The first day, Steve holds onto the hope that he’ll cross paths with another ship. He’s still on the trade routes, and he’s always been an optimist at heart. He’d take pirates at this point. Better sold into slavery than left to drift in a tiny, rickety lifeboat. He rations his food and tries not to think about what he’ll do when he runs out of rum and water and stares into the hazy distance, willing a boat to appear on the horizon.
He’s been at sea all his life, it seems, but when he was younger and more sickly, he was inevitably below deck long before nightfall, clerking and swabbing and taking inventory. Bucky wouldn’t hear of him climbing the rigging in the dark.
When he’d gotten larger and his maladies had been cured by Erskine’s strange medicines, ones that tasted of kelp and salt spray and sea life, he’d worked above deck even after sunset, but always with lamps burning round, bright and blinding. And he’d been busy hunting down ships in the Hydra pirate fleet. There was never time to appreciate the world around him.
Now, anchorless, drifting on the massive swells of the icy Atlantic, he has nothing but time. The night sky stretches endless and massive above him, so vast he feels he might be smothered by its very presence. Millions of stars glitter down on him, more than he’s ever seen in his life. They were always so few and far between in New York and London, but now they watch over him, simultaneously comforting and chillingly indifferent.
Steve studies them, letting his gaze and attention drift. It’s not like a ship could spot him in the dark anyway. Not when he lacks flint and a lamp. He loses himself in their cold, twinkling light, belly growling at how little he’s given it.
Twelve days out, he’s down to his last stash of salt pork and the rum has run dry; he spends a great deal of time staring down into the water rather than out at the horizon. He has no fishing line, no spears, and no nets. No way of catching the fish that occasionally flash beneath him, their quick silver bodies bright as mirrors in passing. But another insistent rumble nearly drives him into the water anyway. Maybe he could catch them with his bare hands; he certainly feels hungry and desperate enough to do so. His brain, though, knows better, especially as heavy silvery clouds loom on the horizon.
The storm strikes with unrelenting fierceness and Steve is baffled that his lifeboat doesn’t capsize, even as wave after wave washes over him. He ties himself down with a bit of precious rope and bails water endlessly, bucket after bucket, until his arms scream and protest their exhaustion, limp and yet somehow still churning for dear life. Rain lashes his face, stinging and sharp, and he recognizes now, dangerously cold. He’s been drifting north, further and further from the trade routes.
He bails for an eternity, arms moving by rote rather than order, until at last the worst of the storm passes, the rain settling into a heavy, freezing drizzle. His bucket moves ceaselessly if sluggishly, until cold, hunger, and exhaustion drive him into an uneasy sleep.
When he wakes, the sky remains heavy and gray, but the rain has eased. Steve’s in water up to his calves and the boat sits dangerously low in the heaving ocean. For a moment, he stares at the water around him and then bends, sucking at it desperately, not even bothering to ladle it with his hands. It’s a hard punch to his empty stomach, but he doesn’t relent. The storm has given as much as it has taken, especially when he notices that his box of salt pork is missing, lost to the waves.
Even his optimism cannot hold in the face of such bleak odds. He drinks his fill of the water, forces himself to bail some more, even though his muscles ache with the fierceness of a heavy beating, and then he lays back, his head pillowed on the second bench.
Perhaps it’s better this way. Schmidt is dead, lost to the powder explosion in the belly of his ship. The world doesn’t need Steve to clean up the last of the limping Hydra fleet. And Bucky was flung away in that same explosion. Steve can still hear his scream. Perhaps it’s better this way.
By nightfall, he’s shivering uncontrollably and his breath steams in the air, shallow and quick. His stomach has moved beyond the point of demanding food and now rests in a strange kind of resolve, as though it knows there will be no more meals forthcoming. He forces himself to drink water from the belly of the lifeboat and then lays back.
The stars and all their indifference are veiled tonight, a darkness so absolute Steve has never known its like. There’s no hint of the moon, no light to guide him to true north. Around him the waves slosh, and in a way that’s terribly comforting. After all, they’ve been his lullaby almost as long as he can remember.
But suddenly, amongst that steady rhythm, there’s a note of discord. From his right, a sharp splash cuts through the night air. Steve squints out and blinks, unsure if he’s hallucinating. There’s a bright blue light, or at least he thinks that’s what it is. He’s heard stories from other sailors of strange glowing sea life in the night, but he’s never put much stock to it. Now he’s not so sure. Perhaps they were as mad with hunger as he is now.
That same splash again, closer this time. Steve blinks, still unsure if there truly is a light out on the waves or not. “Hello?” he calls tentatively, but his voice is battered and quiet, a bare rasp of sound. He licks his lips, brings a handful of water to his mouth, and tries again. “Hello?”
Another splash and something thumps into his boat. Steve blinks stupidly, grabbing at the sides and trying to quell his chattering teeth. The splashing is frantic now, almost on top of him. Something brushes his leg and unthinking he reaches down. The slippery sleek body of a fish greets him, its tail slapping against his palm as it limps in the fresh water.
Survival instinct surges in his mind and he grabs at the fish, falling on it with his full weight. It feels like it must be more than a foot long, fat and lively. He sinks his teeth into the back of its neck until he feels bone snap and it goes limp. His belt knife is still on him, but he doesn’t dare try and scale the thing in the dark and besides, he’s ravenous, the kind of hunger he hasn’t known since he first stepped aboard the Howling Commando when he was twelve years old. He rips into the flesh shamelessly, lapping at the blood that surges over his tongue; it’s like mother’s milk.
He manages to eat half of the fish before his shrunken stomach protests and he forces himself to stop. It would be foolish to eat so much that he vomits it back out again. Instead he slumps into the side of the lifeboat, still shivering, but now sated, and drifts into a heavy sleep.
When he wakes again, the fish carcass is waiting for him. In the daylight, he feels ashamed for the violence he wrought on it and the bloody tinge in his fresh water, but he’s still so very hungry, and survival trumps out. More neatly, with his belt knife, he peels away the scales and eats the rest of it, even hazarding to chew at some of the smaller bones. The only meat he tosses away is the offal, which tastes horrible and will likely make him sick.
With his belly full, at least momentarily, he thinks again on the blackness of the previous night, the splashing and the light he may or may not have seen. Perhaps something was hunting the fish and it jumped in desperation? Either way, he’s grateful because it means he’ll live to see the light of a few more days. He stares at the horizon with a renewed sense of hope, even though he knows he’s likely far out of the trade routes now, drifting steadily toward Europe.
The silver clouds press down on him, and he isn’t sure weather he hopes for more rain. His water is going stale, but another soaking will only freeze him to the bone again. He’s glad for his wool coat, even if it hasn’t completely dried out yet; cotton clothing would have done him in by now.
Steve is just drifting off in the oppressive darkness of a clouded night when he hears a splash again, sharp and nearby. He sits up, more alert tonight than he was last night, and stares out into the water. There. He sees it again. That strange blue glow, dancing to and fro among the waves. It draws nearer and there’s another splash. A moment later, a fish thunks into his boat; Steve lets it wriggle and keeps his focus trained outward, tracking the light. It circles his boat once, twice, and then pauses just to his left, maybe five or ten feet below the surface. Steve blinks and squints but he just can’t make out more detail. After what seems an eternity, the light darts away, quickly disappearing into deeper waters. Steve sighs and turns on the fish, snapping its neck with a deft hand.
He waits until daylight to enjoy his meal, carefully cleaning it and filleting it neatly along its ribs. He sorely wishes he had a flame to roast it over, but raw fish is certainly better than no fish and he picks at the meat with a measured patience, drawing his meal out over the course of the day. He stares at the horizon now more out of habit than anything else; he doesn’t expect to see anything. This is perhaps why it takes him so long to notice that something has changed in the endless stretch of steel blue.
Impossibly, there’s a man. Steve blinks and rubs at his eyes, staring out and wondering if perhaps the fish was poisonous. There are species that do worse than make a man see things, after all. But even after a full minute, the man remains, just visible some fifty feet out from the boat. The swell hides and reveals him in turn, flashes of olive skin and dark hair.
He’s watching Steve, and what’s more, he’s clearly treading water, only his shoulders and head breaking the surface. Steve blinks one last time and looks down at what remains of his fish, then looks back out across the ocean again.
He clears his voice, brings a handful of stale water to his mouth, and then draws in a great breath and shouts, “Ahoy!”
The man twitches, his shoulders rising out of the water, and Steve waves a hand. Before he can call out again, the man is gone, disappearing behind a high swell. When the valley of the next wave comes, he’s gone, not even a ripple to show where he might have slipped under. Steve searches frantically, eyes darting over the horizon, but he doesn’t catch sight of the man again, and at last is forced to wonder if he didn’t imagine it after all. Men have seen stranger things at sea, and being alone long enough will drive anyone to madness.
Three days, this cycle continues. A strange light appears in the night, and shortly thereafter a fish is deposited in his boat, chased there by some mysterious predator Steve has never seen before. And then over the course of the day, as Steve picks at his fish, the man appears, watching from a distance. Each day, however, the distance shrinks. Steve calls out and waves the first two days, and this always drives the man away, so on the third day, he remains silent, observing.
In all his free time aboard his life boat, he’s had time to mull this mystery over, and the conclusions he’s reached are as fantastical as they are improbable. Of course he’s heard the stories; what sailor hasn’t? But he’d never put much stock in them. Even after Erskine and his strange medicines, he hadn’t really thought much of the tall tales; Erskine was a doctor, not a mystic. But now, Steve’s feeling less sure.
He watches motionless as the dark-haired man draws ever closer, until he’s a scant ten feet from Steve. This close, Steve can see something he’s never noticed before; there’s a strange glow in his visitor’s chest, perfectly round, faintly blue in the watery daylight. Steve considers this a moment, and then carefully, slowly, reaches out and cuts some meat from his fish.
The olive-skinned man watches with sharp eyes, a topaz brown that catches the light and refracts it almost like a cat’s eyes. His hair hangs curling and wet around his face, but Steve can just see his ears, and they are not quite human-shaped. Very carefully, Steve holds his hand out, the slab of red belly meat pinched tightly in his fingers. He weighs his choices and then speaks.
“Thank you,” he says, projecting just enough that his voice will carry across the sloshing water. “I wouldn’t have lasted much longer without your help.”
The olive skinned man approaches, head tilted curiously, as though he’s heard something he can’t quite believe, and then he carefully reaches out from the water. Steve bites back a gasp when he sees the red and gold barred fin that runs the length of the man’s forearm and the red webbing that stretches between his fingers, the way his nails taper to points. The man quickly snatches the fish and retreats back to his original distance, his head and shoulders still held proudly above water.
Slowly, he bites into the fish, his eyes still on Steve. His teeth are sharp, somewhat pointed, the way Steve’s seen on some of the slaves he’s freed from Hydra’s holds. He wonders if this man was born with his pointed incisors, or if he cut them down the same way some of the tribesmen do.
The fish is gone in a flash, and the dark-haired man returns to his observation, silent as the clouds above. For nearly an hour, they sit in silence as the day draws long. Steve finishes off the fish and goes about gathering the bones for disposal; when he looks up, he’s startled to find his guest is right next to him in the water, holding out a hand expectantly. Steve carefully hands him the bones and he nods, his eyes nearly luminous. He disappears into the waves and this time, Steve is close enough to see the flip of a red and gold tail, shining in the weak sunlight.
“I’ve gone mad,” he murmurs to himself, collapsing down into the life boat. He still, even now, can’t quite believe the stories. The merfolk are legend and nothing more, a tale told to young impressionable boys lurking near the galley hoping for scraps. But like clockwork, a fish flops into his boat just after nightfall and he snaps its neck with a clumsy twist, fingers failing to find the purchase they should.
He’s parched, his water now so dirtied it’s undrinkable, and even with the moisture he gets from his food, he’s not quite sure how much longer he’ll last. He holds no hope for rain, either, looking up and watching as the dark patches of cloud tear away from each other, revealing glistening windows of stars. When he glances overboard, he catches a glimpse of that same strangely glowing orb and he nearly calls out. He’s never really been alone in his life before, Buck at his side as long as he can remember, and his mother before that, and the silence is eating at the edges of his mind, giving him visions of Schmidt’s Valkyrie tearing itself apart from the inside out.
The next day, Steve wakes and finds he can’t quit force himself to rise. His head feels heavy, and his limbs more so. The dry surface of his tongue betrays him, and he gropes for the fish, only to find it’s out of his reach. He stares at it for a long time, blinking and contemplating how his stomach has lost that pained twist again. Above him, the sky is dotted with towering white clouds, great mounds of fluffy cotton, and he wishes he could lose himself in the warmth of a good bed. He can’t remember the last time he slept on a mattress. Once, long ago, in his captain’s quarters maybe.
To his right, something splashes, and his visitor appears, hands clutching at the side of the lifeboat. The whole craft tips slightly, but doesn’t threaten to capsize. Steve raises a lazy hand, waving ever so slightly before his strength leaves him again.
Above him, the merman frowns, his head tilting in that same curious manner. After a moment, he heaves, the lean muscles in his arms standing sharp against the bone, and flops into the boat. Steve might’ve laughed if he weren’t feeling so ill; as is, he can barely stir to draw further away. The merman’s been helping him to this point, but he doesn’t know how far the kindness extends.
His guest’s long red tail trails out of the lifeboat, its magnificent fan of fins catching the sea breeze like sails at half-mast. Steve feels entranced by it, can’t seem to look away from the jeweled spectacle, but he feels a tentative touch on his knee. The merman is still frowning down at him, his hands moving quickly and sharply, with purpose Steve can’t quite fathom.
He sits up a little taller and forces himself to focus, to try and make sense. Can the merman work magic? At this point, Steve half expects a chorus of angels to descend. Or perhaps a demon will bubble up from the deep. He’s never been entirely sure he’s so bound for the Lord’s embrace as his crew seemed to think he was.
But the merman’s hands flash through the air, and nothing happens, save his frown ever deepening. At last, he throws his palms up and glances to the sky, in a gesture Steve can actually recognize. He’s seen Bucky do it enough. What he doesn’t expect is for the merman to lean forward and kiss him.
It’s over almost before Steve can comprehend what’s happened, and he’s left feeling flabbergasted and dizzy.
Sorry, a voice says in his mind, but “say” is not quite the correct word. It sounds nothing like English. It…it simply is what it is. An emotion, an apology, a feeling of regret tinged with shame. I normally wouldn’t be so forward, but I don’t know how else to speak with you.
It takes Steve a moment to realize the merman’s hands are still flashing through the air, quick and graceful. Occasionally his tail twitches, though all it serves to do is jostle his weight in the boat. It takes Steve another moment to realize that the thoughts in his head, the words that are decidedly not his own, are matching up with the merman’s movements.
He swallows once, twice, and then manages to speak, his voice clicking like horse hooves on cobbles. “Can you understand me, then?”
Now I can, though I’ve never heard human speech before. It’s fascinating. I’m not much of one for wet science, but I would be curious about how it works with no water to fan the…No. That’s not important right now.
Steve huffs and snorts, a weak laugh that tapers into a groan when his vision goes spotty for a moment.
What do you need? the merman asks, his movements growing frantic as he tries to catch Steve’s attention. He looms over him, and Steve is distracted by the long red slits that run parallel to his ribs. They flutter open and shut, open and shut, like the flash of a lady’s petticoats beneath her dress.
Come on. Focus on me. What do you need?
Steve blinks several times and finally manages to say “Water.” Unbidden, images bubble up in his mind, a clear warm creak on a beach in Cuba, just the slightest hint of salt from the sea, snow melting in a basin on his bedside table, so cold it makes him go cross eyed, water mixed with rum, sweet on his lips and warm in his belly.
The merman sits back, his frown tinging from fear to sorrow. I don’t know how to get that for you.
“Rain,” Steve says, fingers wriggling weakly at the sky. “But no rain. Clear skies. Good sailing weather.”
The merman tilts his head, considering and then leans forward again. You…you feel like you’re one of us, one of the people. I can feel it in your veins. Are you sure you can’t…
Steve sees it then in his mind, polished white and shining, labyrinthine tunnels and waving kelp, fish darting amongst the hallways. And he sees more like his visitor, a veritable rainbow of merfolk darting to and fro. Glowing orbs adorn them, dotting chests, hands, tails, hair. Steve can’t tell if they’re decorative or if they serve some larger purpose.
“Can you…?” Steve returns, closing his eyes as his vision goes black again.
He can feel his guest’s gaze, even though he can’t see it, and he waits, listening to the gentle lap of the ocean.
If I don’t, you’ll die, won’t you? the merman says finally, and Steve feels a touch on his cheek, cool and slightly rough. All he can manage to do is nod. Then I have to try.
Steve wants to ask “Try what?” but he feels so tired he’s not sure he’ll even be able to open his eyes again. He feels hands on his cheeks, the delicate points of narrow claws, and he wonders if maybe he misjudged after all. But still, at least it will be quick.
Then he feels the touch of damp hair on his forehead, a droplet trickling down his nose and following the muscle of his cheek. He manages to force his eyes open again only find that his visitor is a bare inch from him, eyes closed and brow furrowed in concentration. After a moment, he rises slightly and Steve’s vision is filled with the glowing circle. This close, he realizes it’s some sort of jewel, perfectly spherical and roughly the size of a chicken egg, embedded directly in the merman’s chest. That’s all he has time to contemplate before the merman is dragging him forward, pressing his forehead to the stone. White fills his vision and he knows nothing more.
Are you awake? Please be awake. Please don’t be dead. Steve harrumphs and turns to tell Bucky to stop fretting, but he’s startled when his hand touches nothing at all, simply continues on its trajectory down past where the edge of his hammock should be.
The surprise change in equilibrium forces his eyes open, and he immediately panics, thrashing and searching for light. A bubble trickles from his lips and he follows it, kicking toward the surface.
Wait! You’re not well yet. Wait! There’s such force behind the command that Steve stops, completely still, and sucks in a surprised breath. And then another. And then another.
“I’m breathing,” he says, and clutches at his throat when the sound comes out hopelessly distorted in the water.
I should hope so. Steve flails again and tries to find where the voice is coming from, only to be presented with his visitor, his rescuer, watching from a cautious distance. His black hair spreads around his face, drifting on the current, and his fins are magnificent underwater, ruffled and plumed like fine taffeta. I can’t believe it worked.
The medicine. It’s…it’s designed for hatchlings. Sometimes they’re born with gills that don’t work right and we have to help them breathe. I didn’t think it would work on a human, but then…I’m not so sure you’re all human.
Steve wants to think on that, but his head is still aching fiercely and he feels disoriented, likely because he’s breathing underwater. He closes his eyes and tries not to think about it.
What’s your name?
He opens his eyes again and looks at the merman, blinking stupidly. “Uh…Steve. Captain Steven Rogers of Her Majesty’s Ship the Howling Commando.”
That’s a mouthful. May I be bold and just call you Uh Steve?
“No. Just Steve. Steve. That’s my name.” His rescuer grins and Steve watches as a haze of bubbles drift up from his lips. “Was that…was that a joke?”
You catch on quick.
“Well what’s your name?”
The merman frowns and Steve feels information burbling in his mind again, images flashing unbidden in front of him. He wants to ask what’s happening to him, but he’s afraid of the answer, afraid that this has all been one long terrible hallucination and he’s still adrift in his life boat, slowly dying of thirst.
Call me Tony, the merman says at last, his hands and fins flashing elegantly through the water. Now that Steve’s below the surface, he sees that every limb is used for communication, and he feels just as mesmerized by the prismatic flash of red scales now as he was in his life boat.
“Is that,” Steve asks, pointing, “how you speak? With your hands?”
We can speak the way your people do, though I imagine the mechanisms are very different. It’s just…it’s not a good idea. For me to speak like that.
“I have so many questions,” Steve confesses after a moment, glancing toward the surface where his boat is still visible, but slowly growing smaller and smaller as the current carries it away. Tony follows his gaze and shrugs.
I know how to find it, he says, and then turns in the water, an elegant flip of his tail. But first, let’s get some food. You’re still by no means well.
“And then you’ll answer my questions?”
Tony tosses a mischievous smile over his shoulder. If you’re terribly lucky, I might.