There was no such thing as mermaids. Tony knew that for a damn fact.
His parents had taken him to P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City in the spring of ’42, at his own request. The Feejee Mermaid, the museum promised, was real. Fliers with exclamations about the uproar the creature had caused amongst all the leading naturalists littered the city. They even printed an etching alongside the quotes: a gaggle of lithe young women with wavy, reedy hair, perched upon a rock, bodies transmogrifying at the waist into scaly fish fins.
What stared up at him from the bottom of the makeshift display case was a twisted, shriveled thing, lifeless and scorched. Tony was no scientist—not yet, at the tender age of seven—but even he could see it was little more than a horror-show in taxidermy: the torso of a primate affixed to the back end of a trout.
Tony stopped believing in mystical creatures that day.
Looking back on it, he reckoned he’d’ve done better in life if he stopped believing in men that day, too.
Fisk’s lackeys were after him again, and he didn't even know why this time. Not that they ‘specially needed a reason to do anything they did. Laws, and men who'd actually enforce them, were thin on the ground in Timely.
He’d slowed them down enough to get out of their line of sight, and hoofed it as quick as possible to the north edge of town. He was a fair number of sheets to the wind and in no state for a fight—a near permanent condition these days—so high-tailing it out of their way seemed the best course of action.
He was headed in the direction of the train tracks, with only the faintest glimmer of an idea in his mind, and a belief that either he’d come up with the rest of it as he went, or that the goons on his heels would tire of their sport.
He was contemplating hiding out in a barn at the Black Bolt Ranch when his eye caught something unusual: a line of brightly colored tents and rudimentary theatrical stages bathed in the moonlight, just near the bend in the Kirby river.
Now that he thought about it, he did have a blurry recollection of an ad in Urich’s rag announcing the arrival of a traveling sideshow.
Behind him, Tony heard raised voices and a gunshot. Not in the clear yet, then.
Tony set out on the move again, adjusting his course for the cluster of canopies.
There was no guard posted at the site, and the usual signage accompanying such a show, enumerating the wonders and nightmares on display in each area, seemed to be locked away. With all the stealth he could muster in his present state, he headed toward one of the biggest tents, and pulled back the flap.
It seemed to be empty, except for a large… tank of some kind.
It was ten feet wide, and maybe seven feet high. Tony couldn’t see how far back into the tent it went. It was closed off, shuttered in wood paneling; he mightn’t have recognized it for a tank at all, save for one square window about eight inches by eight inches that was carved in the center of the board affixed to the front. Behind the glass, Tony could see gallons and gallons of swirling blue water. It must have been set up for a reveal during a show, or maybe some kind of trickery: a viewing angle that made a common garden snake look like the Loch Ness Monster or some such.
There was a gas lamp burning low on a small table next to the tank, and it gave Tony a moment’s pause: was someone here a moment ago, and were they about to return?
He looked back over his shoulder, eyes darting about the show site—there was no stirring and no noise from outside, just the sound of water gently lapping from within.
He took another step into the tent… and felt his foot land on something slippery, knocking him off balance. He cursed as he landed chest first in the dirt.
Rolling onto his back, he reached down to capture the offending item, and found in his hand a flyer, not too dissimilar from the one he’d seen thirty years ago.
POSITIVELY for ONE WEEK ONLY!
Just North of Timely Town Center
GAZE UPON EXOTIC RARITIES FROM THE WORLD OVER!
Behold the diminutive stature of
GENERAL SCOTT “LILLIPUTIAN” LANG!
Marvel at the majestic
HAMPTON ROADS MERMAN!
Witness the peculiar pelt of
“RAINA” THE DOG-FACED GIRL!
He stopped reading and dropped the paper. Perhaps the tank was where they exhibited the ‘merman’ during show hours? Probably just some poor fellow in a suit, sitting all day in dirty water while people ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’. Well, at least it meant Tony's refuge was empty for the time being. He breathed a sigh of relief.
Tony stared up at the rippling, writhing shapes cast on the contours of the tent fabric by the dim light, refracted through the glass of the tank. It was beautiful, making it look as though he was underwater himself, but had to close his eyes after a few moments of observation; it was starting to make him dizzy.
“Fitting, if I say so myself,” he mused, boneless on the ground, head resting about a foot from the base of the tank, not attempting to right himself. “I have been informed, on many an occasion, that I drink rather like a fish.”
The sound of water suddenly lapping and splashing forcefully against the side of the tank struck Tony as odd, but it wasn’t until he heard a voice addressing him that he reopened his eyes.
“Granted, I can’t speak for all the fish in the sea,” the voice said, “but I generally don’t take to the bottle much myself.”
Tony blinked as he looked up. A man’s face peered over the edge of the tank, neck craned downward at him. He was a fine specimen of a young man, too, all chiseled jaw and sea blue eyes and untidy hair the color of the sand just after high tide. Rivulets of water ran off of him, casting droplets onto Tony’s stunned face, relieving him of the notion that he might be dreaming.
“What in thunderation!” Tony scrambled up as fast as his wobbly state would allow, and pivoted to face the tank. “I didn’t know—how’re you—they make you stay in here all night?”
The young man pulled himself up further on the wood-covered glass pane, then gently lowered himself, catching the tank’s edge under his armpits, resting there comfortably as if this was a position he was quite used to. He was bare chested, which made sense, him bein’ stuck in the water. But it meant Tony got quite the view of his arms, and his arms were… well, if this was the ‘merman’ described in the flyer, they hadn’t lied about him bein’ majestic, that was for sure.
“Well, uh,” he started a mite shyly, “They can't really put me any place else. They just got the one tank.” The color forming on his damp cheeks was just about the most charming thing Tony’d seen in helluva long time.
Tony thought carefully for a moment; his heart had been sent all aflutter by the sight of this young man. Tony was an intruder in his space, and he didn’t want to upset the man by making unwanted overtures, especially if he truly couldn’t leave.
Still. Perhaps it was the boldness of the drink urging him on, but Tony thought maybe a man who traveled with a circus would be more… considerate of people with unusual desires.
Most importantly, the smile he was receivin' just now was sweeter than a cool ocean breeze in the hot sun. Maybe he wasn’t so far off the trail.
“Surely you’d take more comfort in a nice, dry bed,” Tony offered, eyes going half-lidded.
The man looked down at the ground, his blush deepening.
“I might…” he conceded, like he was considering, “but that ain’t exactly a possibility for me. I mean, you saw the pamphlet…”
Tony’s face fell. What had the bosses of this show told this poor man? What did he think he owed them, to be treated like this?
“Just ‘cause you pretend to be a merman for a living don’t mean you have to be stuck in here,” Tony told him adamantly.
“Pretend? Oh, if only it were that simple. Shoot,” he laughed, a little ruefully, and Tony saw something move in the water through the opening in the wooden board.
An expanse of sumptuous blue-green scales, dabbled with darker blue freckles here and there, shimmered just beyond the glass. Was he wearing the fish costume now? Tony squinted and tried to see the seams, the fabrication of the thing, but with his limited view he couldn’t figure out how it was constructed.
The young man’s shoulders shifted slightly, as if he was moving his lower body, and the tail waved accordingly. But more than that, it looked… alive. A hip joint articulated, and muscles rippled beneath skin that glimmered with a mother-of-pearl luster in the half-light. Tony didn’t have time to stop himself; he gasped.
“No,” he whispered, awed.
The man—merman—Tony’s brain reeled and tried to steady itself—chuckled more warmly.
“C’mon, c’mon, move back, I’ll give you the proper view.” He lowered himself fully back into the water, and his hands flew to the metal catches affixing the boards to the tank. Tony stepped back obligingly.
His strong hands pulled the latches up, releasing the catches, and the loosened board fell forward, cracking against the ground as it landed, the entirety of the front of the tank exposed.
Oh, Lordy. Tony had never seen anything quite so beautiful in his life.
The man’s tail was long and resplendent, tinted all over in the same blues and greens Tony had glimpsed through the hole in the panel. But the swirling water shaded it even darker in some places, and the light reflected a pearlescent gleam in others. It looked as deep and mysterious as the ocean itself.
Besides his caudal fin, which crowned out in a glorious flowing veil, gorgeous enough on its own, he had fins on either side, right about where his hamstrings would have been, trailing out to the side like small graceful wings.
The merman spun and swerved in the water, showing off his anatomy from all possible angles, and oh, he was astonishing in every way. The human half of him was as perfect as the other—moreso, even. He was lean and taut and muscular, and just below his navel, peach flesh gave way to shiny scales as smoothly and naturally as the last of a sunset gives over to starry sky.
He was breathtaking. Tony could still barely believe it.
A merman. A real live merman, before his tired, bleary eyes.
Perhaps there was still some wonder left in this world.
The man did one more delicate turn in the water before surfacing and latching himself to the side of the tank as he had done before. It occurred to Tony that what he had previously thought of as a rather enormous tank for a sideshow to have to transport from town to town was actually very small, considering what—or rather, who—was in it.
“Y’know,” the merman smirked, eyebrows leaping up, “You’d have to pay a whole dollar to see this during the day.”
“A bargain at twice the price,” breathed Tony. "It’d be worth it even if…” he shook his head; there was almost nothing he wouldn’t barter for a look at this magic. “It’d be worth it.”
He whistled, head still bobbing as his focus bounced between his friend’s face and his tail. "You are the prime article, aren’t you? Good Lord. Where did you—? How are you—?” Tony laughed, unused to being so addlepated. “I don’t even know where to begin.”
“How about a name?” The man extended a hand down to Tony. “I’m Steven Rogers. Steve, if you like."
“Of course,” Tony agreed, embarrassed at his own lack of manners. "I’m sorry, I had completely forgotten myself. Tony Stark.” He had to reach up on a slight angle to grasp Steve’s hand, seeing as the top of the tank extended well over Tony’s head. His hands were cool from the water, but not clammy or fishy at all.
“Stark?” he said thoughtfully. “Say, you wouldn’t happen to be any relation to—"
“Not when I can avoid it, no,” Tony interrupted, grinning in a way he hoped shuttered off the pain in his eyes.
Steve nodded and dropped the subject as easily as he let go of Tony’s hand, like he understood somehow. Tony was confounded as to how that would be possible, but he'd had his eyes opened to the reality of seemingly impossible things once already tonight; it could happen twice.
“So are you a naturally oceanic being?” Tony's scientific curiosity and boyhood wonder were jockeying for a dominant position in his thoughts, and he attempted to push them both back. He hoped his inquiry sounded casual, and not as though he was fit to burst from sheer glee.
Steve shook his head. “I never even saw the ocean growing up. Naw, I was the same as you. A plain human man, I mean."
“What happened?” Tony asked. "If you don’t mind my asking.”
Steve’s mouth flattened into a thin line.
“The war,” he replied somewhat darkly.
Tony pulled a face of his own at that cryptical answer. “Funny, I… had some involvement with the conflict myself, and I did not end up equipped with such an adaptation, nor a visage quite so lovely as yours. The phrase ‘sloshed to the gills’ has been uttered in my direction from time to time, true, but—”
“You think I’m lovely?” the exceedingly lovely merman blurted out in astonishment.
“There’s hardly another word for it. That tail is…” Tony laughed again. “I confess, I'm approaching the limits of my power of expression.” His hand landed on the glass, fingers twitching gently with not-fully-conscious desire; the movement did not escape Steve’s notice.
“Did you… want to touch it? My tail?” he asked with trepidation of his own. “You looked like maybe you wanted to.”
“Oh,” Tony went wide-eyed in surprise. “I couldn’t presume—“
“Ain’t no presumption about it. I’m offerin’. Here.”
And before Tony could say another word, before he could even get his mouth halfway to working again, Steve dove back into the water and turned himself completely over, floating upside-down, the graceful spread of his tail fin protruding out and over the edge of the tank.
He gazed expectantly at Tony through the glass partition, and when Tony didn’t move, still frozen in veneration, he gave his tail a playful, enticing little flap.
Hand near to trembling, Tony reached up and finally let his fingers brush the breathtaking crescent-shaped fin, laid out luxuriously for him.
It was soft, like a rich velvet, and unbelievably smooth. The thick skin was cool to his touch at first, but with prolonged contact, he could feel blood racing beneath the surface, could feel how warm and alive Steve was beneath his hand.
All of a sudden, it occurred to Tony how very naked his new friend was. He'd noticed Steve's state of undress when he revealed himself, of course, but it didn’t strike him as odd then; Steve was bare in the way all wild creatures should be.
But now Tony couldn’t help but map Steve’s anatomy to his own—certain things seemed to be, ah, missing... Concealed, perhaps, Tony surmised, but that was not a question for the present moment.
More pressing was the fact that Tony realized that he was currently touching what would be akin to Steve's feet. His tiptoes, to be precise. The gesture seemed exceptionally forward, the kind of tender activity shared with a lover, or someone you trusted and felt wholly at ease with. What had Tony done in a few scant moments to inspire such confidence? He certainly didn’t deserve it.
Tony’s fingers drifted soothingly back and forth, and he pondered on the nature of Steve’s days in the sideshow: he imagined children banging their hands against the glass, grown adults sticking a grasping, greedy hand in the water, to steal a touch of what Tony was being given freely.
Perhaps—Tony scarcely dared to think it—perhaps Steve was not so different from him. In Timely, Tony was a caricature, a figure to be mocked from a distance. Behind the mask of a drunken layabout, he was lonely, hurting, and touch-starved—or at least, starved for the right kind of touch. Perhaps Steve was, too.
Tiny bubbles drifted upward and pulled Tony’s gaze momentarily down in panic. He hadn’t hurt Steve, had he?
But Steve was grinning even wider than before, the corners of his eyes creasing. His shoulders shook ever so subtly and… he was laughing.
Steve was ticklish.
He’d be good goddamned: Tony had met a ticklish merman.
Tony tenderly curved his hand around the top swoop of Steve's tail fin, squeezing softly in appreciation, and Steve put a hand on the glass, his topsy-turvy smile gone soft. With great effort, Tony wrangled the longing within him and relinquished his hold on Steve’s tail, drawing his arm back down. Lickety-split, Steve did an elegant turn and came back up as before.
Tony, hushed, knew better than to try to talk about what he had just experienced.
“Thank you,” he said quietly.
“No trouble at all,” Steve answered, voice warm and earnest, like it was even less than no trouble, like he might’ve enjoyed it.
Tony felt like he was falling into the depths of Steve’s eyes, and had to kick the loquacious part of himself back to life before he found himself knee-deep in a poetic confession.
“Do you, ah, like this lifestyle?” Tony asked. “Seeing the world? Being in show business?"
The sadness that washed over Steve, going tight in the line of his jaw and slack in the slump of his shoulders, was answer enough, and made Tony wish he hadn’t asked the question.
“I can’t really say as I do, but I don’t have a lot of other opportunities.”
Tony wanted to change the subject, to say anything at all that would make Steve pull his gaze up from the dirt and look at Tony again, but he let Steve continue.
“The… folks who made me this way couldn’t repeat what they’d done on anyone else, and besides, they don’t have much use for me now that the war is over. I suppose if I could get to the sea, or a bay, or the like, I could live free, but…” He trailed off, at a loss for words.
Tony knew that silence, that sorrow. Steve didn’t want to be alone. He wasn’t a fish, some creature of the deep. He was a man, and he craved the companionship of mankind, for all that he knew its evils, too.
The ocean couldn’t offer him that kind of camaraderie. Freedom from restraints was, in this case, freedom from humanity as well, and Steve’s heart didn’t seem like the kind that might beat more easily alone.
He was making the best of two bad choices, as Tony had been doing for years, staggering through a whiskey-soaked half life in this dusty little town.
But Tony was still an inventor. He could invent them another choice.
His heart ran hot like a boiler, and pumped like a piston: it was an engine, driving him now, carrying his thoughts far from Timely.
A private railcar could be commissioned, one large enough carry all his remaining equipment and one very large wooden crate; the sound of sloshing water and the ring of men’s voices talking from within wouldn’t be heard over the clacking of the wheels racing over the tracks, and it all would eventually be swallowed up in the crash of waves as they reached the Pacific.
He almost didn’t want to voice his hopes aloud, lest the paradisiacal scene in his mind be dashed. But for all that the night started with running away, Tony found himself with a sudden overabundance of courage—both of the regular and the Dutch variety—and he couldn’t stop now, not if he tried.
"Stay with me,” he breathed.
Steve blinked. His lips parted, hanging open a moment before he spoke. “Here in Timely…?” he asked, puzzled.
“No,” Tony responded immediately, then wondered if he was too bold, if he might be shocking Steve with his impetuousness. “Yes. Wherever you'd like. Timely, Tortuga… anywhere,” the words practically tripped over his tongue. He couldn’t stop, not now. “Anywhere you want to go.”
It was too fast, oh, much, much too fast. Tony wasn’t a fool; he knew damn well he dove headlong into everything, the depths of discovery and drink alike, but maybe this time he’d have someone who could save him from drowning.
Steve’s brow knotted; it didn’t appear as though he disapproved, just that he was disbelieving.
“How?” he asked Tony finally, and that was a question Tony could answer.
“I’ve got some money set aside,” he confided in Steve. “And I’m more than a little resourceful. I was an inventor, once. Still can be. I can figure something out.”
Tony wasn’t sure what a tank fit for a merman cost, or what it might set him back to settle up Steve’s contract for the rest of the sideshow’s planned tour, but he had some money left from his… previous enterprises. He once promised himself he’d never spend that money, soaked in blood as it was, but suddenly it seemed almost foolish not to. He could think of no better use for it: helping a former soldier, someone else who was left behind by the war, a fellow recipient of its broken promises. He could finally put his spoils to work doing more than buying glass after glass of hooch.
Besides, he had other assets as well. If he got that old fortune telling machine working again, it might make a nice addition to the sideshow, could be used to sweeten the deal. The thought of his Vision of the Future machine buying them a real future, far from this place, made Tony’s spirit do a little pirouette.
Steve said nothing in response, just continued wearing that look of shock, and wasn’t that comical: a man whose appearance caused people to swoon daily, rendered speechless himself.
Tony honestly couldn’t blame him; he recounted that he’d known Steve for less than half an hour, having only stumbled into his tent by accident, reeking of booze. He had no real reason to trust Tony, no evidence that Tony wasn’t pulling some kind of con himself.
They hadn’t exactly been shy with one another about what they were, or where their desires lay, but Tony wanted to tread carefully here, nonetheless. He took a step closer and held one hand in the other, resting in front of him, a picture of humility and respect.
“I understand if this is too much, too quick. I’ll court you proper, if you like,” Tony promised, voice low and resonant. “Come to every show of yours this week, and come back every evening, too, just like this. I’ll tell you a story of a different life everyday. All different futures, and you can see which one you like best—if you take to any of 'em at all, that is.”
The surprise finally began to fade from Steve’s face, and that adorable smile, the one Tony was already starting to love, already growing to think of as his, appeared once more.
“I’d like that, Tony,” Steve responded, his voice mimicking Tony’s in its quiet sincerity. “Could… Could you tell me one now?”
Tony unfolded his hands, and reached up to hold Steve’s, locking his eyes on Steve’s face.
“The simplest one first, then. I’m picturing a little house right on the Pacific ocean. Nothing fancy, just one or two rooms, a short jaunt away from where the water meets the land. I’d bring my equipment out on the beach, so I could work and talk to you all day long. Or better yet, I’d bring a blanket and down to the end of the pier, and we could both watch the sunset—”
Before Tony could even tell Steve about his ideas for his own type of submarine vessel, like the one Jules Verne had described in his recent fiction, there was a resounding splash. Steve relinquished Tony’s hands, and leapt up, dolphin-like, halfway clearing the edge of the tank; he caught himself at the hips and leaned down, mere inches away from Tony’s stunned face.
Tony's skin tingled as gentle fingers swept down his jawline, he breathed in the smell of sea air, and just as he noted how pink Steve’s lips were, and how his eyes were even more alluring up close, Steve kissed him.
His lips were oh, so soft, every bit as soft as they'd looked. Tony leaned into the kiss, his whole body saying yes, this is what I’ve needed. The gentle sting of the saltwater on his own lips was clean and sharp and bright. This, he thought, this could wash away the stale whiskey taste in his mouth, wash away the blood on his hands.
When they parted, Steve sighed and let his hands rest on Tony’s shoulders, relaxation cascading through him. “I have not done that in a very long time,” Steve confessed quietly.
Steve’s calm demeanor was enough to shake Tony from his reverie: he had been so swept up in thoughts of how good Steve would be for him, he had hardly spared a thought to whether or not he’d be good for Steve.
He could do this right, he decided. He could get his life back on track. Be present and productive and kind, like he once was, before the war. He could do that for Steve.
Of course, that kind of commitment required a certain level of honesty. There was no time like the present to put your cards on the table, was there?
“There is only one little issue with all of this,” Tony drawled, voice pitching upward, smiling as he said it so as not to alarm Steve.
“What’s that?” Steve raised an eyebrow.
“I am not,” Tony admitted, somewhat abashed, “what you might refer to as a strong swimmer.”
“Oh, I can help with that,” Steve assured him confidently. “I'll teach you. And if you get tired, all you’ll have to do is hang onto me. It ain’t so bad, once you get the hang of it. The sea is so deep and so clear some places, it’s almost like flying underwater.”
Tony tried his damnedest to picture what Steve was describing. The thought of it was not only a little bit terrifying, but exhilarating, too.
They had to get there first. The planning, the transport: all of it'd take some doing, but the man Tony once was had never been one to shy away from hard work—not when something was worth working for, anyway.
He looked again into ocean blue eyes, and for the first time in years, Tony let himself dream: of sun, and the sky meeting the sea, of soaring beneath the waves, and of never being alone again.
“Flying,” Tony mused softly. “I think I’d enjoy that.”