,” he whined. 

He took the hint, spitting a mouthful of blood onto the sand before continuing to roll his hips. Close to his own release, his focus narrowed to the sensation of Bucky—the weight and sight and smell of him, sea brine and salt—rocking their bodies together until his spend spilled against Bucky’s scales, a gasp escaping him as he shuddered.

Discomfort set in moments later, and he twisted his body away, cock already softening and sensitive. "Bucky," he said. "I can't …just…hang on."

Moving wasn’t easy with the tail pinning him down, but Steve managed to turn enough that he could relieve the pressure on his prick, slipping his hand between their bodies and pressing his fingers against the dip in Bucky’s scales. 

The reaction was instantaneous, Bucky wriggling snake-like against the sand, desperate for more. Gods, Steve could feel it—a faint but present pulsing beneath the pearlescent scales. A throbbing in time with his heartbeat, faster and faster until, with a cry, Bucky jolted and jerked through his second bit of bliss before knocking Steve's hand away and slumping, sated, to the sand.  

“Wow,” Steve managed, sucking on the wound of his still-bleeding lip and letting his weight drop onto Bucky’s waiting body. 

“Yes,” Bucky said, yawning. “Nice.” 

“Takes your mind off things, that’s for sure,” he teased, kissing Bucky’s temple. “You uh…knew how that worked already, huh?” 

“I do before.” 

“Yeah, humans do stuff like that, too.” 

“Feels nice.” 

“Yup.”

“Sleep?”

“You wanna take another nap?”

“Yes.” 

“Such a lazy siren—” 

“I swimming!” He protested. Which was a fair point—he was the one doing all the work; Steve was just along for the ride. 

So Steve reached for the blanket, wrapping them both up, while Bucky took the initiative of curling his tail over Steve’s legs, pinning him in place and giving him an extra bit of protection from the wind.

At that moment, as they drifted off together, spring seemed a lifetime away.

 


 

The second nap did Bucky good—Steve swore he was faster getting them home than he had been taking them out. Their rapid clip meant that it wasn't long before Steve spotted the line of cliffs on the horizon, tiny at first but growing larger by the minute. As they drew nearer, he saw a flash of red on the shore—Natasha's hair an ever-present beacon. She, Sarah, and Peggy were waiting for them on the beach, and once they were close enough, Steve gave them a wave. When they reached the shallows, he hopped out to drag the boat in while Bucky went around to the stern, giving it another almighty shove to assist.

“Hello!” Steve called, though only Natasha returned the greeting, rushing forward to help him secure the boat on the sand. It wasn’t rudeness that held Peggy and Sarah’s tongues, however, but shock—Bucky proved quite the distraction to those who had never seen him swimming, and he was reveling in the attention, splashing and preening in the surf. Putting on a show, as usual.

“Where are Sam and Riley?” Steve asked Natasha as they dropped the boat in the sand.

“They were here, but you two were gone a while, so they left. They said they had errands.”

“And you and Peg got nothing better to do than wait around for us?”

“Oh, we did our doing last night,” she said primly, sticking out her tongue.

“That’s—” Steve began, only to be interrupted by a holler from the water. 

“Nasha!” Bucky called. “Come!”

“No! It’s too gods damned cold!”

“Come!” 

“Only as far as my boots!” she said, relenting and going to wade in as far as her galoshes would allow. A second later, Peggy joined her, and Steve found it interesting to note that they were wearing identical boots—Peggy’s spare pair, no doubt, on Natasha’s feet.

Bucky, thrilled with his audience, began turning tricks—diving and twisting and flipping as the women gave him an exaggerated show of applause. After a few minutes of indulging him, Sarah stepped close to Steve, taking his arm. “I believed you, starfish. But seeing him—” 

“I know,” he said, kissing the top of her head. “I need to show you something. Can we head back to the house?” 

“Is everything alright?” 

“Just about.” 

They left Bucky, Natasha, and Peggy to their games, taking a walk back up the hill together. Once they were inside, they sat at the kitchen table, where Steve reached into the pocket of his coat to pull out Joseph's compass.

"That's pretty," she said after he'd put it on the table, leaning closer to inspect the casing—unremarkable, save for a distinctive filigree. "Where—oh!" Her head snapped up, and she turned to him, her mouth forming an 'o' of shock.

“It’s his,” he said, clearing his throat. 

“I don’t…I don’t understand,” she managed. “Where did you find this?”

“Bucky,” he said, and he could see a hundred questions in her eyes, so he kept talking. “You remember the stories you used to tell me? Of sirens aiding those who kept to the old ways?”

Sarah traced her trembling fingers over the metal. “And drowning those who didn’t.” 

“That, too, but they don’t…they don’t drown. It’s more like they don’t bother to save them. But we both know Da kept to the custom—two fish, every time.”

“Yes,” Sarah agreed. “Better safe than sorry, that was what he said.”

“And you remember when I said Bucky can send me memories through dreams?” The telepathy had come up in the course of telling the story the previous evening, though Steve had glossed over some of the stranger details. “Last night, he saw Da’s photograph on my dresser, and I guess he remembered him. Made the connection. Which sent the memory to me, though he didn’t mean to share it.”

“Gods above,” Sarah murmured. “He—“ 

“Bucky’s family was there the night the ship went down. The storm was so bad, and they saved what crew they could. But…Bucky was the one who found Da.” 

Sarah inhaled sharply, voice shimmering with tears as she picked up the compass. “I gave this to him on the day we were married, you know,” she murmured. “Made him swear—” 

"There was no saving him," Steve said, covering her hand with his own. "What Tim Dugan said was true—he got as many men off the ship as he could, and he went down with her. By the time Bucky found him, he was trapped. A piece of the railing had—" he touched his chest.

“You saw that?” Sarah asked, voice choked. “You saw him…?”

“He wasn’t gone. Not quite—” Steve took a deep breath. “Bucky knew he was going to die, but he wanted to make it a kinder death than drowning. So he took him to shore—an island—stayed with him until he—” He paused to catch his breath, blinking back tears. “When a siren sings, it can take away fear and pain. He did that, for him. And that’s where we went this morning. The island where he—”

“And the compass…” 

“Bucky had buried it. Set stones to mark the spot.” 

“Gods,” she said, squeezing the metal tightly in her fist. “So it’s not far then? It’s…could I?”

"It's pretty far, but he swims fast. We can take you if you want to go," he said, then hesitated. "It's near where his family stays in the summer."

Sarah, not missing a beat, frowned. “His family?”

“I, yeah,” Steve frowned. “They’ll be here in the spring. We’re still working out the details of him…visiting.” Steve didn’t see the point in worrying her further. Not when he’d laid so much information at her feet. “I wanted you to know that someone was with him, is all. That he wasn’t in pain. And that…the last…his last thought was of us.”

"Well," she said, voice trembling as she clutched tight to his hand. "Well, that's—" Clearing her throat, she pulled back, leaving him with the compass and getting to her feet, daubing her damp eyes with the sleeve of her dress. "Thank you for telling me, starfish. I'm …well. I'm a bit undone. But tell me, does Bucky like sweets?"

Steve closed his hand around the compass and nodded, knowing just what she was doing. Same thing he would have done, lest someone catch him out crying. “Bucky likes just about everything, except chocolate.” 

“That’s a relief,” she replied. “We haven’t had chocolate in years.” 

With that, she went to fetch flour and sugar. By the time Bucky, Peggy, and Natasha returned from the shore, the house was filled with the smell of warmth and winter—cinnamon and ginger piping hot from the oven. 

“What smells so good?” Peggy asked, wiping her boots on the mat, followed by Natasha and Bucky (fully-clothed and once more bipedal), holding a line of fish over his shoulder.

“Ginger cake,” Sarah said. “It’s just cooling.” 

“You spoil us,” Peggy teased, and Steve didn’t miss the way she reached for Natasha’s hand once the door was shut. 

“Goodness,” Sarah exclaimed upon being presented with Bucky’s line of fish, held out proudly with a grin. “You caught all of these just now?”

“Is supper,” he said.

“Aren’t you a wonder?” she replied, wiping her hands on her apron before reaching for the fish, then thinking better of it and taking Bucky by the shoulders instead. She kissed one cheek, then the other, before holding him at arm’s length. “Thank you, Bucky.” 

Bucky shrugged, confused but not displeased, looking from her, to Steve, then to the fish. “Welcome,” he said. “But is only small ones.” 

 

Beardy Steve portrait

Chapter Text

The first snow of the season flew on their sixth day at home, whiting out the world as they slept. Steve might have dozed through the entirety of the storm, but he was roused when Bucky sat straight up in the darkness with a cry, flailing elbow landing directly in the center of Steve’s sternum.

“Shit,” he managed upon being rudely jerked into awareness. “Bucky, what the—” 

“Is screaming.” 

“It’s not screaming,” he yawned, though he supposed the moaning of the wind would sound like that to an ear that had never heard it whipping around eaves before. “It’s a storm.” 

“No.”

“Whaddaya mean, no? It’s a storm.” 

“Is no rain.” 

“Yeah, because it’s a snowstorm,” he said, stifling a yawn and touching Bucky’s back. “C’mere, pal.” 

With some reluctance, Bucky lay back down, while Steve rearranged the blankets and wrapped a leg around him to cuddle close.

“Your heart’s goin’ like a fly’s wing,” he murmured, resting a hand on Bucky’s chest while the other moved to twine in his hair. “It’s alright. You’ll see it in the morning.” 

“See what?” 

“The snow. It’s uh…hard to describe.” Seeing was believing, and despite the nearly-two years Bucky had spent on the surface, Steve was willing to bet he hadn’t seen any, Columbia being too far south. 

“Is loud, snow,” he complained. 

“That’s not the snow, that’s the wind.” 

“No.”

“You keep saying no, like you’re so smart,” he teased, bumping his nose against Bucky’s temple. “What is it, if it’s not the wind?” 

“Is a wolf,” he said, teeth clicking together in the dark. 

“And how’d you know what a wolf sounds like?”

“Nasha.” 

“How does Natasha know what a wolf sounds like?”

Bucky shrugged. “Nasha is come from wolves.” 

“Yeah, alright. That’s a lie.”

“How you say?”

“Because it is,” he replied. “Go to sleep, huh?” 

“No. Loud.” 

"You can sleep in a rolling wagon, but you can't handle a little wind—some big, brave siren—"

Bucky cut him off with a kiss.

 


 

By the time morning rolled around, Steve had soothed Bucky’s nerves, and they’d even gotten a bit more sleep. The smell of coffee and kippers roused them around eight, and Bucky bounded out of bed, pulling on his clothes like some half-starved urchin rather than a fella who’d eaten the better part of an entire roast chicken the night before. 

The light in the room was different—the light was always different when it snowed—the sky outside the high attic windows a bright blue, indicating that the storm had passed over. One of many to come, though, if experience was any indication.

“Steve!” Bucky said, exasperated, as he was up and dressed while Steve was still lazing abed, scratching his stomach. “Go go!” 

“What, you in some sort of hurry?” he said, pushing back the bedclothes and pointing his toes. “Shit, it’s cold.” 

Bucky’s response was to throw a sweater at his head. Steve took the hint, dressing quickly and descending the stairs a few feet behind Bucky. 

“Good morning,” Sarah greeted.

“Snow,” Bucky informed her, rushing to the front window and taking a peek. Steve gave Sarah a grin and followed him over, wrapping an arm around his waist and taking in the view. It wasn’t much snow—a few inches—but even that small amount had transformed the cliffside meadow into something otherworldly. Familiar to Steve, but new for Bucky, who stood with his mouth hanging open, eyes gone wide. 

“See?” Steve said, resting his chin on Bucky’s shoulder. “I told you. Snow.” 

“What is? Is…” he screwed up his face, thinking it over. “Soap?”

“Nope.” 

“Nnn…no sand,” he frowned. 

“No, not sand.”

“Is…waves…” he moved his hand, making the flotsam and jetsam motion of breakers on the shore. 

“Nope,” Steve smiled. “It’s uh…frozen water.”

“Water,” he replied, disbelieving.

“Don’t be such a skeptic!”

“Go see?” 

“After breakfast,” Sarah said. 

“Oh yes,” Bucky nodded. “Yes, breakfast.” 

Gods help them if Bucky ever wanted to skip a meal. Still, the snow had quite an allure—Bucky, never a genteel eater, set new records for speed and sloppiness that morning, shoveling food into his mouth hand over fist. Steve and Sarah were a bit more measured, so when Bucky finished and declared, “done-thank-you-Sarah-snow-Steve!” through one triumphant mouthful, Steve was only halfway through.

“I’m not—” 

Snow, Steve!”

“I’ll keep it warm for you, honey,” Sarah said.

Knowing when he was beat, Steve got to his feet. “Fine. But we’re bundling up—coats and all.” 

Bucky, who liked his coat (mostly because of the shiny buttons) allowed Steve to dress him in a scarf and a hat, and only gave minimal protest over wearing a pair of Steve’s old galoshes. The battle over shoes was never easy, but most of Bucky’s aversion was about laces, for some strange reason, so boots he could pull on and off were much less offensive. Gloves, however? He found them an affront to his entire concept of selfhood, protesting vocally the moment Steve wrestled one onto his hand, claws poking through the knitted ends.

“Ow!” he howled.

“Faker,” Steve said, rolling his eyes. 

“Steve, no gloves. Alright?” 

"Yes, gloves. Otherwise, you'll come back here with frostbite, and I'll have to chop your hands off."

“Steve. No.” 

“Bucky. Yes.”

“No.” 

“Yes, or we aren’t going outside.” 

Bucky relented, but in so doing made a rude gesture that he’d learned from Natasha somewhere along the line. (Its effect was somewhat muted, however, as Steve used the opportunity to shove the second glove onto his outstretched hand.) 

“Don’t do that in front of my mother,” he reprimanded. 

“Ma know,” Bucky replied. “Now, snow?” 

“Yeah,” Steve said, smiling. “Now snow.” 

They went to the door, and when Steve pulled it open, a gust of cold air hit them hard—not quite so windy as a storm, but a breezy day, with frigid wind whipped in from the water, blowing the loose snow about. Already, drifts had begun to pile against the side of the house, reminiscent of waves as it settled back to the ground.

“Go on,” Steve urged.

Bucky grinned, taking his first tentative steps outside, snow crunching underfoot. As was often the case, he used his mouth to suss out a new situation, crouching and scooping up a handful of the powder, which he crammed past his lips. After a moment’s consideration, he turned his head and spat.

“No good?” Steve asked, shutting the door.

“Is only water,” he said, dejected.

“I told you!”

“I think maybe you are wrong.” 

“You’re so mean to me. Why do I even put up with you?” 

“Because you are for me.” 

"Some days, I wonder." Using his foot, he caught Bucky under his backside and gave him a nudge. "C'mon, I'll show you how to build a snow siren."

“What is?”

“Exactly what it sounds like.” 

They got started on the construction after that, but for all Steve’s optimism, the snow was too fine and powdery to build any sort of stable structure. Twenty minutes in and all they’d managed was a squat little snow fish with a misshapen head and a tail that would blow away with the next stiff breeze. 

“Well,” Steve said, patting Bucky’s shoulder as they stood back to survey their handiwork. “I guess we gotta name him.”

“Why?”

“Everything needs a name.” 

Bucky gave him a look that plainly said he thought that was nonsense.

“What?” Steve protested. “Clint named Lucky! You never had a pet?”

“No.”

“What about uh…dolphins. I bet they’d make a great pet—like a dog.”

Bucky’s face screwed up in obvious consternation. “No!”

“Wow.”

“They are fight and steal, and they are rude.” 

“Well shit,” Steve laughed. “I didn’t know there was such a rivalry—” 

"Dolphin is no pets.” 

"Didn't mean to offend, pal," he teased. "Still, we should name our err…snow-siren."

“Nnn…name is Steve.”

“You can’t name it Steve!”

“Everything needs a name,” Bucky said, mimicking him right down to his deep voice and maybe-a-little-officious intonation. 

“You’re such a jerk.” Steve grabbed him by the lapels and pulled him in for a kiss. “I love you.” 

“Love,” Bucky agreed, and knocked their foreheads together.

 


 

If the first storm had been a warning, the second was a monsoon, leaving nearly a foot of snow behind and isolating Red Hook from its neighbors. Sealing them into a tiny, glittering world. To Steve and Bucky, the solitude was a gift. A respite from reality—from the threat of Alexander Pierce, from the coming spring, from worry—giving them time together in simplicity and stillness. 

Bucky took to domesticity like a sponge to water, soaking up how to perform the various and sundry tasks Sarah showed him. As days turned into weeks, he learned the basics of cooking and baking, peppering her with questions as they worked side by side. Turned out, he was a natural chef, though the baking was his special talent, and he churned out cakes and treats by the dozen. Steve was sure they’d gain a stone each by the time the season was through. (Plus, Bucky—who had never known too much of a good thing—often fell asleep with a sore stomach, muttering complaints against Steve’s shoulder.) 

He also proved adept as a yarn swift, holding hanks of wool between his hands as Sarah wound them into balls. He wasn’t much for knitting itself, as needles were complicated with his claws, but he liked watching her work, and told her in his halting way of the crafts and tools of the sirens. Steve, who had been fond of learning more about Bucky’s people in the past, now found himself wistful and a bit sullen when the conversations turned that way, mindful of the fact that this was a life to which Bucky would soon be returning.

When the weather was fine, the town foursome of Peggy, Natasha, Sam, and Riley would visit, bringing with them news of the railroads (closed in Penston), the boarding house (scraping by with a few over-winter residents), and the wider world (what wider world? Telegraph broke years ago.) On rarer occasions, Steve and Bucky went to town, visiting Peggy and Natasha in Peggy’s house-behind-the-inn, or Sam and Riley in their rooms. (The caravan and the horses, meanwhile, boarded in the stable.)

Regardless of whether the days were fair or foul, though, Steve and Bucky ended them the same way—tucked up in bed together with plenty of kissing to go around.

A month after arriving at home, Bucky woke up with a cold. Steve thought it was a cold, at any rate, but it wasn’t as though he was some expert on siren sniffles. Shit, up until then, he’d been operating under the assumption that Bucky couldn’t get human sicknesses. But Sam had been coughing when he’d visited a few days prior, and now Bucky had turned up miserable and feverish. Stood to reason there was a connection.

“Hot,” he complained from the sofa, Steve having dragged it close to the hearth before covering him with a pile of blankets. 

“Yeah?” he said, checking him over. Bucky didn’t sweat, so seeing how red his cheeks had gotten was alarming. Steve shoved the sofa back, then touched his forehead, feeling for a fever. Bucky, in a fit of pique, swatted his hand away. “Quit it, Buck.” 

“What’s wrong?” Sarah called from where she was heating up some soup. 

“Bucky says he’s hot, but he doesn’t have a fever—” 

"Am hot!" Bucky snapped, shoving the blankets away and letting loose a mighty sneeze. The phlegm that came out of him wasn't entirely human—a blue-green mucus that was nearly the same color as his eyes.

"You're a gods damn mess," Steve said, and it must have been true love because he didn't flinch before reaching into his pocket and producing a handkerchief. "How does your throat feel?"

“Sand.” 

“That’s no fun,” he sighed. “Plus the sneezing.”

At the mention of his sneeze, Bucky crooked his index finger, shoving the knuckle into his nostril and huffing. “Is closed.” 

“Yeah. That’s why you keep sneezing.” 

“Why?”

“I just said.”

“Is why?” 

“Because…well, shit, pal. I dunno. I’m not a doctor. That’s just what happens when you’re sick.” 

Bucky grunted, folding his arms over his chest. “Is bad.” 

“Yup. I’m sorry—I know it’s not any fun.” 

“No fun.”

“Steve knows about being sick,” Sarah said, crossing the room with a tray, which she placed on Bucky’s lap. “He spent a lot of time laid up when he was small.” 

“Has a cold?” Bucky asked, looking back and forth between them. 

"Not always," Steve said. "Just…" General misery. Asthmatic fits that had dissipated in his teenage years. Rheumy eyes and ear infections and fainting spells. There had been no cure-all, only time—some of the ailments had been ones of childhood, while others had improved with years of building strength through circumstance.

"Just?" Bucky prompted, slurping a bit of soup.

“Mostly, I couldn’t breathe,” he said. “That was the worst thing.”

Bucky considered that. “Now breathe alright?” 

“Yeah. For the most part—” he grinned. “Except when you worry me. I always stop breathing then.” 

“Maybe no worry,” Bucky muttered. 

“Thanks, pal. Eat your soup.”

 


 

By the fifth day of Bucky’s cold, Steve was tired of him. It wasn’t his fault, but the whining and the crabbiness and the general sour attitude was getting tiresome. Bucky had woken him up that morning by sneezing directly on his bare chest, at which point Steve had hollered at him to get his own damn breakfast. Sarah, spotting the fight brewing, had sent Steve on an errand to town, refusing his protests, and insisting she could take care of Bucky on her own for a few hours. Loathe as he was to admit it, Steve knew he needed the break.

The general store was his first stop, after which he headed to the boarding house, stepping through the muddy snow and onto the clapboard sidewalk which separated it from the street. One of the older buildings in Red Hook, it had been erected by Peggy’s grandfather as a young man, then passed to her father. When Harrison Carter had died, the running of the place had fallen to Peggy’s mother, and now, Peggy herself. Well-worn and well-loved, the building boasted a pub and restaurant on the ground floor, with a set of stairs leading to six rooms of varying size and quality, one of which Sam and Riley were occupying for the winter. The rear of the building held the private entrance to a modest house, which was where Peggy and her mother had lived for years.

Steve went into the pub first, thinking perhaps Peggy might be working. Instead, he found her mother, Amanda, behind the bar, who told him that Peggy and Natasha were at home. So, he went around the back to find them, knocking twice and stepping back to wait.

Natasha came to the door, wearing one of Peggy’s old dresses—too long on her, but the color was nice. Steve couldn’t help smiling at the sight. “Hi.”

“Hello,” she said. “Were we expecting you?” 

“Wasn’t aware I needed an invitation.” 

“Oh, you do,” she teased. “Engraved.”

“My apologies—”

“But since you’re here,” she said, stepping back and letting him in. “Where’s your other half?” 

“Still sick.”

“Still?”

“Yeah.” 

“Sam was over it in three days.” 

“Don’t know what to tell you. Maybe sirens stay sick longer.”

“Maybe. What brings you to town?” 

“Ma sent me on an errand. Why? You got plans?” 

“Peggy’s in the bath.” 

“That’s Peggy’s plan. I was asking about—” 

Natasha raised an eyebrow. Steve realized his mistake. 

“…oh.” 

“Yes.” 

“I uh…I could come back?” he offered. “Go see Sam and Riley—” 

“No,” she said, but something about the way the word slipped from her—disappointed, with a slight pursing of her lips—had Steve’s cheeks going hot. Shit, it wasn’t as though he and Bucky had been saints—they’d gotten up to plenty beneath the caravan with Natasha sleeping on the other side of the campfire—but this was Peggy. And Natasha. “Tea?” 

“Uh. Yes. Please.” 

“Sit down,” she said, pointing at one of the worn velvet sofas in the parlor.

Steve sat as she disappeared into the kitchen, where she began clattering around, remarkably at ease. Bucky, it seemed, was not the only wild creature finding comfort in his new home.

A few minutes later, Peggy appeared, wearing nothing but a crimson robe and calling out Natasha’s name. Upon spotting Steve instead, her eyes went wide, and she disappeared into her bedroom, emerging a few minutes later in a pair of trousers and a cable knit sweater that had once been his.

“Ah…I was only—” she said, clearing her throat before starting again. “Good morning.” 

“Hi,” he said, having managed to calm his blush. 

“She…I was wondering where Natasha was. So…”

“Don’t need to explain yourself to me,” he said firmly.

“Tea,” Natasha said, arriving with a tray that held a teapot and biscuits, along with three cups. “Oh, you’re out of the bath.” 

“Indeed. Bit lonely.”

“Can I help that Steve showed up?”

“You might have stuck your head in and warned me.” 

“What, did he see you naked?”

“Nearly.”

“Nearly’s not naked,” she pointed out, turning to Steve. “Biscuit?” 

“Uh. Sure,” he said. “Thanks.” 

“Where’s Bucky?” Peggy asked. 

“Still sick,” Natasha and Steve said at the same time.

“I see you’ve already had the conversation,” she said drily, reaching for a biscuit of her own. “Everything alright?”

“Oh, sure, just—”

“Bucky’s driving him crazy,” Natasha surmised. 

“I didn’t say that!”

“Call it intuition.”

“I…yeah.”

“Patience never was your strong suit, my darling,” Peggy agreed.

Two on one—hardly seemed fair. Steve took a bite of his biscuit. “I really did need to go to the store. Have you seen the mark up on sugar?”

Peggy and Natasha exchanged a glance—some secret lovers’ communique—which he and Bucky surely did on occasion as well. 

“We can spare some,” Peggy said. “If you’d like.” 

“That’d be swell. Bucky and ma are still baking up a storm.”

“All the better for you,” she said. 

“For now,” Natasha agreed, which got her a sharp glance from her paramour. “What?”

“We’re not—” Peggy sighed, looking at him. “We’re ah. Well. Avoiding the obvious.” 

“It’s alright,” he said. “You can say it.” The coming spring and the return of Bucky’s family wasn’t a secret—Bucky and Natasha didn’t keep things from each other, and neither did Steve and Peggy. Or Steve and Sam, for that matter. 

“Just…we were wondering,” Peggy said. “Whether he’s…made up his mind?” 

“About what?” Steve frowned.

Peggy looked surprised, and Natasha shrugged. “Staying or going.” 

“What?” He laughed. “Uh, he’s going. Obviously.” 

“Oh, Steve.” Peggy frowned. “I’m sorry—” 

“Sorry, yes, except,” Natasha began, eyes narrowing. “You’ve discussed it, right?”

“Yes!”

“Don’t get snappy. Last time you thought you were sending him away forever, and he was just going for a swim.” 

“This isn’t that,” he said with a scowl. “When that happened, I was doing what I thought was best. Forcing my wants on him. This is him making his own choice. Outside of my influence.” 

For a moment, there was silence, the only sound the ticking of the ornate clock on the mantle. 

“Do you mean to tell me,” Natasha said quietly. “That you haven’t asked him to stay?” 

Steve frowned. “He knows I love him.”

“That’s not what I said.” 

“Well, then, no, I haven’t asked him to stay…in so many words. That’s what…I did that before, like I said. Influencing him, and—”

“Pigshit,” Natasha said, bristling like a pufferfish and throwing his sentiment back in his face. “Gods, both of you—”

“What did I do?” Peggy managed, only to be silenced with a glare. 

Both of you decide you know what’s best for people, then you sit there in your smugness and let it fester. Meanwhile, those of us who are stupid enough to fall in love with you have to wait around, trying to guess what you want!”

“Natasha—” Peggy protested. “Darling…” 

“No!” she said. “And I’m not…I’m not really angry at you, Peg, but you—” Rounding on Steve, she pointed a finger. “Bucky might choose to leave, that’s true. This world’s been awful to him, and if I were him, I wouldn’t stick around. But he’s not me—”

“No shit,” Steve shot back, annoyed at the lecture, and more than a little bit done with Natasha. “You got some—”

“Just listen,” she said, voice rising. “If you take the coward’s way out—if you never ask him to stay out of some misguided nobility—he’s gonna leave here thinking you didn’t care enough to try. That’s not influence, Steve. That’s fear.” 

Her words hit like a punch, knocking out his good sense and leaving him with his anger. He rose to his feet, and Natasha did as well, the two of them squaring off, inches apart. He had every intention of telling her that she was wrong. That she didn't know anything about him, or Bucky, or the bond they'd built. That just because she'd been hard done by in her life, didn't give her the right to comment on his.

What came out instead was a spluttered, angry, “he’s not the same as you.” 

“He is, and—” 

“He has a family. You wouldn’t know anything about—” 

Natasha slapped him, the sound of the blow ricocheting around the room. Shocked, Steve’s hand flew to his cheek. The slap had hurt, but the pain would fade. The cruel thing he’d said, however? That was irrevocable, and he wished he could take it back as she looked at him, blue eyes bright and wounded. 

“Maybe I don’t know what he’s missing,” she said, voice low. “But I know a little of what he’s giving up.”

“Nat—” he began. “I—”

“Save it,” she said, sweeping out of the room, spine straight and head held high.

“Fuck,” he swore, turning to Peggy, who looked livid, two bright pink splotches of color high on her cheeks. “Peg—“ 

“Gods damn it, Steve. For once in your life, think first.” 

“I didn’t mean it the way it sounded.” 

Peggy—angry on Natasha’s behalf, but still knowing him better than most—rose and put a hand on his arm, gripping him tightly. “You and I are stubborn creatures. I hurt her once, thinking I was being noble. Don’t make my mistakes. If you want Bucky to stay, tell him so.” 

“What—” He cleared his throat. “What if I ask him to stay, and he doesn’t?” 

“Then at least you’ll know you tried,” she said firmly. “Now, I’m going to check on Natasha. You can help yourself to the sugar, and then I suggest you go.” 

He frowned. “Will you tell her I’m sorry?” 

“I’ll try. But it’ll mean more coming from you. When she’s ready to hear it.” 

“I can go back there with you now, and—” 

“Darling,” she said, the word an answer in and of itself. “Get your sugar and go home.” 

Steve nodded, resigned, and watched as Peggy disappeared down the hallway. Things were different between them now—a subtle shift in priorities. Before, he and Peggy had come first for one another. Now? Natasha was her priority, same as Bucky was his. It didn’t make their friendship any less important, only put it in a different context. So, with a resigned sigh, he did as he was told—fetched his sugar and headed out on the long walk home, all the while doing a fair bit of pondering.

In the end, there was only one conclusion to come to: Natasha was right, and he had to ask Bucky to stay. Not as a demand or an imposition, though. Merely a request. An offer. A question asked without conditions, and with the understanding that Bucky might say no. 

Arriving home some time later with his mind made up, he found Bucky and Sarah engaged in one of the card games Natasha had taught them on the road.

“Hi,” he greeted, shutting the door and dropping his parcels on the table before going to join them, pressing a kiss to the top of Bucky’s head. “How you feeling?” 

“Better,” he said. “Look. I win.” 

“He cheats,” Sarah laughed.

“Is win!”

“Mind if I join you?”

“Yes, join,” he agreed, tugging him down to the table.

Cards for now—they’d talk soon enough.

 

Chapter Text

Steve asked Bucky to stay in the sanctuary of their shared bed. He waited until the world was silent and slow—no sound in the room save for their breathing—the moon spilling her sharp, wintry light onto the attic floor, the spit of land outside a chrysalis of ice and snow. Freezing them in this place; this time. 

Bucky had tucked himself into Steve’s side, a silhouette in moonlit relief as he slept, chest rising and falling, one arm draped across Steve’s hip, the other trapped between them, clawed fingers twitching against their bellies while he dreamed. 

Minutes slipped by as Steve watched him, conjuring imagined worlds. Worlds in which sirens and humans had never drifted apart. Where all those on land kept to the old ways. Where Bucky’s father had escaped the harpoon which ended his life, and Steve’s father hadn’t gone down with his ship. Worlds where the unjust were punished and the just given their reward in rest. Joy. Love.

Mostly love. 

Tipping his head, he kissed Bucky’s top lip once, twice, three times. Drawing him slowly out of the deep. 

"Nnn," Bucky groaned, half-returning the third kiss as his eyes opened, glittering in the scattered light.

“Hey pal,” he said, resting his cheek against the pillow. “I need to talk to you.” 

Bucky gave an exaggerated yawn, legs kicking beneath the blankets. “Now, is talk? No, sleep.” 

“It has to be now.” 

Sharp as a spear and twice as pointed, Bucky picked up the tremor in Steve’s tone. “Bad?”

“It’s—” He swallowed. 

“Steve?” Bucky’s left hand came to stroke along his cheekbone, leaning in to kiss him with a closed mouth. “Say.” 

“When your family comes,” he began, before clearing his throat of premature sorrow. “You’re planning to go see them.”

Bucky nodded. “Yes. We say before.” 

“I know, and I’m not—when they come, and you go, you said your mother won’t be happy about humans knowing they’re…in the area.”

“Yes.” 

"And she'll take you away if you go with them. Your family won't come back here."

“Yes.”

“How far—”

“Far—too far.”

“How do you…do you think there’s any chance she…” he shrugged. “What if she met me? Saw that I’m not dangerous?”

Bucky went quiet, the side of his thumb rubbing along Steve’s beard, drawing a familiar pattern. “I say to her, please. But—” he shrugged. “Is bad chance.”

“Yeah.” Steve frowned. “I figured. But I had to ask.” 

"She keeps many safe—family. Your ma also does."

“I know she does. But if your ma did change her mind, what would you do then?” 

“Why say?” Bucky frowned. “If she is not.” 

“Guess I’m just curious.” 

“Nnn.” His left leg shifted, knee dragging against Steve’s bare thigh. “If she say—maybe I go. Come back, see Steve. Or, maybe I stay, see my ma, sister, when they come.” 

The idea that Bucky saw the latter as a genuine option was heartening, and Steve smiled. “You’d do that?”

“I am for Steve.”

"Yeah, that's—" Steve gave him a kiss, before beginning to lead them down the harder path. "But you don't think she's gonna change her mind."

“No. Keep many safe. Not only me.” 

“So,” he said, body stiffening. “When they come, and you see them—if you go with them…” 

“Miss you,” Bucky supplied. “Ma. Nasha. SamRiley. Peggy.” 

"That' s—yeah. But if you uh, if you stayed—"

“Never see family.” There was a bitterness to the words, Bucky’s fingers digging into the flesh of Steve’s jaw, holding him in place. Reminding him of the choice he knew he had to make. “I think. I know.”

“This was supposed to be easy,” Steve said, blinking in rapid succession. “Sending you home. But then we had to go and fall in love, huh?” 

“You are happy?”

“Of course I am, pal. You make me happy.”

“Am happy, also sad.”

“Yeah, well, you got a tough choice ahead of you.” 

“Yes.”

"And I 'm…I'm about to make it tougher." He took a deep breath. "I'm not selfish enough to beg you to stay, because you got every reason to go. But I wanted you to know that…if you did? I'd make it a good life, Buck. Make it a home. I'd do my best to make giving them up worth it. I know I can't offer you the same things, and I'm not trying to be a replacement. But I love you. I'm for you. I'd be an idiot not to tell you so."

“Steve,” Bucky said, voice carrying them to the surface of their premature grief. 

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s a shitty thing to put on you—and I don’t mean to add pressure.”

“Nnn,” Bucky shrugged. “Not your sorry. My sorry. I am think every day. Here is not home but home now. Steve is not family but family now. My ma, my sister, I think are gone. But I see Joseph, and I know they are here soon.” 

“Yeah.” 

"So…you say you are home. I know this. But I am also think they are home.”

"You should take your time with it," he agreed, offering Bucky a half-smile and reaching to brush some hair back from his eyes. "I'm sorry you have to choose at all, but I'm not sorry I asked. I want you here with me, but if you choose to go, I won't try and stop you. Not because I don't love you, but because I do. I want you to be happy, so whatever choice you make…I'm with you."

Bucky grunted, resting their foreheads together. "No happy choice," he muttered. "But thank you for saying. Now I know."

"I ought to be better about it—telling you. It's not… I'm not the best at this stuff. But I love you. I'm always gonna love you."

That much was true. Whether Bucky stayed or went, he would love him until his dying day. Not because of fates or furies or the way the world had conspired to put them together, but because Bucky was for him, and he was for Bucky. They fit together, two halves of a whole. Maybe they were living a tragedy rather than a romance, but whatever the story, Steve would be damned if he didn’t enjoy the good parts. 

Bucky smiled his sweet, affable grin, teeth catching in the light, making Steve want him while he still had him. He might not have been able to offer the familiarity of home, but he had certain other talents. Fair play was fair play, and though he couldn't compete with the time and tides of an entire ocean, he could make Bucky feel good in the here and now.

“Lie back,” he murmured, returning the smile. 

“Why?” Bucky asked, releasing his hold on Steve, who sat up and looked down, contemplating.

“Because you’re drivin’ me to distraction with that smile.” 

“What dis-trahc-chun?”

“Means you’re making me think about all the things I want to do to you before I send you home.” 

Bucky's smile flickered, briefly, before returning at full-force—seemingly as content as Steve to bury the future choice for current pleasure as Steve pushed the quilt back, baring them both to the chilly air. Bucky's prick lay soft against his thigh, though when Steve's eyes traveled in that direction, it twitched, scales around the base glinting in the light.

Catching Bucky’s eye, Steve gave him a ridiculous wink before scooting down the bed and bending at the waist. Resting his head on Bucky’s thigh, inches away, he once again took note of the not-quite-human nuances that set Bucky apart from anyone else he’d ever been with. Still, it was as responsive as any other prick Steve had known—especially so when he blew a stream of air against the head. 

“Steve!” Bucky protested, hand coming to grab him by the hair. 

“Hey,” he laughed. “You want me to do this, or not?”

“What is…why?” 

“Because it’ll feel good,” he said, closing the distance between them to wrap his lips around the tip of Bucky’s prick. 

The reaction was instantaneous—Bucky let out a delighted yelp, hand tightening against Steve’s scalp, where his claws could do some real damage.

“Bucky…” he warned, pulling back and raising a brow. “If I start bleeding, this ends.” 

Bucky yanked his hand back and stretched his arms above his head, instead. “Sorry. Is nice. Sorry—” 

“You like it?” 

“Yes!”

“You want me to do it again?” 

“Yes.” 

“Then you gotta keep quiet. No waking up ma.” 

“No waking.”

“Now say please,” he added, because it never hurt Bucky to be polite.

“Please!” He said, a grin on his face.

“Well shit, pal, since you asked so nicely—” 

The reaction was no less dramatic the second time around, only instead of a yelp, Bucky let out a hiss, body going taut as his prick began to thicken against Steve’s tongue. Instinct and experience drove most of what Steve did from there—listening to the sounds Bucky made, paying attention to the way the cock in his mouth twitched against his tongue. The things he tried that got pointed and pleased reactions versus those that barely elicited a moan. (And wasn’t he a little proud over the fact that there were significantly more of the former than the latter?)

After a few minutes of intrepid wayfaring, he tasted the first familiar tang of Bucky’s seed on his tongue; not nearly there yet, but a tell-tale drop or two that indicated he was enjoying himself. Briny and bitter—he knew the flavor well, having licked Bucky’s spend from his fingers a time or two. Decidedly different from any human spunk he’d ever swallowed; being with Bucky felt like bringing the sea into his bed. Throat burning, he slid his mouth further down, knowing he wouldn’t be able to take all of him, but trying all the same.

“Steve,” Bucky grunted, as he eased himself through the discomfort, making a noise low in his throat, hoping Bucky caught the gist of his agreement.

“Nnn!” Gist caught. “Move, please?” 

Far be it from Steve to deny a fella who knew what he wanted. He began moving his head in earnest, coordinating it with the jerks and thrusts of Bucky’s hips. At one point, Bucky’s hand groped for Steve’s pillow, pulling it against his face to muffle his cries as Steve worked him over. 

When he first sensed Bucky was close, he pulled off entirely, waiting for the inevitable protests before beginning again. Taking him to the brink and back, prolonging his pleasure in a way he hoped would make the eventual completion all the sweeter. The fourth time he tried to pull away, Bucky gave a muffled cry of protest and fisted his hand in Steve’s hair once more, holding him down as he thrust up and into his mouth, spending himself in a wave of shivers and sighs. Steve tried to catch every drop, swallowing and laving attention on the head of Bucky’s prick until Bucky pushed him back, breathing heavily.

Still catching his breath, Steve sat up and grinned at the sight that greeted him—Bucky still had the pillow over his face. 

“Hiding?” He reached out to pull the pillow away, only to discover a trove of feathers left in its wake, sticking to Bucky’s spit-dampened skin. Looking at the pillow, he found a jagged-edged rent in the fabric where Bucky had bitten clean into the down filling. “Buck!”

“Is biting or yelling!” 

“You—” Steve grinned, proud of himself, despite the ruined bedding. Feathers were expensive—he’d need to see about mending the pillow himself, lest Sarah ask questions. “Guess you liked that?” 

“Yes. Is…” He flapped his hand. “Better.” 

“Better than what?” 

“Nnn, everything?”

“Better than everything?" he teased, flopping onto Bucky with an 'oof,' pointedly ignoring the fact that in so doing, he'd pinned his own half-hard cock between them.

“Yes. Everything.”

“Better than kissing?” 

“Yes.”

“Better than fish?” 

“Yes.” 

“Better than…crabs?” 

Bucky squinted, arms moving to wrap around Steve’s torso, while Steve lifted a hand to pull a few feathers from his face. “Different than crabs.” 

“Oh, c’mon—”

“Also better!” He amended, rolling his hips so that Steve’s hardness jumped between them. “Oh, hi, pal.”

The mimic made Steve laugh, though he shook his head. “Don’t worry about—” 

"Yes, worry."

“I uh,” he grinned. “No offense, Buck, but reciprocation is off the table.” 

Bucky grinned, snapping his teeth and raising a brow. “No?”

“Nah. I like my prick better than the pillow, and look what you did to that.” 

“Biting or yelling,” Bucky said with a Natasha-esque cackle. “You ask, I do.” 

“You do, huh? First time for everything, I guess—” 

"Steve," he protested before his eyes lit up. "I ask, you do?"

“Uh, not if it involves your teeth anywhere in the vicinity of my nethers—” 

“No, no,” he said, waving his hand and shaking his head. “I show?” 

Steve had no idea what he intended, but the answer was made clear when he squirmed away, turning on his side with his back to Steve. “Hug,” he commanded, looking over his shoulder. 

“Like this?” Steve smiled, wrapping his arms around Bucky from behind. “We do this all the time, pal.” 

“Not this,” Bucky said, parting his legs a bit. “Go there.” 

“Oh—” Steve realized what he meant, and he shifted his hips, settling his cock between the join of Bucky’s thighs. “Like that?” 

“I ask, you do,” Bucky repeated, squeezing his legs together in a way that just about had Steve seeing stars. “Is good.” 

"Fuck—" He grunted, hips stuttering forward as his grip on Bucky's waist tightened. "Yeah, that's …thanks."

Bucky sighed, hands closing over Steve’s as he rocked himself back. “Move?” 

What else was he going to do? Sure, it was a trifle undignified to be rutting into the warm space between Bucky's thighs, but when had there ever been any real dignity in fucking? The pursuit of pleasure left very little room for decorum, so as he picked up an awkward rhythm, Steve found he didn't care much for propriety at the moment.

Bucky did his best to help, moving in tandem, squeezing his muscles along with the thrusts. The sensation was something else—the alternating roughness and smoothness of the scales confusing Steve’s mind into a dim haze of blissful-almost-discomfort, which played into certain proclivities he’d always harbored. Pressing kisses along Bucky’s shoulders and back, Steve tried to show his appreciation before burying his face against the nape of Bucky’s neck to breathe him in. 

“Love you, Buck,” he murmured, the sentiment all he could manage as his thighs tensed and his toes curled. “Oh…oh!” 

When he came, it was with a bitten back cry, teeth closing on Bucky's skin to muffle his sounds. Bucky let out a yowl, every muscle in his body tense, which did nothing but heighten the sensation for Steve, whose hips juddered forward once, twice, three times more.

Once recovered, he pulled back to assess the damage he’d done, alarmed to see he’d nearly broken through the skin with his bite. “Shit, Buck—” he muttered, pressing a half-dozen kisses to the spot before realizing that Bucky was shaking with laughter. “Hey—” 

“Now is biting,” Bucky snorted. “No teeth, Bucky. Steve teeth—” 

“Mine aren’t as sharp as yours!”

“Hurts!”

“I said I was sorry!”

“No, said shit,” he teased. “Not sorry.” 

"That's…it's kinda the same thing?"

"Same, same," he said, shifting his lower half, so Steve's still-softening cock slipped from between his legs before he turned onto his back.

Steve leaned down to kiss him with a smile. “Sorry. Really sorry.” 

“Sorry, sorry,” he agreed, reaching up to pat the top of Steve’s sweat-damp head. “Good?” 

“Uh…yeah. That was really good. Thank you.” 

“Not thank,” Bucky said. “Is love.” 

“Pretty good love—you wore me out.” 

“You are waking me up,” he replied, mouth twitching as he pulled him down for another kiss. “Now sleep?” 

“Sure,” he said, yawning and tugging the un-ripped pillow from Bucky’s side of the bed so they could share it, then pulling the quilt over them both. “Sorry for waking you.” 

“Not sorry for talking,” Bucky said, tucking his head beneath Steve’s chin. “Sorry only…” 

“For what?” he asked, stifling a yawn. 

“For pillow.” 

 

Chapter Text

Never before had Steve been so eager to hold onto a season as he was that winter. A child of summer, he’d thrived on what few warm days Red Hook boasted, spending hours out of doors in the fresh air and the light. Now? The lengthening days became a hateful reminder of what was to come, and the new year brought with it new worries. 

Still, he denied the oncoming spring for as long as he was able. 

It was easy to do on days the winds blew hard, whipping the fallen snow into flurries and leaving everyone shivering in their beds. Harder on days when gentle southern breezes came and carried with them a hint of warmth and the promise of a thaw. 

Huddled beneath the blankets, on early mornings and late nights, Steve and Bucky made their plan. When spring came, Bucky would begin swimming out to the place where his family spent the warmer seasons. He couldn’t predict with any real certainty when they would arrive, so he’d make the trip periodically until the day he found them. Then, he’d stay through at least the summer. And when the sirens headed south? Well, that was when he would make his final choice.

If he chose Steve, he’d come back.

If he didn’t? He wouldn’t.

The knowledge of their coming separation was like a sprain, or a joint put out of place—easy to forget until you moved the wrong way and the agony of the injury stabbed like a knife tip. Steve tried not to let that pain overwhelm him, as he wouldn’t allow the time Bucky had left to be a misery—not if he wanted to give him a reason to stay. 

Privately, though, he assumed the worst. Optimism was best suited to innocents. 

Things with Natasha had only marginally improved. On the second day after Steve asked Bucky to consider staying, she and Peggy had come came to the cottage. Peggy to see them both, Natasha pointedly only there for Bucky, who was curious about why she and Steve were at odds, pressing him for answers as soon as they’d left.

“Angry?” he asked. 

“She didn’t tell you?” 

“Say angry. Why?” 

“I uh…said something I shouldn’t have.”

“Say sorry.” 

“Yeah, I will, I just—”

“Steve. Say sorry.”

Never one to deny Bucky (and feeling as though he ought to regardless), Steve pulled Natasha aside the next time they were in town, apologizing twice over to her steely-eyed expression. 

"Thank you," she said stiffly.

“Natasha—” 

“We ought to get back.” 

It wasn’t forgiveness, nor was it absolution. Steve had wounded her deeply; he couldn’t expect that to be resolved simply because he admitted the cruelty of his words—the sharp truth he’d used to cut her. She would come around, or she wouldn’t, and he would have to live with the consequences. Natasha, who had so little, held onto her pride with a startling fierceness, and while he hadn’t intended to wound, he’d acted in haste. Now, she was giving him the agony of much repentance in leisure.

The town foursome, despite the tension, was let in on the plan soon after Steve and Bucky had made it, each of them taking the news in their own way—Peggy was concerned for Steve, Natasha for Bucky. Riley was upset it had to be a choice at all, while Sam waited until he and Steve had a moment to themselves to discuss things. 

"I'm alright," Steve said when he saw the look on Sam's face.

“Never said you weren’t. But if I were you, and Riley was the one—” 

“Sam.” 

“Look. It’s lousy, is all I mean.” 

“Yeah.” 

“And, you know…the offer still stands.” 

“The offer?”

“You’re family, with or without Bucky, so if he doesn’t stick around, and you want to come back out on the road with us? We’d be happy to have you.” 

“I—” Steve’s neck prickled hot, shapes in his hazy future taking form. “I appreciate it, Sam, but I can’t think that far out yet. I’m just…I’m managing for now.” 

"I understand," he said. "We'll all miss him if he goes."

“Yeah,” Steve muttered. “That’s…” 

He was interrupted by a burst of laughter from the table, where Bucky was in the process of telling an extremely animated story.

"Steve!" he called, a grin lighting up his face, waving them over.

“Sorry,” Steve said with a shrug. “Guess I’m summoned.” 

 


 

As time slipped by, Steve and Bucky continued to plan, including how he might best say goodbye to Sam, Riley, Peggy, and Natasha. Deciding that it wouldn’t make sense to belabor the process, they agreed that Bucky would write them letters instead. Or, rather, Steve would write letters, while Bucky dictated his thoughts before signing his newly-learned signature at the bottom. That way, he’d be able to say what he wanted, without needing to have some harrowing goodbye every time he swam out.

Steve and Sarah would have that particular privilege instead, the days creeping on, dragging them toward their parting. 

Then, inevitably, there came a day where no frost crept up the windowpanes; no winds blew through the cracks in the walls. That day was followed by another, and another, until a week had gone by with winter's grasp loosening. Tufts of new grass began sprouting from beneath the matted, dead clumps of what the snow had killed, and in time, the first wildflowers climbed their way out of the rough dirt toward the sky.

When the birds came back, Steve saw them for what they were—bellwethers of all creatures that followed migratory patterns, sirens among them. 

Eventually, a morning came when he woke to find Bucky standing stark naked beside the open attic window, neck craned to catch the breeze. 

“Bucky?” 

He turned, an apology already written on his face. “I see this wind before.” 

Everything Steve had done to prepare for this eventuality failed him, and it took every ounce of composure he possessed to hold steady. To plaster a smile on his face. “So, today’s the day?” 

"First day," Bucky said. "Not come today. Is early—"

“They might!” he replied with a barrel’s worth of false cheer. “Come on, let’s get you some breakfast.” 

"Nnn," Bucky acquiesced, going to fetch his pants. "Still, I think…not come today."

“You ought to swim out and check,” Steve said firmly. There was no sense delaying, as that might lead to hope, which was a dangerous thing to cling to. An anchor, weighing down sensible minds, turning them slow and stupid. Hope was wasted on a situation like theirs. Because Steve loved Bucky more than he’d ever loved anything or anyone, but deep down, he knew he couldn’t compete with home, or family, or a stolen life. 

They dressed slowly, then headed down to tell Sarah. She was upset, while also entirely herself, stuffing Bucky full to bursting with food before taking him aside for a private, quiet word. The conversation was undertaken in hushed tones, with Sarah doing most of the talking, and when they were through, she hugged Bucky tight before kissing each of his cheeks.

“It might not even be goodbye,” she said, stepping away. “But it’s better to take care.” 

“We always say goodbye,” Bucky agreed. 

“We will,” she said, giving his hands another squeeze.

There were no bags to carry, no trinkets to cling to. Only Steve and Bucky, hand in hand, traversing the steep path to the shore. Once they were on the pebbled beach, though, Bucky found every reason to dawdle, fiddling with the buttons on his trousers and looking over at Steve. 

“Help?” 

“You don’t need my help anymore, pal.” 

“Help,” he repeated, voice firm.

How could Steve refuse? He began the familiar work of undressing Bucky, tugging his shirt over his shoulders and working on his pants. “Remember how much you hated these?”

“Still hate. But…is human. Is alright.” 

He smiled, letting Bucky step out of the clothing before folding it over his arm. “I ah…” clearing his throat, he looked out at the water, the rising sun making him squint. “You know I’m gonna miss you.” 

“Yes.” Bucky reached for his hand, drawing it to his chest, then putting his own over Steve’s heart, linking them together in parallel. “I miss you. But—we are not so far.”

Steve leaned his forehead against Bucky’s, the gesture as familiar to him now as breathing. “Don’t get sentimental on me, Buck.” 

“No senna-mennal,” he said, bumping their noses together and rubbing his closed fist over Steve’s chest. “For you.”

Steve closed his fist and did the same, a shaky breath escaping as he fought to reply. “Always…yeah…I…” he laughed, bitterness swept away on the wind. “I love you. You gotta…you gotta go, or I’m not—” He didn’t finish. Released his hold instead, then watched as Bucky turned and walked into the water, where he slipped beneath the waves. 

He surfaced, once, looking over his shoulder and giving Steve a final wave before diving, tail visible for only a second before he was gone.

Steve sat down on the sand, a sob that was half-shock leaving him at the suddenness of his sorrow. That was where he stayed, numb, as the sun rose high. Eventually, Sarah joined him, insisting that he eat, while wrapping a blanket around his shoulders. The tide came in, nearly meeting his feet, then began to drift back out. And still, he sat. Eyes scanning the horizon, same as he’d done countless times before, waiting for his father’s ship to return.

Hours passed, and the sun had begun casting its long shadow before him when, with a start, Bucky reappeared. Cutting through the waves, dark head bobbing in the water. 

“Shit,” Steve laughed, the joy he felt upon seeing him spoiled by the understanding that they would be doing this all over again in two days time. 

“Steve!” Bucky called upon reaching the sand, dragging himself onto the beach. 

“Hi,” he returned, getting to his feet and jogging down to pull him in. “Not there?” 

“No today,” Bucky said. “Is early. I say. I know.” 

“Yeah, you did. I’m sorry, though—” 

“Not sorry,” he said. “More nights with you. Is alright. Kiss?” 

“Sure, Buck,” he agreed, letting the worry of the day drift away with the tide. 

 


 

Two days later, Bucky tried again.

And again, two days after that.

Time after time, he swam out, until a fortnight had passed with no sign of his family. That fortnight doubled to a month, the treks to the shore becoming routine—a kiss. An embrace. Steve, sitting on the shore, watching the waves and the water until Bucky’s eventual return. 

Bucky grew more and more discouraged as the days passed, though he was never downcast—at least not outwardly so. He rebounded quickly, claiming he was happy to be home with Steve and Ma. Sometimes he’d bring fish, or strange shells, or a curious type of seaweed that he showed Sarah how to dry and crumble into a powder. 

“Medicine,” he explained. 

“For what?” she asked. 

“All.” 

They were always happy to see him when he rose above the waves. Happy to smile and laugh and spend their evenings at his side. But that joy was muted by the fact that they knew each time could be the last time. For it was a half-life, this knowing and not knowing. The coming and the going. The season growing warmer as the world outside of Red Hook began finding its way back in—trains running to Penston, ships arriving with supplies, the first of the season's tourists trickling into the boarding house. Peggy and Natasha were run off their feet, while Riley and Sam had begun to make vague noises about when they would return to the circus.

And still, Bucky’s family did not come.

Until the day they did.

Steve and Bucky woke on that day like any other—tangled up in bedsheets, greeting the morning with a kiss before taking small pleasures in the dim light of the early dawn. Sarah fried kippers and Bucky ate his fill before bidding her farewell. Just like always.

Down to the water they went, hand-in-hand. Steve undressed Bucky, kissed him on the forehead, squeezed him tight, and said goodbye. 

Bucky swam out. Turned to wave. Disappeared.

Steve sat down to wait.

Only this time, when the day grew weary, and the shadows began to stretch across the sand, Steve realized that it was different. Bucky had never stayed out so long. Had never made him wait so late.

The pebble in his stomach doubled in size—becoming a stone, a rock, a boulder—and he understood that Bucky wasn’t coming back.

This day, this unassuming, nothing of a day, had been the last day. 

He cried then, because there was nobody to see it. Stayed by the shore while darkness fell, the water inky black in the weak light of a thumbnail moon. Gathering Bucky's clothes, he took the sea path to the cottage, where he found Sarah knitting by the hearth, her own eyes red-rimmed, voice hitching when she offered him supper. There was nothing to say, so Steve just nodded. Picked at his food and listened to her bustling around the kitchen, the rustle of her skirts barely audible over the sound of the blood rushing in his ears.

"I think—" he said when he'd eaten as much as he could. "I'll…go to bed early."

"Alright," he said. "Maybe tomorrow, we'll go to town? See your friends?"

“Maybe,” he agreed, a crack splintering through the word. “Sorry, ma, I’m—” 

“It’s alright, starfish,” she said, drawing near and kissing his cheek. “I love you.” 

Steve nodded, lips pressed together as he went to fetch the bundle of Bucky’s clothes from the foot of the stairs. Dreading the empty room that awaited, he paused at the top and closed his eyes. Allowed himself two deep breaths before walking straight to the dresser, where he yanked open a drawer with every intention of shoving Bucky’s belongings deep inside.

It seemed the sensible thing to do, which naturally meant Steve couldn’t bring himself to do it. No sense to be had as he cradled Bucky’s loathed pants in his arms and turned toward their—his—bed.

There was an envelope on the pillow.

His breath caught in his throat as he stepped closer and saw that his name had been painstakingly written on it in large, block print. 

“Oh, Bucky,” he managed, heart dropping through the floor. Down and deep until it found where his siren was swimming. 

When had he done this? How could he have known today would be the day?

Unless…

Unless.

Gods, had Bucky been leaving the letter every day he’d swum out? Letting Steve go downstairs first in the mornings, then stealing back up and hiding it at night? 

Of course, he had.

Because Bucky was Bucky—someone who cared so deeply and with such kindness as Steve had never known before. Unfailingly thoughtful, despite all the trials and tribulations humankind had put him through. 

They’d been lucky to have him. 

With only the mice hidden in the walls to witness his tears as they coursed down his cheeks, Steve curled on his side and picked up the envelope. A single sheet of paper lay within, folded three times, the letter written entirely in Bucky’s own hand. Brief and to the point, Steve imagined he’d had some help with the structure, but the sentiment was him all over: 

 

Steve,

I am for you. You are for me. When I go, this is always true. 

Bucky

 

Chapter Text

The first morning without Bucky, Steve couldn’t get out of bed. He lay there, blankets pulled to his chin, staring at the crack in the slanted plaster ceiling. A lightning bolt of ruin, jagged in its recollections. He’d stared at it while holding Bucky close. Time spent talking. Touching. Being

Now? An empty bed, yet one he couldn’t bring himself to leave. 

It was only his mother’s breakfast call that moved him to rise. Dress. Go downstairs to poke at his food, then sit by the hearth and stare at nothing, head thick with cotton wool. 

Sarah mostly let him be. Occasionally, she’d ply him with cups of tea, which he’d sip once or twice before forgetting they were there. It was easy to forget things, there in the nothing, where he was unable to focus on any activity for longer than a moment. 

The hours of that first day slid by, gone in an instant while also taking an age. Soon after the sun set, he rose to his feet and bid Sarah a quiet goodnight before returning to his room.

The second day, he lay abed longer. Longer still the third. The fourth. The fifth. Until he was no longer getting up for breakfast. No longer bothering to dress or give the barest consideration to his needs, save for what was necessary.

It was grief, but not like any grief he'd known before. Nothing like the raw and gaping wound grief had opened in him at the loss of his father. That grief had been a bloodletting; a rage. It had driven him to new growth—to war—to take care of his mother, to carry on as a family. To find some higher purpose in the world.

This grief? It was a numb grief. An absence of emotion cutting to the heart of him, as if he had been hollowed out. All the bits that were capable of hope, or anger, or sorrow scattered on the sand. Because it was easier to feel nothing at all than to consider the possibility that all was not lost. That Bucky had not yet made his choice, and that he might yet choose Steve. 

Simpler to be numb. To give himself over to apathy. 

The days marched on. Steve began losing time. Slept in sheets that badly needed washing. Hardly ate. Hardly moved. Let the spring come. Let the summer. Let Alexander Pierce take him away because there was nothing left of him to hurt now. 

It was on the fifteenth day that Sarah climbed the stairs to the attic, pulling Steve’s quilts back, bright and early, shocking him with the light of day. 

“Up,” she said. 

“Ma…” he protested, voice rough with disuse as he rolled over to hide his face. That got him a smack to the rump, same as if he’d been a recalcitrant kid, hard enough to make him yelp. 

“Up,” she repeated. 

“Why?” 

“Because life’s for the living, starfish. So you’re going to get up, even if I have to drag you by both ears.” 

Sarah Rogers had never been one for idle threats, and so Steve groaned. Rolled over and sat up with a scowl on his face. 

“This room smells like a ship’s hold,” she informed him, arms folded across her chest. “And you need a bath.” 

“I’m—”

“Bring your sheets,” she said. “The tub’s in the yard—you can wash yourself alongside them.”

“Alright,” he acquiesced, slow and stupid in his conversation. “Just…give me a minute.” 

“One minute, or I’m coming back.” 

Once she’d disappeared, Steve rose and stripped his bed, not bothering to put on different clothes than the ones he’d been sleeping in. He headed downstairs to discover Sarah had left the front door open, and upon stepping outside, he found her in the side yard with an already full washtub. 

“When you’re done here,” she said when she saw him, wasting no time on pleasantries, “you can come inside and make yourself some breakfast.” 

"Yes, ma'am," he said, eyes fixed on the grass. Now that he was up, there was a particular shame in knowing how terrible he no doubt looked in the light of day.

Sarah gave him a half-smile before going in. Steve knelt by the tub, dropping his sheets into the water and beginning the work of scrubbing the sweat and stink from them. Part of him regretted that he was likely scrubbing the Bucky from them, too, but the truth was that any lingering scent had long since been subsumed by Steve’s misery. 

The sun rose higher, warm on his back as he rubbed the sheets against the washboard in a steady rhythm. For all that the circus had bulked his muscles, he had spent the winter idle, so by the time he was through, his shoulders ached and his knees hurt from kneeling. Truly hurt—the discomfort something he could feel, which was a change, considering he hadn’t felt anything in over a fortnight.

When the sheets were clean and rinsed, he hung them on the washing line, securing each piece with a clothespin. The action reminded him of Bucky, who had been fascinated by the metal spring that held the pegs together, clipping the clip to his tongue and other bits of himself to see how it felt. Turned out, the tongue was fine. However, when he’d pinned the flesh of his underarm, he’d let out such an indignant squawk that Steve had hardly been able to stop laughing long enough to pull it off amidst his frantic flapping.

The memory made him smile, warmth pooling in his chest as he took a pin and clipped it to his forearm. Felt the bite and counted to ten before pulling it off. Watched as the skin turned white, then red, then settled back to its usual paleness.

"I miss you," he said, words hushed and hardly spoken before he turned back to his work, emptying and filling the tub, then submerging himself in the icy water and scrubbing the grime from his skin. He hadn't much seen the point in washing, but as he rose from the water and reached for the threadbare towel to wrap around his waist, he discovered he didn't immediately want to crawl back into bed and hide away.

He returned to the house after hanging his clothes on the line next to the sheets. Sarah had set some trousers and a shirt for him by the front door, and given that their nearest neighbors were a mile away, he pulled them on right then and there. After that, he went inside to make breakfast.

Sarah glanced up from where she was knitting by the hearth as he put a pot on the hob. “Your friends have been by for you. A few times.” 

"Have they?" Steve knew, in theory, that they would have been—they had regularly been visiting when Bucky was there, stood to reason they'd do the same when he wasn't. Only, there was a part of him that hadn't expected them to keep coming, once they knew Bucky was gone. Peggy, maybe, but the other three had their own lives and plans, plus Natasha was still angry with him.

“I let them know you weren’t well. And I told them about Bucky, of course.”

Hearing Bucky’s name was a slap to the face, and Steve sucked in a sharp breath, aggressively stirring the porridge with the carved wooden spurtle that had once been his grandmother’s. “Oh.” 

“I didn’t give them their letters yet. Figured you ought to be the one.”

“Next time I’m in town, I’ll ah…I’ll…bring them.” 

“You ought to go today,” she said. “Enough wallowing—I know that feeling all too well.”

Wallowing wasn't the word Steve would have used, though he couldn't think of one better. And Sarah certainly knew grief; knew loss. So maybe she knew a thing or two about passing through the deep waters of sorrow, and he ought to be listening. Getting up and working hadn't lessened his sadness or ebbed his grief. But it had cleared the fog, just a little. Loosened the vice that was clamped around his head, squeezing the life out of him with each turn of the screw.

There was still hopelessness, of course, and the overwhelming sense that nothing would ever be quite right again. But he was clean. He was cooking. And he was going to see his friends. There were worse ways to spend a day. 

“I’m sorry,” he offered. “I know I’ve been…off.” 

“Don’t need to apologize when you’ve done nothing wrong. All the same, it’ll do you good to go out.” 

“Yes, ma’am.”

“But before you do, there’s a few things need fixing around here—I’ve made you a list.” 

 


 

It was well past midday by the time Steve finally got to town. Sarah’s list had been extensive: cleaning the downspouts, washing the windows, tamping loose shingles, along with a half-dozen smaller tasks clearly meant to keep his hands busy so his mind wouldn’t idle. 

Upon reaching the main street, he had a choice of where to go first. Considering Natasha had yet to fully forgive him, Sam and Riley were the safer bet, so he went into the pub and boarding house. Considering it was well past lunch, the pub was mostly quiet—two men who’d been wintering over were seated at a table in the far right corner, and a family was squabbling near the windows. Peggy’s mother, meanwhile, manned the bar. 

“Afternoon,” he greeted. 

“Steve,” she nodded.

“Are Sam and Riley upstairs?”

“They went out a few hours ago. Haven’t seen them since.”

“Ah,” he said. “How about Peggy?”

“I’d imagine she and Natasha are around the back,” she said. “If you’re going, tell Peggy I won’t need her for supper service—quiet night, by the looks of it.” 

“Sure,” Steve said, offering her a smile before turning to go, walking around to the back and knocking on the Carters’ door.

Peggy answered, face brightening when she saw him. “It’s about fucking time.” Her arms were wound tight around him by then, words muffled against his skin. 

“Oh—” Steve said, half-laughing as he hugged her back. 

“Come in, come in,” she offered, pulling away, the smile on her face threatening to crumble the wall he’d built within himself. 

They headed to the parlor where, to his surprise, he found Sam and Riley on the sofa together, Natasha on an armchair nearby. 

All three of them turned to look at Steve when he entered, with Sam the first to offer him a smile. "Hey, Steve," he said as if nothing were amiss.

“Hi,” Steve said, swallowing around the ridiculous lump forming in his throat.

"Are you hungry?" Peggy said. "We were just going to have lunch…"

It was too much. The four of them. Two pairs, where there had once been three. Steve, the fifth wheel left trundling in their wake. With a huffed sigh, he pulled the letters from his pocket and thrust them into Peggy’s hands. 

“I only came to bring—I shouldn’t have…damn it…” 

Feeling like a genuine horse's ass, he retreated to the front hall, desperate to escape. Natasha thwarted him, leaping to her feet and catching him with a swiftness, where she took his arm and steered him toward the door.

“We’re taking a walk,” she called over her shoulder. “We’ll be back for lunch.” 

Dumbfounded, Steve was led outside, Natasha’s fingers a bruising weight, keeping him grounded as they stepped off the sidewalk and onto the street.

“I’m sorry he’s gone,” she said, turning them in the direction of the harbor.

He managed a stiff nod, while she made a humming noise, low in her throat. There was no more conversation until they reached the waterfront. Natasha brought them to stand at the railing that overlooked the port, near the stone staircase that led down to the rickety wooden docks, which were bustling with activity—those few fishermen who remained successful in Red Hook unloading their catches, alongside freighters and frigates, some stopping in for a night, others only for a few hours. Their little port wasn’t anything like the massive operations at Weymouth or Wyvern, but there was commerce and tourism enough to keep the town afloat. 

“You know,” she said after a moment. “He’s going to choose you in the end.” 

Steve stiffened, heart seizing. “No, he won’t.” 

“He will.”

“Unless he told you something he didn’t tell me—” 

“He said you asked him to choose. That you wanted him to stay.”

“Yeah, well,” Steve shrugged, giving her a sidelong glance. “I ended up asking him after I got some good advice.” 

“So he’ll come back, even if it’s smarter to stay away,” she said. “Love’s fucking awful. Makes you act against your better nature.” 

“Like you coming here?”

“No,” she said, turning to him with a glint in her eye. “Running away was my mistake. Bucky’s not going to make the same one.” 

“It’s not fair.”

“Life generally isn’t.” 

“I shouldn’t have put that on him—”

“Of course you should have. It was important for him to know—for you to ask.”

Steve shook his head. “He’s not stupid. You spent enough time showing me that. I’m the one with a price on my head, and it’s gonna come due one of these days. Bucky knows it’s safer for him with his family, and—”

“Sounds like you’ve been spending some time convincing yourself he’s better off without you.”

“…yeah,” he admitted, eyes drifting to the horizon, where a new-fangled yacht was making for the port, powered by wind and steam. 

“Doesn’t matter what you tell yourself. You’re his home now, and he’s the sort that can’t live without one.” 

“He’s home where he is,” Steve countered. “If he chose me, he’d be giving up everything.”

“If he chooses them, it’s striking the same bargain,” she said firmly. “Even this motherless child knows that.” 

“Natasha—” He frowned, turning to face her. “I’m sorry. I know I said it before, but—”

“It wasn’t a lie, what you said about me. But it was cruel.”

“I know.”

“I don’t remember my family, but I do know what it is to have your life upended. To fall in love.” 

“Yes, you do, and I’m—” 

“All the same,” she continued, interrupting once more. “I don’t think you meant to be cruel—you were angry is all, and that always makes you hasty.” 

A smile tugged at the corners of Steve’s mouth. “Guess that’s true.” 

“So, I forgive you. But if you do it again, I might rescind my promise to spare your life.” 

“You know, that’s not actually such a threat these days,” he teased. 

“Isn’t it?” 

“Nope.” 

Natasha paused. “Look at that—you’re smiling.” 

With a start, Steve realized that he was—the first real smile he could remember smiling since Bucky slipped beneath the waves. “I guess I am.” 

“You’ll smile more. We all do, eventually.” 

“I hope so,” he said, eyes catching on a belch of smoke as it left the bright white steamship, larger now—some pleasure cruise for carefree southerners, touring the north and gawking at the uncultured folk they found. “After you ran away, did you ever feel like there was nothing left? Like you’d run out of happiness? Or used it up, so there wasn’t any more left in the world for you.” 

“I never had much to begin with. But yes, I know that feeling.”

“What happened to bring you out the other side?” 

“You,” she said, a smile on her face. “Peggy. Bucky, Sam, and Riley.” 

“Ah.”

“You’re not alone, Steve. No matter how much you convince yourself otherwise. Don’t run out the door as if we’re not waiting for you with open arms.” 

“I’m sorry,” he said, drumming his fingers on the rail. “It was just…seeing the four of you, you know? Two and two.” 

“Two and two and one of you,” she rhymed, her voice a teasing lilt. “For now, at least. So let us keep you company, hmm?” 

"I…yeah," he said. "I was a little overly-sensitive."

“Ra-ther,” she agreed, her voice such a pitch-perfect imitation of Peggy’s that he had to laugh. 

“Point taken, Na-sha.”

 


 

They returned to Peggy’s house, arm in arm, to find the trio just sitting down to lunch. Understanding that Steve needed distraction more than commiseration, they spent the afternoon plying him with food and drink, telling raucous stories and teasing one another while avoiding any mention of Bucky. 

The afternoon turned into evening, and Natasha produced a deck of cards from a drawer and began teaching them all some fast-paced Vedorian game that required more fighting than finesse—especially considering the amount of drink taken. They squabbled and shouted over Peggy's best scotch, the knife-edge of pain in Steve's mind dulled with every sip. He had the common sense to cut himself off around eight o'clock, though, as he'd need to walk home, and didn't relish the idea of stumbling off the road and over the side of a cliff.

The game ended when Steve noticed Natasha hiding aces beneath the table and accused her of being a lousy cheat. She responded that it was only cheating if she was caught. Peggy pointed out that she had been caught, and Natasha stuck her tongue out in return. The nonsense gesture made Steve laugh so hard that his sides hurt, tears rolling down his cheek. Unable to stop, he clutched his belly to try and contain himself. It wasn’t even all that funny, but the laughter rolled from him in hysterical peals until Peggy leaned over to wrap her arms around his shoulders. That set off another bout, and he lowered his head, pressing his face against her lap until the howls turned into giggles, then snorts, then sniffles, because maybe he was crying, too, but what did that matter?

“Fuck,” he swore, when the laughter finally abated, straightening and wiping his eyes. 

“You didn’t know I was so funny,” Natasha said to Peggy. 

“You’re not,” Steve protested. “I don’t know why that happened—”

“Because I’m funny!” 

“Darling, you’re really not,” Peggy teased. “And lying doesn’t suit you.” 

“Yes, it does,” she replied, swatting Peggy’s hand away when she reached over to brush an errant curl from her forehead. “I never look better than when I’m lying.”

That got another snort from Steve, who pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes so hard he saw stars. “Gods damn it…”

“Hysteria looks good on you,” Riley teased. “Really.”

“I can’t stop,” he admitted. “I…shit. I’m a little drunk.” 

“Not that drunk,” Natasha muttered.

“You can spend the night,” Peggy offered.

“Nah. I uh, I ought to get going, actually,” he said. “Ma’ll worry. But hey, why don’t you all come over for dinner tomorrow? I’ll cook.” 

“So long as your mother supervises,” Sam said, rising to his feet as well. “Think I’ll walk out with you—I’m beat. Riles, you coming?”

“I’ll go another round,” Riley said, waving him off. “Now I know Natasha’s tricks, I might win some money back.”

“Doubtful,” Sam said, kissing the top of his head as he passed. “G’night, folks.”

“Night, all,” Steve echoed, still a bit unsteady on his feet as they headed to the door, walking the short distance to the entrance of the boarding house, where he hesitated. “I uh…I know I haven’t been a great friend…” 

“Nothing doing,” Sam said. “You don’t owe me a thing.” 

“I do, though. Just…I’m gonna be better. Try to, anyway.” 

“Sure,” he said. “And I know we’re all trying not to mention it, but I’m sorry. About Bucky.”

Once again, the name struck that awful place in Steve’s stomach, and his spine stiffened before he nodded. “Thanks.” 

“That letter he wrote me,” Sam said, taking the opportunity while he had it. “You uh, it’s your handwriting, so I’m guessing you already know what it says.” 

“Yeah.” 

“I’m gonna hold myself to that, you know? Making sure you smile sometimes.” 

That had the effect of making Steve smile right then and there, ducking his head. “He’d appreciate the effort.” 

“I know he would.” Sam reached out to clap him on the shoulder. “I know you’re grieving. But shit, Steve—we’re all gonna miss him. You’re not alone in that.” 

“That—yeah,” he said, and it wasn’t so different from what Natasha had opined, so he was forced to clamp his lips together, lest another excessive display of emotion burst forth.

“That’s all I wanted to say,” Sam said. “Be safe walking home, huh?”

“I will. And I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Wouldn’t miss it.” 

They parted, and Steve began winding his way through the dimly lit streets of Red Hook. Past the darkened windows of the butcher and the general store, past the closed blacksmith’s shop. Past the docks, where Main Street became the road to the cliffs and soon enough the forked path that would carry him home to his mother.

Only he never made it that far.

As he passed by the waterfront, the sound of the pistol being cocked didn’t register at first—merely another night noise to be discounted. No different than the creaking of wooden hulls or the slap of water against the side of a rocking boat. 

The voice, however? He knew that voice. Cold and familiar as it snaked its way through the shadows before stepping into the light.

Lord Alexander Pierce, leaning heavily on his cane. At his side, Brock Rumlow, loyal cur, leveling a pistol at Steve’s heart. 

“Captain Rogers,” Pierce said, a cold smile on his monstrous face. “If you’d be so kind as to join us.” 



Chapter Text

There was a place within Steve that had been preparing for this moment since Lord Pierce first opened the door to his macabre fascinations. A place which understood that taking on the burden of freeing the man's prize pet would bring them to this end. No matter the months spent traveling, the friends who stood at his side, and the love he'd found, he'd always known, deep down, that Pierce was out there. That somewhere in the world, there existed a man who hated him with a surety and a purity that burned to his sinister core.

Lord Alexander Pierce believed himself to be a god; Steve had made him mortal.

There would be no forgiveness for that. Only retribution.

Staring down the slender barrel of Rumlow's cocked gun, Steve was struck by a preternatural calmness. Not fearlessness, or pride, or even bravery: only calmness. His body ceasing to be anything but a vessel, mind clearing and voice almost jovial when he spoke.

“Took you long enough.” 

The voice wasn’t only his own. It was Natasha’s wit, Peggy’s bravery, Sam’s sarcasm. The voice of someone boastful and cocksure. What did it matter how he sounded? There was no use begging, for Lord Pierce had not come to bargain—summary execution with no trial seemed more likely, and Steve wasn’t going to go down easy.

Strange, he’d spent so much time of late feeling as though he had nothing to live for, yet now, with a gun pointed at his chest? He found he very much wanted to stay alive.

Which meant being smart. Getting them talking. Keeping them on their toes. Discovering the plan and subverting it, then finding a way to make his escape. He’d done it countless times during the war. What was one more? 

Pierce’s lips pressed into a thin line, eyes narrowing to slits. “Now. I don’t make a habit of repeating myself.” 

“All the same to you,” Steve said, tongue dry in his mouth. “I’m actually on my way home. So if we could postpone—” 

Stars exploded in front of his eyes, but there had been no gunshot.

Pierce’s had used his cane instead. Battered it against Steve’s temple with such force that his ears were ringing long after the pain began to fade. He stood, stunned, jaw moving back and forth as he lifted his hand and touched his head, finding it already wet with blood. 

Gods, he was dizzy. Couldn’t get his mind straight—couldn’t…

Something unyielding pressed against his belly, Rumlow’s rancid breath hot on his face, the gun cradled between them. “Move, or I’ll make you move.” 

The way he said it struck Steve as hilarious, and maybe it was the blow to the head, but he couldn’t help it when he started to laugh—the same giggles which had taken him at Peggy’s house overwhelming him once again. 

“You think I’m joking?” Rumlow snarled, the final word a shout, carried away on the wind.

“Quiet!” Pierce hissed.

“Careful, Brock,” Steve said with his most Bucky-ish grin. “Wanna be a good dog—don’t upset your master.” 

“Shut up!” 

“It’s your life or your mother’s,” Pierce said sharply. 

Steve’s laughter died in an instant, heart plummeting to his toes. “What?” 

Pierce smiled another slow, creeping falsehood, leaning on his cane. “I’ve had two men staying in your barmaid bitch’s rooms all winter, and I’ve sent my crew to join them. If I don’t flash the ship’s lights to let them know I’ve got you on board, they’ve been given instructions to take care of all your friends—your mother, the barmaid, the redheaded traitor—” 

“They won’t fucking—” 

“The dark-haired man, especially,” he said, advancing, inching Steve ever closer to the top of the stone staircase. “My informants tell me that you’re close with that one. Live with him, even. What was it, a long-con? Steal my siren and meet up with your lover?”

Despite his worry, Steve nearly smiled. The fucker still didn’t realize who Bucky was—the men he had left to spy wouldn’t have recognized him as the siren, and Pierce wasn’t imaginative enough to put two and two together. 

Not that it did much for keeping the rest of his family safe. Steve took a step back and shook his head. “Shit, you don’t know anything, do you? As for my friends, you think they can’t take care of themselves?” He fought to keep his boastful tone despite the constant ringing in his ears. “Natasha could take twenty of your men with her hands tied behind her back, and—” 

“Your mother couldn’t.” 

“You wanna bet?” 

A smile spread itself across Pierce’s wide mouth. “Do you want to test that?” 

Steve didn’t. For all his bravado, the idea of armed men descending upon the cottage made him feel sick. The town foursome could manage themselves, but Sarah was neither spy nor soldier, and Steve wouldn’t be able to live with himself if something happened to her. 

“I’ll get on the boat,” he said slowly. “But you gotta swear—”

“I’m a man of my word,” Pierce said, solicitous and simpering as Rumlow forced Steve further back. 

“You’re a plague,” he said. 

“Better than a thief.” 

“Can’t steal what doesn’t belong to anyone,” he retorted, gripping the railing before descending the crumbling stone stairs backward, keeping one eye on the gun. “Can’t steal what’s not yours to own—” 

“That siren was mine,” Pierce snarled with a ferocity that might have been terrifying, were Steve a lesser man.

“Fuck you,” he said, reaching the docks and finding his footing. “He knew you both for what you were from the beginning—a pair of spineless jellyfish—”

It was stupid to provoke, but he was too angry to care. Pierce raised his cane, this time striking Steve’s right elbow, jarring him to the bone. Broken, maybe? Hard to focus through the pain. The distraction gave Rumlow the leverage he needed, grabbing Steve by the collar and hauling him toward the steam-yacht he had seen approaching the docks during his discussion with Natasha.

Stupid. Stupid. He should have realized. 

“Fucking move,” Rumlow grunted, giving him a shove. Steve landed in a crumpled heap on the polished wooden deck, the throbbing in his temple sparking anew, now accompanied by the agony of his arm, hanging useless and limp at his side. 

Swaying to his knees, Steve watched with doubled-vision as Rumlow pulled in the gangplank after handing the gun to Pierce. The vessel was small—maybe seventy-five feet—with two sailing masts and one smokestack. A beautiful ship; Steve felt sorry she belonged to such a cretin. The masts, he quickly realized, were mostly for show, as the steam-powered motor would get them wherever they were going faster than any wind could carry them. Boat that size…there must be a crew. Pierce had mentioned a crew. Said they were on land. At the pub. But if they were going to sail there had to be at least one remaining behind to operate the engines. Idiots to venture out so poorly staffed on a vessel so large, but Pierce was nothing if not hubristic. So, one against three. Two, if the third stayed below decks where he or she belonged.

Not great odds. But not the worst Steve had ever faced.

First thing was first: he needed Pierce to send the all-clear to the men onshore. Call off the attack on his mother and his friends. Once he knew they were safe, he could manage the rest.

Subduing Rumlow was paramount; Pierce’s cane packed a punch, but he was an old man, whereas Rumlow was hale and hearty. Maybe Steve could rush him? Shove him over? The ship had a bar rail running round it—fitted for buoys and fishing poles—separate from the taller railing on the deck. There was a chance Rumlow could catch hold of that and climb back aboard, but the seas were choppy, and the wind was blowing hard. In the distance, he heard the low rumble of thunder—some storm on the water, miles out. 

It was his best chance. He just had to wait for the opportunity. 

With the last rope untethered, Rumlow began the work of at least three men in piloting the ship from the harbor, Pierce berating him all the while to work faster. 

“Call off your men,” Steve said, once they were in the open water. 

“Mmm?” Pierce looked down and smiled. “Oh, now, don’t be naive, my boy. I said I was a man of my word. But I never gave it to you. Shame—your mother seemed like a lovely woman.” 

Steve world went red, and he struggled to his feet, charging forward to wrap a hand around Lord Pierce’s throat and squeeze tight. “You gods damn coward. Bucky knew—he always knew. He sang to me, you know. He was always singing—” 

Lord Pierce’s eyes bulged, hands scrabbling against Steve’s hold, a strangled gasp escaping as his pulse pounded. “Buh—”

“That’s his name. Bucky. Says it all the time. Sings, too. And fuck you—”

A terrible grin spread itself across Pierce’s face. Which was the exact moment Rumlow clubbed Steve on his already wounded head. 

He fell, seeing triple as he landed on the deck. Pierce loomed over him, his voice a whisper in the dark. "Then perhaps he'll sing your mother to her rest," he whispered before his cane descended once more.

 


 

Steve was lying on sand. Sun warm above him. Water lapping at his legs.

He was on the island. His father’s island.

There was a hand on his forehead. 

A pair of lips on his own.

“Bucky?” He struggled to open his eyes and found that he couldn’t. “Is that you?”

“Here,” came the voice. Bucky’s voice. Drawing him back to the surface. “Wake up, Steve.”

“My head hurts, Buck. I just wanna lie here—” 

“Wake up, Steve.” 

“You gonna be there when I do?” 

“Wake—”

“—up!”

The hazy remnants slipped away the moment Rumlow’s boot made contact with Steve’s stomach, knocking the air from his lungs. Instinctively, he rolled away from the blow, though that had the unfortunate effect of putting weight on his broken arm. The pain shocked him into wakefulness, a scream slipping past his lips.

Couldn’t. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. 

His hands were bound in front of him. Rough rope against his wrists, cutting off the circulation. Pins and needles in his fingers. 

“Get up, you fucker,” came Rumlow’s repeated command.

Steve had a moment to brace himself before the next kick landed—this one to his face, smashing his nose to a pulp and likely loosening a few teeth. Blood filled his mouth, further hampering his breathing. Gods, but he just needed a moment. How could he think and plan if he couldn’t have one fucking second to gather himself and—

Lighting flashed in the distance. Rumlow glanced up, gun in hand as if he might shoot the storm into submission. His hesitation allowed Steve to get on his knees, looking around. They were in the middle of nowhere. Nothing but empty ocean surrounding them. Rolling waves and the sound of distant thunder.

A lousy place to be, even under the best of circumstances.

“On your feet,” Rumlow said upon recovering himself, grabbing Steve by his broken arm and hauling him up as he howled.

“That’ll do, Brock,” Pierce said, moving from the shadows. Rumlow nodded and stepped behind his master, keeping the gun trained on Steve, who turned his head and spat a mouthful of blood onto the deck.

“What a show! Such defiance,” Pierce exclaimed. 

“Is that what you want?” He asked. “A show? Cause I gotta tell you, Alex, my soft shoe needs some work—” 

“Oh, and he’s funny, too,” Pierce laughed, high and cold. “A show—yes, that’s precisely it, my boy. A tableau of suffering. It’s only fair, don’t you think? Given what you’ve taken from me.” 

“Took a siren,” Steve agreed, fighting to stay upright. 

“You took more than that,” he said. “Tell me, was it you who told the witch where I kept her brother’s wings?”

Steve grinned through blood-stained teeth. "Why? She take 'em back?"

A storm cloud settled over Pierce’s face, and he handed the cane to Rumlow before moving closer, reaching for Steve’s bound hands. 

“This,” he said, pulling his left index finger out straight. “Is for the wings.” 

He wrenched the finger back, and it snapped with a crunch. Steve heard the break, but his brain didn’t properly register that it had happened to him until the pain set in. And Steve had known hurt in his life—had known pain. The unhappy accidents of broken bones and cuts, split lips, and blackened eyes. But not like this. Not like this. Every thought in his head had disappeared, replaced with one violent echo: stopmakeitstopmakeitstopmakeitSTOP.

“…for the eye.” Pierce’s voice floated over him, briefly, before he broke Steve’s middle finger, too. Leaving his hand a crippled mess, his other arm still useless, the pain so shocking that there was no focusing on any one source. As if he’d plunged his hand into a red hot forge and left it there until the skin bubbled and blistered. There was nothing to do but endure until, bit by bit, his body allowed him to come back to himself. To see beyond the pain to Pierce’s leering face.

Steve spat. Coated the man’s pallid complexion with blood and mucus, slick and shiny in the light of the lanterns as it slid down his face.

Ever the gentleman, Pierce took a step back. Retrieved his cane and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, just as the first drops of rain hit the deck.

The water jolted Steve to his senses, because while the pain was indescribable, he was still alive. Alive on a ship that would soon be overwhelmed by a nasty storm, the lightning and thunder coming only seconds apart now. 

“You’ve cost me everything,” Pierce said, drawing his attention. “So I’m going to take everything from you. Your mother’s dead. Your friends will be—if not tonight, then soon enough. I want you to live only so you can suffer, you understand? You’d be surprised how much pain a man can endure—” 

Steve croaked out a laugh. “No.” 

“No?” Pierce raised a brow. “I’m afraid you haven’t a choice in the matter, my boy. You’re mine.” 

“No,” he managed again, voice slurred and thoughts garbled as held his footing by a thread. “You can torture me. Kill everyone you can find—” 

Lightning split the sky and the heavens opened, droplets becoming a deluge. Steve turned his face up, letting the rain wash the blood from his skin before turning to Pierce. “But you can’t kill him. He’s gone. So you’ll never truly have me, because I’m his. Not yours.” 

Pierce's eyes went dark—a shark spotting its prey—and Steve felt sure he was about to lose the use of the fingers on his right hand, too. As Pierce stepped closer, his stomach turned to water, fear overwhelming him at the very idea of enduring more torture from this madman. Even bravery had its limits.

A wave saved him—some massive swell that buffeted the boat, sending all three of them stumbling. Steve was thrown against the door that led below deck, striking the opposite side of his head against the wood. Dizzy, he blinked, just as another flash of lightning hit and he swore he could see silhouettes against the clouds.

Hallucinations. Wonderful.

“He was mine,” Pierce shrieked across the pitching deck, face gone red with rage. “I’ll have him back, I’ll find him—” 

“He’s not yours!” Steve shouted, advancing in some misbegotten show of bravado. “He’s his own, and he’s gone. Gods, you still think …he'd never have given you what you wanted, you know. You're no god—you're not even human, you fucking—"

Rumlow regained his footing, leveling the gun as a clap of thunder shook the seas. Whether intentional or not, he fired the gun in Steve’s direction, and though the shot went wide, the bullet meant for Steve’s belly still grazed his thigh, tearing another white hot strip of misery from him.

He smiled through the pain; what was one more injury now? 

“You take from the sea,” he said, far beyond terror as he dragged his broken body across the deck. “But you don’t give back. Did you think you could tame it? This wild thing—” Another wave lifted the boat, tipping it precariously, water sloshing over the starboard side. 

Pierce’s eyes shone, chest heaving, and Steve saw that he was frightened. Neither of them were sailors, and Steve would bet they’d never seen a storm like this up close. 

“Really ought to get on the wheel, Brock,” he taunted, weakened leg giving out as he slumped to the deck. “You know what happens, don’t you? During storms? Boats that go down—that’s when the sirens come. That’s when they sing you low—” 

“Brock!” Pierce cried, unhinged. “Shoot him!”

“Giving up on the endless torture, huh?” He spat, as Rumlow struggled to aim. “Gonna kill me now? Interesting move, considering I’m the only sailor on board—” 

Lightning flashed, which was when Steve caught sight of the familiar face peering between the slats of the ship’s railing. Clawed hands clinging to the lower rail. Bared teeth visible in the light.

“You look nervous, Lord Pierce,” Steve said, continuing to mock. To draw attention. Until a wave big enough to generate the momentum needed to propel Bucky on board struck the boat. He landed at Rumlow’s feet with a snarl.

Shit,” Rumlow swore, fumbling with the gun, dropping it to the deck in his panic. 

Bucky didn’t hesitate before sinking his teeth deep into the meat of Rumlow’s calf, ripping away a chunk of flesh and sweeping his tail in a magnificent arc that sent his former tormentor careening over the railing and into the water below.

Rumlow screamed as the sirens surfaced, dozens of dark heads appearing in the water. 

That final scream was silenced as they dragged him into the deep. 

 

Chapter Text

Brock Rumlow had been loyal to the end, yet Alexander Pierce spared no grief for him, focusing on Bucky mere seconds after Rumlow disappeared into the dark. 

“Go,” Steve called, forcing himself to his feet despite the way his bleeding leg trembled under the weight. “Bucky, go back.”

Bucky spared him only the briefest of glances before spitting the last piece of Rumlow onto the deck. Digging his claws into the wood, he dragged himself forward, the wind and the rain whipping around as the storm tossed the ship like a child’s tempest in a tub. 

Pierce took a step toward Bucky, as if in a trance, an eerie smile caught on his crazed face. “You—”

“Me.” Bucky smiled a fearsome smile, teeth stained red as he moved ever nearer. “I come for mine.” 

“You can speak!" Pierce exclaimed with a burst of laughter that belied his madness—as though they were at a pub or a party, not a tiny ship in the middle of a storm. "I wondered. All these months, I wondered how the bastard did it. How he got you out…but you…magnificent beast that you are. You can breathe, you can—” 

“No beast,” Bucky snarled. 

“Rumlow did it,” Steve yelped, desperate to draw Pierce’s attention. “Opened the cage—betrayed you because he was jealous of me—”

“How touching,” Pierce said, placing himself between them—just far enough away that Bucky couldn’t use his tail. “And here I’ve come to take you back.”

“How,” Steve bleated. “Rumlow’s gone. This storm isn’t over, and you’re lost at sea without a navigator, you fuck. You gonna kill me? Kill him? We’re the only shot you’ve got at getting out of this alive.” 

Unaccustomed to precarious positions, Pierce’s eyes blazed pure fury as he focused his full attention on Steve for the first time since Bucky had come on board. 

“This boat’s surrounded by sirens,” he continued, trying to keep Pierce interesting as Bucky inched within striking distance. The storm had calmed a little, and though the boat was still rocking, it wasn’t with the same ferocity as even a few minutes earlier. “You really think they’re gonna let you hurt him? Let you leave?”

“They’re not capable—” 

“You’ve underestimated them before. But they’re—” Steve licked his lips, the pain a clarion call, focusing him on one single purpose: to get Bucky off the ship and back to his family. “They’ll let me go. And they’ll let me take you with me—so if you want to save your own skin—”

“No,” Bucky yelped. 

“Bucky, it’s alright...”

No.”

Lightning cracked, and the world slowed. Bucky, so near to Pierce now, lunged with claws and teeth and every ounce of strength he had. Pierce twisted, and as Bucky’s tail swept around, he lifted his cane high. Only it wasn’t a cane at all. Steve watched, horrified, as some hidden mechanism caused the masquerading scabbard to fall away, revealing a sword, which Pierce plunged into the meat at the base of Bucky’s tail, pinning him to the deck.

Time stopped. For a moment, there was nothing. Steve watched, gut plunging, while Pierce sidestepped Bucky’s swipes, claws barely grazing the hem of his trousers. Then, from the sea, the sirens began to wail. The sound of shared pain, sorrow, and rage, bubbling from the deep in a dissonant chorus. As their voices rose, Steve felt it, too—the hatred they held for this man mingling with his own.

A wave hit the ship on the port side, pitching Steve forward. He landed on his mangled hand, retching even as he crawled forward on bound fingers. When he reached Bucky’s side, he scrabbled at the sword, trying desperately to free him. But there was nothing he could do—hands too broken to pull it free. Still, he had to try, so he moved fast, first using the blade to slice the ropes binding his wrists before tugging at the handle. 

Bucky snarled, twisting around to try and help, though the angle was all wrong for him to save himself. That was when Pierce’s boot landed against Steve’s back, knocking him across Bucky’s lap, jarring them both.

“I wouldn’t,” Pierce said, voice accompanied by the tell-tale click of a gun. “Tell me, my boy, does your siren understand what bullets can do?” 

Steve lifted his spinning head and turned to find Pierce holding a small pistol—one he’d no doubt had hidden somewhere on his person. A last line of defense for the defenseless.

“You gonna shoot us, then?” Steve said, a smile on his face, Bucky’s hand coming to rest protectively on his arm. Strange, now, to have no fear of death, no worry. Only a curious sort of exhilaration that he’d been able to see Bucky one last time. “Go ahead. You still lose.”

“Get up,” Pierce snapped. 

“Just do it, you coward,” he shot back. “You want—” 

“I want that siren.” 

The man had come undone—rather more undone—which was quite the achievement, considering. The ridiculousness of the situation set Steve giggling—some new mania borne of pain and suffering—and he shook his head. "Well, that's a real pile of shit for you, Alex, m'boy. Because you can't have him."

“I will put you down!” 

“And I told you to go ahead!” 

“Steve!” That was Bucky, voice thin as his fins flopped uselessly against the deck. 

“It doesn’t matter now, Buck,” he said with a half-smile. “Look around, pal—he’s lost. If he kills me, he’s stuck here. If he doesn’t, I’m not helping him get home—”

“And if I kill him?” Pierce said. Steve didn’t have to look up to know that the gun was now pointing at Bucky’s head. “Plenty of sirens in the sea—you’ve shown me that, Captain. I’d say I’m grateful, but—”

Funny, what rage mixed with selflessness, rounded out with a complete lack of self-preservation could do. The way that potent combination could overcome pain. Terror. Good sense.

Steve flung himself at Pierce’s legs. Threw himself across the tilting deck and drove his shoulder into the man’s groin, knocking them both back with what strength remained in his aching body. 

The gun fell from Pierce’s hand as he stumbled, skittering across the slippery wood. Steve saw the opportunity for what it was. 

Pierce reached the same conclusion, and both men lunged as the storm worsened, rain slicking the deck. Together, they scrambled for the gun, which slid further with every pitch and yaw, eventually lodging itself behind a bollard. 

Being as Pierce had full use of his limbs, he reached it first. Steve, sensing time was short, crashed into him from behind, wrestling him to the ground where they grappled in a messy, rain-soaked tangle. Pierce was merciless, aiming as many blows to Steve’s arm and fingers as he could. But it was a curious thing, to be in that much pain. It gave Steve a single-minded focus: if he could get the gun, then this would all be over. If he could get the gun, he could sleep. Lay down. Rest and heal, or die in peace. One way or another. 

Just had to get hold of the gun. 

The gun, the gun, the—

Lightning hit the ship, splintering the mizzenmast, which creaked and tipped forward, ropes holding it giving way—knots likely tied by a dead man who was no true sailor. Both Pierce and Steve turned toward the noise, and while Steve knew the sound of a doomed vessel, Pierce was new to the crushing weight of a ship’s demise.

Ignoring Pierce’s horrified gasp, Steve sought out Bucky in the dark. If the mast fell and he was trapped, he wouldn’t be able to get into the water. He might be right underneath it. Might—

Pain exploded behind his eyes, and Steve howled at the new torment. Pierce had taken advantage of his desperate search for Bucky, stepping on his broken hand as he climbed to his feet.

As always, Pierce was a man who seized every opportunity.

And now? Now, he once more had the gun.

“On your knees,” he sneered. 

Steve complied only to buy himself time, thoughts muddy as he slumped his way to his knees, cradling his mangled hand against his chest and looking up and into the rounded barrel of his ending. 

“Such a disappointment,” Pierce tutted.

Steve couldn't see for the blood, the world blurry and unfocused, but he spat at Pierce's feet in one final show of defiance before closing his eyes and waiting for the inevitable.

Pierce fired.

Something hot and terrible ripped through him.

He fell to the side. 

There was screaming. Within and without.

Someone was screaming.

But it wasn’t him.

Steve opened his eyes and looked up to find that Alexander Pierce had been run through by his own sword, metal protruding from his belly, sharp edge pointed to the sky.

Behind him, Bucky stood on one foot, teeth bared, hatred in his eyes. His other foot hung limp, bloody and mangled, and Steve didn’t know how, couldn’t see—

“You…” Pierce managed.

“Me,” Bucky said, wrenching the sword upward and gutting the man who had thought him no more than a fish.

The last wave came—newly born yet familiar to Steve—a capsizing wave, turning over the boat and pitching all three of them into the churning sea.

Steve's shoulder burned as saltwater flooded into the wound where Pierce's last bullet had landed. A glancing shot to his shoulder, but that didn't matter now. The pain only served to jolt his mind into awareness even as his body begged for release. For rest. For an end to the fight.

Where was Bucky? Hard to tell. The sea had separated them quickly. Steve could see a light—lightning—and a lantern, attached to a pole jutting from the wreckage of the—there! Bucky, in the distance. Holding Pierce. Looking around until his eyes lit on Steve, who wanted to lift his arm. To wave. But found he couldn’t. Could only watch as Bucky loosened his hold on Pierce’s body and let him sink before starting to swim. 

Where was his tail? Why didn’t he have his—

Another wave crashed over him, and some piece of the ship struck Steve hard in the head. Stars above and below. He was tired. He was a starfish. He could live beneath the waves with Bucky, he was sure, if only he could sink that low. 

Bucky would sing him down, and then he would be home. 

The water was dark now; there was comfort in the cold. Lightning lit the sky, and he saw Bucky, suspended in the deep, half-siren, half-human, caught in the midst of his transformation.

In the distance, the body of Alexander Pierce was set upon by Bucky’s mother, and in the fading light, Steve saw her rip out his throat. 

Good, he thought, even as he sank further, Bucky struggling every second against the waves.

Oh, but wouldn’t it have been nice to have one last kiss? 

The water closed over Steve's fingertips, and at last, he understood that this had always been the dream.

The drowning dream.

The prophecy. 

Not his father’s death, but his own. Given to him countless times throughout his life as the fates and the furies laid out the path that would bring him here. Preparing him for the end.

He hoped Bucky wouldn’t blame himself; there was nothing he could have done. Pierce had damned Steve with that first blow from his cane, long before he’d boarded the ship. With nothing to stanch the blood flowing from his wounds, it would be over soon enough.

But Bucky was safe. Home. 

Steve had done enough. 

Closing his eyes, Steve let himself sink.

Except the ocean pushed back. 

Pressure from below. Hands beneath his shoulders. Shoving him to the surface.

Steve opened his eyes and saw his savior in the dim glow of the drifting lantern. A little thing—a sister—Bucky in miniature, with a salmon-colored tail and big blue eyes. Smiling with Bucky’s smile. Bucky’s old smile: the taught smile. 

She knew Steve, this sister. Enough to want to save him.

They broke the surface, and Steve’s desperate lungs gasped for air. 

“Steve!” Bucky’s arms wrapped around him from behind, the siblings supporting his limp body as the last of the rain began to ebb, clouds rolling away as quickly as they’d come. 

“Bucky—” he croaked. “Bucky, you’re hurt. I’m sorry. I love you, I’m so sorry.” 

“Steve,” he said, nuzzling against his neck and placing one, two, three kisses on his bloodied skin. “I love. But go.” 

“The ship’s gone—” 

“No ship,” Bucky said, kissing him once more before giving him an almighty shove.

New hands caught him. Two pairs—one on each side—cradling his broken body as he was dragged up and out of the roiling sea.

He was hallucinating. He had to be hallucinating because he knew those hands. Two of those hands.

Wanda’s hands. 

Wanda, who was there with him, her great, beating, scarlet-plumed wings streaming behind her, twin brother at her side. Steve's second savior. This boy with silver hair and familiar silver wings.

“There’s no ship,” he said, voice barely a whisper.

“Rest, now,” Wanda murmured, laying her hand against his forehead.

Steve’s head lolled, and he felt nothing more.

 

Bucky holding Steve in the water

 

He woke to the sound of water striking the side of a boat. Oars pulling in steady rhythm against a lock. A starry sky overhead. The familiar rise and fall of a calm sea below. 

Every inch of him hurt; every cut and scrape and bruise and broken bone causing him endless distress.

Wasn't dead, though. Because he was sure that if he were dead, he'd feel a damn sight better than this.

“He’s awake.” 

Natasha. Steve rolled his eyes until he found her. Tried to speak and found he had no voice, only cracked lips and a closed throat. 

"We're nearly home." Peggy, too! Somewhere he couldn't see. Crewing their vessel. Home—they must be going home. The cove and the cottage and—

“Mmm,” he managed. “Mmma?”

“She’s alright,” Natasha said, small hand coming to caress his cheek. “We’ve got you, Steve. You can sleep.”

Closing his eyes, Steve let the pain carry him into unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

Steve was dimly aware of the shore. Of shouting. Strong arms forming a cradle and Sam’s voice in his ear. 

“—home…alright…—”

He vomited. Seawater and slime, soaking the front of his torn clothing. Drifting away. In and out of dreaming as his friends took his broken body home where it wavered between the life it longed for and the death that hovered close by. 

The smell of his mother’s bed. Shadows in the dark. Long fingers reaching from monstrous, hulking beasts. 

There was a gun—a knife. He fought against the intruders, hands flailing wildly in a fevered dream. Where was Bucky? He had to find Bucky.

“Stop, Steve,” said the nearest shadow, only it wasn’t a shadow at all. It was Peggy. He knew Peggy. 

A scratched hiss of an apology passed his lips before he fell away again. 

The next time he came around, there were hands on his shoulders and his ankles. Pinning him down. Someone had lit his hand on fire because oh, oh, oh, it burned! He couldn't see, couldn't think, couldn't breathe but for the white-hot pain in his fingers. 

“Hold him!” Sarah’s voice now. “Sam, don’t let him up—” 

The agony of setting his bones, Steve found, was worse than the breaking, and he vomited once again before retreating to the dark.

A song brought him back—Sarah’s song. Her lullaby carrying him out of the deep. 

“Ma,” he mouthed, though no sound came, so broken was his voice. 

“It’s alright now,” she said, and he felt the press of a cool cloth to his forehead. “Sleep, starfish.” 

Mother knew best, and so Steve slept. Woke over and over. With fever. With chills. With tears on his cheeks and a clutching panic in his breast. 

“Bucky—” he managed through the terror, cracked voice spilling past split lips. 

“Shh,” soothed a voice that he knew—a woman’s voice—holding a cup to his lips and cradling the back of his skull. “Drink, now.”

The tea was bitter and coated his tongue with a cloying, grassy taste. He nearly spat it out. But she had infinite patience, his Wanda, so she sat with him, holding him until he’d swallowed every last drop.

"Good," she said, taking the cup from his lips before pressing one finger to each of his temples. "Soon, you will wake, but not yet."

Gods, he was tired. The warmth of Wanda’s touch wrapped him up like a warm blanket in winter, body soothed and mind relieved of its troubles. That time, when he slept, it was with a smile on his lips.

When he finally woke—truly woke—and was himself again, the sun was just rising, eastern light spilling through his mother’s bedroom window. How long had it been? Impossible to say; he hardly remembered what had happened—the last clear thought in his head was of Bucky, suspended in the water, blood streaming from his tail. 

Sore-headed and lead-limbed, Steve struggled to sit, only to discover something draped across his torso, pinning him down. His mother, curled atop the covers with her arm flung over his body, protecting him even as he slept. 

“Ma?” he said, surprised at the frailty of his speech—as if he’d aged a thousand years since last he’d used his voice. 

Sarah started, eyes opening. “Steve?” she said, sitting up with such a swiftness that Steve suspected she hadn’t been sleeping very deeply. Frowning, she pressed a hand to his brow, before allowing herself a slight smile. “Fever’s broken—thank the gods.” 

“M’thirsty—” 

“I’ve no doubt.” Reaching for a cup of water on her nightstand, she held it for him while helping him lift his head. Steve spluttered a bit, managing a few mouthfuls, the water a cooling balm on his parched lips and dry tongue.

“That’s my good boy,” Sarah murmured, pulling the water away. Steve wanted to snatch it back—to drink a gallon or more—but found that he couldn’t move his arm. 

"Oh," he said, looking down to take himself in. His broken arm was splinted, held immobile against his body in a rough muslin sling. The fingers of his left hand, meanwhile, were pulsing in pain in time with his heart beneath the gauze wrapping them, both mangled digits held with a construction of splints and bandages.

“You’re alright,” Sarah said firmly, rooting out his panic before it had time to take hold. “You’re alive. Worry about the rest later.”

“Ma,” he repeated, licking his lips, tongue gummy and strange. “How long?”

“Bit more than a week, but you’ve been in and out. More out than in, these past few days. Reminded me of when you were small, and you’d have those—” Clearing her throat, she forced the briefest of smiles onto her face. “Peggy and Natasha got you home—Sam and Riley carried you up here.”

“I’m sorry…”

“You’ve done nothing to be sorry for,” she said, eyes bright. “Anyhow, you’re home. And you’re safe with me.” 

Steve’s head had begun to throb, the pain worst near his temple. He’d been hit there—more than once, he thought—though he couldn’t remember. Pierce had broken his fingers, though. He remembered that. And someone had…hit his arm. Broken it. Rumlow had done that, hadn’t he? Or had it been Pierce?

His confusion must have shown on his face, as Sarah reached over to smooth hair from his brow. "Peggy patched you up, best she could, and I set your fingers, but we couldn't do that until we were sure you were…well. That you were going to be staying with us." She said it with practiced casualness, but he could hear the strain in her voice and hated himself for putting it there.

“Ma...” he blinked. “I…was dying. I know I was.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “Very nearly did. But your friend Wanda seemed disinclined to allow it.” 

Wanda. Wanda had been there…Wanda had had wings. Hadn’t she?

“Wanda’s here,” he said slowly. “I saw her.” 

“She and her brother both. Been sleeping on the floor all week.”

“Brother,” he echoed. 

“Peggy’s here, as well—hasn’t left since you arrived. The rest of them have been in and out—Sam comes every morning. You’ve got good friends there, Steve.”

He smiled, the skin of his broken lips stretched tight across tender teeth. “They are,” he agreed, attempting to lift his head. “I want—” 

“Better walk before you can run, starfish,” she said, though she helped him sit up enough that he could see the room, two pillows bolstering him from behind. “How’s that?”

“Good.” He sighed, feeling that much more like himself, bits and pieces of the confrontation with Pierce and Rumlow coming back to him, his mind waking alongside his body. Bucky had been there—Bucky had killed Pierce. Rumlow, too. Steve had been drowning, and Bucky’s sister had been the one to drag him back to the world.

In the end, Bucky had been hurt. Pierce had stabbed him. Pinned him to the deck and left him there to suffer. Then, in the water, Bucky had been bleeding. Hurt. Not so badly as Steve, but maybe it didn't matter. Some creatures would chase blood in the water, and there had been so much blood. 

“I—” he coughed, seeking out his mother’s face. “Ma, what about Bucky—?”

“We’re not sure,” she said, laying her hand atop his knee and giving it a squeeze. “I think you ought to talk to Wanda.” 

“Yes,” he said, letting his head fall against the pillows and closing his eyes. “Wanda…makes sense.” 

“I’ll go round up the troops.” 

Sarah kissed his forehead and left him alone with his fretful thoughts and myriad injuries. As Steve lay there, listening to the low murmur of voices in the other room, he took further stock of the damage he'd taken. His arm was a ruin—he could only hope Peggy and his mother had set it well enough that he'd have use of it again someday. Frowning, he craned his neck to study the thick, white bandage covering his shoulder. Couldn't remember why until his mind supplied an image of Pierce standing over him, gun pointed at his forehead. One final bullet—ha!—and Pierce had gotten him with it in the end. Maybe not the fatal blow he’d intended, but a shot to the shoulder, all the same. 

There was a bandage around his head, too, and he shifted his weight to feel it move. One on his thigh as well, the application of which had necessitated the removal of his trousers. Nobody had bothered to dress him again, and dull surprise registered as he realized he was naked beneath his dressings and the blankets. Shame, however, wasn’t something he could find himself to care about at that particular juncture.

Despite all his injuries, though, he found he felt like himself. Restless and sore, already resenting his infirmities for keeping him trapped. He wanted to be out with his friends, and he’d always hated being a burden. However, considering that the effort of sitting up had left him winded, being a burden might be his lot for the foreseeable future.

Just as he was working up a good head of steam over that imagined annoyance, the door to the bedroom swung open and Peggy appeared, rushing forward to wrap her arms around him in a slightly-too-tight hug. 

“You beast,” she whispered upon pulling back, taking him by the chin (one of the few unmarred places remaining on his body) to give him a gentle shake. “You gave us all such a fright.” 

Steve couldn’t help smiling. “I’ll try not to make it a regular thing.” 

Peggy blinked, eyes bright as she released him. “You—”

“Ma said you patched me up. It’s a wonder the bandages are holding, given your—” 

“Damn it…” she said, and the tears in her eyes didn’t seem so imminent anymore. Better for them both, given how much they hated crying. “If you’re about to critique my work, you can just—” 

“I know you’re not being ungrateful,” Sam’s voice broke in as he appeared at the door.

“Shit,” Steve said, swallowing hard. “Where’d you come from?”

“You think I’m gonna miss the chance to watch Peggy yell at you?” he asked, raising a brow as he came to the bed and lay a hand on Steve’s good shoulder. “How you feeling?”

“Not dead.” 

“Steve?” Another voice, and Steve looked to find Wanda standing there. No wings, but happier than he’d ever seen her, with color in her cheeks and a bright smile on her face. 

“Heard you stole yourself a key,” he said, because saying something stupid was easier than bursting into tears at the sight of her.

Wanda’s smile widened into a grin, and she stepped inside, trailed by a young man with silver hair and a lopsided smile. “This is my brother, Pietro.” 

“I remember,” Steve said. “You two pulled me out of the drink.” 

Pietro and Wanda exchanged a glance, and for just a moment, Steve could almost see their wings—silver and scarlet shimmering in the pale morning light before dissipating to nothing, leaving no hint they’d been there at all. 

"We owe you a favor," Pietro said, his voice heavily accented but understandable.

“I’d call that more than a favor,” Steve said, the last of the sentence breaking off in a coughing fit, his dry throat still not quite up to long conversations.

“Here—” Peggy said, reaching for the water to help him drink. 

Once he’d swallowed a mouthful, he turned to Wanda. “My ma said you might know about Bucky?” 

“Some things,” she said, perching at the foot of the bed and placing one hand on his ankle. “It will make more sense if we begin at the beginning.” 

“Which means,” Sam broke in. “Peggy and I had better start talking.” 

 


 

The story, coming from Sam and Peggy, was long and convoluted—mostly because they kept interrupting one another, contradicting facts, and squabbling over details that didn’t matter.

In short, they were utterly themselves, and Steve couldn’t have been happier with how they told the tale.

After sending Steve home, Sam had gone inside the pub, where Peggy’s mother had informed him that the two men at the back table had been joined by five additional men, and that she’d heard them make mention of the name Rogers. Those men, Steve surmised, were the members of Pierce’s crew that he had been planning to use to kill Steve’s mother and friends. 

It was unfortunate for those men, however, that Sam surmised the same thing. Sam, who was faster and smarter than they were. He made haste to Peggy, Natasha, and Riley, all three of whom had been more than happy to join him in surrounding the table and asking a few questions.

“Seven against four—” Steve said, a shiver running down his spine. “Some odds.” 

“Credit where credit’s due,” Sam said. “Natasha evened those odds in less than a minute, and from there—” 

“Pierce made his hires based on brute strength alone,” Peggy said, sipping the mug of tea Sarah had provided. “So those that stayed standing didn’t hold up to much.”

“Needless to say, we got the plan out of them,” Sam agreed.

“Such as it was,” Peggy snorted.

“Such as it was.” 

The men only knew so much as Pierce had allowed them to know—which was to say they knew that Steve was going to be taken to the ship and that they had orders to wait until a particular hour, then kidnap or kill any member of Steve's circle. ("Probably planned to torture us in front of you," Peggy said placidly.)

Natasha, who had been frustrated with the lack of reliable intelligence, wanted to take out her annoyance on the remaining men by slitting their throats.

“However,” Peggy said. “We were in my mother’s house, and I didn’t fancy spoiling the rugs.” 

“We turned them over to the constable,” Sam said. “And without a boss to report to—” 

“They’re not gonna cause any more trouble,” Peggy said, and Steve had to agree. Pierce hadn’t been a man to inspire overwhelming loyalty.

Now that the foursome knew Steve was on the ship, they had begun making a plan. It was determined that Peggy and Natasha (the former being the only decent sailor among them) would 'borrow' a boat from the docks and mount a rescue. Sam and Riley, meanwhile, would go to Sarah. It wasn't much of a plan—a goose chase at best, considering they had no idea which direction Pierce had gone—but Steve appreciated their efforts all the same.

Upon reaching the docks, Peggy and Natasha set out, while Sam and Riley stayed behind, watching them disappear into the dark. They’d only just turned to leave when they heard the first rumbles of thunder in the distance.

“So we’re worrying about that,” Sam said with a grin, turning to Wanda and giving her a wink. “When this girl I met just once at the circus lands in front of me on the docks, sporting a pair of wings.”

“They are efficient for traveling,” Wanda said primly, not bothering to hide her smile. 

“Right on her tail comes Pietro,” Sam continued. “And then, just when I think I've seen everything, some seven-foot-tall giant comes sliding down a spit of lightning like he's riding a wave into shore. Has a hammer the size of a horse's head in his arms, and—"

“The blacksmith?” Steve guessed. 

“My brother’s wings were not all I took from Pierce,” Wanda confirmed with a sly little smile. “And now, I think, perhaps, it is my turn to talk.” 

Peggy and Sam were more than happy to cede their spots, and so Wanda began to tell Steve just what had happened between the time he and Bucky left the manor, to the moment she and Pietro pulled him from the sea. 

Finding a way to steal Pierce's keys had taken Wanda quite some time, as her power and her wings were entwined with her brother's, leaving her with neither. That didn't keep her from being cunning, though, and over time she created a sleeping draught, slipping it into Lord Pierce's tea one afternoon when Renata was out. That allowed her to steal the keys, pressing them into a mold she'd made of two soap halves and returning them to his belt before he knew they were gone. The impression had been taken to the most disreputable locksmith in Columbia, who had cast two keys for a hefty fee—one she was willing to pay.

Once she had the keys, it was merely a matter of choosing the right moment. Pierce, angered by the loss of the siren, had become obsessed with finding 'the thief.' Rumors among the staff said that he was planning to go north to kidnap said thief's mother. As was often the case, the rumors were only half right—torture wasn't in his plan for Sarah, but he did go north, giving Wanda the opportunity she needed to sneak into the room. To take the wings and the eye.

The moment Pietro’s wings were freed, they began to seek him out. Abilities restored, it had been all Wanda could do to hold onto them as her own wings sprang forth in joyful reunion, crashing through Lord Pierce’s estate in half flight until they found a window large enough to break through. 

Wanda had made haste to her homeland, bringing the wings to her brother and conveying news of Pierce’s mad plans, which they agreed could not be allowed. He had to be dealt with, for the safety of all messengers, blacksmiths, sirens, and sphinxes. So, the two of them had journeyed to see the blacksmith, returning his eye and convincing him to join their cause. From there, the three traveled south to Kiwasko in search of the sphinx, who allowed them entrance and aid, but would not leave his country undefended. He did, however, use the blacksmith’s eye in conjunction with his own power to scry Pierce’s location. As it happened, by then Pierce was on board his ship, journeying north for the second time to take his final revenge on Steve.

Canny Wanda surmised the purpose of his travels, as well as his destination. Knowing that he was bent on revenge, she, Pietro, and the blacksmith had decided they ought to seek out the sirens—allowing them some pleasure in his demise. Journeying on the back of the wind, they had arrived in Red Hook on the very same night Steve was taken.

“Well-timed,” he said with a wry smile.

“Fate chooses,” Wanda replied. “Though you did upset our plans.” 

“Did I?”

"You were not expected. We knew the sirens would come if Pierce's ship were lost, and so the blacksmith had already begun the storm. Considering what your friend suffered, we thought he ought to be the one to lay Pierce low. But as we drew closer to the town, I spied Sam on the docks, and I asked them to stop. I didn't want anyone taking a boat out, not with the storm we were planning—"

“So here they come with that warning,” Sam says, “and of course Peg and Nat are already gone.” 

“We had to be careful,” Wanda agreed. “So we decided that the blacksmith would call the storm quickly—sink the ship, then Pietro and I would rescue you, Steve. First, though, I would find these friends of yours and warn them to keep well back from the storm. To wait for us while Sam and Riley went to your mother to tell her what had happened.”

“And the sirens were already coming,” Steve said. “The…whatever instinct pulls them toward shipwrecks, they knew—”

“Yes,” Wanda said. “And the siren—your Bucky, I think, is his name?—he saw me. I made sure of it, before he ever climbed aboard the ship.”

“And those conveniently timed lightning strikes?” 

“It is useful to have a blacksmith,” Pietro grinned. 

“I can just about remember it from there,” Steve said. The storm. The fight. Pietro and Wanda pulling him from the water and bringing him to Peggy and Natasha, who had been warned off and waiting.

“You were very sick,” Wanda said. “I am a healer, but with a body so broken—” 

“Honey, you saved him,” Sarah said, taking hold of Wanda’s hand and squeezing tight. 

“The seaweed helps,” she demurred.

“You touched my head.” Steve understood now: the blow to the temple would have killed him. Arm, leg, shoulder, fingers—bad, yes, but all things from which a body could recover. The damage done by Pierce’s cane, however, had been fatal.

Without Wanda, he might not have lived through the night, much less woken up coherent on the other side. 

“Thank you,” he said, voice hitching.

“You were good to me when you did not have to be,” she said simply.

“And what about Bucky?” Steve said. “Have you seen him—?”

“We went back,” she said. “To the place. But the sirens are gone. Down to the deep, so far even the blacksmith’s eye could not see.” 

Steve swallowed around the lump forming in his throat. “He was injured,” he managed. “Pierce—I couldn’t tell how bad it was—” 

“Sirens dive deep to take care of their own,” Wanda said. “To heal, or mourn, I cannot say which. But I think—I think he is strong, your Bucky.”

Steve flexed his unbroken hand against his stomach and took a shaky breath. If Bucky was hiding, Steve couldn't blame him. Not after what had happened—what humanity had put him through. Let him rest, let him heal. Let him stay where he was safe and where he was happy.

The alternative didn't bear thinking about. Because it wasn't fair if Steve lived, and Bucky died. Wasn't fair that Steve should be here, surrounded by those who loved and were loyal to him, if Bucky was gone. So he had to believe that Bucky was out there somewhere, down in the deep.

That his choice had been made. 

At least Steve had been able to see him. To tell him he loved him one last time.

That would have to be enough.

 

Chapter Text

Steve hated being idle. Hated that he had to be. Hated every minute of his initial convalescence, tucked up in his mother’s bed, unable to do much more than sleep and eat what scant few things his stomach could manage. 

Still, he had no shortage of company. Wanda, Pietro, and Peggy remained in the house, while Sam, Natasha, and Riley visited nearly every day. Steve, who slept more than he woke, often came around to find one of his friends perched on the chair next to the bed, ready to talk with him if he wanted, or sit with him if he didn’t. Sam was especially good at the latter, able to stay silent for ages with a book open on his lap, comforting Steve with his company.

"You going back soon?" Steve asked him on his fifth restless morning abed—a difficult one, with his back spasming and broken arm aching, leaving him tired and irritable.

“Back?” Sam said, looking up.

“To the circus for the season—” 

“Oh, we’re not going out this year,” he said placidly, turning a page.

“What? Why not?”

“Because someone’s gonna have to hold you up when you start walking, and we’re taller than Peggy and Nat.” 

“Sam,” he frowned. “You gotta work.”

“You think we’re not working? We’ve been taking shifts in the pub, helping to unload cargo down the docks—keeping busy, don’t you worry.” 

“But Nick…” 

“Circus’ll be there next year,” he said. “That’s home, but you’re family.” 

“Sam.”

“Shit, Steve, quit sucking on that lemon, will ya? We wanna be here. If we didn’t, we’d go.” 

“I’m—” he bit his lip, quieting the guilty voice at the back of his mind. “Thanks, Sam.”

“You’re welcome. You want me to read to you for a minute?” 

Steve didn’t mind the coddling so much when it came from Sam, so he shrugged, closing his eyes. “That’d be nice.” 

 


 

It was easier during the days, because days held a singular focus: getting better. Healing and regaining his strength. It took two miserable, undignified weeks before Steve was capable of standing, bolstered by Sam and Riley, making short, breathless trips around the perimeter of Sarah's bedroom until he could walk on his own, hobbling with a limp and an occasional stumble. Then came the excursions—venturing out—a slow, agonizing reemergence into the world. First, to the bedroom door. Next, to the rocking chair in the living room, where he spent the better portion of the day sitting upright, finding the change of scenery nothing short of miraculous. Several days after that, he made it to the front door of the cottage, which Sam opened. Steve smiled, breathing in a lungful of the warm, fresh, sea air, feeling very nearly like himself.

But if the days were easier, the nights were almost impossible. Because the nights brought with them the quiet moments when Steve lay sore and lonely in his mother's bed. The nights were when he thought of Bucky. Not with the same unrelenting grief that had overwhelmed him when Bucky first went back to his family, though. This grief was regret, tinged with nostalgia, wrapped up in worry. Part of Steve would always wonder whether or not Bucky had survived the fight. If the injury done to him by Pierce had healed or worsened. If his mother had sung him low or raised him up to the fates, hoping just as Sarah had for a healing touch.

Whatever had happened, Steve felt deep in his bones that he wouldn't see Bucky again. How could Bucky choose him when the world he inhabited had done him so much harm? Caged and electrocuted. Starved and stabbed. It was no wonder Bucky's mother had such a low opinion of humans; no wonder she was loath to give him up. Sarah would have been no different—was no different, fussing over Steve night and day—and so Steve felt no animosity toward Bucky’s mother. It had been Bucky’s choice in the end, and with each new day, Steve felt sure of that surety. Because Bucky knew that Steve was safe now, even if he was alone. The world was rid of the evil that was Alexander Pierce, and Steve was grateful for having played some small part in that, even if it cost him his happiness. Seemed a fair trade—a sacrifice made for the safety of someone he loved.

That, and Bucky wasn't the only being made safe through Pierce's demise. The twins, the blacksmith, the sphinx, and any number of marvels, sheltered from the whims of a madman who saw them as nothing more than trophies.

Wanda and Pietro stayed with them until a month had passed, with Wanda brewing her medicines (including some that made liberal use of Bucky’s seaweed) and Pietro doing periodic sweeps across the length and breadth of the siren sea, just in case. He never came back with news, but Steve never expected him to—the sirens had hidden themselves away from human eyes, just as Bucky had said they would. 

On the morning the twins departed for Coskovia—for their own home and family—Steve sat on the bench outside the cottage with Wanda, while Pietro stretched his wings high overhead, hidden in the clouds. Peggy was coming to take them to Penston, as they were going to be starting their journey by train. This was because Wanda had insisted she had business in Columbia, though she wouldn’t say what. Steve was inclined to let her keep her secrets.

“It’s funny,” he said, turning his face to the sun. 

“What’s that?” Wanda asked.

“How much I’m gonna miss you.” 

She smiled, reaching for his still-splinted hand and pulling it into her lap, gentle as she ran her fingers across the bandages. "I will write you a letter every time we stop."

“Gonna send them on the wind?” he teased. “Or are they coming by lightning strike?”

“You think you are very wise to this world now, hmm?” 

“Oh, I know I am.” 

“Ah. Some might say. Not me. But some.” 

Steve turned his head with a laugh to kiss her temple. “I’ll write you letters, too, even if I have to dictate them to Peggy or ma.” 

“I think you will write them yourself soon,” she said. “Because you are stubborn. Stubborn bones don’t like to be broken.” 

“Is that so?”

“Yes.” She hesitated. “You know, from the first day I met you, I think that you are good.”

“I’m—”

“Don’t demur, doesn’t suit you,” she said, cutting off his deflection. 

“Sorry,” he said, offering her a smile. “I guess I just don’t think about good. Lucky, maybe.”

"Luck, fate, chance, and circumstance. Life is unkind, and still, you are good."

“My life’s not so tough,” he said quietly. “Lotta people have it worse than me.” 

“Still,” she said, as the sound of hooves on the road reached them.

"That'll be Peggy," Steve said because stating the obvious had always been a strength of his.

“Yes.” Wanda hesitated, releasing her hold on his hand. “I am no seer, but this…is not the last time we will meet, I think.” 

Steve smiled, leaning forward to wrap her in the best hug he could manage. “I hope not.”

 


 

The breezy warmth of summer proved a continued balm for Steve's body. As the weeks after the twins' departure wore on, he continued to heal. Over time, his excursions outside the cottage grew longer and longer. First, to the edge of the cliff. Then, all the way to the road. He never did try the sea path, though, telling himself it was too steep a descent. Too tricky a climb back to the bluff.

Nearly two months into his recovery, Peggy decided (in her infinite medical wisdom) that Steve's bones were healed enough. This diagnosis was confirmed, at Sarah's instance, by the doctor in Penston. So, the splints and the sling were removed, leaving Steve with an arm that hung weakly at his side, muscles gone slack. The fingers of his opposite hand, meanwhile, were whole—if whole meant wholly useless. The doctor encouraged him to take things slowly, but Steve had never been one for doing anything by half-measures and quickly grew frustrated with the pace of his recuperation. No matter how hard he worked, his arm remained stiff, elbow unable to bend past a certain point. His fingers proved hapless in all respects, hardly able to curl enough to grip a door handle, much less do anything dextrous. Which annoyed Steve to the point that he began resenting the strengthening exercises he'd been given—certainly he'd do them, as he was too stubborn not to, but he didn’t like them—which did nothing for his temperament when it came to being teased.

"Less chance of you punching people if you can't make a fist," Peggy said one afternoon at the pub, sitting at Steve's side while he scratched out a letter to Howard. Writing was newly possible, but only just—his arm ached if he did it for too long, and the lack of give in his joints meant his letters came out blocky and strange.

“That’s not funny,” he muttered.

“Of course it is,” she said. “I’m hilarious.”

“Hilarious looking, maybe,” he shot back, only to have Peggy give the back of his head the lightest of smacks.

“Now that’s not funny,” she reprimanded with a grin that he couldn’t help returning. 

“Kinda funny.” 

“Write your letter,” she said, swatting him with a dishtowel and going to wipe down a table.

The letter, upon completion, was bundled with one from Peggy and sent to the nearest post office. Steve, who couldn't yet work, had swallowed every ounce of pride he'd ever had and asked Howard to continue providing medication for as long as Sarah needed it. Privately, Steve hoped he'd eventually be able to earn money again, but in the interim, he needed to be practical.

“I was thinking,” Peggy said, later that same day, as she drove him home.

“A dangerous proposition.”

“Again, not funny.” 

“What were you thinking?” 

"I was thinking you ought to be put to work."

“A job,” he replied, turning to her with a smile. “After I just wrote to Howard for charity—” 

"I never said a job. I said work."

“Uh-huh. And what’s that look like?”

“Whatever I tell you it looks like.” 

“Bully for you, I guess. What’s brought this on?”

“You’re surlier than usual, and you need something to occupy your time.”

“Well, by all means—” 

“It’ll do you good. Something to keep you busy.”

“As your hired hand.” 

“Never said hired,” she teased, sticking out her tongue and spurring on the horses.

 


 

To Steve’s consternation, Peggy was right—the work helped. He began walking to town daily, where she’d give him things to do, usually hauling boxes or running errands. Clumsy at first, he quickly found his footing, and eventually, Sam and Riley began bringing him along to the docks, where he’d assist with loading and unloading cargo, or making repairs. Slowly but surely, his strength was rebuilt, and while his arm would never fully straighten, nor would his fingers be nimble, he could shoulder barrels and coil rope as well as anyone. So, as summer began to creep toward fall, he figured he was about as recovered as he was going to get.

Physically, at least. Mentally? Those injuries went deeper than the surface. Steve was plagued with nightmares, reliving every moment on the boat in excruciating detail. Only in his dreams, Bucky was often recaptured, along with his sister and his mother. Or, in others, Pierce killed him in front of Steve as he screamed and begged him to stop. Even in his waking hours, there remained remnants of the lingering damage Pierce had left on Steve’s mind. His speech occasionally came out slurred, as if his mouth had forgotten how to form the words it wanted. Or, less often, he’d forget the correct term altogether, fumbling around, gesturing to make himself understood. He hated it, but he lived with it. Managed it. What other option did he have?

“You sound like Bucky when you do that,” Natasha said one afternoon as she walked him home (her insistence at seeing him safely to the cottage having nothing to do with her worrying over his wellbeing; she only needed to speak to Sarah, was all). 

"What?" Steve said, no longer focused on finding the missing word. Natasha was the only one of his friends who would mention Bucky directly—the others tiptoed around the subject, as if afraid of opening up the barely stanched wound.

“You flap your hand the way he did, when you forget a word,” she explained. 

“Do I?” He hadn’t realized, and the thought made him smile. 

"You do." She paused. "I ah… I'm sorry, by the way."

“For what?” 

“I said he’d come back. And he didn’t. So I guess—” 

“Nat,” he said gently. “We don’t know what he might have done before Pierce came. And you weren’t there on that ship— you shoulda seen his mother. The way she went after Pierce in the water. She was a tempest.”

“She’d be hard-pressed to give him up.”

“That and…” Steve shrugged and pushed his bad hand through his hair. “Why would he want to leave? He’s safe now.”

“He was safe before.”

“Not with Pierce out there, he wasn’t.”

“Bucky never saw Pierce as the real threat, you know. Rumlow terrified him, but Pierce—for Bucky, Pierce was only a threat to you. So he’d gnash his teeth and snarl, sure, but that was always about protecting you, not about his own fear.”

“I didn’t know that.” 

“He didn’t let you see it. Until—” She cleared her throat. “He saved you. And you saved him. You two don’t owe each other anything anymore.”

“No, I suppose we don’t,” he agreed. 

“So whatever guilty debt you had in your ledger, that’s repaid.”

“Right,” he said, not entirely sure what she meant.

“But that doesn’t mean you’re in balance.”

Steve cocked a brow as they turned off the main road and took the path toward the cottage. “Oh?”

“He’s gone. You know that. But you haven’t let him go.” 

"Oh, c'mon…"

“You flinch every time I mention him,” she said. “It’s not—you need to say goodbye to him, Steve.” 

“I did.” 

“Not—” she took a deep breath. “When I ran away from Peggy, I thought I was fine. Closed off that part of myself and thought fuck her and her presumptions. But then when I saw her again, I—and it sounds stupid when I say it out loud—I realized I hadn’t been alive at all. Hadn’t been letting myself live.” 

"Natasha," he said, a breeze off the water coming in salty and sharp, filling his nostrils and making his eyes water. "Shit."

“You never go to the beach anymore, do you?”

“I—it’s a steep path, and I’m—”

“Take a walk,” she said, stopping in the yard and pointing the way. “Sarah and I’ll be here when you get back.” 

There was no arguing with Natasha when she’d made up her mind, so Steve did as he was told, feet carrying him to the path, then down the slope to the pebbled beach, where the tide was low and a hundred different creatures scuttled back and forth in the salt pools left behind.

Making his way to the water, he sat down on the sand, staring out at the endless sea in silence. Hours later, he rose and began the climb back to the cottage.

It became a ritual after that—he went to the water every day. Sometimes in the morning, before he went to town. Sometimes in the evening, as the sun slid beneath the far western horizon, fading light setting the sea ablaze. There were never any prayers or benedictions. No divine blessings or understandings to be had. There was only being there. Remembering Bucky. Missing him. 

Then came a day when the south wind turned, chased away by the sharper bite of the winter to come. Steve realized with some shock that it had been a year, nearly, since he’d first brought Bucky home—five months since he’d seen him last—and while the sharp sting of new sorrow had ebbed, Bucky was still the first thing he thought of when he woke in the mornings, and the last thing on his mind before he went to sleep. 

Cold weather meant that the sirens would soon be moving on, and as he sat, Steve found he was discomfited by the thought. The realization that Bucky would be further removed from him soon. Strange that he should be so broken up about it, in spite of Bucky already being long gone.

When the sun had nearly set, Steve stood, wading a few inches into the water, where he followed the strange routine he’d established for himself—crouching to scoop a handful of sand and pebbles from the sea bed. Holding it tight in his fist for a minute or two before releasing it to the tides. He watched every granule whirl away, then stood and stared out at the water, where there was a dark shape on the waves—some lazy, late-season bird, no doubt, seeking its supper in the deep.

The shape moved. Disappeared beneath the waves for only a moment before a tail appeared, sending an arc of water into the sky.

No.

Wasn’t. 

Couldn’t be.

Steve held his breath. 

Bucky’s head broke the surface, a mere ten yards out. Steve ran. Charged into the water, heedless of the cold, meeting Bucky in the shallows, where he fell to his knees and wrapped him up, the two of them a tangle of arms and legs and tail and tears. 

“Steve,” Bucky crowed, holding him fast as a wave crashed above them, setting Steve spluttering, then laughing, still half-believing he was in some dream. 

“Hey, pal,” he managed before a second wave hit, setting off another coughing fit. 

"Out," Bucky declared, grin bright enough to light the deepest dark. Steve couldn't stop smiling back as they made their way to shore, fighting for every inch. He wasn't as strong as he'd been before, and between his water-logged clothing and Bucky's heavy tail, it took some work before they collapsed together onto the damp sand.

"Hi, Buck," he said because it seemed the thing to say.

“Hi, Steve.” 

"I uh…" he hesitated, mind churning with possibility. Had Bucky only come to say goodbye? "What are you doing here, pal?"

Bucky blinked, cocking his head to the side, the motion as familiar to Steve as breathing. “Come home.” 

Hope set up a stronghold in Steve’s heart. “Home?” 

“Yes.” 

“But your mother—” 

“Go,” he said. “I stay.”

“You’re not going?” His eyes traveled down the length of Bucky’s body, where he was brought up short by what he saw. Bucky’s tail fins on the left side were ruined, hanging limp in some places, reduced to shreds in others, accompanied by a jagged scar—a white weal rent through the last few inches of tail, beginning just where Pierce had stabbed him. 

Steve had never been sure of when Bucky had transformed on the ship. When he'd thought of it at all, he'd assumed Bucky had used the change to set himself free. That the sword had somehow become dislodged with the splitting of his tail. But Steve had been wrong. Bucky had ripped himself off the blade before the transition happened, damaging his tail irreparably. Injuring himself terribly so that he could kill Pierce before Pierce could kill Steve.

“Shit, Bucky,” he stammered, dawning horror replacing his joy as he reached down with his mangled hand and touched the scar. “I’m sorry—”

“Not sorry,” Bucky said immediately.

“You, ah, does it hurt?” 

Ever the pragmatist, Bucky shrugged. “Not now. But is not for swimming long.”

No, it wouldn't be. Steve could see why he'd come back now—no chance of keeping up with his family over long distances with an injury like that. "Pal, I'm sorry," he said again, guilt taking hold.

“No sorry,” Bucky repeated with a frown. “I stay, family go.” 

So much for making a choice. “I’m—” Steve stopped himself from apologizing again. “Are you mad at me?” 

“Mad?” Bucky frowned. “No. Why mad?” 

“Because this wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t provoked Pierce. If he hadn’t—” 

Bucky shook his head, picking up Steve’s hand and pressing a kiss to his palm. “Is my choice.” 

“But it’s not a choice.”

“Nnn.” Giving his palm a nip, Bucky didn’t bother hiding his smile. “I choose before. I come home. I say.” 

Something bloomed within Steve at that, and a smile spread itself across his face. “You…really?” 

“I am for you. Always. When I go, I see this.” 

“But your family, your mother—” 

“She sees you.” Lifting his other hand, Bucky pressed one finger to the center of Steve’s forehead. “Says you are…only one, because you are for me.”

“I don’t understand.”

“When they come?” he offered. “In summer. She says, we go. I know where. I see them. Only you and me.”

“That’s—“ Steve’s smile widened. “So it’s not a choice? You get both?”

Bumping their foreheads together, Bucky shrugged. “When I see her before, she say choose. But when you fight for me—she is see. Say you are good.”

"Well, I got news for her," he teased, a half-hysterical giggle escaping. "Shit, Bucky, I was so worried—I didn't know if you were alright."

“Is only an injure,” he said, waving it off. “I wait, rest. Heal. Come home. But, I see you are hurt, in the water?” 

“Kinda hurt,” Steve demurred, kissing Bucky’s forehead, because if he could downplay his injuries, then Steve wasn’t going to complain about his fingers. “You wanna budge up? Get your ass out of the water so you can grow some legs and see Ma?” 

“Ma!” He exclaimed. “Nasha?” 

“You can see Nasha tomorrow. C’mon.” Getting to his feet, Steve hooked his hands under Bucky’s armpits, hauling him onto dry sand. Sharp as ever, Bucky noticed the difference in Steve’s grip, grabbing him the moment they were clear to pull him back down to the sand. 

“Bad?” he asked, touching each finger in turn.

“Not so bad as it was.”

Pierce,” he snarled. “I kill twice.” 

“You and me both.” 

“Show all.” Bucky tugged at the sleeve of Steve’s shirt, and so it was that Steve submitted himself to Bucky’s worry. Allowed him to examine every scar Pierce had visited upon his body. 

"I'm really alright, Buck," he said after several minutes of being poked and prodded. "We both got our injuries, but at least we're here to talk about 'em."

Bucky brushed the tips of his claws across the silver scar on Steve’s shoulder that marked the place he’d bitten Steve first, a long time ago. “Pierce is shoot here,” he said, touching the nearby puffed-up scar left by the bullet. 

“He did.”

“Stupid. I am here first. Is mine.” 

“Yeah,” Steve agreed with a smile, reaching to tuck some hair behind Bucky’s ear. “I’m all yours, Buck.” 

"Mine," he repeated. "But you think I do not come? Not choose?"

“Kinda, yeah.”

“Steve,” he said, with such an exasperated sigh that Steve had to laugh before pulling him in for a proper kiss.

The kiss lasted for some time, the two of them growing closer, though it was only when they separated that Steve felt something poking at his hip. Raising an eyebrow, he looked down, only to discover that it was a bag made of seaweed, strapped to Bucky’s waist by a braided rope that might once have been part of a ship’s rigging.

“What’s that?” he asked, tapping the bag.

“Oh!” Bucky grinned, shifting so he could open the pouch. “Is for you and ma.” Reaching inside, he produced a fistful of gold coins. 

Steve's eyes went so wide he feared they might roll right out of his head, because the coins in Bucky's palm were undoubtedly worth more than he'd ever seen—more than his father had made in a year, even at the height of his success. "Bucky!"

“Is for medicine. For ma.” 

“Where did you find that?” 

 “Deep,” he said. “Old ship—sister see. Show. I am slow to swim, but I go.”

"Bucky," he managed because he couldn't find any other words. Naturally, gold wouldn't mean much to a siren, but Bucky, who had lived on land for long enough to know its value, had quickly realized what his sister had stumbled upon. That sort of money meant more than medicine: it meant a life. They could afford to buy a ship—to travel. Steve could take up his father's work with Bucky at his side, in the place that made them both happiest.

“Welcome,” Bucky said, pleased, toes wriggling in the…

Toes! 

The legs had come, as always, but Steve's breath caught in his throat when he saw that Bucky's injuries weren't confined to his tail. His left foot was twisted and gnarled, three of five toes missing, covered with a mess of scarring that was reminiscent of his scales etched into his skin.

“Ah—” Steve said, then cut himself off.

Bucky sighed, looking down with a resigned shrug. “I not see before, but I think is bad.”

“This is the first time you’ve had legs since…?”

“Yes.” 

“Do you think you can walk?” 

Bucky shrugged before attempting to get to his feet, where it quickly became apparent that he'd need a crutch or cane (even if the thought of the latter made Steve shudder).

“Hang on, pal,” he said, getting up to wrap his stronger arm around Bucky’s waist. “We’ll figure it out.

“Yes,” Bucky agreed. “Figure.”

“Shit, we got three working hands and feet between us. I’d say we came out ahead,” he teased, turning to kiss Bucky’s cheek. “Ready to go see ma?”

“Yes!” 

“And uh…when we get home, you might want to consider putting on some pants.” 

final movie poster edit of all images in the story

Chapter Text

They had fallen asleep on the deck beneath the shadow of the mainsail. Steve woke first, pulled from pleasant dreams of rolling waves only to find them in his reality, too. There on that small, sturdy vessel they had dubbed the Shield. The name was twofold, the first and most obvious being that she protected them from harm, the second coming from the fact that Steve's father had called his ship the Sword, so it seemed a fitting way to pay homage.

It had been six years since Bucky had come home, and while some things had changed, others had remained constant as the tides. 

The most important of these was this: Bucky was always for Steve, and Steve was always for Bucky, no matter where the winds carried them. 

Lately, those winds had been carrying them further and further afield with each passing season. Purchasing the Shield had given them untold freedom, and they took full advantage of that privilege. Nomads, both of them, traveling the world, which seemed to grow larger with each passing year. Recently, a trip to Coskovia had been proposed, though it was hard to say by who, being as their conversations never led back to a single source. Whispered dreams in the dark, big ambitions and wide-eyed optimism passed back and forth. A novelty for Steve, who found himself growing used to happiness, by and by.

Most of the time, they traveled alone, though they liked to have friends along when they were able. The Shield could be sailed by two, but she accommodated five comfortably, seven in a pinch. So Peggy and Natasha set out with them once or twice a year, when the tourist trade was low, and the weather was fine. Traveling as a foursome to whatever port city happened to be hosting the circus that month, giving them the chance to see Sam and Riley, along with the rest of their former traveling companions. And, of course, for the Widow and the Wolf to make a special appearance at the end of the show.

They had only gone back to Columbia once, traveling along rivers and canals to visit Howard and Tony, before ferrying Peter and Tony to Red Hook for the summer. Peter had been eager to show off his hometown, while Tony had merely been eager to spend more time with Peter. 

In the years since the death of Lord Alexander Pierce, Howard had become wealthier than ever, stepping forward as a canny mind with big ideas and the money to back them up. Despite having once been a shareholder in the now-bankrupt Pierce shipping conglomerate, he had sold his portion before news of the man's untimely death at sea reached Columbia, choosing to purchase stock in pharmaceuticals instead. For whatever reason, Howard had come to see the benefit in parting wealthy old men from their money, and he parlayed some of that excess into a foundation that bore his dead wife's name. Said foundation provided care to those stricken with thrux and other illnesses who couldn't afford treatment on their own. Steve felt a mite proud of that, though he'd never say so—his mother was well and would be for a good long while. That was enough for him.

Beyond Columbia and the circus, each season brought with it new destinations. New adventures. There was no end to the places Shield could carry them. No limit to what they could discover. It was a simple life, yes, but Steve couldn’t imagine a happier one. 

Every winter, of course, they made their way back to Red Hook, where Sarah waited for them with open arms. 

And in the summer? Well, there were other arms held open. 

 


 

Bucky stirred, pressing his nose to the bare skin of Steve’s chest and snuffling lightly. Clothing was optional, so long as only the two of them were on board, which came as a blessed relief to Bucky, who still bore his trousers as a burden. Steve didn’t mind much, either—easier to manage all the swimming they did when they could dry off in the open air. (Though, currently, he was wearing drawers. One never knew when visitors might arrive, after all.)  

“Welcome back,” he said, pressing a kiss to Bucky’s salt-tangled hair.

“It’s late,” Bucky replied, voice half a growl. Never quite had gotten over being a grump when woken from a nap.  

“Not that late. Sun’s still up.” 

“I’m going down for food.” 

“Hang on a second—” He laughed, using one leg to catch Bucky’s calf before he could grab his crutch, pulling him close and kissing the tip of his nose.

“Steve!” Bucky did his best to look annoyed, but Steve could see the smile hidden beneath his scowl. “What?” 

"Gimme a kiss, and I'll let you up."

“That’s cohesion.”

“You mean coercion.” 

“Sure,” Bucky said, lifting his head so that he might withhold his kisses, utterly unbothered by his misuse of the word, mostly because it was a big word to know, and he was always happy to learn a new one. For having spoken the language less than a decade, Bucky was quick—a voracious reader who occasionally corrected Steve’s spelling—and while he still had slips and stumbles, well, so did Steve. 

“Aw, c’mon, Buck,” he laughed. “Don’t make me work for it.” 

“You’re suff