Wolfsbane Brew is the sort of place that Steve has gotten used to in the Above. The smell of coffee, the bustle and the noise, and the hipsters with their laptops out and their no foam triple shot venti whatsits. It’s all so human. None of them have to deal with the call of the ocean, smiling carefully so that sharp teeth aren’t too apparent, or weird stares when they say something just a little bit weird and freak out their patrons.
None of them have to deal with a very unfortunate crush on their boss either.
Well , maybe some do. Steve’s pretty sure inappropriate attraction is at least semi universal. He just somehow doubts everyone is dealing with a crush on Bucky Barnes.
Bucky Barnes has thick meaty arms like he’s been well prepared for the deepest depths of the ocean and hair. So much hair. Steve’s always fancied his own hair on the shorter side, cutting it off with whatever he can find when it starts getting in his face and bothering him but Bucky has hair that Steve can already imagine braiding trinkets into.
Steve bets he could make the best hair styles with all that hair. If this was the ocean he’d have already offered Bucky at least a dozen bobbles and been granted full access, but no, apparently humans are weird about that stuff and apparently interwork romances are frowned upon or something. At least that’s what Sam has told him.
And Sam’s friend Carol.
Steve’s been told by quite a few people actually. He might, possibly, talk about how unfair it is that Bucky exists more than he should.
Steve sighs, watching Bucky do something fascinating with the milk steamer until a customer interrupts with a very pointed clearing of their throat.
“I’m busy,” Steve says, leaning a little more into his hand where he’s propped his elbow on the countertop. Sure, work is important, but Bucky’s got his tongue stuck out the corner of his mouth in concentration and Steve can’t be expected to do anything during that. That’s just unfair.
“Honey, I would be too,” The customer says with a sigh that sounds how Steve feels, and Steve has to finally swing his focus onto the middle aged woman and take her coffee order as a sign of solidarity in the face of Bucky Barnes.
When Steve washed up on the shore less than a year ago it was with two legs, a feeling like his lungs were on fire that hasn’t gone away entirely in the months since, and no idea what he was supposed to do now.
Sam had found him before he could cause too much trouble.
“So it’s like a rumspringa,” Sam had said after Steve had explained in vague terms the customs and magic that allowed him to spend time on land to experience the world up above so long as he returned to the sea every once in a while.
(He doesn’t say that the reason they have to go back occasionally is so that they don’t lose the ability to. He knows enough from the whispers of his aunts to know better.)
“Bless you?” Steve had said and then, when Sam looked at him in confusion, “I have no idea what that means.”
“The amish thing,” Sam had explained, and then when Steve continued to blink at him like he was talking in gibberish, “You know- hell, you don’t know- it’s a right of passage thing. An experience normal culture for a couple years in your youth then decide which world you want to be a part of kinda thing.”
“I guess?” Steve had said, though it was a gross oversimplification and seemed like it implied everyone did it, when the vast majority of mermaids were perfectly content to never do more than dip their heads above water every once in awhile. Some of them, though it baffled Steve, simply found the idea of land boring. Still it seemed close enough.
And really, that had been that. Sam had let Steve stay with him and Steve had taken over Sam’s bathtub so that he could let his tail out every once in awhile and everything had settled into some sort of version of normal.
And then Sam had gone and gotten Steve a job through a friend of a friend and Steve’s ridiculous crush had been created.
“Do you think he’d like to live in a kelp forest? Or an underwater cave? They’re a little harder to get a hold of, but a lot nicer...” Steve muses, stirring his coffee with it’s little red stir stick absently and looking across the shop at where Bucky is bent over a table wiping it down. The muscles of his back are shifting in a way that makes Steve want to bite them and he couldn’t look away if he tried.
“I think he’d probably like to live somewhere with plentiful oxygen. You know, because he’s not a mermaid Steve.” Sam says in what Steve’s come to think of as his ‘Getting Real Sick Of Your Shit, Steve’ voice. The past nine or so months has given Sam a lot of time to practice it and Steve a lot of time to be able to identify it and all it’s variations.
“Semantics.” Steve says with a wave of his hand, attempting to crane just a little bit closer so that he can get a good angle to see the adorable flare of Bucky’s nose when the door swings open with a new customer.
There’s no one at the register to take the customer’s order, but Steve’s on break. Steve has been assured that breaks are a part of working a human job and he damn well intends to take his even if it means Loki is interrupted from painting his nails or calling Thor to insult him and complain about the shop or doing whatever it is he’s always doing in the back.
“Do a good deed, Sam. Be the part angel your mother always hoped you’d be, Sam. What harm can it do, Sam,” Sam mutters and Steve, because he is very kind and very sympathetic pats at his shoulder consolingly like they do in the movies Sam keeps showing him.
“There, there,” He says because he is very good at being a human.
Sam’s grandmother is wizened in the way that old mers are, all wrinkles and rough hands and a sense of power that comes from being beat by the waves repeatedly for years on end and refusing to ever sink. Despite this she seems to be as human as they come and the most spectacular fact about her is that she went and procreated with an angel, spawning a gaggle of children who spawned their own gaggles of children, one of them being Sam.
She claims this gives her a direct line to heaven to watch out for all her grandbabies. She also claims it’s given her the ability to live forever .
Sam claims this isn’t at all how that works. Steve strongly suspects Sam is wrong.
“How would you know? Have you ever been to heaven?” Steve asks and earns a slice of peach pie slid to him across the table by Nana Wilson.
Steve, because human food is the best part of pretending to be human, eats it in two bites and earns a disgusted look from Sam.
“Of course I haven’t been to heaven. Most angels haven’t been to heaven. That’s why Nana doesn’t have a direct line,”
“So, she could still be immortal then,” Steve muses, eyeing his plate to gauge the worth it factor of licking it clean. Previous experience dictates that the reaction means it’s low, but the pie means maybe that’s a false conclusion.
Sam stacks the plate with the rest of the dirty ones before Steve can really finish deciding, but Steve steals the fork and tucks it into his back pocket first.
“So you’re saying I should woo him?” Steve asks later when Nana Wilson has corralled him onto a couch and laid out the cure to all that ails Steve. Or at least what Nana seems to think is the cure, which in this case seems to be Steve ‘nutting up, getting the guy, and getting laid.’
Sam’s reaction to that specific phrase leaving his grandmother’s mouth was one Steve will treasure forever.
“Yes,” Nana Wilson says.
“Steve, no,” Sam says.
Sam’s oftentimes right about things, but in this case Steve’s going with Nana Wilson’s idea. Though it’s mostly because it’s what he wanted to do already.
On the night of the full moon, when the moon is high and bright in the sky, Steve stands on the beach folding his clothes carefully.
“So I’m just here to watch your stuff then,” Sam says as Steve thrusts his clothes into Sam’s arms.
“Yep. Smite anyone who tries to take it.”
“Right, I’ll make sure none of the nocturnal marine life attempts to take your thrift store pants.”
“You’re a good man Sam Wilson,” Steve says and gives Sam an encouraging squeeze to the shoulder before he strides towards the water and dives in.
Sam had asked once, maybe a week into Steve being topside, what it felt like to change. Steve had mostly shrugged and tried to explain in terms he thought a mostly-human could understand, but even then he’s pretty sure he didn’t quite manage to convey the feeling.
It’s like stepping into a more comfortable skin . He’ll never be able to describe it any better than that. A shift of his legs, the shimmer of scales, and then he’s strong again.
He surges downward beneath the water, somersaulting a few times because he can. This body is the one he was made to wear, and the price of existing in the other is high, but it’s also one he willingly pay. The aches, the pains, the creaky joints, the temperamental lungs, and the dimmed senses are all worth it for Steve to live topside.
That doesn’t mean it’s any less relieving to leave all of that behind for a little while and just swim.
He streaks through the water, this body cutting through it easy like it always has. Like it did when Steve was a child and it was just him and his mother.
They would swim for miles without stopping, Steve slung on his mother’s back until he was big enough to match her speed. And then, when they reached wherever they were going, whatever abandoned shipwreck or particular coral reef his mother wanted to show him they’d stay there for hours, floating and exploring the sea around them.
His mother had been endlessly fascinated with the world above, an interest she passed on to her only son, but when Steve would ask why she didn’t just give up her tail and stay there she would cup Steve’s face and wrinkle her nose dramatically and ask “And leave everything I love down here? Darling, I belong to the sea.”
Steve had always thought he’d be the same. He belonged to the sea, and the sea to him, and there was nowhere else he’d rather be.
The day Sarah died was the day he changed his mind. The ocean held too many reminders. If Steve stayed he knew he would face the same fate as many who came before him. He’d lose whatever bits of warmth his mother had managed to pour into him and the cold of the ocean would sink into him and swallow him whole.
A shell is the traditional first gift in a courtship.
And Steve has found the best shell.
“It’s a shell, Steve,” Sam says, looking at it dubiously when Steve thrusts it at him before work.
“A very good one,”
“Right. A very good shell. I’m sure he’ll love it pal,” Sam says before shoving Steve out the door with a “Now go on, we have rent to pay Rogers.”
When Steve shoves the shell - the very nice shell- at Bucky he doesn’t exactly get the instantaneous reaction that is normally expected out of the initiation of a courtship.
Instead, Bucky takes the shell into his hand and looks bemused.
“Thank you?” It sounds more like a question than anything, but he’s still holding onto the shell and hasn’t handed it back so that’s something.
“You’re welcome,” Steve says cheerfully and then, while Bucky is still staring down at the shell and turning it over in his hand, he turns to take a customer’s order with a wide smile and a, “Welcome to Wolfsbane Brew! Can I take your order?”
The customer shifts slightly in place and Steve tones down his smile just enough to not be doing what Sam refers to as his ‘creepy shark thing.’
Tradition dictates that the second gift is supposed to be better than the first. So when Steve goes to give Bucky a second gift he does his best to make sure it’s truly a good one. He thinks he’s successful. Even Sam had looked approving, afterall.
(It is entirely possible however, that Steve had made a conscious decision to read Sam’s half asleep ‘It’s great Steve’ as high praise.)
He procures an empty silver pocket watch case from the ruins of a ship a half days swim away and then fills it with the best sea glass he can find, the kind that looks almost soft to the touch and comes in pretty, muted shades of blue and green. Then he hangs it from a length of blue ribbon the exact same shade as Bucky’s eyes when the sunlight streams into the coffee shop just right.
Except for the fact that when he holds it out to Bucky he’s greeted with narrowed, suspicious eyes and Bucky’s hand making no move to take it. Instead, he turns on his heel and strides into the back without a word.
Steve is too affronted to even appreciate the way Bucky looks when he does his angry walk.
When Sam finds him Steve is in the bathtub, his tail flicking back through the bathwater like an irritated cat while he devours a costco sized bag of seaweed snacks.
“He wouldn’t even take my gift this time,” Steve says before Sam can get a word in, “He took the first one! Who does that?! Takes the first courting gift and then snubs the second?”
“Maybe he didn’t like it?” Sam tries, sounding much like someone who knows they’re saying the exact wrong thing but by Poseidon, they have to try anyway.
“Are you saying my courting gift wasn’t nice?” Steve’s tail flicks with his irritation, splashing water over the lip of the tub and across the bathroom floor.
Sam sighs mournfully and throws a towel down.
“I’m saying that everyone has different taste. Maybe the dude’s just not that into jewelry?”
“Well clearly he just hasn’t been given the right jewelry,” Steve insists, shoving a piece of crispy seaweed into his mouth and chewing mutinously. He’ll just have to find something better so that he can prove how serious he is about this.
Yes. That’s the problem. The gift just didn’t impress upon Bucky how serious Steve is about gaining his affections. He must have thought Steve was just looking for a quick romp in the kelp and was offended by it! That must be it.
He’ll just have to rectify that the best way he knows how.
“Oh no,” Sam says, “Oh no. Why are you making that face Steve? Stop making that face Steve.”
“I’m not making a face,” Steve insists, attempting to squash his face into something more neutral. When he fails at that he shoves more seaweed into his mouth because he’s pretty sure making a face is impossible when he’s chewing.
“You’re definitely making a face,” Sam says, his tone that of the truly and deeply tired.
“I’m not making a face.” Steve’s arguing is a little garbled around the mouthful of food. Judging by Sam’s sigh it’s still easy enough to hear however.
“You’re making a face. It’s a going to do some exhausting shit face.”
“I don’t have a going to do some exhausting shit face. You’re just easily tired.” Steve insists and flicks his tail to splash water directly at Sam.
“Not cool man, not cool. I’m gonna lose my security deposit at this rate. I don’t even know why I like you so much,” Sam says, his eyes wide and mournful as he plucks at his wet shirt and takes in the sight of his bathroom.
“It’s because of my natural mermaid charm,” Steve says cheerfully and offers his bag of seaweed snacks to Sam.
The third gift is better than the second. Steve’s sure of it. There’s no way Bucky can snub this one. He’d used his weekend to make the whole days swim out to a shipwreck and came back with a bag full of shiny things that even a picky land dweller would have to like.
Sam had sighed at the sight of it all piled up on Steve’s bed and said something about not wanting to know.
Still, he knows this courting gift is a good one. A silver chain with a heavy blue gem that’s somehow brighter than even Bucky’s eyes. It’s what Sam had informed him at one point is ‘women’s jewelry’ which Steve is pretty sure is ridiculous. Shiny things are shiny things. Why would they ever be gendered? So, much like he does with most land dweller customs he thinks are silly, he ignores it and presents the necklace to Bucky.
Bucky doesn’t run away this time. He does however go through about five different expressions Steve can’t quite get a grasp on before seeming to positively burst with his “Why are you trying to murder me?!”
Steve stares, baffled, and then he stares some more.
“I’m not?” He says finally, careful, as though he’s approaching a wounded shark.
“You keep giving me silver, Rogers. Did you somehow miss the part in school where that shit can kill a werewolf?”
“Do I look like I know jackshit about werewol- Wait , you’re a werewolf?”
“I own a coffeeshop that’s literally called Wolfsbane Brew, of course I’m a werewolf.”
Bucky’s got the sort of look on his face people get when Steve doesn’t know something they think he’s supposed to. The look like they think Steve’s being deliberately obtuse. Steve wants to shake Bucky a little for it. Instead he grabs him by the shoulders and drags him down a little until they’re eye level and Steve can look very seriously up at him.
“I’ve only been on land a year. Not even a year actually! I didn’t even know what a werewolf is until a few months ago, Bucky Barnes. As strange as this might be to you people, we don’t actually have google underwater.”
“Wait- what, so you’re what? A selkie? A merman?” Bucky asks and Steve frowns, trying not to bristle at that. A selkie? Who would think he’s a selkie?
“It’s mermaid,” He says, instead of addressing anything to do with the notion of selkies.
Bucky blinks at that, and Steve suddenly realizes he’s still holding onto Bucky’s shoulders. He doesn’t move his hands. He’s not moving his hands until Bucky tells him to, because Bucky’s shoulders are very nice, and very warm, and Steve decides he likes them rather a lot.
“Mermaid is the correct term. There’s no merman mermaid thing. It’s like witches. All witches are witches no matter the gender. Or selkies too, I guess. Sphynxes, angels, werewolves. Actually mermaids seem to be the only one people do the maid-man thing with…” Steve’s going to have to ponder this later. He feels like there’s gotta be something to unpack there.
“ Steve,” Bucky says, derailing Steve’s thoughts before he can get sidetracked from the matter at hand.
“Right. Sorry. Yeah, I guess I’m a mermaid.”
“A werewolf,” Bucky confirms and Steve nods a little.
“Right,” Steve says, finally dropping his hands from Bucky’s shoulders and stepping back a little. Sam insists that Steve lacks any ability to tell when humans are being awkward, but Steve would argue that he certainly feels awkward now.
“ Right .” Bucky echos and shoves his hands in his pockets. Steve’s eyes don’t follow them and spend a moment tracing his gaze from Bucky’s hands down to his thighs, they don’t.
“Huh. That explains a lot. I’ll make sure the next gifts I give don’t have silver,” Steve says distantly, attempting to get his brain to focus on the matter at hand instead of the matter at Bucky’s hands.
“About that… This whole… gift thing? It’s you, uh, trying to date me? Right? That’s what that is?” Bucky asks and Steve can’t help it, the clench of his chest like maybe this is where Bucky politely declines, explains that he didn’t understand how this all works and he’d really rather not with Steve.
“Courtship,” Steve confirms, nodding stubbornly instead of giving into the clenching in his chest and the swimming in his head.
“Right. Okayyyy. Right,” Bucky says, and then he pauses for a moment, chewing on his lip in a way that’s definitely distracting but not quite distracting enough to erase the sudden feeling like a whole host of guppies has taken residence in Steve’s stomach. “On land we do that by going out on dates, y’know? You can pick me up at seven.”
“I said pick me up at seven. I live above the shop, it shouldn’t exactly be hard to find.”
When Steve shows up for his first date with Bucky he’s already waiting outside and Steve has to stop for a moment in the middle of the sidewalk to catch his breath.
He gets jostled by irritated New Yorkers trying to walk by, but he’d dare anyone to face the sight of Bucky Barnes standing there with a henley rolled up his arms without getting distracted.
His hair is pulled back into a neat tail at the nape of his neck and Steve’s fingers itch to touch it.
“Your hair,” Steve says breathlessly, the words out of his mouth before he can really consider the possible ramifications re: awkwardness and just not.
Bucky’s hand comes up to touch it at the mention, his eyebrows drawing down when he asks “What about it?”
“I could- I mean it’s very nice. You have very good. ...hair. You have very good everything actually. It’s just- I could uh, do it?”
“...you want to do my hair?”
Steve came prepared, of course, and while Bucky settles himself onto the couch in his apartment Steve dumps out his bag of supplies and takes the comb in hand. It’s unfortunately not an actual venus comb but Sam had taken one look at the spiked shell and declared that Steve should put that nowhere near the head of someone he was trying to woo ever .
Despite this, the comb is perfectly nice and carved from some sort of shell, which Steve determines means it’s adequate.
He’s already pretty sure Bucky deserves more than adequate.
Maybe gold. Do humans make gold combs? He thinks he’s seen one before. He bets he can find a really nice one.
When Bucky pulls his hair down he’s sure he really needs to. Bucky deserves gold and diamonds and the best trinkets ever.
Steve works the comb through Bucky’s hair carefully, working from the tip to the root all around and attempting to not touch it so much that it becomes creepy. The more he does however the more Bucky seems to relax, sinking into it and coincidentally, also into Steve.
“You can put your head in my lap if you want to,” Steve says when Bucky has gone boneless and pliant enough under Steve's ministrations that he's practically there.
"It's uh, a werewolf thing." Bucky says, letting Steve's hands guide him until he's draped out across the couch, his head in Steve's lap, one cheek pressed against Steve's thigh and the other facing up so that Steve has easy access to that side of his head. "We're pretty affectionate. At least with pack. And uh, people we like."
"I'm in the people you like category then," Steve says, soft and sure as he plucks up a piece of Bucky's hair from beside his temple.
"I'm letting you play with my hair aren't I? I'd say that definitely means you're in the people I like category Rogers."
Steve basks in that for awhile, twisting the hair up and over itself, picking up tiny sections as he goes until he has a braid that runs from Bucky's temple, along the side of his head and then down into the rest of his hair. When he reaches the end he ties it off with a tiny clear rubber band from his bag of supplies then wraps a coil of gold wire around it and hooks one of the shiny little beaded baubles he'd found into it.
"How long does this normally take?" Bucky asks into the silence, and Steve would think he's annoyed with the time taken but his eyes are half lidded and his voice warm enough that Steve wants to sink into it like blankets straight out of the dryer.
"As long as it takes to look right," Steve answers, plucking up hair from just below the previous braid and tying a length of sea blue ribbon around the first strand.
When Steve is done Bucky is a warm steady weight against him and Steve feels the sudden, visceral need to never, ever move from this spot ever. He could never see the water again, dry out and turn to dust and he thinks he might be happy so long as Bucky stays right where he is.
“I think we missed our reservation,” Bucky says, looking down at his phone.
“Oh,” Steve is torn between devastation that they haven’t even made it onto their actual date and it’s already ruined and over and smug satisfaction every time Bucky turns his head and the light catches the beads woven into his hair.
“There’s a good pizza place downstairs we could go to… Or I can make you something and we can eat here,”
And just like that, the devastation is gone.
They opt to stay there, and Steve tries not to read too much into Bucky’s happiness over that.
It's hard not to however with how Bucky seems to have turned downright chipper over the chance to cook for Steve.
He seems at home in the kitchen, throwing things into pots and pans in a way that baffles Steve even after almost a year in the Above. It's not like cooking was a frequent thing done back home. An aquatic diet is eaten just fine raw. Though at the same time, an aquatic diet doesn't include Korean BBQ or Nana Wilson’s pie and Steve can't imagine a life without that.
Steve occupies a spot on the countertop next to the stove, stirring things when Bucky insists he stirs them to "help" but mostly he's sure he's just sort of in the way. Bucky however, doesn't seem to mind, glancing at Steve every once in awhile with a look that Steve can only describe as soft.
Bucky looking soft is nice. He likes soft. Steve can work with soft. Bucky's like one of those overgrown, overly irritated sea lions he finds in the best sunning spots. All bark, a little bit of bite, but perfectly happy to relax if you rub their belly.
...he wonders if Bucky would like his belly rubbed. He did say werewolves were affectionate.
"Do werewolves like stomach rubs?" Steve asks, attempting to dip his finger into whatever Bucky is making in the pot closest to him and earning a gentle smack to his hand for his effort. Steve reacts like this is the biggest horror to ever be committed against him, cradling his hand to his chest and going big eyed and wounded.
"Sea lions do. And once I heard a girl called a sea lion the dogs of the ocean and werewolves are kind of like dogs right? Therefore, belly rubs."
"Werewolves aren't dogs." Bucky’s eyebrows have turned into scrunched together lines, like a pair of weirded out, confused caterpillars. Steve gets the feeling he’s trying to decide whether he’s more offended by this or amused by Steve.
"Werewolves are kinda like dogs."
"They're really not."
"They're literally exactly the same."
"We're like wolves ," Bucky says like that's some sort of distinction that means anything to Steve.
"Wolves and dogs are literally exactly the same. Tails that wag, lots of fur, lots of barking and howling. The same." Land dwellers are so particular about their animals. You can't mix up a terrier and a pug but god forbid they learn the difference between a seal and a sea lion.
"That's... That's not the point,"
"No, the point is do werewolves like stomach rubs? I need to know. For purposes. Reasons. Good reasons."
Bucky is quiet for a very long moment while he stirs a pot. Finally, quietly, he says "We don't mind 'em."
When the food is done Bucky shoves Steve into a seat, piles it onto the table and then looks at Steve expectantly.
Steve, because he’s learned that humans attribute a ridiculous amount of seriousness to feeding people, picks up his fork and scoops up a bite of pasta.
And then he takes another, and another, and another, until he’s tempted to just drag the serving dish closer to him and refuse to share. He doesn’t, but it’s a close call that’s only really stopped when he catches sight of the look Bucky’s giving him across the table.
Fond. Bucky looks fond. Steve feels flush with pride and happiness. He’s not screwing this up. Isn’t coming off like some sort of dumb guppy who’s never been on a date in his life.
Not that Steve’s been on many dates… He’s a little scrawny for a mermaid, his tail a little dull and his sand blonde hair drawing less attention than most. He’s built to blend in, and blending in doesn’t help with the courting pool.
He doesn’t need a shining tail to catch Bucky’s attention though. Apparently he just needs to like his food.
With the knowledge that silver is unappreciated and having seen Bucky’s home, Steve feels a lot more confident when it comes time for the next courting gift. This time he ventures to a nursery just around the corner from the shop, drawn in by the sweet smell of the flowers out front and having seen Bucky’s collection of plants in his windowsills.
The women who run the shop are definitely nymphs of some sort, older than Steve by at least a couple hundred years and also just a little bit frightening.
Steve adores them both almost immediately.
“Now sweetheart, what sort of plants does this wolf of yours like?” Miss Angie asks, shoving two different flowers into Steve’s face and then taking them back before he has a chance to properly sniff either of them.
It’s just as well because he’s sneezing already, feeling like a pufferfish has suddenly decided to take up residence in his eyes.
“I’ve changed my mind about flowers. No flowers. Flowers are dead. You can’t start a relationship with dead things after all. ”
“He has a lot of houseplants?” Steve offers, wandering past Angie towards some green spiky looking things. It reminds him of a sea urchin sitting cheerfully in an obnoxiously bright pink pot with a face drawn on it and when Steve reaches out to touch it a tiny spine gets stuck in his finger.
It hurts like a bitch and Steve is immediately convinced it’s perfect.
“I’ll take this one.”
When Steve shows up to work it’s to Bucky shoving a large coffee made just the way Steve likes it and a cinnamon roll into Steve’s hands.
Steve takes the chance to shove his gift from Martinelli and Carter’s Nursery into Bucky’s now coffee free hands.
“This is for you,” He says while Bucky’s still staring at it with that little wrinkle between his eyebrows.
“You got me a cactus,” Bucky says, still staring down at it. Steve decides it’s the good kind of staring, especially when Bucky smooths a thumb over the rim of the pot and offers Steve a smile, “Thank you.”
“There’s no wolfsbane, no silver, and the pot is smiling, see? You can put it on your windowsill with your other plants. It’s the perfect gift,” Steve informs him, because it is. Steve has finally nailed this courting gift thing and Bucky should be aware of that.
“It’s a good gift Rogers,” Bucky says, something warm like the gulf in his smile and Steve can’t help but mirror it.
Mermaids- especially those from the depths like Steve- are said to be colder than those found in warmer waters, and Steve is usually in agreement. They take the harshness of the waters they were raised in and make it into their own. It’s hard, however, to not let the warmth of Bucky rub off on him.
“Now drink your coffee, eat your cinnamon roll and clock in,” Bucky says, squeezing Steve’s shoulder as he passes by.
“I thought this whole mooning thing would get better once you two started dating,” Sam says when he comes in to get his usual coffee and pastry order and Steve spends half his break staring at Bucky as he makes his concentration face at the espresso machine.
“Courting,” Steve corrects, shoving a bite of meringue pie into his face. Nana Wilson had sent it specifically for Steve and Steve makes a note to reward that by finding her something especially valuable for her next time he goes diving.
“Same thing,” Sam insists and tries to steal a bite of Steve’s pie.
Steve turns his attention away from Bucky to ward him off by baring just slightly sharper than usual teeth and hunching over the pie like it’s the last piece of pizza on Pizza Friday.
Sam had learned the very first Pizza Friday that Steve was very serious about his pizza. In Steve’s defense human food was amazing and it had been his first time experiencing pizza. He doesn’t think anyone can blame him for eating the whole thing.
“Alright, keep your pie Cujo. Like I said though, courting and dating are the same thing aren’t they?”
“Of course they’re not. Courting is- And dating is a human- Just trust me, they’re different.”
“Uh-huh. Su- ure they are,” Sam says in that tone that means he’s blatantly humoring Steve, then before Steve can respond he turns and says “Oh look, Bucky’s bending over,” because he’s a dirty rotten cheater.
The thing is-
The thing that Steve is bad at explaining because he feels a little like he’s living in an entirely different world sometimes and he lacks all the background knowledge to make it possible to explain.
The thing is that dating and courting are different. At least Steve thinks they are.
Humans date because they’re indecisive-
Well, no, he doesn’t think that’s quite right.
From what he can tell from binge watching as much as physically possible from Sam’s numerous streaming services Steve has determined that humans date because how are they supposed to know who the right one is if they don’t?
Some of them date because it’s just plain fun but this isn’t important to Steve’s data.
Mermaids court. Mermaids are harsh and possessive and when they see a thing they like they know. They know they don’t want to let that thing go, and courting allows the chance to prove it, to convince the object of their affection that they’re worth the whole kit and kaboodle of a pod and a nice place to rest their fins.
Steve’s not sure how it works with werewolves, but he’s enjoying the chance he’s being given to find out.
Steve meets Natasha sometime after his second date with Bucky.
(The second date had involved a somewhat disastrous picnic where Bucky fed Steve fried chicken and then a sudden rainstorm left them hurrying to the subway, soaked to the bone. It’s only not considered a disaster to either of them because Steve had loved the food and had spent the entire ride glued to Bucky’s side like the world’s gangliest, four limbed octopus.)
Steve and Natasha seem to decide almost immediately that they don’t trust each other. Five minutes later, an embarrassing story about Bucky from Natasha, and a description of the time Sam fell off their fire escape despite having wings from Steve and they seem to change their mind and decide they’re the best of friends.
Bucky seems to regret introducing the two of them almost immediately.
“Oh god, you two are becoming friends,” Bucky groans somewhere during Natasha telling Steve in detail about something embarrassing Bucky did in college that had involved two fae, a selkie, and a bottle of elvin made meade, “Why did I let you two become friends?”
“Let us?” Steve and Natasha say at the same time.
“It’s already happening,” Bucky sighs and Steve smiles at him, broad and with just a little bit too much teeth.
Beside Steve, Natasha does the same.
Spring gradually creeps it’s way into summer and Steve gives Bucky exactly 8 more courting gifts, stops counting the amount of dates they’ve been on in that time, and starts collecting facts about Bucky Barnes like he collects trinkets.
Bucky Barnes takes his coffee with a splash of milk, one sugar, and one pump each of hazelnut and vanilla syrup.
He wears thin, soft sweaters that Steve wants to rub his cheek against and rolls the shirt sleeves up his arms in the warmth of the coffee shop. When summer comes they get replaced with t-shirts that stretch across the breadth of his shoulders and Steve feels an undeniable kinship with that stretch of fabric because he too thinks he would be happy to be stretched across the breadth of Bucky Barnes’ shoulders.
His arms are dusted with hair and Steve wants to rub his cheek against that too, to curl up there like one of Natasha’s cats in a sunbeam.
He kisses for the first time soft and slow and like he’s expecting the other person to pull away, and then when they don’t he kisses like he’s just got his head above water and Steve’s the first bit of oxygen he’s had in a week.
He likes Disney movies because he watches them with his nieces, and he has a favorite princess- Cinderella, because she’s brave and kind, but he also likes Mulan “because she’s a fucking badass.”
He likes Steve. He calls Steve funny, and smart, and a giant punk, and he never acts like Steve is stupid because he lacks the foundation of knowledge that Bucky has. And when Steve’s frustrated, fighting against his frail human body that won’t do what he wants it to, Bucky, without fail will wrap a warm, heavy hand over Steve’s shoulder and say “Head to head, you can beat me at anything ocean related Rogers. You don’t have to be the best in both your worlds.” And Steve- Steve will argue, but he’ll also delight in the thought of it being his world too
Steve hoards all of these like he might his trinkets, buries them into the depths of his mind like he might bury a particularly shiny bracelet beneath the sand, safe where no one else can find.
When summer has hit with full force Bucky looks at the group of them gathered in the coffee shop, miserably attempting to avoid the heat and says “we should all go to the beach,” and, well, it’s not like Steve’s going to say no.
“Shouldn’t you, I don’t know, put on some sunscreen or something? You’re already looking kind of red pal.”
Steve, who has spread himself out on a towel with a book and is thoroughly enjoying the warmth of the sun beating down on him lifts the pair of overly large sunglasses he’s stolen from Nat to give Bucky a very judgemental look.
“I’m a mermaid.”
“Really?” Bucky says, shoving his toes into Steve’s shins until Steve kicks at him halfheartedly, “Pretty sure those are feet you’ve got.”
“Still a mermaid. Just a person shaped one right now. Mermaids are much hardier than land dwellers, we don’t sunburn. ” Steve says the word a little like it’s some sort of grave insult and Bucky, because he’s somehow joined Sam in being used to Steve, ignores it.
“I feel like you’re not supposed to have asthma attacks either, and yet...”
Steve sighs, and doesn’t quite admit he’s wrong, but he does roll over to half sprawl across Bucky’s lap and says “Fine. If you’re so concerned you can put sunscreen on me,” which is as close as he’s willing to get.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Bucky says and then, because Steve’s convinced he’s a little bit of an asshole, he squirts cold sunscreen directly onto Steve’s back. Steve’s a little tempted to twist around and bite him, but the cold is followed by Bucky’s hand smoothing up and over the curve of Steve’s spine before he can really commit to any acts of violence.
Steve thinks that maybe, just maybe, Bucky takes a little longer rubbing the sunscreen in than is strictly necessary but it’s not like he’s about to stop him, and when Bucky, his voice warm and soft in Steve’s ear tells him to roll over, he feels more than a little boneless.
His front gets the same treatment and by the time it’s done Steve has decided he has no intention of actually moving again. Maybe ever. Werewolves are supposed to be strong, he bets Bucky can just carry him everywhere. Bucky probably wouldn’t even mind.
It means he’s still there when Sam comes barreling up with Natasha on his back, only having moved to tuck into Bucky’s lap a little more, Bucky’s hand warm and soothing where it’s taken up residence on Steve’s low back.
“Are you two really going to sit here the whole time? You know there’s a whole ocean out there right?”
“Too many people,” Steve says, gesturing at his lower half meaningfully.
“Don’t give me that shit. I know you can control it.”
“It’s like an itch,” Steve says, waving his hand vaguely, “One I can’t scratch when there’s a million people around.”
“You’re swimming with a dude with wings, pretty sure people won’t care even if you do. C’mon Rogers.”
Steve, recognizing a lot cause when he sees one, gives in.
Steve likes his coffee plentiful and with about six tons of cream, sugar and various syrups in it. During the summer, he likes it more or less the same way, but blended up with ice and turned into a glorified milkshake.
Sam says this is sacrilegious and Bucky, seeming to hate that he’s doing so, agrees with him.
This belief that Steve is defiling the good name of coffee doesn’t seem to stop Bucky from keeping Steve well fed with them however.
“Here’s your disgusting milkshake,” Bucky says as he hands Steve something dark and creamy looking in the largest cup they offer.
Steve takes a large slurp and then presses the ice cold cup to his forehead, attempting to feel a little less like one of Bucky’s plants wilting on a hot day.
He is though. He is one of Bucky’s plants wilting on a hot day.
“Do you know what part of the ocean I’m from?” Steve asks, leaning heavily against Bucky’s side even if he radiates heat like some sort of overgrown, overly hairy heater. Goddamn werewolves.
“You’re going to tell me even if I say yes,” Bucky says, scratching a hand through Steve’s hair and not sounding nearly as irritated by Steve’s regularly programmed bitching about the weather as he has any right to.
Bucky’s heard this bit at least once every few days since the hottest, stickiest, grossest part of summer rolled in hot and humid and Steve decided he was dying.
“The cold part,” Steve says, pressing a hand to Bucky’s cheek and directing his face towards him so that he’s really sure Bucky’s really taking in this knowledge Steve’s imparting to him.
“Right. So the Arctic?”
“Sure,” Steve says, removing his hand from Bucky’s face to wave sort of vaguely and then settling it back there again. Werewolves apparently grow hair like it’s going out of style, which means Bucky’s got a nice five o’clock shadow that Steve will take any opportunity to scratch.
“Sometimes I think you just make things up to make your point,” Bucky says and his eyebrows are judging, but he’s leaning into Steve’s hand on his cheek, his lips dangerously close to brushing Steve’s wrist as he talks, so Steve pays the eyebrows no mind.
“Mermaids don’t lie, Buck, that’d be ridiculous,” Steve says mostly just because he knows it’ll make Bucky laugh. It does, and Steve lights up with the feeling of it where Bucky’s mouth has pressed against his wrist.
Sam shows up ten minutes before Steve’s break and proceeds to start what Steve has started to think of as a daily ritual where Sam attempts to annoy Bucky. The results are usually mixed, and sometimes Bucky annoys Sam more than Sam annoys him, but Steve enjoys watching it regardless.
“Isn’t it inappropriate to date your employee, Barnes? I think your HR department might have something to say about that,” Sam says, leaning over the counter, his hand sneakily creeping towards a bottle of Wolfsbane Brew’s homemade caramel sauce.
It’s such an obvious ploy to distract Bucky so that he can get ahold of what Sam refers to as ‘liquid gold’ that Steve doesn’t even contemplate calling Sam on it. If Bucky doesn’t notice, that’s his own fault.
“I don’t know, let me go check with HR,” Bucky says, fiddling with something complicated looking on one of the machines, “Oh, I just heard back. We’re okay with it.”
“I don’t know man, you sure it’s not sketch? You could really be taking advantage of the situation here. Steve relies on you for a paycheck.” Sam’s got a look on his face like he absolutely doesn’t believe any of this, his fingertips curling around the bottle of caramel sauce while Bucky is still very much refusing to properly acknowledge him.
The nice thing is, Steve’s pretty sure if Sam actually thought Bucky was trying to take advantage for him he’d be on Bucky’s case like a particularly stubborn barnacle.
“Wilson,” Bucky says, swinging around to finally look at Sam, “have you ever tried to tell Steve what to do? I could say ‘do this or you’re fired’ and he’d say ‘no I’m not’ and show up to work the next day.”
Sam seems to forget entirely about his sneak attack on the caramel in favor of sighing the sigh of the long suffering. “As much as it pains me to say this- and good lord, does it pain me- you’re probably right, Barnes.”
“Mermaids are apparently just as bad as the damn fae when it comes to doing whatever the hell they want.”
“That’s because we’re always right,” Steve insists, rolling his eyes at Sam and Bucky’s blatantly disbelieving expressions. Land dwellers.
As fall just starts to fade, the air starting to just turn bitter, Steve gets restless. Where the heat leaves Steve languishing, feeling like he’s going to melt into the hot pavement of the city like cheese on his favorite pizza, the cold leaves him energized, filled with the urge to swim, to dive deep as he can until his limbs are aching with it, the water pressing in all around.
It takes Bucky maybe a week to notice Steve’s new state. To say “Hey, why don’t we go away for a few days,” and drag Steve up the coast to where the ocean is as hard and ruthless as the one Steve grew up in.
Tourism season has long faded, and the pier is empty when Steve leads Bucky out onto it, the presence of Bucky’s eyes on him leaving him warm and pleased and occasionally looking away from the water to glance back at him.
“Do you want to come for a swim with me?” Steve asks once they’ve picked their way to the end, stopping at the few shops still open through the off season and loading Bucky down with bags of trinkets and tchotchkes.
There’s taffy stuck in Steve’s back teeth and everything tastes like sugar and the ocean.
Steve wonders if he kissed Bucky if he’d taste the same.
“Yes.” Bucky says without hesitation and Steve can’t help the smile that spreads across his face or the instinct that drives him forward to kiss Bucky.
Bucky kisses like the ocean; consuming and hard and pulling Steve in until he’s lost in it, dizzy with the possibilities and the feeling of Bucky’s hands gripping Steve’s hips. Steve wants it to last, can see in these moments exactly how the old tales got told of mermaids entrapped by humans, so in love with the humans who owned their heart and the world above that they were willing to forsake their fins and everything they had.
When it’s over and Steve’s left sharing the same air as Bucky, foreheads tilted together for a moment before he steps back, and shimmies out of his clothes, leaving them piled on the pier. Then, Steve loops his fingers through Bucky’s and they step off the pier.
They hit the water with a crash and Steve hears the sound of Bucky’s not-quite shriek over the sudden pounding of the ocean in his heart.
“What, the water a little cold for the big bad werewolf?” Steve asks with a grin, taking in Bucky’s chattering teeth and disgruntled expression. He knows Bucky’s a werewolf, but Steve’s reminded of the videos of angry cats that Natasha sends him several times a day.
“I’m not cold. Werewolves don’t get cold,” Bucky says like Steve will in any way shape or form believe him on that matter. Though even as Bucky speaks he seems to be adjusting a little, catching Steve’s hand again and tugging him close.
There’s something soft and fond on Bucky’s face when he looks at Steve and it makes Steve shiver from the top of his head to the tip of his tail.
“I love you,” Bucky says and Steve thinks maybe he could burst with it, maybe he could go eons without seeing the water so long as Bucky tells him he loves him again.
“I love you too, James Buchanan Barnes,” Steve says, pressing his lips to Bucky’s shoulder, pressing the words into wet cotton and Bucky’s skin, firm and honest and for Bucky and the whole world and everything below to hear.