Chapter 1: Everything Revolves Around the Sun
“Thou hast lain with an abomination.”
Steve looks up from the can of tuna he’s scrutinising, trying to figure out if it’s line-caught or not.
There is a man further down the aisle of the grocery store, dressed in several layers of ragged clothing, a threadbare backpack clutched in his hands.
Steve drops his gaze, and finally sees the little logo on the can, Pole and line caught. He adds it to his basket, where it rattles around with the canned sardines and dried pasta.
“Its stink is upon you,” the man says, a little louder this time.
Steve gives him a sideways look, and moves down the aisle. He passes over the jars of ragu and adds a can of chopped tomatoes to his basket, and walks around to the next aisle.
“You are damned eternal,” the man follows him. “Corruption to your very core.”
“Listen, pal,” Steve snaps, turning to face the ragged man. “I don’t know what your problem is, but take it outside.”
The man recoils, his head twitching from side to side, as if searching for witnesses or support.
The store manager, keeping himself busy on a quiet evening sweeping the floor, glances over at them, but goes back to his sweeping.
Steve grits his teeth and grabs a bag of potato chips. He reads the label, Smokey Bacon, and puts it back again. He and Bucky have an agreement, and a deal is a deal after all. He picks out a bag of Cheetos instead, even if Jonesy will eat most of them. Or at least lick off the cheese powder and Steve will have to sweep up the soggy remnants later.
“The seed of destruction lies within you-” the man continues.
Steve rolls his eyes. “Yeah. Whatever.” He walks over to the chiller, and picks out a carton of oat milk.
“Thou hast had congress with demons,” the man spits after him.
“Just the one,” Steve mutters. “And what he and I get up to in our own home is no business of yours.”
“He?” the man hisses. “He?! That foul creature from the pit is no man!”
“Okay, that’s enough.” Steve puts his basket down. “I don’t know who the hell you think you are, but it’s none of your damn business what he identifies as.” He folds his arms across his chest, and the ragged man suddenly seems to realise just how tall Steve is, how much muscle is hidden under his faded blue sweater. “If he chooses to identify as male then that's what he is. And what he is is none of your damn business.”
The lights overhead flicker, and the shadows around Steve lengthen.
The ragged man lets out a squeak and stumbles back, colliding with a display of soda bottles. The bottles tumble down, rolling in every direction, and the man lets out a sharp, bitten off scream before running for the door and out into the evening.
Steve starts picking up the bottles and putting them back on the display, offering a sheepish little apology to the store manager as he does so.
“Bucky?” Steve unlocks the door and shoulders his way into the apartment. “You home?”
He pushes the door shut with a nudge of his hip, and carries his canvas bag of groceries to the kitchen. Dum Dum, a little black puff of fur curled up on the kitchen counter, lets out a soft trill and unfolds himself, going up onto the tip of his toes and arching his spine with a satisfying shiver.
“Hey, Dum Dum.” Steve puts down the shopping and strokes his quivering spine, and Dum Dum prrrrps a greeting.
Steve puts away the groceries, stacking the cans of tuna on the counter where Dum Dum can rub up against them and stake his claim. The sardines are for Bucky, and go in the cupboard. The canvas bag he folds up and stows away under the sink.
“Bucky?” Steve checks the living room, pausing to glare at his latest painting. He’s still not happy with the colour, and is slowly working his way through the wrong colours until he lands on the right one. Morita, stretched along the windowsill in that impossible, elastic way known to every cat, chirrups a greeting. Steve scratches his head until he starts dribbling, then quickly stops.
There’s no Bucky on the couch, so he checks the bedroom. No sign there either. The cats stay clear of the bedroom, deeply offended by the things that go on in there. Though they sometimes sit in the doorway and yowl for attention, their eyes averted, if they’ve gone an hour or more without food.
Steve purses his lips. There’s every chance Bucky is in the apartment, just not in any kind of corporeal form, and he’ll just appear when he’s good and ready to.
Steve changes into his work clothes, spattered white and yellow and green, and fills a clean jar with water. He unpacks his paints, and gets to work.
There is a change in the air, like a crackle of static electricity.
Steve blinks and looks out the window. The sun has long since set, and Morita is somewhere between a solid and a liquid, draped across the sill like a Dali clock. Steve stretches his arms over his head and studies the painting.
Better. Not there yet, but better.
He rinses out his brush and sets it down. “Hey, Buck. Where have you been?”
There is a shift in the air behind him, mass where there had been none before, and a press of lips to the nape of Steve’s neck, sweet and lingering.
“There are hydrothermal vents far below the ocean.” Bucky’s mouth moves slowly across Steve’s shoulder, the wide neck of his t-shirt offering an expanse of pale skin to taste. “Splits in the seam of the earth where tectonic plates tear themselves apart. A crucible and a cradle, where black smoke pours from chimney stacks.” Bucky’s lips brush the collar of Steve’s shirt, and work their way back the way they came.
“Yeah?” Steve closes his eyes as Bucky kisses his way across his other shoulder. “And did you find anything?”
“Many things,” Bucky confirms. “Things that should not be alive, but are.”
Steve smiles to himself. “And were they friend or foe?”
“Hmm.” Bucky noses behind Steve’s ear. If it’s taking him time to decide, that means they’re safe. “They have admirable qualities.”
“High praise,” Steve comments, tilting his head back so Bucky can kiss him properly.
Bucky curls his fingers around the nape of Steve’s neck, cool and rough against his skin. He brushes his lips against Steve’s, keeping the pressure light and careful, until Steve opens up to him, warm and welcominge. Bucky sighs, filling Steve’s mouth with the taste of salt and stone as he cups Steve’s throat in his other hand, feeling the working of his tendons and the muscles in his jaw as Steve sucks on his tongue.
Steve bites down, hard enough to make Bucky twitch, the suckers on his tongue raised ridges under Steve’s teeth. Bucky squirms free, dragging his tongue across Steve’s teeth before kissing a line under Steve’s chin and mouthing at his throat.
Bucky stops short, and rubs his thumb against Steve’s jaw. “Tense,” he declares. “Why tense?”
“It’s nothing.” Steve turns his head and mouths at the mound of Bucky’s thumb, pressing his teeth to the firm flesh. Bucky isn’t so easily distracted, damn him. He unsuckers his tongue from Steve’s throat and straightens up.
“Fine,” Steve sighs. “This creepy looking hobo cornered me in the store, spouting some shit about congress with an abomination.”
Bucky bares his teeth. All of them. Even Steve finds it unsettling. “I will devour him.”
“No!” Steve waves a finger under Bucky’s nose. “No eating people, remember.”
“Rule number one,” Bucky grumbles. “No eating humans, or human-like things.” He gives Steve a sullen glare. “I will rend his foul tongue from his worthless form.”
“Well, so long as you don’t eat it afterwards.”
Bucky skulks off to the kitchen to make coffee, and Steve weighs up continuing with his piece or packing up for the evening. As tempting as it is to spend the rest of the night tangled up with Bucky on the couch and making the cats yowl in indignation, he needs to get the painting finished.
Steve picks up his brush and gets back to work, drawing threads of bright colour across the canvas. After several minutes of clattering about in the kitchen Bucky brings him a cup of coffee, placing it on the windowsill before sitting on the paint-stained carpet at his feet. Steve shifts over so Bucky can rest his chin on Steve’s knee and watch him, frowning at the canvas while he works.
“I thought it finished,” Bucky’s chin prods at Steve’s knee as he speaks.
“Paintings are never finished, Buck.” Steve pauses for a swallow of coffee. “You just try and get as close as you can to how they’re supposed to be and not to get sick of looking at them in the meantime.”
Bucky’s frown deepens. “They are not?”
Steve looks up at the sheets of paper taped up on the wall by the bookcase, bright daubs of colour and unsettling shapes. Bucky doesn’t sit and paint with Steve often, but when he does the results get put up where Steve can always see them. There is a certain impulsive energy to them, their bold use of colours, the acrylics laid on so thick in places that they become almost sculptural. Steve loves every last one of them, even the one of Morita with the poisonous spines.
“Everyone paints differently, Buck.” Steve scrubs his spattered fingers through Bucky’s shaggy hair. “You paint with a clearly defined end in sight. You walk a straight road to your destination. Me, I have this… ill-defined image in my head that reality can’t compete with. I could spend years on a piece and the colours wouldn’t be as rich, the perspective wouldn’t be quite right. So I try and get it as close to that vision as I can, and remember that other people who look at it aren’t seeing it with my prejudiced eye. They have nothing to compare it to.”
Bucky hums, pressing his cheek to Steve’s thigh as Steve combs his fingers through the tangles in Bucky’s hair. He teases the knots apart and strokes through the loose waves of russet-edged hair until it falls across his lap in a silken storm, feeling Bucky become warm and pliant with his attention.
“I could pluck the images from your mind,” Bucky offers sleepily. He’s starting to get a little blurred, his limbs ill-defined. “Pull them from your synapses, fragile and ill-defined, and pin them onto paper before they expired.”
“Could you really?” Steve murmurs, his voice soft and fond.
“Unlikely.” Bucky yawns, cracking his jaw and baring his teeth. “It is a challenge to separate thoughts.”
“Probably best not to,” Steve smiles, tucking a loose strand of hair behind Bucky’s ear. “Don’t want to get the art all muddled up with a craving for mac and cheese or needing to sneeze.”
“You should paint a sneeze,” Bucky rumbles. Steve pushes his fingers into thick, warm wool. Bucky yawns again, a spread of darkness across the carpet littered with heavy-lidded eyes and slack mouths.
“Go to sleep, Buck,” Steve rubs at where he’s pretty sure Bucky’s shoulder blades should be.
The last of the eyes, shining silver and blue, blink and finally close. Steve feels a last press of lips and jagged teeth against his thigh, before Bucky falls asleep.
Steve paints for a few more hours, Bucky draped across his lap, heavy and warm. His eyes are turned away from the light Steve works by, but his mouths drift across his soft folds. Some are slack and snoring, others champing in his sleep.
Finally, when Steve’s eyes are starting to itch and his shoulders cramp up, he calls the piece finished, and signs his name in the bottom corner.
He packs away his paints, hefting Bucky onto his shoulder while he takes the brushes to the kitchen. He dumps them in a glass of water to deal with tomorrow and washes his hands before stumbling to bed.
Bucky grumbles when Steve lays him out over the covers, a dozen mouths muttering his name in a sleepy chorus. Steve shushes him and gets undressed, curling up on the bed and letting Bucky slide over him, still half asleep. Steve pushes his fingers into the soft, chestnut mass of him, lips grazing the inside of his wrist.
“We should go to the aquarium,” Steve says as a corner of blanket works its way down the back of his underwear, plastering against the swell of his ass. “Read all the little plaques, you can tell me how much they’ve got wrong.”
Bucky lets out a throaty chuckle, which is impressive considering he’s barely three dimensional, and wraps a little more tightly around Steve, constricting and releasing in a full-body hug.
“Siphonophores,” he mutters obliquely, then fall asleep.
Bucky is already up when Steve wakes. He stumbles into the kitchen, bleary-eyed and scrubbing his hand through his hair, and fumbles for the cup of coffee Bucky hands to him.
He mumbles incoherently and gives Bucky a kiss, morning breath be damned. Bucky scratches his fingers through the dark blond stubble under Steve’s chin, rasping back and forth as he swallows his coffee.
“Yes, fine, I’ll shave in a minute.”
“Prickly creature,” Bucky kisses him on the cheek. “Squashy sea urchin.”
“Hey, less of the squashy!” Steve chuckles, and steps out of Bucky’s reach. The words knock something from the back of his mind to the front.
“The aquarium,” Steve says between gulps of coffee. “Still wanna go?”
Bucky tips his head to one side. “Why?”
“Because it would be nice,” Steve shrugs. “I’ve got an idea for a piece and I want to take a closer look at some anemones.”
Bucky fetches his cup of green tea from where he’s left it on the counter. “I could take you to see the-”
“No Shoggoths,” Steve cuts in.
Bucky looks wounded, and Steve stumbles over himself in an attempt at reassurance.
“I like them, I really do! And it’s great what they’ve been doing, more power to them, Y’know? Long may they crush the old things into… into…” He remembers the gathered masses, forming and reforming as they sang him into their kind. His blood had spoken to them, Bucky had said, bloodbourne of their fidus achates. Steve just hoped he wouldn’t get crushed in their enthusiasm.
“Crunchy ichor?” Bucky offers, when Steve has been silent for too long.
“Yes!” Steve nods. “Like at the reunion in Argo Navis? The welcoming ceremony when they stomped on those… what were they, gourds?”
Bucky grins suddenly, displaying rows of sharp teeth. “Yes.”
“That was fun. It was, I promise,” Steve insists. “But I was thinking of going somewhere I could take my sketchbook, you see? Do some studies.”
Bucky pokes out his lower lip, and Steve tamps down on the urge to kiss him.
“Hmm. That would not go down well,” Bucky concedes. He taps at his jutting lip, and Steve could swear Bucky was taunting him. “As you wish.”
Steve grabs a slice of toast before he showers and shaves, and tools about the apartment getting his things together. Bucky follows him around curiously as he picks out which sketchbook to take and which pencils, picking up the discarded copics and charcoals.
“Why not take them all?” he asks, snagging a black sharpie and licking the tip.
Steve pointedly twists the pen out of his grip, leaving a thin streak of black across his lip, and puts the cap back on. Bucky pokes out his tongue and slowly licks at the mark on his lip, sliding his broad, pink tongue back and forth, the raised discs that pit the surface catching and releasing as they drag along his lip.
It’s far too distracting, and Steve has to look away. Damnit.
“No room in the bag,” he explains, adding a handful of coloured markers and a spare pad in case Bucky wants to draw too.
“Three dimensions,” Bucky sniffs. “Primitive.”
“You love me primitive,” Steve says, planting a wet, noisy kiss on his cheek.
Bucky rubs his cheek against Steve’s mouth, his smooth skin cool and slightly damp to the touch.
“C’mon,” Steve withdraws, smiling as Bucky lets out a low grumble. “We’ll take the subway.”
Bucky snorts, and grabs Steve’s bag, looping the strap over his shoulder before pulling him close again. “No subway.”
“What’s wrong with the subway?” Steve links his fingers together at the base of Bucky’s spine. “You love the subway, you say it smells like Yba’sokug’s water closet, but without the conjunctivitis. And the less I know about that, the better.”
That gets a huff of amusement, and Bucky tugs Steve down for a kiss, sharp teeth scratching at his lips.
Steve should make some token effort to cut things short, remind Bucky that they have plans for the day. Plans that aren’t lazy sex on the couch while the cats hide in the bathtub and yowl their indignation.
But Bucky is warm and pliant against him, and not fretting about ecological disasters or subspace anomalies threatening the earth for once. Steve opens up, his mouth filling with the rich, metallic tang of green tea and seaweed as Bucky kisses him, slow and unceasing like the pull of tides across the sea. Steve follows where he leads, twisted and spun like flotsam caught in the current, and the world shifts sideways.
Bright sparks, colours that he could never hope to recreate on paper, snap and flare at the edge of Steve’s vision. He screws his eyes shut, the world pitching and yawning beneath his feet, there and not there and there again.
The distant sounds of traffic and sirens on the street outside the apartment are subsumed by a low, ceaseless roar, rising and falling. There is a rattle clatter drag of water through stones beneath him, and the high shriek of gulls overhead.
When Bucky gives him last, light kisses across his cheek and jaw, and Steve is certain that it is solid stone under his feet and not the apartment floor, he opens his eyes.
A strong wind, brisk and salt-edged, whips at Bucky’s hair and blusters through Steve’s thin jacket, chilling him to the bone. He looks around and sees a rocky coastline, waves crashing against the shore.
They are standing a little way in from the retreating tide, on solid stone rather than sand and pebbles, but Steve doesn’t move for a minute, waiting until his mind and body are in agreement before he can risk taking a step without losing his breakfast. Besides, it’s no hardship to stay where he is for the moment, his hands still loosely linked around Bucky’s waist, head resting on Steve’s shoulder as he looks out to sea.
“Where are we?” Steve asks.
Bucky hums, trailing his fingers along Steve’s ribs. “An outer spiral arm of a galaxy of no great import, though it has… significant sentimental value.”
“I’m gonna need you to be more specific,” Steve points out.
“The Pacific coastline.”
“Oh,” Steve murmurs. “I’ve never seen the Pacific before.”
It’s nothing like Rockaway Beach. The water is a deeper shade of blue, crested white at the tips of each wave, and tossing up foam as it laps around the grey rocks that jut up beyond the shore. Sea birds gather there, stretching their wings in the sun and calling back and forth to one another.
“Are you going to be sick?” Bucky asks absently.
“No,” Steve says hastily. “C’mon, Buck that was one time.”
Bucky chuckles, a low rasping hh-hh-hh deep in his chest, and Steve pokes his side. “Enough of that, Mutley.”
Bucky chuckles some more, his eyes sparkling like sunlight on water. He takes Steve by the hand and leads him across the slippery, seaweed strewn rocks to a beach further along the shore, the pale sand almost white against the blue of the ocean.
Up ahead, past the white sand and the rocks that jut up from the sea like crooked teeth, there are buildings clustered around a large pool. As they get closer Steve starts to notice how large the complex is, how there are viewing platforms arranged around the pool and posters advertising events and feeding times.
“Is this an aquarium?” Steve asks as Bucky leads him to the entrance.
Bucky nods, biting his lip and shoving his hands in his pockets. “You wanted anemones, did you not? There are also siphonophores, you will like them. And predatory tunicate, they are…” He thinks for a moment before holding up his hand and making a beak, clapping his fingers open and closed like he was working a sock puppet. “Little muppet predators. Nom nom.” He opens and closes his hand again.
“And I suppose they have octopus in there too?” Steve grins.
“Perhaps.” Bucky shrugs. “Does it please you?”
“Yeah,” Steve reaches out and laces their fingers together. “You did good.”
That spurs Bucky into action, pulling Steve to the ticket office. He pays for their entrance with a handful of crumpled notes that the cashier patiently smooths out before tucking into her till, and hands them a copy each of the map.
It’s early enough in the day that the aquarium isn’t too busy, with a scant number of people milling around the main entrance and looking at the displays. Steve takes his bag from Bucky, checking that his sketchbooks and pens survived the journey and are still recognisably paper and ink, before slipping his map into the front pocket and pulling the bag onto his shoulder.
They wander through the main auditorium, past the fiberglass whales suspended over the displays, and peer into the tanks filled with strings of kelp.
Steve hesitates at the octopus exhibit, giving Bucky a wary look. He doesn’t take much of an interest, sniffing haughtily as he passes. He does stop at one tank, occupied by a large, red-skinned octopus.
It unsuckers itself from the side of the tank, its skin turning a mottled white, and Bucky’s own skin pales and darkens in ripples and waves in response. Steve is tempted to put it down to the diffused light from the tanks, but knows better. He leaves Bucky to his conversation and pulls out his sketchbook.
There is a tank of spiny pink urchins with a bench in front of it, and Steve sits down to make a few sketches of them, before moving on to a prickly sea cucumber in the next tank. He glances over at Bucky now and then, staring at the octopus as it waves a tentacle back and forth. His eyes are iridescent, bright points of light in the muted, sea-green light of the tanks. Mottled patches of wine-dark colours dance across his arms, his features, his hands, and Steve turns to a fresh page in his book, the exhibits momentarily forgotten, and starts sketching his husband.
The impromptu conference finally comes to a close when Bucky shakes himself off, his eyes returning to their customary blue. The octopus returns to its position on the far side of the tank, its body a light, respectful brown. Steve has the basis of a portrait down, of Bucky gesturing to an attentive octopus, his fingers crooked, a smile touching his lips. Steve closes his book, and lets Bucky take him by the hand, faint echoes of colours still moving across his skin as they go in search of anemones.
“Good talk?” Steve asks.
“Hmm,” Bucky offers. “She does not care for the food here. Prefers urchin.”
Steve looks back at the tanks. There hadn’t been many spiny urchins, despite the variety the display had promised were in there. “You mean she…” he turns back to Bucky. “Is she breaking out of her tank and.” He mimes eating, and Bucky lets out a soft chuckle.
“I like her.”
They reach a number of smaller tanks filled with anemone and small, brightly coloured fish. Steve finds a good spot to sit with his sketchbook in front of the largest tank, opens his book to a fresh page and starts sketching.
He doesn’t have a clear idea for the painting yet, but as he moves his pencil across the page, it starts to come to him. A large canvas, perhaps, with a close detail of an anemone against a dark, maybe black background. Something bold and a little disconcerting.
There is something shoggoth about the creatures, in the shape of their siphonoglyphs and the swaying of their acrohagi. Deadly creatures that let sunshine coloured fish swim among them in peaceful cohabitation.
Bucky wanders around the exhibit, pausing occasionally to read the displays and list their inaccuracies. The fish are small and darting, too meagre to raise any epicurean interest in him and too simple to engage in conversation. Steve watches out of the corner of his eye as Bucky starts prodding at the tanks, listless and bored.
“Come sit with me?” he offers. “You could do some drawing.”
Bucky puffs out his cheeks, pursing his lips before letting the air out in a high whistle that startles the tiny, rainbow coloured shrimp in the tank closest to him.
“Fish,” he announces grimly. “Are boring.”
“Fish are pretty.” Steve turns to a fresh page, and Bucky lets out an impatient groan.
“Glitter.” Bucky scowls as Steve determinedly starts working on a new sketch. “Little dancing motes, specks of light without substance.”
“And there’s joy to be had in watching specks of light dancing,” Steve reminds him. “There’s a place for glitter, and all other things beside.”
“Hmpf.” Bucky walks over to Steve, and sits on the floor next to him.
Steve pauses his work to scratch his pencil through Bucky’s hair, twirling it until an inky strand is wound around its length.
“Well, if you don’t want to look at fish, what do you want to see?”
“Jellyfish,” Bucky answers immediately.
Steve raises an eyebrow, and carefully unwinds his pencil again. “Okay, go see the jellyfish, and I’ll catch up with you when I’m done here.”
He has barely got the words out before Bucky is on his feet again, bending down to give Steve a hard, hurried kiss on the cheek before scuttling off.
Aware of the time, and the kind of trouble Bucky can get into when left bored and unsupervised, Steve finishes his sketch and packs his book away, before taking a walk around the displays. He takes a dozen or so photos of the anemones at different angles with his phone, before checking his map and going up the stairs to where the tanks of jellyfish are kept.
It doesn’t take long to find Bucky, hunched in front of one of the displays, but Steve doesn’t walk over to join him right away.
There is a boy, maybe seven or eight, his hands and face pressed against the glass, listening in rapt attention as Bucky talks softly to him. The boy follows the trail of Bucky’s finger as he traces the outline of a jellyfish floating towards them, an oddly boxy looking creature with shimmering lines of colour in geometric formations across its surface.
The aquarium PA system plays a loop of classical music, interspersed with audio files on jellyfish anatomy and distribution, and Steve moves closer until he can feel the bass rumble of Bucky’s voice through the soles of his shoes, through the rattle of his breastbone.
“They are not jellyfish. They are ctenophores.”
“Ten-oh-fours?” The boy asks. “And they’re… aliens.”
“In a manner of speaking.” Bucky shrugs. “They are backwash from the severing of the Nine Realms. They are not from space, they are from…” He frowns. “If you were in your bed and took two steps down where would you be?”
“I’d be under the floorboards.” The kid stares as one of the creatures opens its maw in an unhinging yawn. “I’d be, like, in the floorboards. Which is impossible.”
“Mmm?” Bucky looks unconvinced.
“Impossible, see?” The kid presses his hand firmly against the glass. “It’s solid, nothing can get through that.”
“Huh.” Bucky touches the glass. “If you say so.”
They fall into a contented silence, watching as a smaller ctenophore drifts a little too close to the wide open maw. Steve sees Bucky glance at the kid, and twitch his fingers. The maw snaps shut a little too soon, and the lucky creature drifts away again.
“Woah, that was close! Big guy nearly got you!” the kid exclaims before turning to Bucky. “Do they eat each other?”
“Yes,” Bucky nods. “Most things do.”
The filtration system in the tank cycles the water around continuously, pulling the creatures within in lazy circles.
“I like coming here,” the kid says, watching the shimmering not-jellyfish pass by. “I look at all these little things floating around and it makes me feel all, like, peaceful. Not sleepy-peaceful like watching TV, but-”
“Serenity,” Bucky offers.
“Yeah?” The kid agrees. “Serenity,” he repeats, memorising the shape of the word. “Why?”
“You were born of the sea, where the ocean meets the shore.” Bucky rubs a smear on the glass with his cuff. “Water remembers, the blood in your veins, in every cell and synapse. And the sea calls her children home.”
“Peter!” A woman’s voice shouts across the exhibit.
Bucky and the kid look up as a frantic looking woman, her hair pulled into a ponytail, comes hurrying over.
“Christ, Peter, you scared the-” She catches herself, and reaches out to the boy. “What did I tell you about running off?”
“Uh. Don’t?” the boy says weakly, and gets a stern look for his honesty.
The woman turns to Bucky and puts the hand not gripping her charge to her chest. “I’m sorry if he’s been bothering-”
“Not at all,” Bucky smiles, hiding his teeth.
The woman thanks him and drags the kid with her into the crowd, until his high voice talking excitedly about cannibal aliens is the last thing to vanish.
Bucky moves to the next tank, and Steve goes over to join him.
“You’re good with kids.” Steve murmurs, the tips of his fingers working their way to Bucky’s waiting hand.
There is no surprise in Steve’s tone, no great revelation. Bucky is always good with children. Whenever they go walking in the park or around a gallery, it doesn’t take long before he has a few kids trailing after him like ducklings. They love his odd, emphatic way of speaking and his kaleidoscope eyes, asking in hushed voices if he can make them pink, or green, or orange, and squealing with delight when he obliges.
Older kids stare openly at Bucky, and whisper loudly about the way he talks or the clothes he wears, but they soon scatter when Steve stops and glares at them.
They are standing in front of a tank full of jellyfish, their plate shaped caps pulsating as they drag their long tendrils through the water. Bucky watches as they float past, humming absently, acknowledging Steve’s words but offering no response.
Steve looks around the exhibit, and sees a couple of girls dressed head to toe in pink, peering around the side of another display and watching as Bucky draws a finger along the glass, and the jellyfish in the tank trail after it.
“Have you ever thought about it?” Steve asks as the girls giggle and run off. “Having kids?”
“When we spawned my kin and I fought for dominance, devouring the weakest. Alliances were formed and reformed as they turned on each other, traitorous and scheming, until none remained.” Bucky shrugs. “And you do not want any, so why would I ask?”
“Bucky, just because you think I don’t want something it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell me you do.” Steve clasps his hand tightly around his husband’s, bringing it up to his mouth so he can kiss his knuckles one by one. “It’s not that I don’t want.” Bucky rubs the backs of his fingers against Steve’s cheek, cool and rough with pits and scars. “I just… I like men, you know? So it never seemed like an option.”
“I could fill you with my spawn, until your belly was fat and round,” Bucky muses, his voice a low rumble. “And our progeny would devour you from within, until you were a shred of skin and bloodied bones upon the shore.”
“Oh.” Steve’s stomach cramps at the thought. He rubs at his navel, trying to will the phantom ache away. “That sounds like a lot of kids.”
“Thousands,” Bucky agrees. “They would take to the sea, to be swallowed up by hungry fish. The ones that survived would set upon each other, and wage their little wars until only the smallest survived, hidden in the sand as the blood of its own blood washed away on the tide.”
Steve touches his lips to Bucky’s fingers, offering what comfort he can. If the press of his skin could wear away scar tissue, he would kiss Bucky a thousand times.
“That sounds really bad,” Steve whispers against Bucky’s knuckles. “For the ecosystem.”
“What would that matter, if you were dead?” Bucky’s mouth pulls down. “What would any of it matter if you were not here?”
“Hey, hey,” Steve pulls Bucky into his arms, wrapping around him as he seems to diminish, tucking his head under Steve’s chin and snuffling miserably. “It’s okay, Buck. No one’s getting eaten alive by their own children here, okay?”
Bucky sniffs, wiping his nose on Steve’s shirt, his hands tight around his waist. “Do you promise?”
“I promise,” Steve kisses the top of his head. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Bucky gives a last, wet sniff, and nods. “Can we see the Nautilus?”
Steve nods, chafing his hand up and down Bucky’s spine. “Sure, tell me about the Nautilus.”
The deep sea life exhibit is back downstairs, and Bucky keeps a tight grip on Steve’s hand as they weave through the crowds to get there, like he might spontaneously combust or have some sort of aneurysm. Again.
The display is set up in a closed off area, the only lighting from UV strips placed at regular intervals along the walls and floors. The PA system plays Sant-Saëns Aquarium a little too loudly as a few people wander around, peering into the dark tanks before leaving off in search of bigger, brighter animals.
They stop in front of the siphonophore tank, Bucky watching the display while Steve wait for his eyes to adjust to the dark. A faint wisp of light coalesces before him, a shimmering strand of filaments, like the strands of silver tinsel Steve used to cover the apartment with as a kid every Christmas.
“Friend or foe?” Steve asks, his mouth twitching up.
“Friend,” Bucky answers without hesitation. “They are not a single organism, but a colony of hundreds, all coexisting. They are one mind, one purpose. Friend.”
They move on to the next display, but try as he might Steve can only just make out the faint blue sparks of whatever is there, and moves on to the Nautilus.
He watches the short film about the breeding program at the aquarium, and the difficulties in hatching and raising Nautilus. On screen a tiny egg ruptures, and a perfect miniature nautilus swims out.
“I was thinking…” Steve’s mouth starts working before his brain is fully engaged. “Maybe one or two?”
Bucky makes an enquiring noise, crouched down on the floor in front of the Nautilus tank. One of the creatures inside wobbles towards him, its spiral body bobbing in the depth like a boiled candy.
“Kids,” Steve clarifies. “One or two. That we didn’t send off to sea to eat kraken and sink ships.” He shoves his hands in his pockets, putting his weight onto his heels. “I mean if we ever-”
“No,” Bucky stands up abruptly, startling the Nautilus, which wobbles away. “One isn’t enough. One is not viable. What if it gets sick. What if it dies?!”
“Thousands is too many, Buck,” Steve reminds him.
“But you are so fragile! You have no exoskeleton, or defence mechanism. Where are your venomous barbs? Your camouflage? And yes, you have teeth, but not enough of them, and they’re far too blunt and easily damaged.”
“You are weak. They would perish, through sickness, or misfortune.” He grabs the front of Steve’s shirt, fingers warping the soft cotton. “There is bacteria in the air a micron long that would kill them in a second.”
“We’re not weak.” Steve gently places his hand over Bucky’s wrist. “We’ve managed this far, right?”
Bucky fixes him with a baleful glare. “Your bodies shut down at less than thirty degrees celsius. They also shut down at over forty degrees. You cannot breathe underwater, your skin is not impervious to fire or acid or alkaline, you-”
“Shh,” Steve murmurs, lifting his hand and cradling Bucky’s cheek. In the tank several Nautilus bump helpfully against the glass. “It’s okay.”
“You are far too vulnerable,” Bucky tucks his face to Steve’s hand.
“Good thing I got you, right?” Steve smiles.
Bucky rumbles, low in his throat. “You have.”
“And you got me too,” Steve adds.
Bucky nods, grudgingly. “I have.”
“Then we’re gonna be okay.”
Bucky presses his mouth to the tip of Steve’s thumb, parting his lips and scraping his teeth against the rough pad. He hooks his fingers over Steve’s belt and pulls, reeling him in until they are pressed together from hip to shoulder. Steve curves his hand against the sharp line of Bucky jaw as they trade slow, sweet kisses while the Nautilus dip and bob in the tank beside them.
They take their time walking around the rest of the aquarium, keeping close together, their shoulders bumping companionably. Steve pauses to take reference pictures on his phone, but mostly they watch the otters splashing about, and the sea turtles swimming in ponderous circuits.
At least until they reach the Touch Tank.
The Touch Tank is part of a temporary exhibition, a wide, shallow tank, about two feet deep, filled with pale sand and smooth, flat rocks. In the shallow, green tinted water are a dozen rays and a pair of sharks. Several families are gathered around it, reaching out as the rays swim past.
“Hey, look.” Steve walks over to read the sign, and doesn’t notice Bucky slip away. “Says here you can pet them.”
There is a splash, and a squeal of delight from the children. Steve closes his eyes for a moment, before girding himself and following the sounds of hysteria.
Bucky has jumped over the side of the tank, and is wading through the shallows towards the middle of the tank. The adults shepherding their kids watch in alarm, while their children shriek and laugh, pointing as Bucky sits down on a flat rock and makes himself comfortable. But it’s the fish that make everyone stop and stare.
The rays and sharks thrash and wheel around Bucky, raising themselves up out of the water, their snouts turned towards him. Bucky laughs, deep and booming, the sound echoing around the room and reverberating off the walls, as they try to flop into his lap like a litter of excitable, albeit flat, puppies.
Bucky reaches down to stroke them, rubbing his hands along their smooth bodies as they pitch and flap, the sharks winding between his submerged legs like cats.
He sings to them, it’s the only way that Steve can describe it, an oddly pitched, warbling melody that thrums across the water, chasing the echoes of his laughter. For a few, glorious moments he has the audience entranced, the people listening intently as the rays dance with the song. Steve grips the edge of the tank, watching with a smile as Bucky sings, his head thrown back and his eyes closed, and the rays click and chirp along.
The song ends and the room falls silent but for the splash and click of happy fish as Bucky lavishes attention on them, scrubbing his knuckles along their undersides and across their broad bodies.
Several aquarium staff members come rushing into the room, red faced and panicking. A couple of them hover around the edge of the tank, and start making motions to climb in and drag Bucky out, and Steve does his best to intervene for their sakes.
“Buck!” he calls across the churning water, slapping the side of the tank to get his attention. “Time to go.”
Steve takes a look at the chaos around him; aquarium staff and security guards yelling at Bucky to get out of the tank, families taking pictures and remarking on what’s happening, and Bucky chuckling as the rays clamber over him. He should be annoyed, he should at least be worried that his art supplies are getting soaked or that they’re about to get arrested. But there is a lightness in his chest, and bursts of warmth every time Bucky laughs.
“Excuse me sir?” one of the staff asks him. “Is this man with you?”
He nods and offers apologies, then calls to Bucky again. “C’mon Buck, we can walk out or get thrown out!”
Bucky gets up from his rock, working his way slowly back to the edge of the tank, rays crowding around him and slowing him down. He takes Steve’s offered hand and steps out, sending a wash of water out of the tank with him as rays and sharks leap into the air, trying to follow him.
The staff start really panicking, scooping up the ones that have tumbled out of the water and gently placing them back in, only to have them try and clamber out again.
Bucky pats at the water, making soothing little sounds, air rushing over his teeth, until the rays settle under his hands.
“Listen, pal.” Another staff member splashes through the puddles left on the exhibit floor towards them, and Steve instinctively puts himself between him and Bucky.
Steve is very tall and very broad, and the man sags a little. And drips a little for good measure. “I don’t know what the deal is with you two, but take it outside, alright? Don’t make me call the police.”
“Not a problem,” Steve promises.
He does feel a little guilty for causing so much fuss, but then Bucky comes up behind him and wraps an arm around his waist. Tank water soaks into the back of Steve’s shirt as Bucky’s braces a hand against his shoulder, as if bracing him for impact.
Steve bites back a laugh, and does his best to look contrite, though it’s easier said than done with the squealing children and the dancing rays behind him.
“We’ll get out of your hair, sir.” He smiles at his husband. “Won’t we Bucky?”
Bucky presses an answering grin to his shoulder, and Steve has just enough time to feel sorry for the guy who’ll have to explain everything to his manager, before the world tilts and spins, and he’s pulled sideways.
Chapter 2: I Saw The Apples Hanging Like Moments In The Orchard
Steve reaches up to the cloud, and it flurries towards him, in roiling tumbling washes of charcoal and grey, flowing down his arms and into his embrace.
For a few seconds it’s like holding fog, damp and chill and insubstantial. Then Bucky lets out a chill breath of air against Steve’s cheek, and he is solid again.
Here be smut folks!
It’s a half hour before the restaurant opens for lunch, but Steve can see Luis through the window, pressing his face to the scant inch of space between the posters advertising set menus and flyers for local open mic nights. Luis is busily prepping his counter for service, trays of ice laid with raw fish artfully arranged at his elbows as he slices and dices.
Steve taps lightly on the glass, and Luis looks up from his vegetables with a grin. He puts down his knife and wipes his hands before coming round to unlock the door.
“Hey, Stevie,” Luis steps back and waves Steve in, before closing and locking the door before anyone else tries to come in. “My main man, how you doing? How’s that fella of yours?”
“Good.” Steve adjusts the strap of his messenger bag at his shoulder. “He’s good.”
“You send him my regards an’ all that, right?” Luis claps his hands together. “I still owe him, like a dozen favours for that business with the landlord. I don’t know what your boy said to him, but I ain’t never seen a grown man cry so hard.”
“Well, he was out of order.” Steve has no sympathy for landlords hiking rent without notice, and even less for one who’d try and put Luis out of business. Bucky had been similarly unimpressed. He has a soft spot for Luis, which Steve suspects is more to do with Luis feeding him umi and green tea on a weekly basis rather than altruism. And Luis doesn’t even blink at the sight of Bucky devouring sea urchins, long black spines and all, so Steve has a soft spot for him too.
Luis gestures to his counter. “You mind if we talk over there? I gotta get my shit set up for the lunch crowd, and I’m telling you brah, guys in suits doing their ‘Business Lunch’ bullshit? They don’t wait on Luis.”
“Sure, that’s fine.” Steve follows Luis to his counter, taking one of the high stools arranged in front of it while Luis goes around the back and washes his hands.
“You want some tea?” Luis offers. “Or we got that lemonade in the funky-assed bottle.”
“I’m good, thanks.”
“C’mon, Stevie, have a drink. I’ll keep asking until you say yes, you know I will.”
Luis reaches for the refrigerator under the counter and pulls out a mangled-looking glass bottle of lemonade. The upper half of the bottle looks warped and distorted, like it had been gripped too tightly while the glass was still molten.
“Ramune,” Luis says proudly. “This freaky business is a Codd-neck, though it don’t look like no cod I ever seen.”
Steve studies the bottle closely while Luis’ smile widens. “Okay, I give up. How does it work?”
Luis lets out a triumphant squeak, and unwraps the cap. He presses the plastic attachment down, pushing the marble into the soda with a brief burst of foam, and pushes the bottle across the counter.
“Whoops, it’s open. You gotta drink it now.”
Steve huffs, but takes a sip. It’s teeth-achingly sweet with a sharp bite of lemon, and exactly the kind of thing Bucky would like. The bottle alone would fascinate him, and Steve tips it from side to side, watching the marble rolling back and forth within.
Luis’ face scrunches up with pride. “Figured your guy would be into that kinda thing, y’know?”
“Yeah,” Steve nods and takes another sip.
He catches sight of the fish tank behind Luis. Instead of the live octopus that have previously been in there, jumpy, nervous creatures that did their best impersonations of driftwood when Bucky was around, it contains several coppery coloured koi carp. “Oh. You changed the…”
Steve points to the tank, and Luis looks over his shoulder, following the line of Steve’s finger.
“Aww yeah, man! Ain’t they the coolest?” Luis looks at them proudly. “Chagoi carp, smart little dudes, the bronzing on their scales just freaking kills me, these guys are sublime.”
He turns back to his prep, neatly slicing carrot into thin ribbons.
“You don’t actually…” Steve shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “You don’t eat them, do you?”
It feels oddly hypocritical of him to ask, especially with the kinds of things Bucky has no qualms eating, his tastes ranging from cockles in their shells and hot cheetos to watercolour pans and tobacco ash. Steve is hardly in a place to judge.
“Whaaat?!” Luis widens his eyes. “Nuh-uh, these guys are my little fish bros. No eatin’ of my little fish bros.” He juliennes his carrot slices and lifts them neatly into one of the dishes laid out on the counter in front of him. “Is that gonna be a problem? I mean for the anniversary thing? ‘Cause if it’s a thing for your old man I can get one in special-”
“No, no.” Steve shakes his head. “That won’t be necessary.”
Luis gives him a dubious look. “Fo’ sure? It’s no biggie, and I got a guy who knows a guy who’s getting in some green urchins for ya. I ain’t never tasted ‘em myself, but I figure shorter spines, that’s gotta be variety at least?”
“Yeah, for sure.” Steve flushes. “He’s not. It was.” It wasn’t an octopus it just looked like one. He pauses, takes a breath, and tries again. “It was a territorial dispute.”
“Well, I seen my share of them,” Luis says easily, and goes back to slicing carrots.
Steve watches the fish in the tank darting back and forth, their scales flashing, and thinks back to walking around the aquarium. “Is it hard to set up? The tank, I mean.”
“Nah,” Luis stacks up his carrots slices against the side of his knife. “You can get a kit from the pet store. Tank, filter, heater, all the shit you need to keep your boys happy. You just plug it all in, throw in some dechlorinated water, maybe a bit of sand and you good to go.”
Steve hums thoughtfully, and sips at his soda.
“And we’re still on for the sixth?”
“Got your reservation right here in the book.” Luis points his knife to a shelf behind him where a book lies open. “Seven-thirty.” He gives Steve a warm, fond smile. “You nervous? First anniversary is a big deal, y’know?”
“A little,” Steve admits, tucking his hands under his arms. “I bet when we first came in here you thought it’d never last.”
“Dude, you were smitten.” Luis scrapes up another pile of carrots. “And the way Bucky looks at you? Like you’re the moon and the stars.”
Steve stops off at a bodega on the way back to the apartment to pick up a few things, grabbing spaghetti and sardines and a carton of orange juice and dumping it on the counter. He prods the guy dozing at the register a couple of time until he wakes up with a start.
“Mmblargh!” The guy yelps, and when he sees that it’s only Steve he slumps down again. “Jeez, Rogers.”
“Hey, Clint.” Steve pushes money across the counter. “Still working those night shifts?”
“Night shifts, day shifts, all the shifts. Fuck my life,” Clint grouses, and rings up the total. He winces when the register springs open, and picks out Steve’s change one coin at a time. “Here ya go.”
He drops the money into Steve’s waiting hand and snorts as Steve takes it and pulls a folded canvas bag out of his jacket pocket. “Y’know we got bags, right?”
“Plastic.” Steve shakes the bag open and drops his items in it one by one. “You know eight million tons of plastic get swept into the world’s oceans every year?”
“Okay, fine! Use your damn bag.” Clint glances up at a figure in the doorway behind him. “Oh.”
Steve watches Clint turn pale. “You okay?”
Clint scrubs his hand across his face. Sweat is beading on his forehead, soaking into his threadbare t-shirt. His teeth champ and chatter, and he scrubs his hand back and forth, back and forth, until his skin starts to turn red.
“Easy.” Steve reaches out and grasps Clint’s hand. He doesn’t turn around, doesn’t even flick his gaze up to the convex mirror high up behind the counter.
There is movement at the edge of Steve’s vision, a crawling, creeping abomination flickering in and out of reality. Something not human, something that does not belong here, vast and horrifying. The shape of it distorts everything around it, warping the world and twisting it into new, terrible forms.
Water. If something comes for you, find water.
Clint lets out a low whine, and Steve screws his eyes shut before turning his head to the side.
“About two blocks up there’s a courtyard,” he says he thinks he screams. He can feel the edges of his mind unspooling. “Fountain. There. Wait.”
The horror, the crawling chaos, It, snorts derisively. “Mammals.” And is gone.
Steve breathes, fast and shallow, and lets go of Clint’s hand. There are long finger shaped bruises on Clint’s wrist.
“Woah.” Clint shakes his head like a dog. He touches his forehead, where the skin is starting to peel, and grimaces. “Ow. Fuck.”
“You okay?” Steve asks, his teeth rattling a little on the words.
“Yeah. Just.” Clint sits up again, rubbing absently at his wrists. “Fucking flashbacks, y’know?”
Steve nods, twisting the handle of his bag around his fingers. If all else fails he’ll smack the crawling chaos around the mandibles with a tin of sardines. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Clint slumps back in his seat. “Later, man.”
Steve watches Clint closely, checking for signs of bleeding in his ears or nose. When there is none, and the man seems to be dozing off again, Steve gives a firm nod. “Yeah. See you later.”
He pauses in the doorway, looking left and right before walking up the street. The people around him go about their business. No one screams, or cries, or claws at their faces.
Steve thinks about the colour wheel; red followed by orange followed by yellow. He thinks about water, the boiling point and the freezing point. Solid, immutable logics.
There is a courtyard and in the courtyard there is a fountain and by the fountain there is a monster.
Steve shuts his eyes as fog creeps around the edge of his vision, and works his jaw before speaking.
“The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the… of the…” Tentacles. Thick and muscular in ridged, desaturated shades of sepia and ochre. “...of the… squares…” A torso, broad and hairless, and where there should be arms and legs there are tapering limbs, whipping back and forth. Where there should be a head there is a tentacle, slit with a great, screaming maw. “...Of the squares on the opposite sides of a right triangle.” Steve presses the heels of his hands against his eyes, red and white splotches burst on the inside of his eyelids.
“Is it?” A baffled voice asks and there is a loud, wet pop.
Steve lowers his hands a little and peeks through his fingers. His canvas bag is still swinging from where the handle is looped around his fingers, and he takes an odd kind of pride in that.
The monster is bipedal, at least, and wearing a black leather overcoat that hides the writhing mass of its limbs. It has even tucked most of its head tentacle down the back of its collar. There is an eyepatch over most of its eyes.
“Ny?” Steve lowers his hands completely.
“Oh, you are Steve. The last couple I tried kind of. Combusted.” Nyarlathotep waves a limb in the air. “Y’all look the same.”
He looks almost human, if you don’t look too closely. His skin is sepia, as though smeared with wood ash.
“Uh. Ny?” Steve doesn’t relax, exactly. Nyarlathotep is technically family, but that doesn’t mean he’s safe. “Grey isn’t a common colour for us. If you’re, y’know, trying to blend in.”
Ny makes a low ‘Mmm-hmm’ sound, and his skin darkens.
“Much better.” Steve aims for a smile, but his instincts war with his manners and he bares his teeth instead. “Please leave now.”
“Where’s the boy?”
“Bucky’s not here.” Steve replies. “Go away.”
“Is that any way to talk to your uncle?” Ny asks. “I’m doing you a favour.”
“Yes.” Steve says flatly. “Go away before I start singing.”
Ny’s skin turns ashy around the edges. “Now now, there’s no need for that.”
Steve clears his throat. “Jeremiah was a bullfrog…”
Ny recoils, and Steve shuts his mouth, glaring as Ny takes a moment to straighten his overcoat. “Fine. Tell your husband Cyäegha is pissed.”
Steve snorts. “She’s always pissed.”
“Yeah,” Ny shrugs. “But she’s in my business bitching about some crackerassed earthbound cult, call themselves Hydra or something. They been trying to summon her to wreak havoc on humanity. Which she ain’t.” He waves a tentacle in Steve’s direction. “Thanks to you no one wants to set foot on this accursed plane.”
“We had a deal,” Ny snaps. “We stay out of your business, you stay out of ours. And folks are In My Business.”
Ny folds several limbs across his chest, the tips flicking irritably, the oozing slash of his mouth curling down.
Steve scrubs his hand across his face. That’s… a pretty good reason to show up, and so far he’s made no attempt to devour the sun or the colour ochre, so Steve has to give him credit for that. Damnit.
“He said he was going to the Oort Cloud. He took the vacuum cleaner.” Steve sighs. “I don’t think he understands it’s not actually for cleaning-”
Ny scowls with his one dark eye.
When he’s sure that Nyarlathotep has really gone, Steve walks on shaking legs to Prospect Park. It’s a half hour in the wrong direction, but still he walks, stumbling a little, the ground not quite solid beneath him.
It’s impossible to avoid the crowds, not in Brooklyn in late June, but he keeps one hand out to the side, his fingers brushing against brick wall and plasterboard and metal shutters. The sensation of the city against his skin soothes him, grounds him, and he keeps moving until the concrete under his feet becomes grass.
Motion becomes easier, his body remembering the pull of gravity and the turn of the sun. His lungs fill with air, the sour tang of exhaust fumes and sweat and yellowing, sunburned grass, and Steve breathes it in deeply. He walks down to the lake, and he sits down heavily at the water’s edge. The grass is warm and coarse, the brittle tips prickle at his skin, the compacted dirt dry and cracking in the midsummer sun.
The water stretches out before him, sparkling in the sunlight, and Steve wishes, with a painful intensity that makes his heart ache, that Bucky was here with him. He pulls the carton of juice out of his bag and cracks it open. As much as he wants to down the whole damn thing in one go, he sips it slowly, counting to five before taking another mouthful. He’s maybe halfway through the carton when a small, warm body presses up against his hip.
Steve reaches down and feels soft, warm fur. “Hey Dum Dum.”
Dum Dum lets out a high krrr and Steve scoops up the little bundle of fluff, setting him in his lap. Dum Dum purrs, kneading Steve’s thigh with his paws, claws prickling through his pants like little thistles.
“I’m okay,” Steve promises, stroking Dum Dum’s tiny body. “Tell him I’m okay.”
Dum Dum arches his spine, tail quivering, and settles down into a tight little ball that fits neatly into Steve’s cupped hand.
Steve finishes the rest of his juice, sip by sip, and watches the sunlight play on the water.
It’s still daylight when Steve returns to the apartment with a fresh carton of juice and Dum Dum tucked into the collar of his jacket.
He pulls the cat out of his clothing and places him carefully on the counter, where Dum Dum yawns and stretches before curling up and going back to sleep. Steve rubs his velvety nose, earning a sleepy little prrp and puts the groceries away.
“Bucky?” Steve calls as he stacks the cans of sardines in the cupboard. “You here?”
There is no answer other than an odd, low rumble. Steve puts the empty bag in the cupboard under the sink, and goes in search of the source.
There are no cats stretched out across the windowsill, or on the sunny patches on the floor. Steve looks around the apartment and finds them all clustered in a semi circle in a far corner of the living room, looking up intently at the ceiling.
There is a small, black cloud hovering in the corner, a roiling storm of charcoal grey and midnight. It crackles and rumbles, churning like a drop of ink in foaming water, bright flashes of lightning flickering within its mass.
“Bucky,” Steve murmurs.
There is a crack of thunder, and the room grows darker.
“I’m guessing you saw your uncle?”
The living room lights flicker, making a distressing ffzzzwp before a bulb blows.
“Alright, settle down.” Steve puts his hands on his hips. “No need to get stroppy.”
The cloud swells and disgorges a light rain of small, silvery fish on the living room carpet. The cats yowl in delight and lunge forward, snatching up the still-wriggling fish and swallowing them in two champing, gleeful bites.
“Fine, be like that,” Steve huffs, and gets a crack of lightning for his troubles, the smell of ozone sharp and metallic.
Steve fetches the spare bulbs from the kitchen, and brings out a chair to the living room, putting it under the light. He puts one foot on the seat, checking it’ll hold his weight, and climbs up.
Bucky rumbles as he changes the bulb, and the cats chase the last few shining fish flopping across the carpet before sitting back and waiting for the next shower.
Steve puts the chair back in the kitchen, and fetches his brushes and a jar of clean water. His latest work is set up in the living room by the window, and he sits down to work while there’s still sunlight.
The sun is dipping behind the skyline out the window when Steve finally stops for a break.
He sits back, rubbing absently at his shoulders, and looks at his work. Long fleshy tendrils in electric blue and ice white drift across the canvas, in stark contrast to the black background. Steve works his jaw thoughtfully, tilting his head from side to side. He likes the unsettling nature of the piece, the anemones rendered in disproportionate scale on a large canvas, but it lacks a certain something.
He sighs and starts screwing the caps back on his tubes of paint. He’ll give it a couple of days, and come back to it with fresh eyes.
Bucky is still lurking in the corner, though the rumbling and showers of fish stopped an hour before. The cats have wandered off to find places to sleep off their repasts, and the apartment is quiet and still.
Steve washes his brushes, and scrubs the dried paint off his hands before going over to check on him.
He reaches up to the cloud, and it flurries towards him, in roiling tumbling washes of charcoal and grey, flowing down his arms and into his embrace.
For a few seconds it’s like holding fog, damp and chill and insubstantial. Then Bucky lets out a chill breath of air against Steve’s cheek, and he is solid again. He shivers, his hair damp and curling at the ends, and Steve holds him tighter, arms clamped firmly around his back as Bucky tucks his face into Steve’s neck, breathing in the warm scent of him.
“I should have been here,” Bucky whispers, his lips cold against Steve’s throat.
“It’s okay,” Steve rocks him left and right, swaying gently as he shifts his weight from foot to foot.
“It is not okay.” Bucky’s grip on Steve tightens. “Should have been here.”
“We’re okay,” Steve kisses Bucky’s temple, just below the hairline. “No damage done.”
Bucky smiles, small and proud. “You sang to him.”
Steve snorts. “I did.” He keeps rocking them both from side to side, needing to hold and be held as much as Bucky does. “I guess he’s not a fan. And I forgot the words to ‘Hey Jude’.”
Bucky lets out a soft hh-hh-hh of laughter. “You forgot?”
“I was distracted.”
“You forgot ‘na’.”
“There’s a bit more to the song that just going na na na na,” Steve huffs.
Bucky huffs. “If you say so.”
Little by little, the tension slowly eases from Steve’s shoulders, as the crackle of static under Bucky’s skin dissipates. Bucky’s grip on the back of Steve’s shirt loosens, his hands skimming lightly down his spine. His lips move against Steve’s neck, soft and lingering, raising goosebumps on his skin.
Steve nudges his mouth against Bucky’s forehead, trailing kisses down the side of his face, along the sharp line of his cheekbone, until Bucky sighs, low and sweet, and fits their mouths together.
He darts his tongue between Steve’s parted teeth, dragging the rough underside against his tongue, against the back of his teeth. There is something almost plaintive about his touches, an offering unspoken that Steve could never refuse. He offers nonetheless, and Steve answers in his own silent touches, in the push and play of his lips and his tongue.
“Colours?” Bucky asks, his tongue catching Steve’s lip and suckering briefly.
“Pink,” Steve answers. “Very very pink.”
Steve walks them over to the couch, step by slow, dragging step, until the back of his legs hits the arm and he goes tumbling over, pulling Bucky with him.
“Oof!” Steve gasps at the weight of Bucky crashing into him, breaking the kiss. Bucky laughs, a throaty little chuckle, his eyes rosy and bright.
Steve reaches up and pushes his fingers into Bucky’s hair, gripping thick, dense handfuls as it curls around his fingers, dark as earth and burnished bronze where the light catches it. Steve thinks of copper coloured scales catching the light as he pulls Bucky towards him in search of a kiss.
They sprawl lazily across the couch, Steve’s socked feet hanging over the armrest. Bucky straddles his lap, knees tucked either side of his hips, hands slowly working Steve’s shirt up his chest. Steve lifts his shoulders off the couch cushions just long enough for Bucky to tug off his shirt, resenting the brief moment they are parted as Bucky wrestles it away and throws it on the floor. He wastes no time in diving back down to taste Steve’s mouth again, hands cool against his bare skin.
Jonesy lets out an indignant yowl from the windowsill as Steve pulls at the hem of Bucky’s t-shirt. Bucky glances at the cat, momentarily distracted, and Steve tugs harder, regaining Bucky’s attention when he starts stripping it off. It gets tangled somehow, and Bucky sits back on his heels and gracefully slips it off, casting it to one side.
Before Bucky has the chance to dive down for another kiss Steve puts his hands to his waist, holding him in place. He draws his thumbs along the bottom edge of Bucky’s ribs, and Bucky doesn’t ask what’s going on, just sits patiently and lets Steve look his fill.
In the year they have been together, Bucky seems little different. His skin has lost the sickly, fishbelly colour it had when he first came answering Steve’s advert for a roommate. He is still slender but stronger now, whipcord muscles and a broad, defined chest. Bucky brushes his hair out of his eyes, tucking it behind his ears, and smiles as Steve stares up at him.
“Come here,” Steve whispers, and Bucky crawls into his arms. The lazy, sweet kisses they shared before become rougher, more ravenous, and Bucky’s sharp teeth catch on Steve’s lips, on his tongue, filling his mouth with the taste of salt and copper.
Jonesy climbs up the back of the couch and lets out a warning howl, glaring down at them both. Morita takes up the call, climbing up onto the bookcase and yowling. Pinky joins Jonesy on the couch, and jumps down, landing on Bucky’s back. Bucky lets out a loud curse, strange syllables that echo off the ceiling and make the paintings on the walls shake.
Steve chuckles. “Alright, settle down.” He rubs his hand over his face as Bucky twists around, trying to dislodge the cat on his back. “We’ll move it to the bedroom.”
Bucky hisses at Pinky, and the cat drops to the floor, landing lightly on his toes. He lets out a defiant little prrnk before swaggering off, his tail in the air.
“May the curse of Thuum’ha of Ib befall your kind,” Bucky tells the indifferent cat. “And Bokrug shake the-”
“Bucky?” Steve says softly. “Take me to bed.”
That shuts Bucky up, and he’s on his feet before Steve has finished speaking. He holds out his hands, and Steve sits up, swinging his feet from the arm of the couch and onto the floor. He reaches up to Bucky, and lets himself be pulled to the bedroom.
Steve undresses quickly, shucking off his pants and underwear before climbing onto the bed. Bucky doesn’t follow immediately, pausing at the foot of the bed with one hand on his belt buckle.
“What?” Steve asks.
The room is dark but for the light slanting through the blinds, and Steve can’t see Bucky’s face, cast in shadow. His eyes shine in the gloaming, pink and blue. He shakes his head, a mere twitch of his chin, his smile small and fond, and unfastens his belt.
Steve pulls open the drawer on the bedside table, fumbling around in the loose change and spare keys until he finds the tube of lube, and shoves the drawer shut before sitting back on the bed.
Bucky kicks his clothes to one side and climbs onto the mattress, pushing Steve down and kissing him, slow and filthy. Steve sucks on Bucky’s tongue, feeling the raised discs across its surface sucker to the roof of his mouth as he swallows around it, and reaches down between them. He smooths his hand down Bucky’s flat stomach, spreading his fingers and combing them through the tentacles dangling between his legs.
Bucky moans, a bass hum in Steve’s throat that tremors through his clavicle, and Steve drags his thumb through the writhing mass. A thick, smooth tentacle, surrounded by several more of decreasing sizes, curls around his wrist, holding him in place. Steve can’t come close to wrapping his hand around the whole squirming mass of them, but thumb and forefinger wrap easily around the largest tentacle, close to Bucky’s body where it’s at its thickest. Steve draws his hand slowly along its length, closing his fist around the dense, smooth textured shaft and dragging his thumb over the tapering, bevelled tip. Bucky moans again, and a spurt of clear, slippery fluid soaks Steve’s fingers. He drags his hand down again, splaying out his fingers and pushing into the mass of tentacles, stroking them with light, teasing touches.
The larger tentacles stretch out to Steve’s cock, half hard against his thigh, brushing along the exposed vein on the underside. A pair circle the head, worming their way under his foreskin and exposing the taut, swollen crown, and Steve’s hips stutter, pushing up into the air instinctively for contact and finding no relief.
Bucky gives Steve a last, lingering kiss, drawing his teeth across Steve’s plump lower lip, and pulls the lube out of his hand before sliding down the bed.
A gentle press of hands has Steve open up his legs, and Bucky settles between them, kissing his navel and the crest of his hip before moving down. Steve shivers in anticipation, his cock, hard and leaking against his stomach, twitches and strains as Bucky moves closer. Bucky cups his hands around Steve’s thighs, his breath cool and damp against Steve’s heated skin. He bows his head, flicking out his tongue, and licks up the length of Steve’s cock in a slow line. His tongue, with its surface covered in raised suckers, drags against Steve’s skin as he alternates between slow, broad swipes and flicking, darting laps. The crown, too sensitive for rough skin and suckers, Bucky strokes with the tip of his tongue, darting it into the slit as he closes his mouth around the head and sucks.
Steve gasps for breath, his hands on Bucky’s shoulders, too restless and overstimulated to do anything but hold on. “Bucky,” he whines, neither warning him to stop or imploring him to go on, but asking for anything, everything.
Bucky carefully rolls onto his side, pulling Steve with him. He hooks Steve’s bent knee over his arm, and unsnaps the cap on the lube.
There is no more teasing, no gradual approach, and Steve flinches when Bucky presses a slick finger to his hole, reacting to the cold rather than the intrusion. Bucky hums an apology against the crown of Steve’s cock, and swallows him down as he pushes his finger, breaching the ring of tight muscle.
Steve lets out a startled moan, his hips kicking forward and thrusting his cock into Bucky’s mouth.
Bucky swallows around him, his nose pressed to the thatch of dark blonde hair at the base of Steve’s cock, and curls his hand around Steve’s ass, slowly thrusting his slick finger deeper.
Steve curses, dragging his fingers through Bucky’s hair, holding him close as he suckles and swallows. Bucky hums, contented, the vibrations like electricity darting under Steve’s skin, and it’s suddenly too much. As much as he wants it, he can’t take Bucky’s mouth and fingers without coming down his throat, and it’s been weeks since he last came with Bucky inside him. Far too long.
“Bucky.” Steve tugs at his hair, and for a moment Bucky resists before dragging his lips slowly along Steve’s length and opening his mouth, the head slicking his cheek with saliva and precome.
He looks up at Steve through dark lashes, his lips wet and red and kiss-bitten. “Hrm?”
There are some visions that are too much, too exquisite, to be rendered in pencil and ink, and Steve hoards them in his heart, until it is full, about to burst.
“Come here,” he murmurs.
Bucky draws his finger out, and Steve misses its immediately, fighting the urge to growl at Bucky to put it back. Bucky moves up the bed to meet his parted lips, gifting him with as many kisses as he can stand. Steve accepts them all and offers more in return, hooking his leg around Bucky’s hip and pressing their bodies together. The tentacles wrap around his cock, smooth and slick, and Steve ruts against them as Bucky drags his fingers down the cleft of his ass. He draws them back and forth over the tight furl of muscle, and eases two fingers into him. Steve chokes out a gasp, rocking back and forth between fingers and tentacles, too much and not enough.
A pair of the longer tentacles curl around Steve’s balls, tracing along his taint, leaving a slippery trail in their wake and touch his stretched rim, poking between Bucky’s thrusting fingers.
“Yes,” Steve rasps between Bucky’s sharp teeth, and they dart forward, dipping into him, slick and eager.
Steve touches Bucky’s wrist, a firm push, and that is the only warning he needs.
He works his fingers out of Steve’s stretched, slackened hole, pushing the wayward tentacles to one side, and kisses Steve’s shoulder.
“What are your colours?” he asks, his eyes like shattered glass in the half light.
Steve isn’t sure he can manage words at this point, fire prickling under his skin, searing his bones, and in response rolls onto his back, knees bent and feet planted on the mattress.
Bucky growls, fond and approving, and kisses the sharp jut of Steve’s collarbone before sitting up and kneeling between his splayed legs. Steve’s hands curl around Bucky’s arms, his touches tender, and tightens his grip when Bucky takes hold of his hips, lifting Steve’s ass onto his lap. He kisses each knee before pulling Steve’s legs around him, resting them against his sides.
Steve stretches, arching his spine, and lets out a soft sigh as the largest tentacle pushes into him, slick and smooth and easy. His cock spasms, precome beading at the slit and smearing across his stomach as Bucky leans forward a little, bracing his weight on his hands. His other tentacles twist and squirm between his legs, tracing along the crease of Steve’s thighs and circling the base of his cock, restless and impatient.
Steve reaches down to stroke the shortest ones, letting them curl around his fingertips while the larger ones squirm their way inside him. Their pointed tips slide in easily, slick and smooth, scissoring and stretching him open in counterpoint to the relentless push of the largest.
Bucky rubs Steve’s stomach, drawing his fingers through the pools of sweat and precome in gentle, soothing motions. He reaches out to touch Steve’s cock, painfully hard and twitching with every new intrusion, and Steve twists their fingers together, pulling Bucky’s hand away.
Steve moans, low and wrecked, as the last tentacle winds its way in. He feels so full, stretched to the limit of what he can stand, an edge of pain to the intense pleasure, the sharpness making it all the sweeter as Bucky swells inside him.
Bucky draws back, just a little, and thrusts. Steve gasps, digging his shoulders into the mattress as Bucky pulls out and pushes in again. With every jerk of his hips that thick, dense tentacle works its way deeper and deeper, the others twisting and twining around it, spreading out to fill him.
Steve reaches up again, grasping for the touch of skin, for more contact. His hand moves up Bucky’s arms to his shoulder, feels the play of muscles under his skin. It takes little persuasion to pull Bucky towards him, and Steve sighs in pleasure at the weight of Bucky pressing him into the bed, grounding and fever-hot.
Bucky pulls at Steve’s legs again, wrapping them around his waist, and presses his face to Steve’s throat, his hips jerking at an increasing pace. Steve clings to Bucky in turn, tighter and tighter, arms locked around his shoulders, heels digging into the base of his spine, spurring him on.
He can’t even pinpoint the moment he comes, only Bucky’s mouth against his, burning and sharp-edged, and a building pressure within him that becomes too much the moment before it ruptures.
Bucky twitches inside him, a last few haphazard thrusts, and falls still.
Steve threads his fingers through Bucky’s hair, breathing in the sun and saltwater scent of them both as his heart hammers and quakes. He feels the tentacles inside him shift and start to retract.
“Wait,” Steve rasps, crossing his ankles at the small of Bucky’s back and squeezing, holding him still. “Another minute.”
Bucky cups his hands around Steve’s shoulders as he makes an enquiring sound, something that Steve feels in his ribcage rather than hears.
“I’m just…” Steve swallows, his mouth dry, and Bucky kisses his throat until he can speak again. “Not ready to let go yet.”
Bucky hums, pleased and content, and curls himself around Steve, drawing up his knees and tucking in his elbows, until they fit together like jagged little puzzle pieces.
“I was thinking,” Steve murmurs, and Bucky strokes his thumb along his shoulder, light and ticklish. “About getting an aquarium.”
Bucky shifts against him, their sweat long since cooled, their bodies sticky and sated. “Hrmm?”
“Not like the ones we saw in California. Just, you know. A little one? One that would fit on a shelf?”
Bucky’s eye glitter in the darkness, silver and blue. “A little one?”
“Yeah.” Steve ducks his head, and Bucky kisses him, brief and sweet. “They’re easy to set up. Heater to keep them at the right temperature, lights on a timer. You can control the environment, if the water needs to be a certain ph or needs salt or…” Steve hesitates. “It’s not the ocean but it would be enough for a few. Fish.”
Bucky smiles. “Maybe one or two?”
“Yeah.” It’s a smile that needs kissing, so Steve does. “Maybe one or two.”
Chapter 3: Ways to Love
“We can’t eat them,” several mouths utter nervously. “Steve will get mad.”
We are army ants, we are worker bees
We are salmon in the stream after years at sea
"There Is Not A Step We Can Take That Does Not Bring Us Closer" - Jason Webley
To the lovely Riakomai, happy birthday
An ill wind blows along the rocky cliffside, and Jack shivers in his robes.
They’re not even lined, and he’s got nothing but shorts on underneath. High Priest Alexander said they had to be naked, but no way was he going along with that bullshit.
Jack shuffles towards the edge of the cliff, looking down to the churning waters below, the waves crashing into the jagged black rocks. The whole thing was bullshit anyway, this was like the fifth time they’d done the ceremony, and what did they have to show for it? Sweet fuck all, that was what.
Rumlow said it was all down to timing. The stars had to be in alignment and shit. Jack hadn’t been a member in those early days, but Rumlow had, you’d think the smug fucker had been in it from the start, the way he talks. But Jack had been there for the last Rite, the one on the Perihelion, whatever the fuck that was. They spilled blood and chanted and the earth shook. Then the sky went black and green and the air fucking reeked, and then. Nothing.
High Priest Alexander says they need to perform the rite on the Aphelion, and the Dark Gods of the Old World will rain down terror and destruction on man, and Hydra will rule with an iron… Blah blah blah.
The whole thing was total bullshit.
Rumlow says if it doesn’t work this time he’s gonna pitch Alexander over the cliff and into the fucking sea for wasting all their time. To be honest the chance for seeing that is what’s making Jack stick it out so long.
“Rollins,” High Priest Alexander calls. “Be at your post.”
Jack bows his head and walks over to the markings daubed over the stone. It had taken them all afternoon to paint the sigil, they had to pour pigs blood into a can of white emulsion and mix it all up, and jesus did that stuff stink. The High Priest hadn’t been there for the dirty work. No, he rocked up five minutes before showtime, all decked out in his fancy robes and his stupid fucking hat. No squatting on the ground drawing arcane shit and getting pigs blood on your new fucking jeans for his majesty.
Jack shifts from foot to foot, trying to keep warm. The wind coming off the sea was freezing, and he was getting soaked to the skin.
It was Rumlow’s fault, dragging him into this shit. Sidling up to him in the bar after work and saying Do you wanna be rich and powerful? Like who the fuck says no to that?
Then Rumlow introduced him to the High Priest at one of their secret society barbeques. Alexander was charming, debonaire and old as fucking balls, with a sharp tongue and a dry wit and the next thing Jack knew he’d signed away his life savings to become a soldier in the New Dark Age, where Gods and Monsters would storm the earth, and Hydra would tower over them all.
Seven months later being an acolyte of Hydra has burned through all his savings, and he’s neither rich nor powerful, just cold and wet and hanging out on a fucking cliff somewhere in Massachusetts with a bunch of sad bastards and a High Priest in Armani fucking robes.
Jack glances towards the cliffs again. The sun is low in the sky, huge and blood-red, reflected on the surface of the calm sea. Around him the other acolytes move into position, lifting up their robes to keep from tripping over as they shuffle around. Hairy legs and knock-knees, every last damn one of them.
Alexander pushes back the sleeves of his robes, and moves to the center of the circle, where the altar stands.
The altar is not that impressive, a paving slab with some chalk marks on it. Rumlow says they had a great altar at the first ceremony, a huge chunk of black marble inscribed with hieroglyphics and all that shit. But it weighed a fucking ton, and when they tried to move it, some dumbass dropped it and the whole thing cracked in two. Dumbass got offered up in sacrifice at the Perihelion and they started using a much lighter paving slab that one of the guys who works in construction managed to swipe from a building site.
The censer on the altar is still impressive, a carved golden bowl with little figures cowering before The Great Dark Ones etched around the outside. It is big, heavy and kind of creepy, all those little golden tentacles swooping down from the rim to the stick figures around the bottom. When Rumlow finally kills Alexander, Jack plans to snag it. Chunk of gold like that will get him a decent amount of money on eBay, he figures.
Alexander takes a lighter out of his pocket, and picks out one of the little charcoal discs from inside the bowl. He snaps his thumb over the lighter, striking the flywheel, and a gust of wind blows the flame out.
“Damnit,” Alexander mutters, and turns away from the wind, hunching over as he tries to get the damn charcoal lit, swearing every time the wind whips around him and the lighter flame licks his fingers. “Rumlow?”
Rumlow hurries forward, lifting up his robe and wrapping it around the High Priest, blocking out the wind and exposing his hairy legs to the rest of the acolytes. After a few minutes of muffled cursing and hissed instructions, Rumlow rushes off to to the little parking lot a little ways in from the cliff, his robes gathered up around his waist and, huh, he’s wearing underpants too.
He returns a few minutes later, out of breath and brandishing a bottle of lighter fluid. At Alexander’s instruction he pours half the bottle into the gold bowl, soaking the charcoal bricks.
Rumlow, the suck-up, pulls out his lighter and offers to do the honours, snapping the heavy zippo open and lit in a quick motion that he probably spent months practicing.
The alcohol fumes catch, and the bowl goes up in a whoompf of flame. So does Rumlow’s arm, and he skitters away, shrieking and flapping and slapping at his robes until the fire goes out.
“Well, that’s one way to do it.” Alexander laughs at his own joke, but no one else joins in. His expression sours and he puts the flaming bowl on the altar, next to a silver bladed knife. “Shall we begin?”
The chant begins slowly, a low hum that gradually rises up as everyone picks up the call.
“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Bugg-Shash wgah’nagl fhtagn.” Jack mutters along, feeling vaguely foolish. The chant was the hardest thing to learn, and if you got it wrong, that put you in the running for next sacrifice. Luckily Eddie had reversed into High Priest Alexander’s BMW leaving the dress rehearsal last week. A big fucking scratch all down one side, and he was up for the chop. Eddie didn’t know that yet, dumb bastard.
The chant drones on, guttural and harsh, and the guys around him are really getting into it, their voices getting low and croaking, their heads thrashing back and forth as they raise their hands and shake their bodies. Jack wriggles a little bit, trying to copy their movements, but he feels clumsy and fucking ridiculous. It’s like every Christmas when Grandma Rollins drags them to church and Jack has to mouth along to all the hymns because the words are fucking nonsense. I mean yeah, he remembers the ‘Hallelujah’ bit, and half the church is the same, singing along in a ‘mumble mumble Hallelujah’.
Jesus fucking Christ.
Jack rocks from side to side disconsolately. “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Bugg-Shash,” he intones. “Wgah’nagl fhtagn.”
Alexander throws a handful of incense into the golden bowl. There is a brief whiff of something sulphurous before the wind whips it away.
At Alexander’s signal Rumlow and one of his buddies grabs Eddie and drags him into the center of the circle, kicking and whimpering. Alexander takes up the silver blade, and Eddie starts screaming, calling Alexander everything from a pig to a whore, until Rumlow smacks him one and tells him to pipe down. The begging is worse than the yelling though, and Jack turns his face away. He stares at the blood daubed rock beneath his feet as Eddie whimpers and pleads until his words become a wet gurgle. When he looks back there is a body slumped at Alexander’s feet, blood black against the stone.
“Darkest being of the Netherworld!” Alexander shouts, and the wind carries his words away. “Thee who hails from the blackest pits of the most remote spheres! Blood of Yibb-Tstll, the Watcher in the Glade. Bugg-Shash the Drowner, I call upon thee.”
The acolytes around Jack raise up their arms in unison, and the chant twists and writhes on their tongues, changing form and shape.
Something squirms in the back of Jack’s throat, pushing at his tongue. He opens his mouth to spit and “Culn Bugg-Shash hai!” tumbles out. Weird.
“May i>Nammtar open my eyes so I can see! May Nammtar open my ears so I can hear!” Alexander is screaming into the wind, and the sky turns dark. Thick, bruised clouds roll over head, heavy with rain and crackling with lightning. The blood-red sun fades away, swallowed up by the storm.
Jack looks up at the foreboding sky, and wishes he’d brought a towel. He’s already soaked and freezing his tits off.
“I summon thee, creature of Darkness, by the words of Darkness!” Alexander screams to the sky.
The clouds churn and loom over them, as if pulled down by the chanting, spinning and spiralling.
Jack shivers, and decides fuck it all, first sign of a tornado and he is out of here, like boom. A dot on the horizon. Gone, gone, fucking gone.
“La cf’ayak’vulgtmm!” Alexander roars as the flames in the censer leap up to the approaching sky. “Vugtlagln! Vulgtmm!”
Jack tries to clamp his mouth shut, but his body is no longer his own. His lips part in chorus with the other acolytes.
“La cf’ayak’vulgtmm!” Alexander screams. “Vugtlagln! Vulgtmm!”
“Cf’tagn,” Jack responds, and his words are lost in the storm.
There is a terrible sound, like a crack of thunder, and something black and impossible spreads across the sky.
It is formless, endless, stretching from horizon to horizon. Black, black as the deepest sea, as the darkest night.
“He has come!” Alexander shrieks. “Darkest being of the Netherworld! Great Drowner! I send prayers to thee and thou hast come before me!”
The great swathe of darkness shimmers, and slowly, one by one, eyes open in the void.
They are many, they are myriad, thousands upon thousands. Some small and round and liquid, others sharp like cut glass. They blink slowly, out of sequence, and Jack opens his mouth to scream but no sound comes out.
There is no where to turn that puts your back to the horror, no way to safety, because it is everywhere. No matter where Jack turns, inland to where his car is parked, out past the cliffs to the vast and blood-red sea, eyes glare down at him. High Priest Alexander walks towards the cliff edge, his arms raised. “Great Devourer! One Who Walks In Darkness! I have summoned thee!”
The great, endless sheet of eyes shudders, and ten thousand mouths split apart. Teeth like needles fill those mouths. Teeth like gravestones. Teeth that champ and stamp and grind.
“La Bugg-Shash! Vugtlagln vulgtmm!” Alexander spreads his arms wide. “Hear me!”
The mouths open and close, teeth grinding, lips smacking, and the Dark One finally speaks.
“What the fuck?”
Several acolytes scream, clutching their heads, and drop to the ground. The High Priest lowers his hands. “Oh Dark Lord?” he asks warily.
“I am supposed to be going on a date.” Ten thousand mouths, spread out across all of creation, answer. Their voices are discordant, and slightly out of sync with each other. Some are high and piercing, others a bass note that makes the earth tremble. “I have been assured sushi and sex would be forthcoming.”
“Oh.” The smile slips from the High Priest face, and he fiddles with the sleeves of his robes. “I’m. I’m sure one of your loyal servants would be willing…”
He looks around, and every robed figure still on his feet in the circle starts shuffling, looking down at the their feet and each other, anywhere but at him. No one steps forward to volunteer. The acolytes sprawled on the ground continue to gibber and moan and piss themselves.
The eyes squint down at the congregation, and they fall still.
“No.” Ten thousand mouths hiss in disgust, drowning out the crashing of the waves against the cliffs below.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake.” The High Priest folds his arms. “O Dark One! I summon Thee and Thine ears to hear the Word that is never spoken, except by thy Father, the eldest of all who know age! Ia! Ia! The word-”
“I would rather not bring my father into this,” several of the mouths interrupt. Others grimace, and a handful snigger, but most of them are flat, grim lines in the terrible void.
The High Priest hesitates, then clears his throat and continues. “Ia! Ia! Nngi barra barra ia! Iarrugeshgarragnarab!”
“Irrugishgarragnarab,” One of the mouths corrects, and an acolyte still standing in the circle lets out a high pitched giggle.
“I summon thee, O ancestor of the Gods,” the High Priest finishes with a glare. “By the sacred invocation of Urilia you are bound.”
The great void seems to shrug, it’s mouths twisting. “Yes, I suppose you did. Release me from my bonds.”
“Answer my prayers, O Dark One,” the High Priest relaxes a little. “And I will release you.”
The great void draws nearer, sucking the last traces of warmth from the air around them. “Let me go home.”
“Creature of the Pit! Slime!” The High Priest spreads out his arms. “i>Cf’tagn.”
The eyes seem to darken. “Release me or I will eat you.”
“We can’t eat them,” several mouths utter nervously. “Steve will get mad.”
The void rumbles, and there is a sussuruss of whispers, arguing back and forth about whether it counts if you don’t swallow.
“Dark Lord Bugg-Shash!” The High Priest snaps.
“Fine, what do you want?”
The High Priest gathers himself, turning to look at each of his acolytes, trembling in the presence of an Elder God. His gaze skims over the ones crouched on the ground, whimpering and sobbing and begging for their mothers.
“We are Hydra,” he gestures around him. “And we want what everyone wants. Power. Order. Control.”
Ten thousand mismatched eyes narrow, and a thousand mouths grimace.
“You must understand, I am not some evil despot who wants to rule the world, sit on a throne of skulls, all that business.” The High Priest smiles up at the void. “We want to make a better world, a safer world. And for that to happen we cannot leave it in the hands of humanity.”
“I see,” the void rumbles. “You wish to reshape creation to your own design.”
“Something like that,” the High Priest agrees. “You see, people won’t give up their free will, and you can’t take it from them. If you do that, they resist. What we need is for humanity to surrender its freedom willingly to us. To Hydra. For the promise of security.”
“Security?” one mouth utters.
“Security,” the High Priest smiles warmly. “For that we need crisis, we need chaos. A Great Old One to rain terror down upon mankind, or at least a proportion of it. We will give you targets, locations, cities to destroy in prominent locations that our people have been evacuated from.”
“And when I have torn down your cities, and rivers of blood wash through the streets, then you will let me go?”
The High Priest smiles, sharp and false. “And then we will release you.”
The ground shakes beneath their feet, the stones cracking and crumbling as jagged splits run deep into the bedrock.
“Do you have any idea how hard it is, keeping you alive?” the mouths snarl in unison, low and booming like the pounding of waves against the shore. “An asteroid five miles wide could crash anywhere on this little blue rock and the shockwave would kill all life on the planet. Do you know how small five miles is compared to the infinite reach of space? There are a hundred thousand asteroids beyond the Kuiper belt that are fifty miles across!”
“If you wish to send asteroids, we can work with that,” the High Priest nods benignly. “We would need coordinates and-”
“A solar flare could burn through the ozone layer in hours!” The mouths begin to chatter and snarl, and a hundred low, rough voices pitch and rail above them. The High Priest’s head whips back and forth, trying to follow the thread of a hundred arguments about photosynthetic plankton and skin cancer and rogue black holes.
“There are parasites in flea bites that can kill half of you in a handful of months.”
“Any one of you could be killed by a virus.”
“They are not even the size of a single cell.”
The High Priest raises his hands high above his head, waving them to get the Elder God’s attention.
“O Dark One,” the High Priest says with a brittle smile. “We do not need a black hole or a plague. We need an Elder God, we need terror.”
“You need terror?” Every last eye fixes on the High Priest, and the ground beneath him starts to crumble. The golden bowl at his feet tips onto its side and rolls along the ground, dropping into one of the chasms opening up around the bloody sigil, and the altar stone crumbles to grey dust.
The mouths twist and sneer, and start to scream. The High Priest stumbles back, Global Warming and Nuclear Technology and Ecosystem Collapse ricochet around him, bellowed from every direction. A great thrum starts to build in the stones beneath them, the cracks yawning open in the blood stained rocks as the voices grow louder and louder.
The last few acolytes standing try to run, and when the shaking earth knocks them to their knees they crawl, inching away from the crags as vast chunks of rock shear away and crash into the waters below.
Colours beyond comprehension flash in the void, and great jagged bolts of lightning strike the earth as the voices unite and rise into a great crescendo.
“I keep the darkness from your door, keep the Hound of Tindalos at bay, and you ask me to destroy ‘some of you’?!”
The High Priest, still in the center of what remains of the sigil, seems to realise that his plans have come to nothing. He searches for a way to solid ground, but the rock crumbles wherever he treads, forcing him back. He screams, rage and fear battling in his throat, as the ground beneath him falls away, and he tumbles down into the sea below.
His body lies broken on the jagged rocks, and is lost beneath the crashing of the waves.
“You dare to order me to tear the world to shreds? After all I have done?” The mouths roar in frustration. “AAAAARGH.”
The last of the cliffside shatters, taking all that stood upon it and crashing it into the ocean, never to be seen again.
It is Dum Dum that finds Bucky eventually, after hours of searching. He picks his way down the escarpment, his tail held high while Steve scrambles along the jagged rocks beside him and down towards a cove that Google Maps insists doesn’t exist.
The rest of the cats follow him down the rugged slope, sniffing at the water far below and yowling softly.
Steve searches the rocks in the moonlight, his dress shirt soaked in the spray. The ground is uneven and steeply sloping, but Dum Dum is sure footed, leading the way step by careful step, and Steve never stumbles in the pale light, and his feet never slip.
Beyond the jagged rocks is an inlet, and gentle waves lapping at a sandy shore. The water is black and filled with stars, but where the spray hit the rocks there are flashes of colour, pastel shaded rainbows from the light of the moon.
Steve clambers down, his best shoes sinking into the sand, and Dum Dum chrrrs softly.
“Yeah, I see him.”
Dum Dum pats at Steve’s arm with a delicate paw, and Steve kisses the cats soft head. “Wait here, okay?”
Bucky is hunched up on the sand, his knees pulled up to his chin. He looks ragged around the edges as he stares out to sea, and Steve sits down beside him, stretching out his legs towards the incoming tide.
“Nice beach,” Steve says, leaning back on his hands. “You make it yourself?”
Bucky lets out a low sound, heavy and mournful like a distant storm, and throws himself into Steve’s open arms.
“Ooof,” Steve gets the winds knocked out of him, but doesn’t let go. Bucky feels like an icicle, a leeching, helpless kind of chill, and Steve hugs him tightly, offering all the warmth and comfort he has to give.
“Sorry,” Bucky whispers, his voice a dry, aching rasp.
“About dinner?” Steve rubs Bucky’s shoulder. “It’s okay, it was just dinner.”
Bucky sniffs, though Steve isn’t sure if it’s from the cold or the sea spray or something else. “I didn’t eat them.”
Steve smiles, in spite of everything. “Yeah, I know you didn’t.”
He chafes his hands up and down Bucky’s arms, trying to warm him up a little. “What happened? I mean, we were getting ready, I was fretting over which tie to wear and you just sort of… vanished.”
It was something Steve never wanted to see again. The look of confusion on Bucky’s face, followed by panic as he reached out for Steve, and was gone.
“Cultists.” Bucky curls up even tighter, tucking his head under Steve’s chin. “Nyarlathotep warned me. Should have listened.”
“Hydra?” Steve asks. “The ones that tried to raise Cyaegha?”
“Mm-hmm.” The tension starts to seep from Bucky’s shoulders a little. “And Yibb-Tstll.”
“Your mother?” Steve chokes out. “I wouldn’t summon your mother and she likes me.”
“Of course she likes you,” Bucky huffs. “You did that drawing of her with her gaunts.”
“They were supposed to be chihuahuas.”
Steve presses his face to Bucky’s scalp, the scent of him muted but still there. Green tea and sunlight on water.
“Well, this is what we get for getting married on the Aphelion,” Steve sighs, tugging his fingers through the knots in Bucky’s hair. “Still, it’s worth it.”
He can feel Bucky’s smile pressed against his shirt. “It is?”
“Yeah.” Steve kisses Bucky’s forehead. “I love you, you know that right?”
Bucky nods. “If any harm were to befall you, I would howl and rage until the foundations of all creation crumbled. I would rend the void to fragments and rain darkness upon the Nine Realms.”
Steve kisses him on the cheek. “And you call me a drama queen.”
Bucky tips his head back, inviting, and Steve kisses him once more. “Come on, let’s go get dinner. I don’t know about you but I'm starving.”
“Won’t the restaurant be closed?” Bucky looks up at the stars and frowns. “It is not standard business hours.”
“No, but when we didn’t show up Luis sent over a chiller of anemones and Futomaki.” And two bottles of Ramune. “I call dibs on the rolls, though.”
Bucky wrinkles his nose. “And sex? I was informed that there would be sex.”
Steve chuckles and kisses him again. “Yeah. That too.”
Steve unlocks the apartment door and walks in, kicking off his shoes as he holds it open for Sam.
“Buck?” he shouts. “You home?”
There is a rumble from the living room, and Sam comes stumbling into the apartment, wheezing and drenched in sweat.
“You spry bastard,” Sam pants. “How the hell did you run fifteen goddamn miles-” He sucks in a pained breath. “And then up three flights of stairs? Motherfucker.”
Steve laughs, pushing the door shut. “I guess you’re getting old.”
Sam glares at him, and Steve walks to the bathroom to fetch them a towel each.
“At least pretend to be out of breath,” Sam grumbles, wiping himself down and throwing the towel over his shoulder.
Steve walks into the kitchen and fetches a glass from the draining board. He fills it from the tap and holds it out in offering. “Water?”
“Yeah.” Sam accepts, gulping the contents between wheezes. “Still off the bottled stuff, huh?”
“Plastics.” Steve fetches a glass for himself. “You know there are 500 times more pieces of microplastic in the sea than there are stars in the galaxy?”
“Enough with the lecture, damn.” Sam grins. “Can’t say I’m shocked, you being married to a conservationist an’ all.”
Steve drains his glass in a single, long swallow and refills it. “It affects us all.”
“And just because I’ve stopped going on about it, doesn’t mean I’ve forgiven you yet.” Sam holds out his glass for a refill. “Not inviting your best friend to your own damn wedding. Deny me my right as best man to make embarrassing speeches and flirt with the relatives.”
Steve coughs on his water. “You wouldn’t have liked it, Sam.” He dries his hands before giving Dum Dum, waiting patiently on the counter, a scratch behind the ears. “It was a nightmare corpse-city of Cyclopean masonry and loathsome dimensions, filled with horrors and abominations that are beyond comprehension.”
“Yeah, well. Visiting the in-laws is like that.”
Steve chuckles and leads him into the living room.
“Hey, where’s my man Jonesy?” Sam calls, and glances at Bucky sat on the windowsill, watching the city below. “What’s up, Buck?”
Bucky looks at his reflection. “Icarus.”
Sam sniffs, and wanders over to the bookcase where Jonesy is sprawled on one of the shelves, soaking up the sun. The rest of the cats are with him, arranged around a fish tank that takes up nearly a whole shelf. Sawyer is draped across the top of the tank. Morita sits on the shelf above, his paws dangling down. Pinky rubs his chin against a corner of the tank and purrs.
“You know there’s no need to be mean.” Sam gives Bucky a sideways look as he gives Jonesy a scratch under the chin. “I was just making conversation.”
“Bucky is being friendly,” Steve reassures him, walking over to join Bucky at the window. Bucky curls and arm around Steve’s waist, pulling him close.
“Yeah, right,” Sam huffs. “I know all about Icarus. Don’t fly too high, right? Don’t be too proud, too vain, don’t try and make something of yourself. You think I shouldn't be going for a promotion?”
“Hubris? That is not the story of Icarus,” Bucky murmurs, the window spurned in favour of looking at Steve. “Daedalus said do not fly too high, or you will fall into the sea and drown. But he also said not to fly too low. Too low and the sea will soak your wings, weigh you down. Fly too low and you will also drown.”
“So either way I drown,” Sam huffs. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“Yes,” Bucky nods. “But better to soar towards the sun than cower against the tide.”
“Huh.” Sam blinks a few times. “That’s actually a pretty nice thing to say.” He gives Bucky a sly smirk. “For you.”
Bucky doesn’t reply. Instead he looks over at the fish tank, his eyes shining like the sea.
Sam pays him no mind, and goes back to scratching Jonesy under the chin. He doesn’t look at the finger paintings taped up on the wall next to the bookcase, oddly daubed shapes and muddy, sinister colours. Jonesy dribbles happily, and Sam tries not to listen to the sound of Steve talking softly behind him, tender words not meant for Sam’s ears, and the low murmur of Bucky’s reply.
Pinky lets out a loud, impatient chhrp, and paws at the side of the tank, as if drawing Sam’s attention.
There are no fish in the tank, which seems kind of weird. Sam peers into its depths, in case they are hidden somewhere at the bottom among the oddly shaped rocks and tangled weeds. The tank is dark too, there is a light fitting in the lid, but for now it's turned off. The water is tinted an unusual shade of green, but aside from the stones and the thin, wispy weeds, there is nothing in there but for a pair of odd looking objects. Two long, leathery looking pods, one reddish brown and the other grey, almost silver. As Sam stares they seem to pulse. The red pod pulsates in a slow, steady rhythm, almost like a heartbeat, while there is something quick and darting in the silvery one.
“What the hell are these things?” Sam turns back to Steve and Bucky, still holding on to each other and smiling. “Some kind of eggs?”
“Well,” Steve blushes, and Bucky leans up to kiss his cheek. “Funny you should say that…”