When he feels the summons, he thinks it must be an accident.
He’s young; it’s only his second chance to leave the safety of the water and walk the beaches. His relatives, the older and wiser ones, they stay in the cold, dark waters of the open ocean, away from the shores and out of reach of humankind. But he’s still young and adventurous, willing to play the odds—for the past seven years he’s been obsessed with one night’s memory of sand between his toes, of hot food served by chattering humans in the brightly-lit diner a concerned passer-by had taken him to, when he’d looked like just another lost child in need of a meal and some help. It had been the most exciting night of his life, and he’s thrilling at the chance to do it again. For a while now he’s been sticking close to the shorelines, weighing his options with all the patience and foresight he can muster. Which, as it turns out, isn’t much.
Most of his kind would choose to spend the night on a lonely beach, where the chance of meeting more than a single human is small. But for him, the lights and sounds of the cities are too great of a temptation to simply skip the one day in seven years he could explore them. He has spent the last month swimming up and down the coast, debating on this beach or that pier, in the thick of the city or out where the delighted shrieks of the humans bounce over the water like the lights from their amusement parks. Although he’s had ages to decide, by the time his beach night arrives, he still hasn’t made up his mind.
It’s that indecision that leads to him still being in the water long after the sun has set—he’s wasting time, and he knows that, but it’s like he’s waiting for something to help him decide. He should learn to pay more attention to his thoughts, he realizes in the next moment, because suddenly he feels a pressure urging him on from where he’s been lurking, an inescapable drag that forces him along. He knows what it is—every selkie knows it, is born knowing it—but the warm, firm insistence is still new and frightening. He can taste it in his mouth, feel it running along beneath his skin, the high salt note of the summons distilled from seven human tears, beckoning him in. He has no choice but to follow, caught in its magics as surely as he has been caught in a sealskin for most of his life. But it has to be a mistake, because he’s too young for this, too full of life and curiosity to be pulled in like this. Times are different now, he’s heard—fishermen no longer wait to catch his kind for wives, or keep them as servants, or kill them for getting their daughters with child. But the summons has never meant good for his kind, and his heart is in his mouth as he streaks through the dark waters. It has to be a mistake, but all the same, every thought of city lights has fled from him.
He doesn’t have to swim far, only until the ocean turns brackish; he had already been drawn close to shore by the nearing of his beach night. His original plans to stow his pelt on a moored fishing boat have been abandoned now, but he ends up at a dock all the same.
Suddenly he realizes that his lungs are burning, even though he took his last breath only two minutes ago. As he kicks upward to the surface to get air, he feels his pelt sliding against new and different skin. He breaches the water with salt stinging more sensitive eyes, and for a moment he is disoriented by a world of phosphorescence dancing upon lapping waves while the stink of pollution mixes with brine. He realizes he’s treading water with unfamiliar limbs and has to make a quick grab for his pelt as it begins to sink away from him. He fills his mouth and nose as he dives and comes back up surprised and spluttering, clutching his pelt to his chest. He coughs up water that now seems chokingly distasteful, and, to his surprise, he’s answered by a hiccuping gulp.
Sitting at the side of the dock, mostly hidden by a coil of rope, is a human child. His thin legs hang off the edge, though his scuffed shoes rest still a good foot above the tops of the breaking waves. The lights make his face look dramatically shadowed and sharper than perhaps it would be in the daytime, but the drying tracks of tears are still evident. There are no others nearby, though he can hear noises in the distance, but he looks around just to be sure. At last he’s forced to conclude that the boy was the one who called him.
Having made the unfortunate connection, he hefts himself up onto the wooden posts with unfamiliar limbs, his pelt hanging wet and heavy across his shoulders, and twists to sit next to the boy in the tight space between the rope and the nose of a boat.
The boy stares at him, body shifting defensively, as though he expects an attack. “What do you want?”
“You were crying,” he explains, the words rough and unfamiliar in his mouth. Seven tears had to hit the water, seven tears exactly. He can see the tracks of unfallen ones and has a brief flare of frustration at the mysterious workings of fate.
The boy scrubs at his face with one thin wrist, turning his head away, like he’s ashamed. What he has to be ashamed of isn’t clear. He waits quietly, feeling lost and confused, because he’s pretty sure this isn’t how his song is supposed to go, watching city lights flicking across dark water while a child sniffles beside him.
“I—” the boy starts, then shakes his head. “It’s not anything, really.”
They both know that’s not true, but he doesn’t press. Instead he looks out over the water, feeling cold and exposed and a little hollow. Droplets bead on his thin skin and run down his legs, then fall into the ocean again. Beside him, the boy is swallowing angrily, trying to force calmness.
“What’s your name?” he asks at last, wrapping his pelt tighter around his angular shoulders. It’s comforting; he feels as though he’s on the edge of something, being pulled by unrelenting tides, but with his pelt in his hands he knows he’s still the master of his own destiny.
“What’s it to you?” the kid replies, scowling.
He can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it, that his caller is a child, that the child doesn’t even want him. It’s an odd sound, more like a bark than anything, surprisingly loud compared to the muted sounds of the city behind them and the endless lapping of water. The kid looks startled, whipping his head around as if to see if anyone else heard.
“What’re you doing?” he hisses. “You want us to be found?”
He looks around as well, as if more humans are about to come sweeping down upon them. But there’s no one; they’re exactly as alone as they were before. He wrinkles his nose a little, then turns back to the boy and tries what he hopes is a winning smile. “Tell me your name.”
The kid just gives him a look. At least he’s not crying anymore. “It’s Steve, okay? Shh.”
“Steve,” he repeats, then echoes himself silently, noting the way the word moves in his mouth. He can’t say it’s a beautiful name. “What are you doing out here, Steve?”
The kid seems unimpressed. “You’re pretty nosy for a naked fella with a...” he pauses, then picks gently at the edge of the pelt. “What is this thing, anyway?”
“Don’t worry about it,” he says, drawing it a little closer around himself. He has no desire to be trapped on land—wanting to visit and being made to stay are completely different things. This entire situation seems dangerous. He eyes the waves lapping against the wood of the dock, considering just slipping back in. He doesn’t need to know anything about this child, anyway.
Steve is staring at him now, though, and he turns away from the water to look back. Steve jumps a little, obviously spooked by something. “What’s wrong with your eyes?” Steve says, moving his head a little to get different angles. He has no idea what Steve means, and says so. “You’ve got eyes like a, a cat or something,” Steve insists. “They’re glowing.”
It’s then that he notices that Steve’s eyes don’t shine, that they’re flat and dark whenever Steve turns his face away from the light. It’s disconcerting. He doesn’t want to dwell on it, doesn’t want to emphasize the differences between them, in case Steve decides he wants to keep him to learn more. It’s not that he doesn’t think he could take Steve if it came to a tussle, but the likelihood of hurting the boy seems high, and he doesn’t think he could stomach the guilt.
He shifts uncomfortably and says again, “What are you doing out here?” Steve frowns at him, and he knows he’s not doing the best job of seeming trustworthy. “I can keep secrets,” he adds. That makes Steve glance up at him sharply, like he’s debating the worth of believing.
The silence stretches on and on, with nothing but the lapping of the water to break it. Just when he thinks he isn’t going to get a response, the kid shifts a little. “It’s just—” Steve seems to be chewing the inside of his lip, and has pulled his knees to his chest like he wants to hide his face there. “It’s my ma,” he says at last, eyes flicking up for a moment, then flitting away like he’s not sure he likes what he sees. Steve’s body language is projecting all of the vulnerability of a near-fatal wound; it’s in the way he’s curling around himself, in the way he seems to be trying to vanish into his surroundings in a desperate attempt to find the time to heal. “She’s sick,” he continues, looking back down at the water again. “It’s not some cold, either. She works at a TB ward, y’know?”
He himself doesn’t have a mother; his life began the same way every other selkie he’s ever met has—he was born from dark water crashing against rocky shores, from the mist of island evenings. He began his life in the seafoam caused by the eddies of a narrow strait, and cut his teeth in the cold currents of the northern Atlantic. Chance meetings of other selkies is just that, chance—each of them is pulled like driftwood through the ocean, alone unless by coincidence. He may call them aunts or sisters, or the ever-rare brother, but they’re not family. He’s lonely like a castaway and sharp like salt spray, and so he finds himself unable to fully empathize. Instead he just nods silently.
It seems like that’s encouragement enough, though, because suddenly Steve won’t stop talking. It’s like everything he’s been holding in is tumbling out at once. He looks a little alarmed at himself, but keeps going, like he can’t seem to make the words quit. It starts with his ma again, and how she’s been coughing up blood but doesn’t want him to know, and then shifts into how he’s always sick himself, and the way his ma looks after him, and how it makes him feel awful that she has to. How sometimes he thinks he’s making her sicker, having to come home and get straight back to nursing. How they’ve never had enough money for a real doctor who could get him well for good, how it’s just his ma’s know-how and a few favors called in from people she works with. The whole sad story comes rushing out in bursts, how they’re poor all the time, how his dad was killed before he ever knew him, how it’s just them scraping by and how he wishes he could help for a change, but nobody wants to hire a sick kid. About how his mother is working the late shift tonight and he couldn’t stand to be in their apartment anymore, because when she’s not there he starts to imagine her never being there again. About how he came down here, to the pier behind this warehouse, because at least here he can pretend he’s alone because he wants to be.
Steve trails off into silence except for miserable, embarrassed hitches in his breathing. When there’s no response offered, no reassurances held forth (because what reassurances can he offer? he doesn’t even know what tuberculosis is), Steve sniffles and nods, like he’s passed some sort of test. “I’ve never said half that stuff to anybody before,” Steve says at last, somewhat hesitantly.
He smiles, a little thing that Steve tries to mimic. “I told you, I can keep secrets,” he tells him. It’s only survival—his freedom depends on it. But who would he tell? Steve’s world is one he has no place in.
As though the talking and the subsequent silence have taken their toll on him, though, Steve has begun to sag against the coil of rope to his other side. He’s small and frail-looking, legs hanging down toward the water. It isn’t long after that he falls asleep, fitfully resting against the rope.
He knows that this is his chance to escape, but something keeps him. Guilt, maybe, or pity. He can’t simply leave a child unattended, he feels that in his bones, especially in a place where Steve was so concerned about being discovered. But he also needs to be back in the water by dawn, so after a moment of hesitation, he decides to take Steve home.
He wraps his pelt around his waist to free his hands and crouches to pull Steve onto his back. The boy is surprisingly light; he’s both bothered by this and very grateful. He’s not yet full-grown himself, and if Steve were any heavier, he’s not sure he could manage.
“I can walk,” Steve murmurs in his ear, but he lets himself be carried anyway, one unsteady step at a time. The ground is disconcertingly still after life in the sea, and he knows that he rocks more than necessary, but Steve doesn’t seem to mind.
“Tell me where,” he says, as though he will be able to find his way through the streets on his own. The excitement of exploration has quickly been replaced with the stress of finding a specific location amidst the hundreds of nearly-identical buildings, their darkened faces covered in long shadows and offering no clue as to where Steve’s home could be.
Steve stirs a little, blinking up into the city. “Three blocks that way,” he says, indicating with an elbow, and just like that they’re off. He picks his way through, shaking Steve awake from time to time when he finds himself lost. “Red Hook,” Steve had called the city. He doesn’t like it. It takes him a small eternity to find Steve’s building, midnight long since gone, and longer still to carry Steve (who has begun to feel increasingly heavy) up the five sets of stairs that separate Steve’s apartment from the ground level.
Finally, finally, he manages to wake Steve up enough to have him indicate which door is his. Relief floods through him, but is replaced by frustration almost immediately when he scrabbles at the handle and finds it’s locked. For a moment, he considers just resting Steve against the scarred wood, but then he hears shuffling from inside. A minute later, someone is staring at him through a small gap, then the door swings wide. The woman he assumes is Steve’s mother, home from the late shift, is thin and approaching gaunt, but there is something inherently pretty about her anyway. She takes a long look at the pair of them, eyes sweeping down to the pelt he’s wrapped around his waist, and goes a little paler than before.
“Give him here,” she says, and she doesn’t sound like Steve, her words accented differently. Without waiting for him to comply, she reaches out and pulls Steve from him, waking him up further in the process. Neither of them are really big enough to hold a boy of ten with any sort of dignity, but she clutches a drowsy Steve to her anyway before kissing him on the forehead and sending him off toward a bed that’s just visible beyond the doorframe.
The woman watches him go, then turns back. “Did you do anything to him? Tell the truth,” she whispers, and he rankles a little. He didn’t even want to be pulled from the waters in the first place, and for the sake of a human child? His beach night is a wash at this point.
“No,” he says, scowling. “He called me.”
She inhales sharply, glancing behind her. When she looks at him again, her face is harder, melting away the prettiness into something tired and wary. “Get back to the sea,” she tells him, voice cold. “He’s not for you, roane.”
The name surprises him, makes him step back a little from her and brush hands over his pelt protectively. There are defenses on the tip of his tongue, about his innocence in the matter, about how a girl from the old countries who fears a creature like him should know to keep a better eye on her whelps, about how he wouldn’t want a sickly kid anyhow. But he keeps them, thinking of what Steve had said about her own weakening health, about how hard she works to keep them in food and shelter, and instead he simply thanks his fortune that she’d rather see him gone than kept. Without another word, he turns and clambers down the stairs. The last he sees of her is from the fifth floor landing, from the corner of his eye—she’s watching him still, fingers curled around the edge of the door, something like wonder and fright mixed on her face. Then he turns and she’s gone. He hits the street at a run, darting toward the call of the closest water.
It’s still two hours before dawn when he reaches the ocean, pelt already settling back down as it should, and although disappointment at the loss of his beach night sticks sharp in his side, he counts it a lucky escape.
Over the next seven years, the memory of that night becomes polished like seaglass, losing its sharp edges until it becomes just another adventure he’s had. It was surely an accident, because he hadn’t been kept, had he? A fluke in the magic, fate playing with him. So when his beach night begins to near again, he doesn’t think it’s that odd that he finds himself drawn back to that same bright city. He never got to explore it, after all.
The sun has only just set when he sets his sights on the low beaches near the amusement parks; there are still a few scattered humans rolling up towels and chattering amongst themselves. Just as he’s working up the courage to shed his pelt, his attention is grabbed brutally by something new, something entirely urgent. The sea has an iron tang to it, inexplicably familiar and so painful. He turns instinctively from the beach and slips through the water, following the taste as if possessed; he recognizes it now as something he’s experienced before, though it had been a vague suggestion at best for the past few years. Now it’s hooked him by something vital, wrapped part of his soul in a vicegrip, burrowed beneath his skin like a stinging barb. He has to follow, and as he does so he realizes that it wasn’t his own whims that drew back over the course of the past month; no, he’s being called. A feeling flares inside of him, a little like anger and a little like terror, but it can’t displace the desperate need he has to find the source of the call. This isn’t like before—it’s not curiosity piqued by aching sadness; it’s panic, pure and simple. When he finally rounds the dock where the pull is strongest, it’s to find a human man coughing blood into the water before a hand reaches down to yank him back to his feet.
Three much larger men are beating on a smaller fourth, a fourth who comes back up swinging despite being hopelessly outmatched. He watches with blank fascination as the three herd the smaller one back up against the edge of the dock, working together like a pod would. For a moment, just a moment, the fourth turns to glance behind him, assess his footing, and their eyes meet. That’s all it takes, though, because suddenly he realizes the reason for the familiarity—it’s Steve, little Steve, with his ill mother and his ache to be useful, and a blind anger descends upon him as he watches Steve fall again.
He doesn’t remember shedding his pelt—he just knows that suddenly he’s capable of making fists, and he clambers up onto the dock and hits the first man he sees so hard that it sends shocks up his shoulder. The man twists and collapses, blood pouring from his nose, and before the others have even finished their shouts of surprise, he’s rounded on them as well. He’s got a storm in his bones, all the rage of a squall on the open ocean, and he strikes the second in his middle and feels a sense of satisfaction when he drops to his knees, struggling to draw in breath. The third looks at him, then takes off at a run. They’re bullies and cowards, only fighting as long as they’re sure they’re going to win, and he sneers after the other two as they stumble after their friend.
And then he’s alone with Steve. He swings around to face him, and Steve is breathing hard, every breath sounding rough-torn from his chest, but still he puts his fists up.
He can tell that Steve’s different from before—older, yes, but also changed. The wounded heart of him seems scarred over, toughened up. It wasn’t tears that brought him forward this time, but blood spattered into the water, an angrier and more violent call, but a plea for help all the same. He’s looking at him warily, fists balled, waiting for the next strike. In that moment, from the distrust and the anger, he knows that Steve’s fears have been realized and he is alone.
It’s twice, twice now that he’s been called to Steve, and as he stands there with his pelt hanging around his shoulders, he realizes at last that it wasn’t an accident, that this may have been in his song all along. Steve isn’t a child, but isn’t a man yet either, at that awkward between-age for humans where the future looks vast and unclear—a reflection of himself, and now they seem to fit together in a way that they didn’t before.
The moment stretches on. “What do you want?” Steve challenges, at the pause. His breathing has calmed to near-normal, but he’s blinking sweat and blood from his eyes, fists bobbing as he tries to keep himself psyched up. He looks like a trapped animal.
He knows now that he can’t leave him again, that he has to see Steve to some sort of success, some life where he isn’t prey for the cruelties of the human world. Why else would the blood-call have worked? But Steve makes no motion toward his skin, shows no desire to take it from him. He’ll have to do it himself, which seems a little cruel. Still, he slips his pelt fully off and hands it over to rest folded on one of Steve’s arms. It’s a promise, but a promise he can’t fully articulate.
“Aw, jeez, what’re you—” Steve says, looking up and away quickly, obviously off-guard and embarrassed. “Here, take this.” He shrugs awkwardly out of his jacket—oversized on him, almost comically so, like it was made for a much larger man—and hands it over in exchange. It’s just barely long enough to pass Steve’s approval. “Anybody asks, just say somebody stole your clothes while you were swimming,” he frowns, looking down at the damp pelt in his hands. He glances back up sharply. “I remember you.”
That makes him smile a little through the pounding of his heart, through the desire to snatch the skin back and run. “Hide that,” he says, forcing the words out past every instinct. “As well as you can, all right? Before morning.”
Steve stares at him blankly, lips parted just slightly, like he needs a moment to work this out, before swallowing once, sharply. "What's your name?" he asks at last—asks as he stands there with the pelt in his hands.
And oh, he thinks suddenly, what is his name? He can’t speak it, not with this mouth, he can’t sing it into the air like he can in the ocean. He just shakes his head; like his nakedness, it’s something he can't explain. Steve nods, just nods, his eye swelling shut and blood drying on his shirt collar, and says "we’ll figure it out."
The first few days without his pelt are a new form of agony. He feels parched, sun-baked, brittle and crumbling. That first week he draws a bath every morning in the boarding house where Steve sleeps, fills the tub with startlingly-clear, salt-free water, and soaks himself until his pink skin wrinkles. It’s not enough.
He understands nudity for the first time. He folds his unfamiliar legs under him on Steve’s bed and looks at himself in Steve’s little mirror, at the shape of his head and the cut of his bones, the dip of his clavicle, the expanse of his ribcage. His stomach is flat and his hips narrow; no protective fat hides beneath his skin. This body splits in peculiar ways, the limbs elongated well beyond familiarity. He feels constantly exposed, even after Steve lends him some ill-fitting clothing. The only thing familiar at all is his own eyes, which in low light still have an animal-like shine to them.
He spends those first days lethargic and in a sort of indefinable pain, feeling like only a fraction of himself, and it only begins to abate when Steve comes home in the evenings from his job. That is when he gets to practice his English, when he gets to listen to Steve talk, when he gets to puzzle through why it was this human boy he was called to of all of the humans in all the world. He lies stomach-down on Steve’s bed and watches him draw by lamplight, he folds into place on the windowsill and listens to Steve talk about something called baseball. Steve never tries to touch him, though he does let him share his narrow bed. The whole thing baffles him.
Sometimes he catches Steve looking at him, pencil tucked between his teeth or newspaper page half-turned. It always makes him want to show off, though he’s not quite sure how to do so in his new body, so instead he just looks back. In the end, Steve will shift his gaze away and tell him again that he needs some sort of name. As always, his name catches in his chest, throat working uselessly against sounds he no longer knows how to make, and eventually he just shrugs. Steve shakes his head and goes back to reading or drawing or ironing his clothes, leaving him to curl into himself, trying to make his body into a more familiar shape as he studies the way Steve’s bruises have begun to turn green at the edges.
On the eighth day, a woman Steve has told him is the owner of the building lets herself into Steve’s room. She finds him there, wearing only a pair of trousers that Steve lent him, and promptly seizes him by the arm and drags him outside. That’s where Steve finds him in the evening gloom, half-naked, sitting on a crate two doors down. When he tries to follow Steve back inside, though, the woman is standing in front of the stairs.
“No no no,” the proprietor says when she sees them, her voice getting loud. He doesn’t understand what’s made her angry.
Steve is suddenly holding his wrist tightly, shifting to keep himself between them. “My brother,” he’s saying. “He’s my brother.”
They are nothing alike. Two humans may look much the same in a seal’s eyes, but hours with a mirror and a willingness to understand have made that much clear. No one dam whelped the two of them, and the proprietor’s expression tells him that she knows it.
“My ma remarried, a fella named Barnes,” Steve continues, and his hands are shaking a little. “This is his boy.”
“Oh aye?” she says. “And what’s his name, then? His full Christian name.”
“James,” Steve says quickly. For an impossibly long second afterward, though, nothing follows, and the panic is nearly palpable. Then, finally, he blurts “Buchanan” and winces a little.
The woman’s eyes go sharp and cold, though he still doesn’t know why. “James Buchanan?” she repeats, and Steve’s grip tightens enough that he can feel the bones of his wrist shifting, but toward the landlady he simply shrugs, a sorry-looking smile creeping onto his face.
“He lost his job in Flatbush and needed a place to stay. I can pay a little extra?”
The woman looks between the two of them, Steve’s clothes streaked with grime and he himself only half-dressed. Reluctantly, she moves away from the staircase. “Extra three dollars a week,” she frowns, and Steve nods wordlessly before dragging him up the stairs to his room.
The minute the door’s shut, Steve leans back against it and presses the heels of his hands into his eyes, slowly letting out a breath.
He still isn’t sure what happened, only that he wasn’t supposed to be here, and that his presence caused Steve trouble. “Is my name Barnes?” he asks, sitting on the edge of the bed. He’s learned that, learned that names run in families with humans.
“Last name, sure.” Now that the woman is no longer staring them down, Steve’s shaking is obvious. “He did come courting my ma a little when I was younger, but he died in an automobile accident.”
He half-stands, enough to reach out and snag Steve by the elbow, then draws him in until they’re sitting chest-to-back. He finally begins to feel at ease; it’s been a strange and stressful day. He’s glad to have Steve near again—though, he realizes, if he’s thin, Steve is approaching skeletal. He worries, and not just because Steve is the only one who knows where his pelt is hidden.
“James Buchanan?” he murmurs, against the shell of Steve’s ear.
Steve rubs his face and gives a wavery laugh. “Fifteenth president of the United States. I panicked.”
“Think he’ll mind that I’ve taken his name?”
Steve twists a little to look at him. “He’s been dead for ages. I don’t think he’ll have much to say about it at all.”
He carries the names of two dead men, then. He doesn’t know them, their faces or desires or ambitions, but he feels them settle around his shoulders like ghosts all the same. Never let them name you, his old aunt sang for him once, a deep and aching sadness in the notes. A name is an insidious chain.
He presses his lips to the side of Steve’s throat, feels a heartbeat fluttering there beneath the thin skin. Steve stills, becomes nothing more than warmth and shallow breaths in his lap, and slowly he trails his lips down and back, pulling at Steve’s shirt collar to get at the sensitive place where neck and shoulder meet.
Suddenly Steve is pushing away from him, lurching to a stand. He reaches out, but Steve shies backward and this time his fingers catch nothing but air.
“Don’t,” Steve says, eyes wide. Color is rising in his face, behind the fading bruises and healing cuts. “Don’t.”
He goes to get to his feet, but Steve holds up a hand and he pauses, feeling confused and somewhat ashamed. It’s never occurred to him that Steve wouldn’t want him to do that. After all, Steve called him. He knows that things are supposed to be different now, but he hadn’t realized they’d become that different.
“We’re brothers, right?” Steve says, and he’s wearing an uncomfortable and fixed-looking expression—a sort of apologetic smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. It’s remarkably similar to the smile he was directing at the landlady downstairs.
He doesn’t know how to respond to that. A question, an explanation, his expectations—they’re caught in his throat, held there with a name that is not James Buchanan Barnes, and somehow he can’t give them form. With sudden clarity, he remembers the pinched face of a woman saying he’s not for you. So instead he closes his mouth and he nods, and watches some of the tension go out of Steve’s body.
The landlady tosses them out four days later. According to Steve, it’s not a surprise.
They end up in a flophouse while Steve hunts for another boarding place that will take them at a price they can afford. He’s beginning to get the impression that he’ll need to find a job himself, and soon, because his presence is doing nothing but increasing Steve’s troubles. He discovers that he’s not exactly a fan of the flophouse, either—it’s cramped and crowded, stinking of mildew and unwashed human bodies. At night he can hear Steve wheezing in the cot next to his, every breath unnatural.
By now the two of them have pinned down “Bucky” as a nickname; Steve was originally for “Jim,” but it didn’t settle with him right. Sometimes it still takes him awhile to respond, but he’s learning. He tries to think of himself using that name to speed the process along; if he doesn’t learn it, he feels he may get Steve evicted again somehow. There are other things he’s learning, too—Steve has been trying to teach him how to read and write in the evenings, using an old primer he picked up in a second-hand shop. It’s slow, agonizing work, and he gets bored and frustrated easily. He’s not made for this, but Steve insists that it will only help him in the long run. After that it’s getting him papers, official proof that he is who he says he is. It seems like a complicated and fairly useless process, but like most things he finds complicated and useless, Steve insists that it’s important.
They finally find a room to let at a house in Prospect Heights, and he says goodbye to the waterfront to move instead into what seems like the heart of the sprawl. He can’t smell the ocean anymore, and every fiber of his being keens for it after a day or two. It is at this same time that he finally finds a job, working for a grocer. He doesn’t have to do any reading, just lug crates of produce and sides of meat around, and at the end of the week the owner hands him an envelope full of money that is his. But despite this, he finds himself slowly succumbing to a kind of homesick melancholy.
In the dog days of late August, when the temperatures soar to trip around the hundred-degree mark and the whole city reeks of rotting garbage and humanity, he begins to miss his old life with a longing so sharp it takes his breath away. Every day he can feel his mindset shifting, his syntax changing. He’s picking up on context and subtle, human-specific body language now. Steve is slowly but surely remaking him into someone who belongs to Brooklyn rather than the sea, and something almost like resentment begins to bloom in his heart. He grows snappish and surly, and one night when he gets home he tries to pick a fight with Steve. He’s not quite sure why, though some small part of him wishes that Steve will tell him to get out, will hand over his pelt and set him free from this obligation he’s taken upon himself. Steve, however, refuses to be dragged into it, which just makes him even angrier. He slams around the room for a while before heading outside to fume. He paces up and down the street as it grows darker; the low-hanging clouds hide the sunset and everywhere, everywhere, there are people. Smoking people, scolding people, drunk and raucous people; like so many seabirds, their very presence grates at him. Thunder rumbles over the city and the city seems to rumble right back.
Just when he thinks he can’t handle it anymore, something snaps. Like the command of some higher god, the skies open and begin to dump down water, blinding sheets of rain that send everyone darting for shelter with curses and shrieks. At first he goes to follow, caught in the sudden flurry of movement. But just as he’s almost reached an awning, he realizes he’s laughing. Under the shelter, there are women in rain-transparent dresses scowling; there are men who are watching their cigarettes dissolve into tiny masses of wet paper. All of the hot anger is being washed out of him, and he grins bright at the sulking people and turns for home instead. Cars wash water from the gutters up over the sidewalks, newspapers plaster themselves to pavement, and for the first time in a long time, he feels happy. Brooklyn is drowning and he is swimming against the current.
When he reaches their boarding house, he stops outside and leans his head back to look up at the clouds. One of the windows of the building, the one he knows is over the staircase’s third story landing, slides open with a thunk.
“What are you doing?” Steve calls down to him, leaning across the sill, coat held over his head to shield himself from the weather.
He shrugs and just tips his face back up into the rain. It’s a little acidic, a little sooty, but it’s wonderfully cool and wet and unrefined. He feels it running down under the collar of his shirt, plastering the fabric to his skin, and for a moment the pull of it almost feels like a pelt.
Steve shuts the window but appears a few moments later at the front door, where he leans against the jamb with folded arms and just watches. Behind him is warmth and light and shelter, things that Bucky has resigned himself to, things that he will have to return to, but for the moment he lets himself revel in the wildness of the elements, lets himself become a little less human, and for a moment he almost believes he can still sing.
Eventually the rain lets up, becomes nothing more than a light drizzle, and the drains suck all of the water down to the sewers. Then, and only then, does he let Steve pull him back in. He is chilled to the bone, covered in goosebumps, and his good clothes certainly won’t dry by morning, but he can’t stop grinning as he leaves puddled footprints all the way up the stairs.
“Strip,” Steve tells him, and Bucky does so, leaves a sopping pile of clothes in the corner and turns in time to catch the threadbare towel Steve tosses him. As he rubs it over his hair, Steve smiles a little. “Feeling better?”
Bucky just laughs.
Seven years pass this way. He couldn’t say it’s faster or slower than any other seven years he’s lived—just different. He tells time by clocks and calendars more than suns and tides, he learns the concept of a week and the nuances of a month, and despite the hair-fine slices of time that humans keep, still the years steal away without his notice.
They move twenty-two times, from boarding house to apartment and back again, sleeping where they can with what money they make. After that first rainstorm, though, they tend to stick close to the river and bay, from the Navy Yard down to Red Hook. It keeps Bucky calmer, though they still have to chase work up and down the coast. Steve can’t hold down a steady job; as soon as he gets one, he inevitably becomes ill, and there are enough able-bodied men looking for work that he is replaced before he recovers. Bucky is the one who brings home reliable money, though it always seems to be less than he thinks they need. He’s barely literate, but his muscles are endlessly young and strong, and he finds work at the docks. He doesn’t like it, doesn’t like being shouted at for ten hours a day just to feed himself and Steve, but still he goes, because if he stopped, they would end up adrift and hungry. Sometimes he believes he knows what his old aunts meant when they told him of being trapped.
The years do not pass all unpleasantly, though. He learns to dance, and discovers he is good at it. Young women like him, and he enjoys their company. He develops an affinity for coneys and spaetzle, egg creams and Coca-Cola. He gets all the time he wants to wander the city, taking in everything. He drinks in music, hunting out the best clubs on Sands Street and beyond, letting cigarette smoke settle into his clothes so he can be close to the bands. He loves fighting, even—he delights in the thrill of winning, and even in loss there is the strange pleasure of watching the pale pink of his skin become darker and mottled with bruises.
And Steve, Steve is something else altogether. In his own way, Bucky lives for him—Steve called him from the water, and Steve alone knows where his pelt is hidden. He promised himself that he would see Steve successful and happy before asking for it back, though sometimes he thinks he’s made a fool’s vow. He has spent impossibly long hours praying to human gods for Steve’s survival in fever season; he has slept pressed chest-to-back with him while fluid rattled in Steve’s lungs. Every time Steve skirts death, a cold hand closes around Bucky’s heart—when a pelt-holder passes, more often than not the selkie soon follows.
But the fact that his life may be tied to Steve’s does not overshadow the affection he feels for him—seven years is a long time to live with someone and not love them. They eat together, soup or pan-fried grocer’s specials at home; sandwiches and fat dill pickles out, when they can afford it. Bucky drags Steve to his clubs, where they watch girls dancing to swing music so loud that it echoes in his chest in place of his heartbeat. In darkened theatres they sit together, stuffing their mouths with popcorn while Betty Grable’s million-dollar legs parade across the screen. They fight together, Steve’s sense of right and wrong the root of the trouble more often than not, and the thumping of his knuckles into someone who would try to hurt them transmutes into a new kind of song. In the quiet of afterward, when he aches from fresh bruises and Steve is holding a napkin full of ice to his swelling face, Bucky always has to fight the urge to try kissing him again. He would do it if Steve would only let him, and never tell a soul—he wants Steve’s body atop his, wants to run his hands up Steve’s thin sides, wants to feel the fit of Steve’s hips against his own. He doesn’t think he’s wrong to want it. But he hasn’t forgotten the wide-eyed look of surprise, hasn’t forgotten the hurried stumbling back, hasn’t forgotten that Steve isn’t for him, and he settles the want he feels into another dull and constant ache, twinned with the neverending call of the sea.
That’s how seven years pass, in moments and months, in rain showers and wage changes and shared bottles of beer. He’s human, for all intents and purposes. He uses human speech, eats human food, has human concerns. He is James Buchanan Barnes, and he knows now in his soul that he does not actually remember the sound of his true name. It’s been too long, his ears and his tongue and his heart have dried out, and he lifts his head to another name now, a cheap name, a human one, but in Steve’s voice it sounds like enough.
Human life comes with human problems, though, and in March of 1943, James Buchanan Barnes is drafted into the United States Army.
He doesn’t know why Arnim Zola chooses him out of all of the captives in the cages. There were others before, half a dozen pulled away cussing and spitting during his time here alone, but there are hundreds of other men that might’ve been selected prior to him. He never has any luck though, and that’s a goddamn fact. He’s already in rough shape, beaten and broken for not working hard enough during his slave shifts on the factory floor. He’s almost positive he’s got a rib or two cracked, and every breath for the past three days has been an agony. He’s sure he’d be dead already if it weren’t for the men in the cage with him, who have been covering for his sorry self more than is safe for their own health. But all of it turns out to be for nothing, because when Zola comes down with two assistants in tow, it’s him that gets the fateful nod.
It takes the good doctor about an hour to figure out that he’s not human. Honestly, he doesn’t know how he did it, because he thought he’d gotten pretty good at acting, but it involved a vial full of blood being sucked out of his arm and a lot of prodding. He thought being strapped down and talked over like he was nothing had been degrading, but it’s nothing compared to the full brunt of the attention he receives afterward. He’s been down the the markets on days when animals have been sold, has seen the way humans treat them, and he can’t help making the comparison now as a gloved hand tilts his head and checks his teeth. They shine a light into his eyes and there’s a flurry of startled German in response. For his part, he wheezes out at them every unpleasant thing he’s picked up in seven years of the Navy Yard District and eight months in the Army—which, it turns out, gives him a pretty extensive repertoire—and bites at them whenever they come close enough.
Despite his very precise and well-learned instruction to give only his name, rank, and number should he be questioned, he must talk at some point, induced by sickness or medicines, because he comes around groggily once to find the word “selkie” being bandied around. It makes panic shoot through him, because he has been human for so long now that to hear the word leaves him feeling exposed. He has a sudden and irrational fear for his pelt, which he knows, knows is safe in Brooklyn with Steve, but in that place, in that moment—deliriously drugged and suffering—he believes in his soul that these men can reach into his life and pull his most precious things out.
He doesn’t know how long he lies there, strapped to the table, but at some point Zola’s assistants unlatch him and drag him to his feet. They take him to a large tank of water with a grate across the top, and he knows immediately that he is in trouble. He tries telling them that he’s human, that he has no abilities beyond that of a human, but they strip him down to his skivvies anyway and lower him into it through a hatch. It takes them forty minutes and three tries to do it, because even in his starved and battered state that’s how hard he fights them, but in the end he slips into the water all the same. He immediately tries to escape, but they close the door in the top on his head, sealing him in. His legs are weak and he’s already breathing so hard that his injured ribs are screaming, so he immediately sinks and pulls in a great gulp of the stale water. It’s only by pulling himself up along the sides of the tank that he manages to get his head back above water. The coughs that it takes to clear his airway feel like they’re killing him, and he hangs pathetically by his fingers to the grate.
The tests continue for hours, and he’s pretty sure they’re doing their level best to drown him. Just when he’s sure they’ll succeed—after his steady refusal to let go of the grating so they can time how long he can hold his breath, Zola asked for the tank to be completely filled—an alarm starts blaring. The assistants, who he’d always assumed were upjumped goons anyway, drop the hose they had been carrying and run for the door, then snag weapons from the table and head out. Zola, on the other hand, goes a little fidgety, his gaze shifting quickly between the tank and the door. Then he shakes his head and scurries off down the hall.
Bucky is left in peace for the first time in forever, but it’s not exactly something he’s enjoying. His arms are burning, so he drops fully back down into the water, watching armed and goggled guards rush past the open door to the chamber. After a little while, Zola reappears, now pale and out of breath, and begins to pack a little bag with files. The alarms, the haste—something is critically wrong. Bucky begins beating against the glass, palms slapping the walls. Zola spares him a glance, only a glance, and for a moment Bucky sees something that may be regret. But not for him, no. It could only be regret for the loss of more opportunities to study him, because Zola dons a hat and fairly flees from the room.
Bucky howls angrily as he disappears into the hallway, voice echoing in the tiny air pocket. You can’t leave me in here, he screams, and you bastard, you can’t leave me! But Zola does, he vanishes out of sight, and Bucky is left treading water alone with the sirens. He is going to die in here, die in a tank made by humans, hundreds of miles from the nearest salt-water beach. If whatever’s causing the alarms doesn’t get him, eventually hypothermia or exhaustion will make his muscles give out and he’ll drown. He, who has lived most of his life in the ocean depths, he will drown. Bucky slaps his hands against the glass again, his last invective devolving into a choked-off sob of frustration.
He begins to rattle the grating above him, trying to force it open, but since he’s tried to escape when no one was looking earlier, one of the assistants had taken a pair of boltcutters to the latch, making it impossible for Bucky to open with his bare hands. Still, he knows, just knows, that if he were healthier, if he were stronger—
“Bucky?” a voice says in disbelief, and he looks over his shoulder to see someone tall and broad in the doorway, someone just this side of familiar. In this moment, he doesn’t care who it is, friend or enemy, so long as they’ll help him.
“Oh god, Bucky, oh my god,” the guy says, sprinting over. “Does it open?”
“No,” he says, but it comes out a little faint, because he’s recognized the voice now, the voice and the face at the very least, and now he’s started to wonder if he’s dead already.
“Get back,” Steve—the person who might be Steve—says, then hefts the striped shield he’s holding experimentally. Bucky gets the plan instantly, but he’s also pretty sure it’s not going to work, because the walls are thick, solid glass, and he’s not convinced anything less than a machine gun is getting through.
Steve rests the point of the shield against the glass for a moment, three-quarters of the way down, then in one sharp and definitive movement, brings it up and slams it home. To Bucky’s shock, hairline fractures spiderweb out from the point of impact. Then Steve kicks the stress spot, one heavy boot connecting, and just like that the wall explodes outward in a rush of water. Bucky’s pulled along with it, ending up covered with water and glass against Steve’s legs. Then he’s being pulled up into an embrace, one that hurts but is everything he has needed since HYDRA pulled him off the field near Azzano, and he lets the warmth of it settle into him, accepts the brief moment of respite.
Then, because he has to know, he pulls back and says, “How?”
Steve grins at him, the same defiantly pleased expression that he’s always worn when he unexpectedly comes out on top, and just that alone is enough to convince Bucky it’s really him. “I joined the Army,” he says, like that’s supposed to explain miracles. “I’ll tell you everything, but right now? We gotta run.”
So they do.
“So how did they know what you are?” Steve asks one night. The casual way he says it surprises Bucky a little. They’re sitting in the back of a canvas-covered truck at a training camp in the English countryside; they’re out here to get a week or two of experience with the other men Steve cherry-picked for his team, but the two of them snuck off after lights-out. Now they’re sharing a bottle of wine one of Steve’s admirers sent, swig for swig, bundled in their army-issue wool coats against the early December chill.
“What?” Bucky blinks at him, still processing. He’s never hidden what he is from Steve, but they’ve also never really discussed him being anything other than human; he just thought it was something they didn’t talk about.
Steve hands the bottle back over, then rests his cheek against a drawn-up knee as he studies him. For a minute, he looks like the skinny artist Bucky remembers. “That wasn’t a normal sort of rig they had you in, was it?”
Bucky leans against the side of the truck, swirling what’s left of the wine nervously. There’s no reason for the nerves; he trusts Steve. But the words are holed up inside of him, in a familiar place in his chest, and he realizes that he doesn’t want to talk to Steve about it, because the conversation will quickly turn to the needles and the blood, about the long nights where they left him strapped on a table alone and all he could think about was dark and cold and pain. Now, with Steve looking at him, he remembers the both of them being young, when he clutched his pelt tight like it could protect him. But he thinks he understands better now—there are humans who’ll hurt him in ways that are more complex than just keeping his skin from him.
Steve is still watching him, and he has to say something, so he starts with the first question, the safer one. “I think they saw, uh,” Bucky starts, then tips the mouth of the bottle up to indicate his eyes, and comprehension dawns on Steve’s face. Just like that, some of the tension goes out of Bucky’s shoulders. It’s an explanation that works, a convenient side-stepping.
“Scared me outta my mind,” Steve says quietly. “Back at camp, they were already writing your letter, y’know.”
He has zero doubt of that. All of them, every man in that base, they’d been given up for dead. Only someone as stupid and headstrong as Steve Rogers would think otherwise.
He doesn’t know how he ever doubted it was Steve, even in the panic of that escape; the feel of him is undeniably the same. It’s still Steve, but a truer version, as though he’s finally found a missing piece of himself. He wonders if Steve has ached for this like he still aches for his pelt, because it fits him like it was always intended to be there. Mannerisms that seemed too big for Steve’s slight frame now make sense; everything from posture to voice match the new body better than they ever did the old one.
With a sudden and sharp clarity, Bucky realizes that this is what he has been waiting for—presented by apparent miracle, yes, but arrived all the same. Steve is more than capable of making it on his own now, more than capable of winning his own fights, more than capable of finding some other human to take Bucky’s place. “When we get home,” he says, taking one last pull and handing the wine back over, “will you tell me where you put it? The skin I gave you.”
Steve starts a little, expression shuttering. Bucky discovers that what Steve will say next matters a great deal to him, will color their relationship to one another. He knows he’s about to find out whether he’s a friend or a kept thing, and it’s an uncomfortable place to be. Then Steve sighs a little and slumps back against the canvas. “Tell you where it is right now,” he says. “You know Evie Porter, from the WPA? It’s in her hope chest.” He drains the wine and gives a lopsided smile. “Just in case you get to go home before I do.”
Just like that, some tightly-coiled thing in Bucky’s chest loosens, and he smiles back.
It never ceases to amaze him how quickly humans are supposed to adapt to new normals. For that matter, it never ceases to amaze him how quickly he’s able to do the same. Being on Steve’s team is just another shift in his life, just another current he has to follow.
Sometimes, on the rare occasion that he has time for the luxury of self-reflection, he wonders if he should be feeling more remorse than he does. It’s usually only the most severe cases of self-defense that drives a selkie to kill a human; instead, he has shot them by the dozens, by the scores. He has hooked a knee around a tree branch for balance and then emptied his magazine into a group of human men, reloading before the bodies have finished their last twitches. It feels natural in its own way, the rifle. Certainly no less awkward than learning how to use human limbs did at first. It’s not that he takes pleasure in it—in his skill at it, either, because he knows he’s good, knows from the way the others talk—but he believes Steve when he tells him that it’s unpleasant but necessary. He gets that; it seems to be the way humans work. Half of his life now is unpleasant but necessary. Still, it seems hard to believe that less than two years ago, he still thought that making enough money to cover rent and still have enough for drinks with Steve on Saturday night would be the most complicated problem in his life.
“We’re going after him,” Steve says one day, tapping Bucky’s shoulder with a folded leaf of paper as he dodges a chunk of concrete debris to come up beside him. Their London bar of choice, the Whip and Fiddle, is gone, taken out in a blitz during their last mission. All that’s left now is a cracked shell filled with rubble. He’d heard others talking about it down in the SSR bunker, but he had to come see for himself. Bucky knows he shouldn’t be too cut up about it—everything about his life used to be transient, but ever since human thoughts crowded out everything else, he’s grown attached to places. He finds that it pains him a little to know that he’ll never sit on a stool here again, looking over his shoulder at the women in their low-cut dresses and drawn-on stockings, grinning when Steve pretended not to do the same.
“Zola,” Steve adds leadingly, and that catches his attention. “We’re going after him. These are the orders.”
He snags the paper from Steve—technically he doesn’t have the clearance for these; an edited version will be presented to him and the rest of the Commandos whenever SSR sees fit—and scans over it. He still doesn’t read too well, so it takes him a moment of sounding out a few words in his head before he gets the picture. SSR cracked a HYDRA coded transmission, and they’re intercepting a train before it can rendezvous with Schmidt himself.
Vengeance isn’t something that comes naturally to his kind, but he’s taken to it with a great deal of relish, and the suddenly-rapid beat of his heart feels wild and exciting. Steve is reading over his shoulder, rocking a little on the balls of his feet. That’s nervous energy, one of the tells that Bucky has become intimately aware of, and he imagines that Steve has as much interest in this as he himself has. He’s pretty sure all of them have a bone or two with Dr. Zola, and to be eighteen hours from shipping out after him feels better than he could imagine.
He hands the paper back to Steve and whistles a little, nervously. He’s not looking at anything in particular, just thinking about it—the train, the raid, getting hands on Zola himself. Being the one with the power for a change. Somehow he doubts SSR would approve the building of a large tank of water. Somehow he doubts he’d truly have the stomach for it if they did.
“They’ll rebuild her, you know,” Steve says. Bucky looks over at him, caught off guard, but Steve just nods toward the Whip and Fiddle. He must’ve looked like he was studying the remains. Steve continues, “They’re going to rebuild the whole city, after we win.”
“It’s just another bar,” Bucky protests, but his heart isn’t in it, and he knows Steve can tell.
“You wait,” Steve says, bumping their shoulders together. “You, me, the whole gang—when they call it for us, we’re gonna come down here and we’re gonna turn a table right-side up and we’re gonna crack open a bottle of the good stuff. Toast everybody. Might even toast the colonel, yeah?”
Bucky cracks a crooked smile.
“And,” Steve adds, this time a little more quietly, a little more hesitantly, “maybe when they get her rebuilt, you and I can come, just the two of us. Sit at the bar with a couple of beers. If you’re still around, I mean.”
The moment stands for longer than he thought possible, hope and hurt and bitter want resting hot in his throat. Then, like the coward he is, he says, “Let me see those again,” and snags the orders from Steve’s hand before turning to head back to the barracks. “Go over our plan with me.”
Something in Steve sags, then settles into familiarity. He jabs a finger into the page and starts talking strategy, and they leave the Whip and Fiddle behind.
Up until the very minute the metal wrenches free, he doesn’t doubt that everything will be okay. Steve’s there, he’s right there, just an inch or two away. They do the impossible daily, and though he is afraid—he will never claim he isn’t afraid—he knows he only needs to get ahold of Steve and he’ll be pulled back in, and all of their small dramas and big acts will continue as before.
Then a bolt groans and gives and his stomach lurches as he drops back and down. The last he sees of Steve is a blankly shocked expression, his hand still extended.
The fall is so much longer than he could have ever believed. He has time for thoughts, even—a second to register surprise and regret, a moment to come up a ridiculous contingency plan for if he survives impact, and a panicked recollection of what he knows about this valley. A river runs through the bottom, ice-choked and sluggish, and in that moment he knows the water is calling him, calling him home, calling him back to a place he no longer belongs. As he tumbles, he claws uselessly upward, toward the train tracks winding around the mountain like a scar, toward where Steve disappeared into misty distance, toward the vast blue bowl of the heavens.
Landing only hurts for an instant.
Afterward, there’s nothing.
What he has are flashes, just small pieces of a whole, and he’s not sure he actually remembers them from moment to moment. They’re like dreams upon waking—they fade in color and richness, then in detail, then altogether.
Sometimes he comes to while standing in showers, letting the water run down his skin, and he gets a vague sense that it isn’t what he wants. He remembers—thinks he remembers—saline and riptides, and the sudden ache of it makes him shut off the tap and stumble out into the bathroom proper. It is then that he will catch sight of himself in a nearby mirror, hair too long and plastered to his face, arm gleaming dully in the light of aging yellow bulbs, and he has time for only a brief moment of horror before something else—some colder, more efficient thing—takes over.
Sometimes he comes to in public transportation, a man whose jaw hurts from clenching and who is carrying a guitar case too heavy to be holding an instrument, and he blinks around at the other passengers as if searching for a familiar face. He wants someone to call out to him, but when he tries to imagine what they might say, he comes up against a terrifying blank. There is a feeling in his chest like something is stuck there, some arcane word he cannot give voice to, and it’s almost a relief to not be aware any longer by the time he reaches the next stop.
Once he comes to in a flophouse, no possessions to his name, no name in the register. Something makes him look to the cot next to his, but there is no one in it, just an indentation darkened by years of unwashed bodies. He wraps his arms around himself to ward off an ungodly chill, but no matter how hard he tries, he cannot get warm. He stays awake this time, for hours on end, until a group of men in dark and nondescript clothes burst into the room. One bends and injects the old man who had taken up the cot to his left with some solution; as he watches, the man begins to convulse violently. He gets to his feet in surprise, but it’s impossibly slow, dreamlike. One of the men snaps his fingers, and instinctively he turns toward the sound. The man looks him dead in the eye, then says Пускай умру, непробужденный. He manages to feel brief surprise that he understood the words, then he drops like a stone as the world turns black.
Finally, on mere chance, he is sent to New York. He’s tailing the daughter of an international businessman, a teenager with feathery dark hair, dressed in a flannel shirt and leggings. She’s young, so very young, out with friends and oblivious to him. It makes her easy to follow, in and out of the the second-hand shops that plague Brooklyn like gaudy sores. He’s only waiting for the right moment, when she’s separated from the others and there’s a clear shot to a back door. He flexes his left arm impatiently as the girl turns into another shop.
He follows restlessly, holding the door open so one of the mark’s friends has to duck under his arm as she walks back outside, and smiles at her. She smiles back, shy and surprised, then hides an embarrassed laugh behind her hand as she darts down the sidewalk. One down. Inside, the other friend is sifting through a tray of costume jewelry by herself, which means the mark is alone. He stalks toward the back, where the clothes are, and he can see the girl pulling plaid shirts and old concert tees out. Beyond her is a fire exit, half-hidden by a wall of fabrics. He won’t have a much better chance.
With brutal speed, he dodges the rack that separates them, then clamps one hand over her mouth, one over her throat. She screams, of course, but it’s muffled and won’t be heard over the wailing music being funneled through speakers in the low ceiling. He begins to move backward, dragging her with him toward the second exit, sweeping her legs out from under her to keep her from causing too much of a scene. He’s six feet from clear, then three. He glances behind for just a moment, sees he’s about to back into the wall of fabric swatches, and tries to correct himself. Just then, the girl takes the opportunity to drive an elbow back into his ribs, and he grunts angrily and stumbles against the wall.
The whole world seems to have paused, though he’s vaguely aware that he’s still holding a struggling girl. He cranes his neck around in wonder, a feeling overtaking him that’s both foreign and achingly, painfully familiar. There, near the bottom of a stack in a cubby, a corner of fur is hanging out, something he does not recognize but instantly knows he needs. It’s just an old scrap, dust evening the dappled color out to a dull grey, but it calls to what he used to be, this ocean-song, this seal-song, and he’s just a broken weapon but he feels it. He drops the girl and tugs against the corner, and the whole stack falls around them, but he gets it, and it’s there, it’s whole, and as the girl starts shrieking for help, he slams against the door and out into the alleyway, taking off toward the waterfront at a dead sprint.
He runs, runs away, away from his mission, away from his extraction point, the only thing that matters now being the closest water. He ends up on a warehouse’s private dock, and it’s abandoned because it’s a Sunday, but it wouldn’t matter if there were a thousand people around, because he can’t be stopped now—the call is too strong. He strips naked, ripping at clothes that suddenly feel strange and confining, and he wraps the fur around himself.
But it’s not right, it won’t fit, he’s missing flesh and missing memories, and it scrapes his pink skin raw. He screams and thrashes, leaving bloody streaks on the dock, caught at some in-between place. The pelt is like claws raking him, like sharp teeth biting away at some false thing, and he contorts in it, unable to decide if he wants to it take or to come off, until at last he falls into the water, exhausted. Then the waves ripple through his fur, and the salt-spray embraces him.
The ocean washes all things clean, eventually.
Life is harder than his patchy memories tell him it used to be. The arm didn’t come with him; the pelt rejected it and healed over the wound, and now the only reminder of that limb is white scar tissue. It’s harder to travel, harder to feed himself, harder to stay safe. He keeps to the shallows of lonely, rocky beaches and scrapes by. Sometimes he remembers his youth, the days when confidence in his speed and cleverness would send him poking around bright and dangerous reefs, or chasing after boats just to see the people point. Now he’s useless and alone; he can’t interact with anyone, because this mouth isn’t made for human speech, and he’s long since forgotten how to sing.
He doesn’t know how long he was kept asleep, only that he feels it was a long time. Sometimes, when the loneliness gets too strong, he throws out his senses as far as they will go and tries to pick up any sign of Steve, tries to hear him or taste him in the water, and there is nothing. Perhaps it’s to be expected, he tells himself for the first few years—New York is far away.
By the time his beach night arrives, though, he’s given up looking. He has spent months now hanging about civilization, long enough to figure out that, somehow, impossibly, he’s left the twentieth century behind for the twenty-first. It’s close to sixty years on, and human lives are short. Now he just wants to walk the Brooklyn streets once more and find out if Steve ever made it home from the war. He wants to find out that Steve made it out alive, married some human dame, had a litter of kids, lived a long, healthy life. He wants to know that, needs to know it. There’s always the chance that he’s still around, too, an old man by now, but still—hopefully—a friend. That possibility alone would be enough to drive him forward.
That evening, as the sun sets, he awkwardly pulls on the clothes he stole or scavenged over the course of the past month. One sleeve hangs limp and empty, but it’s better than walking around half-naked, with the ravaged skin of that shoulder on display. He wrings out his pelt as best he can and tosses it up to hang against his neck. He knows it’ll make him look odd, but just the thought of letting it out of his sight again makes his breath grow short with panic.
The library is still open when he arrives, looking different from what he vaguely remembers from the 1930s. He stands uncomfortably in the doorway for a moment in his stolen shorts and mismatched sandals, feeling more out of place than he has since the first time he pulled himself up onto a dock next to a crying child. Only curiosity and hope propel him forward, lead him to ask for records from the war.
And afterwards, he wishes to god he’d never looked it up, wishes he could’ve kept telling himself that Steve came home with Agent Carter on his arm.
He would’ve been okay with that, he tells himself. He’s a selkie, a damn male selkie. Steve wasn’t for him, not truly—he never should’ve been drawn to Steve in the first place, but he was, and he spent years telling himself that as soon as Steve got his feet under him, he’d go. But seeing that name on the lists of MIA/KIA, knowing what he knows now, it breaks his fucking heart, because he loved that kid, he loved him, and he’s dead. He’s heard the songs of his sisters, telling him of men who took their pelts, hid them and kept them captive, and all he thinks is that if Steve had his still, he wouldn’t even want it back.
He has no taste for adventuring these days, so he leaves the records where they lay and heads straight for the waterfront. He’s back in the water before midnight, heading south toward warmer climes, chasing some small relief from the cold that’s settled back around him.
He resigns himself to living out the lonely story of the selkie, and he swears he will not go back to New England.
Years later, without warning: a taste, a smell—so faint, so far off, a drop of blood or a tear, a high clear note in the murky depths.
Without thought, without question, he turns north and swims.
He’s a wretch and he knows it, traveling up and down the coast, something whispering to him, pulling under his skin. He dodges freighters and sailboats, he chokes through oil slicks and refuse, all for the chance of feeling the call again. He stays off the coast of New York City, hiding under piers or the groundings for bridges, and there are long days of listening to the roar of vehicles above him that he thinks he’s just being a fool, that he wants it too much for it to ever have been real. He feels old and tired, the weight of nearly a century of life dragging at him, and though he knows he doesn’t age like a human would, he still feels like he’s outlived his sense of optimism.
Still he hangs around, hiding from boats, hiding from curious eyes, skittish now in a way he never used to be. He thinks about leaving, about heading back to warm, clear waters—he doesn’t belong there, but he doesn’t belong here either, not anymore. He’s just skulking off the coast of Governor’s Island, trying to avoid the tour boats, when without warning it feels like there’s an explosion of bright red across his whole body. It’s a screaming sort of summons, shocking and approaching painful, and he races for the source.
When he arrives in the Hudson River, Steve Rogers is bleeding in the water.
The cowl of his suit (different, sleeker) has been mangled, and there’s a cut on his face and a bruise blossoming beneath the skin of his forehead. He seems stunned, very likely concussed. Bucky’s seen the sort of hits Steve can take, though, and he’d wager whatever did this to him could’ve killed a normal man. He buoys Steve as best he can, his own bewildered joy making his inability to actually help a little less painful. Steve is sipping air slowly, and after a moment he shifts in his float a little to get a look at Bucky. He blinks a few times, then frowns, brushing at him with one gloved hand. The inability to speak in this form grates at Bucky suddenly.
At that moment, a flying metal suit descends over them, then sinks part of the way into the water. He doesn’t like it, doesn’t trust it—it reminds him too much of HYDRA tech, or whatever that false arm had been made of—so when the suit tries to pick Steve up, he bites at it, teeth skittering off metal. It does exactly nothing except make the suit pick Steve up faster and lift him from the water, over to the shore. The edge is far too high for Bucky to follow, even if he could touch land, so he’s just left bobbing in place, full of this helpless yearning.
After they’ve landed, the suit’s faceplate pops up to reveal a man inside. The man begins to talk animatedly toward Steve, who’s leaning heavily against his side, calmly enough that Bucky figures that the man must be a friendly. He gestures out to where Bucky is still floating, watching, then inspects his arm where Bucky had tried to bite him. Steve stares at him from where he stands on shaky legs, soaked through, half-drowned. Bucky wants to say it’s me, it’s me, I’ve found you, but he’s dead, Steve knows he’s dead, and the words won’t come, no matter how desperate he is for them.
He can’t follow them when they stumble back into the thick of the city, and it kills him to see Steve walk away. But even so, he feels like he could fight a thousand men and come out on top today, nothing but a chorus of he’s alive running through his head.
It’s hard to tell time; he doesn’t count in years so much as tides. He feels the pull of the beach night approaching, but his pelt is still tight around him, still clinging to him like a glove, and he knows he has a month at least. It makes him even more desperate, desperate for news, for sightings, for any little scrap about Steve.
Just when he thinks he’s going to lose his mind from the torture of being held at arm’s distance, a week after the Hudson River incident, the problem resolves itself. A call rips him from his fretful swimming up and down the coast, and he finds Steve sitting on the edge of a pier in a park on the Brooklyn side of the East River, a pocketknife in one hand and his nicked thumb held out over the water. Bucky’s aghast that Steve would hurt himself even a little in order to bring him out.
Steve inhales sharply when he sees him, like he wasn’t quite expecting what he did to work. He folds the knife and sucks at the wound for a moment, obviously at a loss, and everything in Bucky hurts just to see him. He wants so badly to tell Steve who he is, what’s happened, but he’s mute. It’s supposed to keep him safe, this inability to give himself away as anything more than a dumb animal, but right now it’s a torture. He doesn’t know how Steve is here, as young and healthy as he was in 1945, and all he can do is draw close to where Steve is sitting and drink in the sight of him.
Eventually Steve looks around, almost nervously, then puts on a small smile. “I, uh,” he starts, clearing his throat, “I know what you are, and I wanted to thank you. For last week, during the AIM attack.”
He didn’t do much, and he knows that. All the same, hearing Steve’s voice sends a flush of pleasure through him, fills in some memories that he didn’t realize he was sorely missing until just now, of talking together over meals, of shouting over the din of yet another dancefloor, of Steve reading him the paper when he was too tired after work to puzzle it out for himself. That’s all Steve says, though, seemingly content to wait for an answer that might not come. Eventually, since Bucky can do nothing to stop him, nothing to call him back, he gets up, brushes off his pants, and gives a little wave goodbye.
Even though he was poor company, the next day Bucky’s summoned again, in the same fashion, and again the next day, until he figures out that Steve is planning to keep calling him, night after night, every evening there isn’t some sort of emergency. It makes Bucky think that he must be terribly lonely. He understands that better than he once would’ve thought possible, and it’s that loneliness and that aching want that keeps him coming back every day, waiting in the shadows of rocks and barriers until he sees Steve sit down, feet trailing toward the water. That’s when Bucky melts out into the open, bobs just a yard out, so that Steve never feels the need to make himself bleed again.
Every time that the park is empty and it’s just the two of them on the waterfront, Steve begins to talk. It startles Bucky a little, he admits, because with the exception of their very first meeting, Steve tends to play his cards close to his chest.
It pains him that he can’t tell Steve who he is, that they don’t speak the same language anymore. Maybe it’s for the best, though—Steve has his feet under him now. Steve has an entire team of colorful and dangerous friends. He could leave at any time, knowing that Steve will be all right. It’s what he should do, and he knows that, but he’s a different sort of creature than before, and Steve makes him feel as though he’s still needed.
So he finds himself Steve’s quiet companion again, counting down the days until he can slip out of his pelt and be James Barnes again. In the meantime, he gets to learn more about Steve’s journey back home, the long and rough ride of it, from plane crash to discovery, from losing one team to gaining another, from SHIELD housing to Stark Tower to his own place again at last. Most of the stories have no grace to them, are unpolished in such a way that Bucky realizes that Steve’s never relayed them before, and half the time they’re followed by an apology and an admonition that whatever he’s saying doesn’t matter. But it does, it does matter to Bucky, every word of it matters more than he could express even if he could speak. So every day he keeps coming back to shore, and every day Steve picks haltingly back up.
Still, he’s not prepared for the night where he himself is the subject.
“Maybe you knew him,” Steve says, then rolls his eyes a little at himself. “I don’t know, actually. We, uh, we never really talked about it.”
Bucky feels a pang of guilt. He had spent those years trying so hard to be human. It hadn’t done him a whole lot of good in the long run, really—Zola had sussed out what he was in under an hour, and now all Steve thinks he knows is that he has to be hurting to draw a selkie out.
Steve puts his head down then, fingers raking through his hair, and begins to describe him in far, far kinder terms than he deserves. And then Steve tells him about the pelt, and his mother’s stories, and knowing all along that he should’ve given it back, but just being too selfish to do so until prompted. Somehow this segues into how Bucky’s death is his fault, how he failed his friend, his best friend, the man that should’ve been more than that, if Steve could’ve been a little braver. And he apologizes to Bucky about it, like he’s admitting guilt to a loved one, like he’s delivering that fateful telegram, the telegram and the condolence letter and the medal.
That’s what this has been all this time, then, Bucky realizes—Steve trying to take the guilt onto himself for something he had no control over. If he wants someone who’ll blame him for what happened, he needs to find another confidante. He’s angry, all right, but at the idea that Steve has been living with this, that Bucky’s absence has caused him this much grief when he’s not even gone. That anger sticks in his throat, and the fact that he can’t give voice to it, even in crude animal sounds, upsets him more than he knows how to describe.
In the absence of other options, he finally turns to action, and without thinking, he leaps as far as he can and manages to nip at Steve’s foot. Steve looks shocked for a moment, like he’s going to leave, but then, oh. Instead, Steve slips off the edge of the concrete and sinks down next to him, treading water, and they’re face to face for only the second time in seventy years.
Steve buries his face in Bucky’s ever-loosening pelt, mindful of his left side, and Bucky has never felt so helpless, not when he was pulled from the waves by a child, not when he saw his skin in the hands of a beat-up kid, not when Zola sealed him in a tank and watched him flail for oxygen, not when he was caught in some half-way point, unsure what he was as he bled into the cold waters of the East River.
And all he can think is two days, please wait two days.
Evening is coming on his beach night at last, but the water is already dark and choppy. The sun is just below the black clouds which are rapidly taking over the sky, and everything the light touches has turned a queasy shade of red. Steve hasn’t shown up, and Bucky has begun to worry that if the storm breaks soon, he won’t come at all. He doesn’t exactly know where Steve lives now—he supposes he could be found, but if it takes longer than his single beach night, he doesn’t know if he’ll have the willpower to resist returning to the sea when it ends. The thought of another seven years of waiting is too awful to contemplate.
The rain hits before the night does, of course, spitting down cold and angry. The water gets even rougher, frothing up in the wind. More than once, he’s thrown against the concrete break, hitting hard against his injured left side. It’d be safer farther out, but visibility is low and he doesn’t want to risk the chance of missing Steve. It’s only when he’s slammed against the barrier again and pushes himself away with a hand that he realizes night has finally fallen. Suddenly his heart is in his throat, and he kicks against the currents to where a crude ladder was molded into the concrete. He needs to find Steve.
It was easier to climb these things with both arms; as it is, he has to scrabble and scrape to keep ahold of both the concrete and his pelt as the wind buffets him. By the time he pulls himself fully up, he’s raw and tired. He staggers to his feet and wraps his pelt back around himself, grateful for the protection it gives him against the cold rain.
He hasn’t gone far in the little park when lightning cracks overhead, followed almost immediately by the cavernous boom of the thunder. He jumps, but in the brief flash he saw someone coming down the path toward him, coat pulled over their head, and from that alone he recognized Steve. He’s bigger than he used to be when he’d come pull Bucky back in from the rainstorms, but his habits are the same, and Bucky coughs against the rust in his throat and manages to call out.
The startled look on Steve’s face in the next flash has changed to confusion and pained hope by the time they reach each other, then Bucky’s bodily hauled along to a nearby picnic area, out of the rain. Steve’s face is all in oranges and shadow from the sodium light affixed overhead. He studies Bucky for a moment, then envelops him in the sort of a crushing hug that humans seem so fond of. He can’t say he minds, though.
“How?” Steve says against his neck, but what it really sounds like is I knew it. Bucky just shakes his head. He has a lot of questions himself, and he realizes that he may actually get answers now, that being on land again means he can finally piece together his own story. That his song won’t ever be complete unless he stays for however long it takes to root out the truth of the matter. He breathes out a laugh and rests his forehead against Steve’s broad frame.
Finally, Steve pulls back a little, resting a palm where one shoulder ends abruptly. Slowly, carefully, he folds back the pelt and exposes the twisted scar tissue there, turned livid by the color of the light.
“What happened?” Steve asks, like his heart might break.
“I don’t remember,” Bucky says, because it’s mostly the truth, and because to go deeper into it is another wound he’d rather not dwell on at the moment, not when there are more important things to do. “Listen, take this,” he starts, then goes to slip out of his pelt, but Steve stops him.
“You have to tell me,” Steve says, clutching at his neck, his shoulders, his face; big rough hands slide over his damp skin. “You have to tell me that you want this.”
And Bucky looks around him, through the sea-storm, at the city with its crowds and its lights and its pollution, its crimes and hatred and heartbreak, all of the cruelties of man, and then he looks at Steve. Stupid, headstrong Steve, who’d called him from the water eighty-four years ago when he’d cried for his sick mother, who’d taken his pelt and his life into thin teenage hands, followed him into war, miraculously made his way back, made a friend of him again. Steve, who has never tried to own him. And he says, “I want this.”
Suddenly Steve’s mouth is on his, hot against his chilled skin, and he shudders into it. Steve pulls back at that, licking his lips nervously, and says, “Okay?”
He laughs, and it comes out painful and wonderful all at once, then fists his hand into Steve’s shirt and jerks him back down, because nothing has ever been that okay in the entirety of their too-long lives. Steve’s for him, he’s always been for him, and it’s a relief not to deny it any longer.
His pelt is gone by morning, this time hidden somewhere that’s probably a little more permanent than Evie Porter’s hope chest. The sunlight coming through the window is watery and pale after last night’s storm, but it’s enough to make him start feeling brittle again, the sea-ache settling back into his soul, and he rolls away from it. Steve makes a small noise when he moves, blinking awake slowly, then sighs into Bucky’s hair, sounding surprised and relieved. The feeling’s not exactly unfamiliar.
There’s sun on his back now, sun in Steve’s eyes, and around him everything is stable and dry and complicated; it frightens the creature inside of him. His pelt has only been missing for a few hours, so for a moment he has to bury his head down against Steve’s chest to quell the urge to tear apart New York looking for it, has to fight against the instinct to escape. Then the moment passes, gone like a ripple in water, replaced by the feeling of Steve’s fingers brushing down his spine.
He kisses Steve’s skin and tastes salt. It’s enough.