Steve remembered the crash.
It was the first thing he could remember, in fact. He had no memory of the mission before it, or the artillery shell that had supposedly taken down his plane. All he could remember was a wall of water, right before it engulfed him, and thinking that if he got out of this one it would really be a miracle.
He remembered a pair of strong hands grabbing him, pulling him downward. He remembered thinking they must have been the hands of God, thinking this was it; he was as good as dead.
And then those hands had pulled him back up, and it was dark, but Steve would never forget the most beautiful pair of blue eyes he’d ever seen. A moment later he was kissing him, a bloom of warmth spreading through his lips, his cheeks, his neck.
And then he could breath again, and the water was rushing past him, too fast to swim, too fast to stay conscious.
They found him on the beach. The story was that he’d managed to break his way out of the sinking plane and swim the four miles to shore, and because he was Captain America, they believed it.
They continued to believe it, even after he told them his side of the story. That he’d been sinking, and someone—a man—had saved him, and brought him back to shore. That earned him… pretty much the reaction he’d expected to receive. Mermen didn’t save humans from drowning--that was just absurd.
Steve didn’t care. He knew what he’d seen, and he wasn’t so easily cowed that a little ridicule would make him change his story.
It became… less of a joke, after the third time he’d disappeared to the warf at night, pacing the docks, probably looking like a mad man.
Steve needed to...he didn’t know. See him again. Talk to him. It wasn’t unheard of, for a merman to drown a wayward sailor, but saving a man from drowning?
He needed to know why.
Bucky followed him to the docks, some nights.
“Whatever reason that thing might have had for saving you, it wasn’t pleasant.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Steve said. “He sounded…” It had been surreal, how calm Steve felt when the plane hit the water, how quietit was once he’d been pulled down by the currents. But the moment he’d touched him, Steve had felt something, not so much thoughts as a wash of emotion, no words, and it was so clear it was as though Steve had always known it: I’ve got you, hold on to me, breathe.
“Kind,” Steve decided.
“You don’t know anything about it,” Bucky said.
He remembered a name, and that was more than enough.
Steve made his way to the library. That was where Bucky found him, hours later, and Steve didn’t even need to ask how he’d known where to look, because of course Bucky knew him too well.
“It says right here: Some believe that mermaids have the power to temporarily grant a human the ability to breathe underwater,” Steve said.
Bucky leaned over to his shoulder to read, and then jabbed a finger at the line below it.
“They use this power to lure sailors underwater, Steve. It says right there. And then your temporary gills go away, and you drown, and they eat you.”
Steve jerked the book out of Bucky’s reach, and then stood up so that he could hold it above his head when Bucky lunged for it again. “Some even believe that with a second kiss, the man can be transformed, permanently.”
“Steve, that’s a load of bullshit,” Bucky said, looking much too weary for a kid his age. “Dugan was right—you’re lucky it didn’t drown you. And now you’re just looking for trouble.”
“I’m not looking for trouble,” Steve said.
“Look, Steve. There’s a reason no one believed your story. Mermen are evil creatures. God knows why there was one so close to land, and maybe we should be thankful that it decided to help you but…” Bucky sighed, “you shouldn’t trust it. And you definitely shouldn’t go looking for it.”
“What makes you think I’m going to go looking for him?” Steve said, as though Bucky hadn’t found him inspecting the boats along the docks last night.
“Steve,” Bucky said, long-suffering. “I know you. And I know that look. Just—please tell me you’ll be careful. At least.”
“I’m always careful,” Steve said, both of them knowing how untrue that was. “Don’t worry about me.”
Steve smuggled the book out of the archives under his jacket, and took a boat out that night, and spent a couple of hours staring out at the ocean and feeling progressively sillier for trying what was, essentially, searching for a needle in a haystack. He was just considering turning back in for the night, when he heard a splash off the starboard side.
“What are you doing here?” Steve jumped, nearly sending himself over the edge of the rowboat. He half expected there to be nothing when he turned around, but there he was, just as Steve remembered him, leaning against the edge of the boat.
“I’m—looking for you, actually,” Steve said.
Tony cocked his head to the side, eyeing Steve up and down. His gaze was unsettlingly sharp. “You have a death wish, don’t you?”
Steve glanced down at where Tony’s arms were folded casually on the edge of the boat, and he wondered how easy it would be for him to grab the boat by gunwale and drag it down.
“What?” he croaked.
There was a flash of color beneath the surface of the waves as Tony leaned in closer. “There’s a storm coming,” Tony replied breezily, “and you’re in a rowboat.”
“I didn’t know,” Steve said, forcing himself to relax his shoulders.
“Well, Steve, you’re not much of a sailor. That’s for sure,” he agreed.
“You know my name?”
“You know mine,” Tony said, shrugging. “I also know why you’re here.”
“You—how could you possibly know that?”
“Well, you’ve read the book, you tell me,” Tony said. Steve did have an idea. The book had mentioned, offhanded, that mermen might have slight capacity for telepathy—the better to drown you with, had been strongly emphasized—but Steve hadn’t known what from the book he should believe, and what was nonsense meant to scare away the curious. Steve reached into his bag, and held out the book for Tony to see.
“This book says that mermen lure sailors into the water… to drown them,” Steve said. Tony flicked his tail, looking around distractedly. Steve couldn’t help but wonder how long he would have Tony’s attention before he left for something more interesting.
“Sure,” Tony said. “That happens.” He shrugged as though it were normal. Steve supposed that it probably was.
“Have you ever killed anyone?” Steve asked, because he had to know. He had to know if Tony had ever dragged an unsuspecting sailor to his death, if he didn’t think anything of it. He wasn’t expecting Tony to still, to look him dead in the eye.
“Have you?” Tony asked, and for a second Steve didn’t know what to say, and when he did finally find his voice it’s only the quietest admission of the truth.
“Then who are you to judge,” Tony said. He dove back into the water before Steve even had a chance to call out, the flick of his tail sloshing water up over the lip of the boat. He could tell Tony was angry—he never should have asked, of course that question was overstepping.
Tony made a good point. Maybe Steve didn’t have any right to judge. After all, mermen may drown the occasional sailor, but how many thousands of humans had been killed in the past day alone, with the war going the way it was?
And more importantly—to Steve, in any case—if drowning humans really was normal for mermen… then why hadn’t Tony drowned him?
Steve took the same boat out every night that week.
The sea stretched on, endlessly, endlessly, empty, but Tony never showed.
The sea was rough, the wind moaning, when he saw Tony again. There must be something about storms, Steve thought.
“What do you have?” Steve nearly jumped out of his skin at the voice.
Tony was staring at him expectantly, floating with the sea at eye level, so that only the top of his head was poking out of the water. He guessed Tony didn’t have to breath the same way humans did, but it was still strange to see him swimming so casually with his mouth and nose below the surface of the waves.
Steve had expected him to be angry after how they’d left things last time, but Tony just blinked at him curiously. The boat bobbled dangerously on the choppy waves, stirred up by the wind.
“I—wanted to see you again,” Steve said, not at first sure what Tony was asking. Tony gave him a flat look, and then was practically crawling into the back of the boat to grab the packet of cookies he’d brought with his dinner.
“No, what do you have?” Tony asked. Steve got a flash of red and gold scales, even more spectacular out of the water and in the lantern light.
“Cookies,” he handed Tony one. “Here, they’re just packaged.”
Tony sniffed experimentally, broke the cookie in half, and dropped the pieces into the water.
“Too sweet,” he said.
Steve laughed, “You didn’t even taste them.”
“I don’t want to,” Tony said petulantly. “I want that.” Tony pointed at the rest of Steve’s food.
“That’s my dinner.”
“Give it,” Tony said plainly.
“You don’t really know how to talk to people, do you?” Steve huffed and scooted the bag closer to the edge so that Tony could take a look inside.
“You’re the first human I’ve ever talked to,” he said, with no small amount of pride, “and here you keep coming back to see me. So I can’t be doing that badly.” Tony dug through the bag, dumping most of the contents into the bottom of the boat.
When he got to the bag of bagels Steve had bought—something to remind him of home, before he’d made the snap decision to take a boat out in the middle of the night—he wrinkled his nose.
“Ew,” Tony said, shaking the contents of the bag out onto one of the seats so that he had a clear view to glare at the offending baked goods.
“It’s called lox, and it’s actually good,” Steve said. “If you don’t want it, just pick it off,” Steve added, when Tony continued to glare. Tony reluctantly scraped off the toppings and then flicked the bagel into the water. Steve snorted as he nibbled the lox suspiciously. Tony made a face.
“Tastes funny,” he commented.
“Maybe because it’s cooked?” Steve suggested. “Or, smoked anyway.”
“We cook our food,” Tony said. Steve paused, surprised. That was the first bit of information Tony had willingly given about himself. Steve looked past Tony, out to sea.
“Is it… much like it is on land?” he asked.
“Well,” Tony said, finishing the lox from the first bagel and scraping the topping off the second, “I’ve never been on land, have I? So how would I know?”
Steve hadn’t thought of that. “Are there cities?” he tried instead.
“Of course there are.”
“What about fire? Or electricity? I don’t really know how you’d have those underwater, but you said you cook your food—”
Tony snorted. “Steve, my people had fusion technology when yours was still trying to parse out how to attach a rock to the end of a stick. Don’t think that just because we’re different, we’re inferior. There’s a reason so few of you have ever made contact, or even believe we exist.”
“Why’s that?” Steve asked.
Tony leaned in closer, like he was sharing a secret. “We don’t want to be found.”
“Then why.” Steve hesitated, unsure if he wanted to ask, or how Tony would take the question. “Why do I keep finding you?”
“Because I like you,” Tony said easily. “Obviously.”
“Well, its not obvious to me,” Steve said.
“I kissed you, didn’t I? Or has the meaning of a kiss changed?”
Steve felt himself flush, just a little, not embarrassed, but pleased. “No, it hasn’t,” Steve paused, before adding, “Would you ever consider coming to me? I know of a dock, its mostly abandoned now, and I think it would be safe.”
“I’m worried that the harbormaster will start to wonder why I keep taking a boat out every night. I know that Bucky wouldn’t tell anyone, but… I don’t know about anyone else. And I want to keep seeing you, if I can.”
Tony hummed. “Okay. Show it to me.”
They met there the next night, and the night after, and though Steve stayed out for hours he never saw another soul. After nearly a week of sneaking out to the docks, Steve was convinced that it was a safe place to meet, that he didn’t need to worry about being quiet or dimming his lantern.
Steve leaned forward, his elbows on his knees and his feet hanging off the dock, and the movement was deliberate to break Tony’s train of thought. Tony smirked, ever confrontational, and swam up into Steve’s personal space, so they were nearly nose-to-nose.
When Steve didn’t immediately back away, Tony looked confused. Confused and… interested.
“Can I kiss you?” Steve asked, suddenly. Immediately, Tony flinched away, like he was worried Steve was close enough that he wouldn’t wait for an answer, Steve’s heart sank, just a little.
“You would regret it, if you did,” he said. “It’s a lot more… permanent, than I think you’re expecting.”
“Is it true, then? That you have the magic to turn a person into a merman?” Steve asked. By the look Tony gave him, Steve suddenly felt very stupid.
“It’s not magic,” Tony said, surprising him. “Why do you ask?”
Steve hesitated, “I read about it, in a book. Wondered if it was true.”
“Well, it is,” Tony said. “But you could have just asked. You didn’t have to pretend you wanted to--”
“I do want to,” Steve interrupted, with enough force that it caught Tony off guard again, and more than that, he looked ready to challenge it. Instead,Tony reached up, both hands framing Steve’s face.
“Your friends will look for you,” he said seriously.
“They’ll be fine,” Steve said. “They haven’t heard yet, but the war’s almost over. They’re being sent home. And they’re sending me--” Steve sighed. “I don’t want to fight anymore.”
“Steve?” The call came from behind him, far enough that they probably didn’t know he was here yet, but it was definitely Bucky’s voice. Steve tried to glance back, but Tony’s grip on his jaw was firm.
“You’ll hate me, for doing this to you,” Tony said.
“I would never hate you,” Steve said. “Especially not for something I asked you to do.” Steve heard his name again, much louder this time, and the urgency was enough for him to know that Bucky must have spotted him.
Tony paused, eyes flicking between Steve’s and the dock behind him, as though searching for something in Steve’s expression, and Steve smiled, letting him. When Tony kissed him, it was like fire and lightning running through him, and Steve gasped, unsteady. Tony’s hands slid down to his shoulders, caressing, never once backing off for air.
“Steve,” Bucky shouted, much closer now, and Steve started, “Get away from—” All at once his grip tightened on Steve’s shoulders, and Steve felt himself pulled off the dock. The cool water came up to meet him, cutting off whatever Bucky had been about to say next, and then there were only strong arms around him, guiding him down.