"How are you feeling?" Sam asked. Steve could hear the thrum of the ice machine in the background where Sam was probably camped out in the little coffee kitchen at the hospital. This last mission had resulted in everybody, Steve included, getting banged up pretty bad. Sam was okay but Rhodey had taken a hit.
"I'm fine, Sam. My body's almost finished healing itself already. Just got a few knots in my shoulders to work out." In fact, he had several deep yellow-green bruises on his back that hadn't healed up yet but he didn't mention it. The less they worried about him the better, after all. "How's Rhodey?"
"He's good. The doctors say he'll make a full recovery but he's going to be off his feet for a while yet. The older you get the longer it takes to heal broken bones and all; you being the obvious exception."
"Haha," Steve said. He brushed the age jokes off most of the time. The calendar may say he was closing in on 100 but he maintained that was really only 31. Getting frozen for 66 years didn't count.
"Speaking of age," Sam said in what had to be the worst transition in history, "How's your memory? Not missing chunks of time or anything?"
"Nah, it's good. It's like the doctors figured out last year. It's only when—"
"—when someone mentions the war, yeah."
Steve pursed his lips, knowing it was a bit more complicated than that. "I can still think about the war just—"
"Right, right. Just not your part in it. How often's that come up anyway?" He heard the sound of someone else in the room, maybe a nurse stopping to get a cup of coffee or something.
"You'd be surprised," he mumbled.
"Yeah," Sam answered quieter like he did know how often his time in the war was brought up. It wasn't that Steve didn't want to think or talk about it, it was the horrible migraines he got when he did. Even the slightest hint that he'd done something with the gift Dr. Erskine had given him other than prance around on the USO tour and the pain came on. Sometimes, he could—and would—work through it, but other times just a mention could disable him completely. One of those careful-who-you-tell-sort-of-secrets among the team. "You've got your medicine, though, right?"
"I do, Sam. I hate taking it but I've got it. I should be fine. There's no one out here; it's too cold for beach-goers."
"All right," Sam said on a sigh. "I'll be out there tomorrow with Tony and maybe Natasha. You know, to regroup for some team convalescing."
Steve snorted. "I'm still not sure why we can't just go back home."
"I don't know. Blame Tony. He said he wanted a vacation. I'll talk to you later. Call if you need anything."
"I will, Sam."
Steve pressed the button on his phone to disconnect the call, set it down on the coffee table in front of him, and leaned back in his chair.
The upholstery was scratchy under his skin and a vibrant dark orange. He'd seen pictures of the 1970s and he was pretty sure that this cabin was built during that time. Under his socked feet was thick pile carpet in an upset-stomach brown and the walls seemed to be a fake wood paneling. At least the bathroom was nice. There was an enormous clawfoot tub with a detachable showerhead that had been wonderful at working out the tension in his shoulders when he first got here.
There wasn't a TV or computer here and from the cache of weapons he found in a false panel in the closet he was almost positive that this wasn't so much a vacation home as it was a safe house. As such, Steve's entertainment list was short and there were only so many hours he could handle playing solitaire with the deck of cards he'd found before he went a little stir crazy. He stood and headed back to the bedroom he'd claimed to lace up his boots and a grab a jacket. He was going hiking.
The hike was short, probably about four miles, but the cold air felt invigorating after being in the stuffy little cabin. The heat there worked but everything smelled of dust and when he'd turned it on the entire thing smelled burnt for most of the day. Steve had wanted to go running but the doc that had looked him over had strongly urged him not to until the bruising faded and the swelling in his knee had gone down. The knee was healed and felt fine but the bruises were still in a partial state of healing. He figured a relaxing hike would be a good enough compromise.
He inhaled the salty air and stared out at the calm, empty beachhead, watching the sparse seagrass billow in the cold breeze. He probably should have worn a thicker coat. He sat down on a rock to admire the view. Salt water did something to him, set off a muscle twitching in his back and a warning in his head. As long as he didn't get near it he was fine, though.
He hadn't even known he'd had a fear of the ocean since coming out of the ice until Tony had insisted taking them down to a small strip of beach he owned in the Caribbean. Steve had been fine, had even planned on getting in the warm, clear water but when he and the others had set down their chairs and towels and Sam went about setting up a few umbrellas, Steve had looked out at the water. Suddenly he was back in the Valkyrie, half-concussed and thrown from the cockpit by the impact, watching the icy, salt water pour in so fast he only had moments to think about everything he was leaving behind.
He'd come to with a searing migraine, sitting on the sand with his head braced between his knees, Natasha's warm hand on his back and Sam speaking calmly into his ear, telling him to breathe and that everything would be okay. He'd looked up to see the concerned faces of his teammates, and then the understanding in their eyes. Over the course of their two weeks there, he sat on the beach and worked at overcoming his fear so that he could walk near the water. He never even managed to get his feet wet.
The Maine coastline wasn't anything like the clear cerulean blues of the Caribbean. Here, the waters were dark and without a doubt would be cold. The sky was overcast and the wind bit at his exposed skin. As he watched the waves crash and pull back out over the flat sand, he noticed something strange in the dark water. It looked like a body.
He stood and started towards the water, trying to idenitfy what he was looking at. Sure enough, as he got closer, it definitely looked like a body. An overweight man, maybe, though the bloating of the dead could contribute to that look. He stopped at the edge of the water and debated with himself. It was obvious the man was dead, he hadn't moved aside from the slow rocking from the waves and his head was under the water. Should he at least pull the body out? He didn't have his cell phone with him to call the authorities and he knew that as the tide came in higher the body might float back out to sea. It was the right thing to do.
But that meant getting in the water.
He swallowed hard and started to take a step but then stopped and retreated. He should probably remove his boots at least. He untied them quickly and stuffed his socks into them. The sand was compact under his feet and cold air whipped around his ankles. He walked back up the beach several yards to leave his boots. He turned back around to face the water.
Maybe he should roll his trousers up as well? He bent and did so, shivering as more skin was exposed to the air.
He focused again on the man's body. He was large; he was going to be heavy. His skin was very pale, almost translucent, and he didn't seem to have hair on his chest. He was laying in the surf on his left side and oriented parallel to the coastline. Steve took another steadying breath and trained his eyes on his goal. Walking to the man, grabbing his arm and dragging him out of the water. He didn't know how far he would need to drag him. How high did the tide come in?
First things first, get him out of the water. He could decide what to do from there.
He stood there frozen for a few long moments. It was just water. He had no problems taking a shower. Another minute passed before he started walking. When the water first splashed on his feet he gasped sharply at how cold it was. His vision darkened, seeing the inside of that aircraft and the white of that snowy glacier before he blinked a few times and refocused on the bloated, dead man in the water.
He had stopped walking.
He started again, breathing heavily through his nose as each incoming wave swirled high up his legs, swallowing his bare feet in the black water.
The man was farther out than he'd thought.
He waded out until his calves remained in the water and the waves crested at his knees. His trousers were water-logged within the first few crashes but now he was close enough to touch. The man looked even more obese up close. He reached down for the man's right arm and grabbed hold. Before he could brace his feet and pull, the man had half sat up, eyes wide and mouth open and moving towards Steve's arms like he was trying to bite him. Steve was so startled he tumbled back on his ass and stared in shock as cold water rushed over his stomach and chest, soaking through his clothes and coat.
The man's head had dropped below the water but it was close enough to the surface for Steve to see that his eyes were open. Large, round pale eyes that didn't blink as he stared at Steve in both fear and warning. His nose looked like it had flaps of skin closing his nostrils and his mouth—god his mouth—open and gaping with rows upon rows of sharp, jagged teeth.
Steve re-evaluated what he was looking at. The man—the creature—was large. Barrel-chested with a thick neck that seemed too big for his shoulders. He had nipples but no navel, and what Steve had assumed were black trousers might not be legs at all. The arm he could see was thick and muscular but its fingers were long and spindly and webbed where they joined its hand. It still stared at him in warning, still hadn't blinked, but its arm had dropped to its side as if tired.
A large wave crashed over both of them, enough to rock the creature and wash icy water into Steve's face. He snorted and spluttered and scrambled up, but the cold air that swallowed him as he did made his teeth chatter.
The wave had moved the creature so it wasn't laying on its side any longer. Now it was flat on its back and Steve could see a thick, muscular, long whale-like tail where its legs would have been had it been human. The skin there was black and rubbery-looking, like a dolphin. It had a split fin at the end and each side was at least a foot and a half in length.
The most concerning part—and Steve concluded as the reason it was laying in the surf like it was—was its left arm was missing. Red, jagged strips of flesh started at the shoulder and ended at the end of a stump, a little higher than where its elbow would be. Steve couldn't tell if it was one fresh shark bite or if there were multiple wounds there. It looked like it had mostly stopped bleeding but it also looked horribly painful. He returned his attention to the creature's face, still staring, still open-mouthed in warning and asked what he thought was a stupid, rhetorical question, "Are you a mermaid?"
The tail of the creature splashed cold water over Steve's groin as if in response to his inane question and Steve nodded to himself. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Stupid question."
Another high wave followed, washing over them both and Steve realized the water was up to his thighs now. He wanted, needed, to get out of the water. He reached down slowly for the mermaid's right arm and grasped it. It bared its teeth at him but didn't lean up to bite. Steve tightened his grip, braced his feet, and tugged hard. The creature let off a strange, grunting noise and then a whine and screwed up its face. It shifted with Steve's tug and rolled onto its left arm. Steve let go as it gave a garbled screech of pain under the water. It flopped back on it's back and glared at Steve. At least it had closed its mouth and hidden all of those horrible teeth.
"Right, I didn't think that through. Sorry," he apologized. He wondered if he could drag the mermaid out of the water by its tail. He imagined it would be less likely to bite him that way. He waded closer to the thick tail and wrapped both hands at the base of the fins. The mermaid did not like this and started trying to twist and flail out of Steve's grasp but he held tight. He put his back to the beach and pulled again and this time the creature moved in the direction he wanted it to go.
The skin over the bruises on his back pulled tightly as he worked against the water. It took longer than he thought it would to reach the compact wet sand. He let go of the creature's squirming tail and leaned forward to brace his hands on his thighs, panting from the effort of towing it. He turned and found his boots. Without bothering to dry his feet he knocked as much sand off as possible before redonning his socks and lacing up the boots. He wasn't sure what he was going to do with the creature but couldn't reasonably see leaving it out here. If anything, he probably should have put it back in the water except he had a feeling it had beached itself on purpose; it might not be able to survive without its arm.
That left bringing it home with him.
Steve never did claim to be rational. He returned to the side of the mermaid—merman?—and debated on how he wanted to carry it. He wasn't sure how heavy it was going to be but surely it couldn't weigh more than the Harley with three showgirls on the back that he'd lifted during the USO tours.
Mumbling mostly to himself he asked, "If I pick you up, are you going to bite me?" He bent and tried to get his hands under the creature. It didn't move towards him like it was going to bite him so he pressed up from the ground. He was standing, though not very well, and his back was already starting to tweak over the bruises and knots. Was there another way to hold a nine-foot-long mermaid than the awkward way he was? The four-mile hike back to the cabin was not going to be pleasant.
It hadn't taken long to get to the beach, but the hike back to the cabin took twice as long. He had to stop and readjust his hold on the mermaid a few times and rest his back a few more. Plus, the chill of his water-soaked clothes made his limbs uncooperative.
The mermaid didn't seem too unhappy about being carried though he probably wasn't a big fan of it either. He didn't shift or squirm in Steve's hold too much and for that Steve was thankful. It wouldn't do to drop the poor creature.
Once he was back at the cabin with the mermaid in the bathtub, Steve realized that he was in over his head. There's wasn't much food in the cabinets, only some shelf-stable beans and pasta, nothing a mermaid would likely eat. He should call Sam.
Sam's cell phone rang three times before he picked up. "Wilson," he answered.
"Hey Sam, I was wondering—"
"Is everything okay, Steve? Do you need me to bring you your medicine? Do I need to get Tony in his suit out there stat?"
Steve shook his head in a bewildered answer before he voiced it. "No, no. I'm okay it's just—"
"I wasn't sure you know. You don't usually call unless there's an emergency of the world-saving kind," he teased.
Steve huffed out a little snort at the friendly jab and glanced back into the single bathroom of the cabin where the mermaid was somehow both wedged in and hanging out of the clawfoot tub. "Maybe not so much the world-saving kind as the... whale-saving?"
Through the open bathroom door, the mermaid glared at him and swished his tail in Steve's direction like he understood what Steve had said. Maybe he didn't like being compared to a whale. He was enormously round and his tail definitely resembled one.
"Did you rescue a beached whale? Please tell me you're calling from the beach for some kind of advice on how to get it back into the water," Sam's tone had turned exasperated and Steve could only shrug a little to himself.
"Not exactly. I was hoping you could stop by one of those shrimp wholesalers on the road out and pick up a couple pounds? And maybe some raw fish. Cheapest kind."
Through the phone, Steve could hear Sam's put-upon sigh. "Did you bring it home? Please tell me you didn't bring it home."
"It's in the bathtub."
"You know what? I'm not talking to you anymore. All right? This is not okay. I'm going to hang up now."
"Wait, wait. Can you pick up some bandages? I'm not sure what kind, just... a lot of gauze and tape maybe."
"Did it bite you?"
"No, no. I'm fine. Just... well you'll see when you get here."
"All right. I'll... I'll bring half a dozen—do you think half a dozen will be enough?—pounds of something along with all the other people-food I'm bringing out."
"A couple books wouldn't hurt. There's not much in the way of entertainment up here," Steve added, just to hear Sam lose his cool.
"Books too! Right. No entertainment. That's why you rescued a whale. Just... keep it wet. Hydrated. I hope it doesn't collapse under its own weight. My god, the things you get up to without supervision..."
"Thanks, Sam! You're a lifesaver."
"I am. This whale better like me, that's all I'm saying!"
"Uh-huh. Sure," Sam said, disconnecting the call.
Steve looked down at the device in his hands for a few breaths before looking back up at the mermaid. "So, not a member of the whale family, huh?" he asked. He received a tail flick in response. The skin stoppering the mermaid's nose opened and he snorted out his exhale, inhaling for a long moment before snapping what amounted to a blowhole closed again. Steve raised his arm to point at the creature. "That's why I thought you were dead." He frowned and looked down at his sea-soaked clothes. "I didn't think this through."
He left the mermaid in the tub and went to his room to grab some clothes. He wiped down, changed in the kitchen, and put his wet clothes in the washer. He fixed himself one of the boxes of macaroni and ate before heading back to the bathroom to check on the mermaid.
Sam had said to keep him wet, so he decided to turn the shower on and use the sprayer to wet it down. He turned the cold on and activated the sprayer, only to get splashed with cold water when the mermaid twitched his tail frantically. Without thinking, Steve turned the hot water on and tested it before spraying the creature again. When the tepid water touched him and he didn't twitch, Steve looked up at him. His mouth was closed, hiding all those horribly sharp looking teeth, and so were his wide pale eyes. He looked more like a man than ever like that.
"You like the water warm, huh?"
Steve sprayed down the tail and torso, knocking off most of the sand that was still on him, and avoided the ruined left arm. He walked around him to run water over his hair. He was getting water all over the floor but he didn't really care, especially when the creature arched his neck to shake his face under the spray. He reached up and dug his long spindly fingers through his hair and opened his eyes to look up at Steve.
"I'm going to spray your left side now, all right? It might sting," he said. He didn't feel stupid talking to him like he expected, especially when the mermaid seemed to nod at him. He aimed the water at the creature's shoulder, hoping to let the water run down more gently over the deeper wounds. It didn't seem to matter. As soon as the water touched the open, raw flesh, he jerked and screeched in pain, flinging more water—this time tinged red—all around the room. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Steve kept repeating, upset at hurting him, but he was worried about what sort of infection could develop from being exposed and dirty like it was. Once most of the sand was removed from the wound and the water was running clear again, Steve went around and turned the water off, latching the showerhead back in its cradle. "I'm sorry," he said again sincerely. He bit his lip and looked over the wet, irritated mermaid. His teeth were exposed in warning but he hadn't tried to bite again. He hoped that was progress.
"How often do you need wetting down, do you think?" he asked. He pulled his phone from his pocket and set a recurring alarm. Once an hour, maybe? He nodded to himself and went to the living room to spend some mindless hours playing solitaire.
Once an hour seemed too long to wait as after the first thirty minutes he heard something crash against the doorframe. He investigated to find the shampoo bottle he'd set on the floor at the side of the tub oozing soap through broken plastic. He looked up to see the mermaid watching him while holding another bottle ready to throw. After wetting him down again, Steve moved the items out of arm's reach, cleaned up the shampoo, and reset his phone alarm.
Over the course of the afternoon, Steve repeatedly wet the mermaid down, apologizing each time he had to wet his left arm.
Sleeping posed a different type of problem and finally, after the fourth time of getting up for his alarm he moved one of the wooden kitchen chairs into the bathroom and decided to just doze sitting there. He set it near the mermaid's tail so he could better see his face and leaned back to close his eyes.
Subsequent wettings were a little haphazard and more often in the dark. One time, in particular, Steve had pressed the snooze button by accident. He woke up to a tail fin popping him on the cheek. Steve patted it back and said, "Yeah, buddy, I know." The tail twitching grew more pronounced. "What? You like Buddy? That your name?" The next time, half asleep, the words slurred and he ended up saying Bucky. Steve wasn't sure if it was some weird hallucination brought on by lack of sleep or if he'd actually seen the mermaid smile, showing off that mouth full of teeth in the most gruesome display of happiness he could muster. "Bucky it is, then."
Steve woke up with a crick in his neck, wet socks, and a low-level migraine. He blinked and looked to his left to see the mermaid's face relaxed in rest. Steve's temple throbbed hard and he must have made some sort of groan because the mermaid jerked awake. His large pale eyes watched him without blinking.
"Time for another wet down, huh?" he asked. The mermaid took a deliberate breath and Steve nodded like that was a response. After he gave him his bath, Steve headed to his room to change out of his wet socks. While he was in the bedroom, he heard the front door open.
He could smell the fish before Sam and Tony made it through the door and he gagged on the smell. He covered his nose and mouth with his hand as he headed out to greet them. Tony flipped the light switch and Steve winced at the sharp stab the light caused behind his eyes.
"So, Wilson says you have a fish."
"Whales are mammals," Sam corrected in the same sort of tone that indicated he'd said it repeatedly on the six-hour drive from the city.
"Whatever, there's a whale in the bathtub. Can I see it? Why didn't you just put it back in the ocean?" Tony asked as he headed directly to the bathroom. Steve rushed to meet him at the door, utilizing his wide shoulders to block the room from view.
"Before you gawk, I ought to warn you—"
"What's a whale going to do?"
There was a crash of something against the doorframe over their heads and Steve jumped back out of the way of whatever it was as it fell, putting Bucky the mermaid in clear view of the two men at the door.
"—he doesn't like to be called a whale."
Tony and Sam stared in shock. Sam's mouth had fallen open and Tony's opened and closed a few times in utter speechlessness.
"That's not a whale," Sam said.
"His name is Bucky," Steve said, feeling proud. His temple throbbed as he spoke but it wasn't severe and he wasn't going to let it slow him down.
Tony recovered from his speechlessness and looked at Sam, mumbling, "Isn't that the—"
"Hush it. Not a word."
"Uhh, okay," Tony said, dropping the topic in favor of looking back at Bucky.
Steve was curious but didn't ask.
"So, you just, soak him—ugh!" Tony said as Bucky seemed to frown before turning his tail as much as he could in the tub. Brown, horrible smelling poop slipped out of one of the small openings at the under side of his tail and both Tony and Sam backed up at the hair-raising smell. "What the—?"
"It's natural," Steve said, feeling the need to defend him. He turned his back and took a step in their direction to get them out of the doorway before he pulled the door almost closed behind him. That was the second time Bucky had had a bowel movement as far as Steve could tell, though he thought Bucky might have peed earlier during one of his every-thirty-minute wet downs. "When he's done it's time for his wet down anyway, it'll just wash right down the drain."
"He could have at least waited for us to leave first," Tony was saying through the disgusted frown on his face.
"He's a mermaid. He probably doesn't heed to the same sort of social conventions we do. Plus defecating in the ocean is a bit different than a tub."
"Right," Sam said, recovering from his disgust faster than Tony. "Well, I bought five pounds of shrimp and fifteen pounds of the cheapest fish the monger was selling. I hope that's enough. I did a quick internet search about how much a whale eats but I wasn't going to buy 300 pounds of fish. This is just insane. Why didn't you put him back in the water?"
"You didn't notice, Wilson?" Tony asked as he headed into the kitchen to fiddle around with the coolers and totes of groceries they'd brought. "His left arm's torn up—"
"Gone," Steve answered. He flipped up the lid of one of the buckets beside the table and then closed it. "I think it was a shark bite. It's stopped bleeding when I wash him but I don't really know how to bandage it. Besides the tourniquet and the quick bandages we have for mid-combat wounds I'm not sure how to take care of it. I was thinking about Dr. Cho's Cradle, that she used on Clint after he got zapped with a HYDRA weapon. Do you think that she'd take a look at Bucky for me?"
Tony was nodding. "It wouldn't hurt to ask her. I'll call her and see if we can't get her out here. We'll need an NDA. Not that I think she'll leak what you've found to the press or anything but... if there's one there might be more, right? The government's going to want to experiment—"
Tony held up his hands like he was surrendering. "Hey, I didn't suggest it. I'm just saying."
"Keep him out of the papers, Tony. He's not just some animal. He's got agency," Steve said. He picked up one of the other buckets, this one containing strong smelling fish rather than shrimp.
"Agency, really?" Sam asked.
"He reacts like he understands what I say. He may not be able to communicate but he's definitely—"
"He could just be reacting to your tone of voice, Steve."
Steve handed the bucket to him and he took it. "Then go give him a wet down and feed him. I'm going to take a short hike."
"Where are you going?" Tony asked, stopping his fiddling. He turned and leaned back on the counter to rest on his elbows.
"Well, Bucky's an animal and doesn't stand on social convention—"
"Doesn't stand, haha," Tony muttered.
"—but I do. And he's in the only bathroom in the cabin." Steve shrugged. He headed to his bedroom to grab his socks and boots and came back out to sit on the couch to put them on.
"Right," Sam said, nodding. "See you in a bit. Any hints as to what you're sending me in to?" he asked, hefting the bucket and calling after Steve.
Tony blinked like he didn't know what had just happened. "Wait, what?"
Sam rolled his eyes. "He's going to go shit in the woods, Tony. Why don't you work on putting away the rest of the groceries? Unless you want to come give Bucky a bath with me?"
He raised his palm, gesturing for Sam to stop. "I think I'm good."
When Steve returned from his little jaunt, Sam's clothes were soaked, Tony had started taking apart the washing machine, and there was a strange sound coming from the closed bathroom door.
"Everything go okay?" Steve asked.
"Man, I don't have any idea what just happened," Sam said, shaking his head. "I turned the water on and started to spray it down and it freaked out. Tried to bite me. I dropped the sprayer, soaked myself, and gave up. I left the bucket of fish in there. Maybe it's hungry."
The high pitched squealing and deep throated clicking that was coming from the bathroom was starting to make more sense. "Did you use warm or cold water?"
"What? Cold. I mean, it lives in the ocean; it'd be used to cold water."
"He likes warm water," Steve said. He turned and headed towards the bathroom. He knocked on the door and peeked his head in and was welcomed with a whole fish thrown at his face. He dodged it and opened the door fully. Bucky stopped his whale song and bared his teeth at Steve. Looking down, Steve realized that the fish was looking a little mutilated. Its head and neck had teeth marks and its sides looked like it'd been scraped but it hadn't been torn into yet. "What's wrong with it, Buck?" he asked picking up the fish and stepping fully into the room.
The mermaid was doing an impressive pout now after hiding his teeth. He snorted and took a deep breath before flicking his tail.
"Did Sam not give you a pleasant wet down? He said you tried to bite him."
Bucky made an odd clicking noise that Steve assumed he used for echolocation.
Steve tossed the mutilated fish back into the bucket next to him and went around the tub to turn on the water and warm it up. He started at Bucky's tail, like usual, making sure to wet either side of his tail fin. He cleaned off the last of the poop from around his genitals and sprayed down the side of the tub to make sure it flowed down the drain. He worked his way up Bucky's torso and arms and grinned when Bucky pushed his face under the spray again.
"Your back and dorsal fin are probably dry, aren't they?" He hooked the sprayer into its cradle and went to the door, "Hey Sam, do you think you can come here a minute?"
"Are you going to leave me alone with the merman again without proper instruction?" he asked as he walked up.
"I just realized I haven't been getting his back, er, top side, except when the water runs down his sides. I was hoping you could spray him a bit if I hold him up?"
Sam frowned in Bucky's direction and Bucky glared back but didn't bare his teeth. "I'll try."
Steve carefully maneuvered his arms down between the mermaid and the tub and hoisted him up. Bucky swiped out with his right arm like he was scared he was going to lose his balance but didn't try to squirm out of Steve's arms. He felt the warm water rush over his forearms where Sam sprayed Bucky's dorsal side.
"It's got indentations where the tub was digging into its sides, Steve. This tub is too small for it."
"I know. I just don't know where else to put him," Steve said. Sam turned off the water and patted Steve on the arm. He slowly lowered Bucky back into the tub. When Bucky made a high pitched chirping sound, Steve apologized, "I know, it's too small, Bucky. We'll get you something better as soon as Dr. Cho can get a look at your arm. After you're healed you can go back home."
Sam watched him with a scrutinizing look for a few moments before slipping from the doorway. Steve decided to ignore him. If Sam wasn't going to bring up whatever the problem was, Steve wasn't going to pry.
Bucky made that deep-throated clicking noise again and looked forlornly at the bucket of fish. "What's wrong with it?" Steve moved closer but felt something crunch under his shoe. He bent down to look and found something small, translucent, and sharp under his feet. Scales.
"Do you scale your fish, Bucky?" he asked. He picked up the mutilated fish and ran his fingers down the side, feeling where some of the scales had been slicked off. "This is a two-handed job, isn't it?" Bucky twitched his tail and Steve dropped the fish back in the bucket again. He went to find a knife in the kitchen that he could use to scale the fish. As he walked past Tony, he paused to see if he could make sense of what he was doing. There was a lot of screws in a chipped teacup and the front screen door of the cabin was open, letting in cold air. He glanced out to see Tony wearing thick gloves and fiddling around with something that was smoking. Digging around in the cabinets, Steve was able to find a large, high-walled pan and a knife so he could scale the fish and hopefully not make a mess.
On his way back to the bathroom, he saw Sam putting on his coat. "Where did you find him, anyway?"
"Four miles southeast. There's a trail. There was no one on it when I went; beach was empty. I thought what I saw at the edge of the water was a dead body."
"And when you went out to get him, you realized he was alive." Sam nodded to himself after recapping what had happened. "All right then. I'm going to head out there. I don't know what I'm going to look for; not my own mermaid friend that's for sure. One mermaid hogging the bathroom is enough."
"Funny. I'm going to go help him scale his fish."
"Really? He's a sea creature, he doesn't eat them whole?"
"I found scales on the floor, and the fish he threw at me looked sort of like he'd tried to hold it in his mouth and scale it with one hand," Steve said. Sam shook his head and chuckled. Steve just gave him a sheepish shrug and headed to the bathroom with his pan and his knife. Scaling fish wasn't difficult and the amount of happy chirping and the almost happy-looking smiles—if it weren't for the teeth—on Bucky's face every time Steve was done and handed a fish to him had Steve smiling too.
About mid-afternoon Tony came into the bathroom to hook up an electronic sound-canceling barrier curtain between the clawfoot tub and the toilet and sent Steve out of the room so he could test his new gadget. When he emerged from the bathroom a minute or so later, he seemed entirely too pleased with himself. Steve checked the curtain for cameras or bugs when he next checked on Bucky. He didn't find anything. It wasn't that he didn't trust Tony, but sometimes, his ideas and plans didn't coexist nicely with Steve's.
Sam came back shortly thereafter and started dinner. Once the three of them were all settled around the table, picking over the last of the meal, Tony asked, "Did you find your own mermaid down at the beach? Perhaps a lady one with seashells covering her—"
"I didn't find anything. No bits of arm, not even seaweed to suggest he washed ashore. I think he beached himself."
Steve nodded, "I was thinking that too. Missing a limb is rough enough as a human when there are prosthetics to help make up the difference. Being in the ocean, I'd think missing a limb is a death penalty." He looked down and added, "Maybe he thought being up on the beach in the sun was the better way to go." He scratched his fork tines against the plate and watched his teammates in his periphery. Tony was flicking through something on his tablet but Sam was watching him with a shrewd look on his face.
"Yesterday's forecast was cloudy," Tony added before looking up.
"Figure of speech," Steve said, brushing away his comment and setting his fork down. "Where's Natasha?" he asked without bothering to transition into the new topic.
"She'll be along in a bit," Tony answered, setting down his tablet. "She went home with Clint; wanted to say hi to the kiddos, I think. So, I think Sam's too nice to say it but I've got to tell you the truth. You stink. You smell like fish."
"Well, the bathtub's occupied."
"Right, so I rigged up an outside shower—with hot water—you just got to be quick so you don't freeze your toes off or anything."
"At the expense of destroying the washing machine."
"I didn't destroy it. I repurposed it. What I mean is, clothes can be burnt—don't look at me like that, fine, they can be shoved in a bag to be washed when we get back to the compound—but you wandering around as you are is going to stink up the cabin worse than it already is, possibly destroy the fabrics in the bedroom you're staying it, and just make it completely miserable for the rest of us."
"I'm just going to be back in the bathroom with Bucky."
"Yeah, but does the mermaid smell like fish? I honestly can't tell because all I've been smelling since we picked up the seafood has been fish," Tony said.
"Then how do you know I stink?" Steve asked through a grin.
"You spent over an hour scraping the scales off fish for your friend in there. I have no doubt you smell."
Sam leaned back. "How about this: Steve can go take a shower and head to bed. I have a feeling you didn't get the best night's sleep—"
"Bucky needs to be wet down every thirty minutes or so."
"—right. You shower and sleep. Tony'll wash the dishes—"
"But the dishwasher—"
"Yeah, I know, I saw you sneak parts out of that too. That means you gotta wash them by hand since I cooked," Sam said. He chuckled as Tony pouted. "And I'll spend the night keeping an eye on the mermaid."
"Speaking of the night, Dr. Cho was in California for a meeting but now she's on a flight out and should be here tomorrow morning sometime. She's not bringing her equipment or anything, that's all still back at the compound, but she can do a preliminary examination of your new-found fish and see if there's anything she can do about the missing arm."
"Thanks. Both of you," Steve said. He stood and headed towards his bedroom to grab his clothes, stopped in the bathroom to grab a towel and tell Bucky goodnight, and then went to use Tony's outdoor shower. At least the cabin was isolated enough that he didn't have to worry about the neighbors.
Steve slept hard for several hours, but after the short cat naps he had the night before, his body thought he was in a dangerous situation and didn't let him stay asleep. Around four in the morning, he got dressed for the day and headed to the bathroom. The door was open and Sam looked to be asleep in the chair. Bucky, however, was not. His tail wiggled a little when he saw Steve in the darkness but there seemed to be dark circles under his eyes.
Steve didn't think he'd seen Bucky fully asleep yet and wondered if he was like a dolphin, where he would sleep with one eye open and half his brain engaged in case of danger. He didn't know much about Bucky's habitat at all. Was he an open ocean dweller? Did he spend time in sea caves close to the shore? Was he like a seal and moved between the water and land? He didn't seem suited for moving around on land as far as Steve could tell but then again, neither did seals and yet they did it.
Bucky breathed, a softer quieter sound than Steve had heard him make previously, like he knew and understood that Sam was sleeping. Steve yawned too and nodded. He stood sentry until Sam's alarm went off and then told him, "Go on to bed, Sam. I'll take care of him."
Sam was still half asleep but nodded and complied, shuffling in the direction of Steve's bedroom. They hadn't discussed sleeping arrangements but he knew there were only two bedrooms. Maybe that was another reason Natasha had found somewhere else to be. Steve sprayed Bucky down and used his hand to massage water through his hair to get his scalp. His hair felt odd and not much like hair at all. He held the sprayer so Bucky could shove his face under the water.
"All right, all right. All nice and wet, so I think I'm going to nap again. Maybe you should sleep too, Buck. You look tired," he said. He turned the water off and settled on the hard chair, leaning his head back against the wall. When his alarm went off around five, he was quick enough to shut it off before it really started up. He looked up at Bucky to see that he had finally succumbed to sleep. His head was tilted to the side and though his lips were parted, most of his jagged teeth were covered. In sleep, he looked much more like the man Steve had originally thought him to be. His body was still overwhelmingly large due to his blubber. The ocean was cold and if Bucky dived deep for food then it made sense that he'd have a thick layer of it. As Steve studied him and thought about taking pencil to paper, something niggled at the back of his brain. Bucky reminded him of something or more accurately, of someone. He didn't know who it could be but the low throb starting up in his temples suggested that whoever he reminded Steve of must have been from his time in the war.
He wanted to look away, to stop thinking about it because he knew the longer he thought on it and the harder he tried to push through the mental block, the worse his migraine would be, but it felt so close to the surface. Just on the tip of his tongue, as if he could taste the recognition. His temple throbbed again and Bucky seemed to jerk awake like he could somehow feel Steve's pain starting up. He huffed out a breath and inhaled deeply. He looked over at Steve and took another deliberate breath before wiggling his tail. He bumped it against Steve's cheek; it felt dry and it scraped lightly against his stubble.
"Time for another wet down, huh?"
Several hours later, Tony and Sam awoke and started their day. Sam brought Steve a cup of coffee, turning on the light switch when his hand was free. Steve winced. He promptly turned the light back off. "When you could sleep, did you sleep okay?" he asked softly.
Steve nodded, focusing on the taste and heat of the coffee.
After another sip of his own, Sam said, "Tony says Dr. Cho should be here in an hour. What do you want for breakfast?"
Sam nodded and turned his attention to the mermaid. "Did you let him sleep?" Bucky made a series of low-throated clicks and twitched his tail in response. Sam raised his eyebrows and nodded. "I see what you mean about how he responds. It might still have to do with the tone of voice more than his understanding, though."
"Yeah, I guess." They were quiet for a moment before Steve added, "Eggs. I think I'd like some eggs."
Dr. Cho arrived about a half hour later, just as they were finishing up breakfast. Steve stayed in the kitchen to wash the dishes and he could hear her and Sam talking in the front room. "Now, I know your specialty is humans but we've got a unique case."
"Tony said it was an exotic whale. I don't know much about marine life but since he offered to fly me out..."
"It's a mermaid!" Tony called from further in the cabin.
There was a stunned quality to the quiet in the next room and Steve dried his hands quickly and joined them to see her reaction. Helen's eyebrows were bunched up on her forehead as she blinked at Sam like she was expecting him to explain.
"A mermaid..." she finally asked. Her gaze darted to Steve at the doorway. "You're telling me that there's a half-fish woman in your bathroom?"
"I think he's closer to a dolphin than a fish, actually," Steve answered. He waved her his way as he headed towards the bathroom. "His name is Bucky and we called you because well, he seems to have lost in a fight with a shark." He tapped on the door and peeked past it. Bucky was eating shrimp. He seemed to have mastered peeling them with his teeth and one hand but he hadn't understood Steve's instruction to throw the peels in the nearby trashcan. Steve frowned at the mess. "Bucky, the doctor is here. Remember I told you about the doctor?" He pushed open the door and went to move his chair further into the corner out of Helen's way.
When he looked back she was just staring slackjawed at Bucky. Bucky grabbed another shrimp, peeled it with quick works of his claws and swallowed it whole, dropping the peel on the floor over the side of his tub. Steve wasn't sure he wanted to think about why Bucky had all those teeth if he didn't use them to chew his food.
"Sam, can you find me a broom?" Steve asked raising his voice a little and wishing he hadn't as his temples throbbed with it.
Helen took the few steps into the bathroom slowly. "Does it bite?"
"When I first found him on the beach he tried to bite me and when Sam first wet him down with cold water rather than warm he tried to bite him," Steve said.
She nodded and reached out, tentatively touching Bucky's torso where the skin was pale. It was the same texture as his tail, rubbery and smooth. Bucky didn't reach for another shrimp. He let his arm fall and rest on his abdomen near where she was touching. "Can he understand us?"
"That's debatable," Sam said, returning to the bathroom with the broom. He handed it off to Steve who started sweeping up the shrimp casings. "He obviously doesn't understand 'hey, put the shrimp peels in the trashcan' but he responds when he's asked a question."
"Is it time for another wet down?" Steve asked.
Bucky looked at him and twitched his tail flicking water in his face. Steve felt like now that he had brought it up he couldn't not give it to him. Helen's eyes were wide as she took in the interaction. Steve worked around her and turned the warm water on to wet Bucky down again. As usual, when Steve got close to his head, Bucky shoved his face under the spray. Steve shut off the water and looked up to see Helen looking over the wound on Bucky's left side. She wasn't touching him but Bucky was watching, his wide round eyes narrowed and his teeth bared a little.
When she was done she stood back up, having not touched anything. "Why did you pull him out of the water?"
"He'd beached himself, I think. I don't know how well he can live without one arm. He's okay peeling shrimp one-handed but he scales his fish and he seems to need two hands for that."
She nodded, her gaze returning to the stump and ripped flesh. It had stopped seeping blood when Steve wet it down, so he hoped that meant it was healing what it could. He didn't know much about how the Cradle worked but he thought they might have to reopen the wound. He wasn't looking forward to that.
"If it can't survive on its own in its natural habitat and you're unwilling to sell it to an aquarium, wouldn't it be more prudent to... put it down?"
Bucky's eyes widen and the skin around his mouth pulled back even further, baring all of those horrifyingly sharp teeth. He let out a high-pitched whalesong-like sound that ripped into Steve's aching head. Steve's eyelids half closed at the pain but he forced them back open and placed his hand on Bucky's good shoulder. The mermaid calmed a little at his touch, lowering his volume but not stopping. He flipped his tail as much as he could and Steve pinned the doctor with the strongest disappointed face he could muster. "No. Putting him down is not an option."
At Bucky's reaction to her words, Helen had backed up and cringed. Sam and Tony had both come rushing closer as well. Sam's eyes were wide but he was nodding like something had been affirmed for him. Tony seemed confused.
"Hey, Doc, the Cradle. That couldn't work on fish-man here?" he said, loud to try and get over Bucky's distressed whalesong.
She was at the door, having backed completely out of the room. Bucky quieted down but still stared at her, still bared his teeth. She finally tore her gaze from him and looked at Tony. "The Cradle is meant for the regeneration of human tissue. If I could use it, I'd have to completely recalibrate it for whatever DNA it has first. The main issue, though, has to do with the fact that the Cradle only works on soft tissues. There's no bone structure to work with."
"What about a metal skeleton? Surgical steel?" Tony asked.
She shook her head. "Its body may reject it. There's no way of knowing beforehand. That much steel would be heavy and could cause it to sink. Without extensive x-rays and with no previously studied specimens, there isn't a way to know for sure the skeletal framework on its remaining limb. Although its upper half looks human-like, it's internal structure may differ. Plus it's expens—"
At that argument, Tony turned and tilted his head at Helen like she had lost her mind.
"You already told me when you first called me in that you weren't willing to sell it. Do you really want to put that much money and work into a creature that once you return it to the wild, you may never find it again?"
"They track whales all the time."
"Whales don't have opposable thumbs and precisive digital manipulation capable of removing the trackers. This," she said, pointing back at Bucky, "does. We don't know its age. It may be coming to the end of its natural lifespan as it is, and if and when it dies in the ocean, we may not be able to retrieve the body for study. That's a lot of time, energy, and money put into a small percentage return on investment."
Tony frowned at her. "Natasha's bringing a truck. We're going to take him back to the compound so we can do all those x-rays and I can work on making it a new arm. Whether it's just a skeleton that the Cradle can add new tissue on to or an entire new one." She didn't look convinced and he turned her around and gestured in Steve and Bucky's direction. "Come on, you can't look at that face and say no."
Steve didn't know if Tony was referring to him or Bucky. He supposed it didn't particularly matter.
Natasha arrived in the early afternoon with a box truck. Sam was the one to usher her in after telling Tony to wait in the bathroom. Apparently, they were interested in seeing Natasha's reaction to Bucky as well. Helen entered the bathroom but when Bucky bared his teeth at her she kept to the wall furthest away from him. Steve sat in his kitchen chair at the foot of the tub.
"Why does it smell like fish in here?" Natasha asked from the doorway. Her eyes were closed and her nose wrinkled a little. Sam walked around her and stood inside the bathroom to get a better view of her face.
"Why don't you open your eyes and find out?" Steve said.
She opened her eyes. Her mouth didn't go slack and she didn't gape speechlessly at the mermaid, but she did blink twice like she wasn't sure she should trust her eyes. Her attention turned to Steve but he was more focused on Bucky. When Bucky had seen her he'd let out another distressed whale-call and flipped his tail, smacking Steve in the head with it.
"Let's move this out of the bathroom. I think he's had enough visitors for a while."
When the group of them had adjourned to the living room and the bathroom door closed Natasha asked, "How did you get it out of the water?"
Steve took a deep breath. "He was mostly beached. I just had to drag him a little way onto the sand before I picked him up."
Her lips quirked a little. "Should we have bought you a puppy, Steve?" She glanced back at the bathroom for a moment before adding, "Mermaids probably don't make the best pets."
Sam was looking at him again. "I didn't realize you actually went in the water to get him."
Steve shrugged. After he'd got them both out he hadn't thought much more about it. He'd had something else to focus on. "I thought he was a dead body and I was going to pull him onto the sand and come back and call the police. When he tried to bite me I guess I was too shocked to notice."
They talked a while longer until Steve's phone alarm went off and he excused himself to give Bucky another wet down. He was greeted with a series of clicks and a hand reaching towards the food bucket that had been shifted out of reach. Much of the ice in the bottom had started to melt but Bucky didn't care, digging into the shrimp and pulling out one as soon as Steve removed the lid. While Bucky ate, Steve soaked him down.
His head was still aching from the suppressed memory this morning and he was glad for the break. He didn't feel like being social and having to think while his head was throbbing like it was. Since Bucky was eating, Steve turned off the water instead of doing his hair and Bucky clicked at him and even gave a soft whale-call when he realized he didn't get to stick his face in the water. "After you finish eating, Buck," Steve told him. He settled into the chair and closed his eyes, hoping that, maybe with a little more sleep, the pain behind his eyes would ease.
Before his alarm went off again, the door slammed open and Tony entered. He frowned and turned the light on. "Why are you sitting here in the dark? Anyway, we've sort of decided that we can't relax here like we'd planned, you know, because of the whole one-bathroom-taken-up-by-fish-boy here, so we're going to head back to the compound. I figure we can wet him down right before we get him in the truck. We'll have our own little convoy. Natasha and Dr. Cho are going to drive the truck, Sam'll follow up on your bike—I can't believe you rode that thing, it's freezing out—and I'll drive mine back. You can ride wherever you want, by the way. You're welcome."
Steve was still having trouble opening his eyes in the bright interior of the bathroom and Tony's fast delivery had him reeling a little but he figured he caught the gist of what was said. "Bucky needs a wet down every half hour. It's a six-hour drive to the compound."
"Well, we could stop every half hour, open the truck and spray him down that way—with the risk of anybody driving behind us snapping a picture of our precious cargo here and plastering it on the news channel with the biggest payout or... I've already rigged up a simple two-headed shower system that will run every half hour automatically as long as the truck is in motion and we have enough buckets of water." He paused to look over at Bucky who had just put his fingers in his mouth past his teeth to eat his latest piece of shrimp. Tony stepped to the side to look in the shrimp bucket and nodded. "And I think we just got another empty bucket." He looked back up at Steve and gestured towards the sprayer, his hand coming awfully close to Bucky's face. "So are you going to spray him down, or what?"
Steve nodded slowly and got to his feet. He wobbled a little and grabbed the back of the chair to steady himself.
From the doorway, Sam asked, "You all right?"
Steve nodded again and regretted it. He stilled his head but left his eyes closed for another few seconds. "Yeah, I'm just—"
"You've got a severe migraine, don't you?"
He cracked his eyelids open to peer at Sam. "Yeah," he admitted.
"After we get Bucky settled in the truck—I really don't think any of us but you can carry him—then you're going to take your medicine."
Steve made a face and, knowing he was whining, said, "I don't like taking it." He hated it, in fact. Bruce had collaborated with his other doctors to create something that worked specifically for him. And it did work. It just knocked him out for six hours at a time and practically nothing could wake him up. It made him vulnerable.
"Too bad," Sam said. "You look half out of it already. Come on, man. You'll feel better after you take it."
Bucky snorted out an exhale and smacked at Steve's hand with his tail. Steve looked over at him. "You're fussing at me too, huh?" He made another clicking noise.
"Who knew whales could vocalize so much?" Tony asked. Bucky reached out and grabbed at Tony, bringing his open, sharp-toothed mouth towards Tony's arm. Tony jerked back and put his hands up. "All right, all right. I got you. Not a whale. Right."
"Don't bite, Buck. It's impolite."
Steve wet Bucky down one last time and then scooped him up and carried him out to the box truck. The back door was rolled up and there was a bright blue plastic mat lining the bottom. He walked up the ramp and set Bucky down as gently as he could. "You're going to be okay, Bucky. See," he said, pointing at the two buckets in the corner. They still smelled a little like the fish that had been in them but so did Bucky, really. "Tony's got a water system all set up." He blinked slowly before focusing on the mermaid again. "I'll get you out as soon as we get to the compound." He hated leaving him there, just laying in the back of the truck like that but he didn't know what else to do.
Sam rolled the door down and locked it shut. "I think I grabbed all of your stuff, you might want to do a walk through to check?"
"Yeah, all right."
Steve checked the bedroom and then the dryer and what was left of the washing machine as Natasha came out of the bathroom with a bunch of wet towels and the broom. "What happened to my washer?"
"Tony," he answered.
"Of course," she said, sighing. She carried her armload of things towards the kitchen and Steve followed.
He grabbed a glass and filled it with tap water, then opened the little bottle with his migraine pills. He took the dosage and swallowed it dry before draining the water. After a quick wash of the glass, he hefted the cooler and took it and his bag to Tony's car and put them in the trunk. He briefly debated where to ride but figured he'd be the most comfortable in the back of Tony's car, so he went ahead and crawled in, getting as comfortable as he could in the back seat. He closed his eyes and was asleep before Tony got in the car to drive.
"Hey Steve," Sam called softly. Steve felt a hand on his arm squeeze twice. It took an enormous amount of effort to open his eyes and they closed before he saw much of anything. He could feel the cold air from beyond the car, though, so he knew Sam was standing in the open door reaching in. "We're home, Steve. Bucky's giving us some trouble."
That was enough to get Steve to try his eyelids again. They worked that time, less fluttering and more opening. He was still drowsy despite having slept the entire six-hour drive, and his head still hurt. He nodded and felt more cold air swirl around him as Sam stepped back. Steve hoisted himself out of Tony's car slowly and blinked a few times to get his bearings. It was dark, as they'd left in the middle of the afternoon, and the yellow tint of the outdoor lanterns that dotted the compound was easier on his eyes. He spotted the truck and headed in that direction, taking in the modified stretcher next to it. It looked like it had been frankensteined together to create a very large, slightly lopsided one. Steve walked up the ramp and Bucky greeted him with a soft whale-call that seemed much too loud in the metal confines of the truck. He bent his knees and scooped his arms up underneath Bucky, walking out sideways so as to not bump any part of him on the truck. He bypassed the stretcher, not trusting it, and walked along the sidewalk.
Dr. Cho fell into step beside him and said, "If you'll just take it through the emergency doors, Captain, we can get it set up in medical."
At her words, Bucky freaked out. He twisted in Steve's grip and squirmed violently. Steve was still a bit wobbly from the medicine and the migraine and Bucky's bulk shifting in his arms knocked him off-balance. His legs went out from under him and he landed on his tailbone and back. His head knocked back hard onto the sidewalk. Pain flared in his back where his bruises had been healing and his headache amped back up to eleven. He was having trouble breathing too, as much of Bucky's body was laying over his chest.
"Steve!" Sam shouted and came rushing closer.
Steve blinked to try and stop the way the world was spinning on him. Bucky let out an ear-piercing whale-call that had Steve reclosing his eyes. He felt someone's hand cup his cheek and then slide back like they were checking the back of his head. He didn't think he'd cracked anything open. He opened his eyes to see it was Bucky's hand. His head was tilted and for a moment he looked very human but then he turned and lashed out, squirming again on Steve's stomach.
Natasha shouted and even more people swarmed. Sam and Tony grabbed Steve under the arms and dragged him out from under Bucky. Bucky was still wailing in distress but in addition, Steve could hear Natasha swearing in a mix of Russian and English.
Though he still couldn't keep his eyes open or pull in a full breath, he asked as best he could. "What happened to Nat?"
"He bit me! He fucking bit me!"
"Sorry, Nat," Steve mumbled. He shook his head—which did not help—and forced his eyes to open and his lungs to work. He tried to get up but Sam's hand on his shoulder stopped him.
"Whoa, wait a minute. You fell hard. We should get you checked over, you've probably got a concussion."
"Probably," he answered, sitting up anyway.
Wanda and Vision had joined them and Dr. Cho was holding a bandage to Natasha's hip. Bucky was just laying on his left side on the grass, mouth and teeth bloody and hand curled into a claw. He was still making that distressed song as he stared around, alert and on edge like he was in danger.
Steve took another deep, painful breath and stood. Sam called out a warning to stay back but Steve walked closer to the mermaid anyway. He spoke softly, "Bucky. Bucky, it's okay. No one's going to hurt you. You're safe. You don't gotta go to medical. I'll... There's a lap pool. How about that? Would you like to be back in the water? Bucky?"
The mermaid had quieted down and his hand had relaxed. His teeth were still bared but Steve wasn't too worried about that. He pointed to Bucky's left side. "How's your arm, Buck? You're laying on concrete, it's probably hurting." Bucky shifted, bending in the middle as much as he was able and then half rolling onto his back. His dorsal fin folded flat underneath him. Steve was right. Fresh blood was dripping from the wounds that had reopened in the fall and tussle. Steve moved closer and laid his hand on Bucky's torso for a moment. When the mermaid didn't attempt to bite him, he situated himself so he could pick him up again.
"Steve, Vision could do that. Tony could do that if he got a suit—don't—"
Steve ignored Sam's good advice and picked up Bucky as gently as he was able. He stood there holding him a moment, pressing into the pain at his back and in his chest. His migraine just throbbed on. He turned and headed back the way he'd originally walked, completely away from the medical section of the compound. The others sort of all walked behind in a dumbfounded stupor.
When Bucky caught sight of the lap pool he made more clicking noises and his eyes went wide. He looked back to Steve and gave him a gruesome smile, Natasha's blood still staining his teeth. "Yeah, I know. You've missed being in the water." When he got close, he paused, unsure of how to get Bucky from his arms into the water without dropping him. He knelt at the side and lowered Bucky's tail first. At the first touch of water, he wiggled and Steve let go. Bucky flopped into the water and sunk down, before turning and swimming half the length of the pool and back. He breached the water and snorted out a breath and then turned and swam again.
Steve smiled. When Bucky was swimming away from him in the dark, it was really difficult to tell that he wasn't just a small orca. There was a light grey patch right behind his dorsal fin that Steve hadn't noticed before. He felt someone walk up beside him and glanced to his left. It was Tony. "I hope this is okay; I didn't think about the chlorine."
"Don't worry about it. Pepper had a contact at one of the big aquariums that houses dolphins and whales and while we were at the cabin, I flew the contact out. The system was converted to hold a whale—with the caveat that it wasn't big enough for one, of course—but it was finished up about an hour ago."
Steve looked over at him and smiled. "Thanks, Tony. I really appreciate it."
Bucky clicked and the whale-call he let out sounded almost happy from the other end of the pool.
"I think he found the shrimp," Tony said.
Bucky swam quickly and when he was just a few yards away breached and threw something at them. Steve reached up and caught it automatically, only just realizing that it was the lid to a five-gallon bucket. It smelled like shrimp.
"Hey, he likes to play frisbee; just like you," Tony teased. He patted Steve on the arm as he turned to walk away.
After another few moments of standing near the pool trying to will his migraine to go away, Steve turned and headed towards medical. He wanted to see how badly Natasha had been hurt and maybe see what Wanda and Vision thought of Bucky.
He walked along the outside of the building, more willing to deal with the freezing cold air than the brightness of the interior lights just then, and entered medical through the emergency doors. He blinked in surprise to hear raised voices arguing and walked on quiet feet to the doorway to see what the commotion was.
Dr. Cho was standing with her arms crossed and her hip cocked next to the bed Natasha was laying on. Nat was frowning and holding something balled up against her hip. It looked like the bite wound was still bleeding.
"It's a dangerous, wild animal who bit one of your teammates. It needs to be put down," Helen was arguing. Steve felt a knot of anxiety firm up under his sternum at her words and he glanced at Nat. He was upset that Bucky had bitten her but he didn't want him euthanized because of it.
"He's a mermaid! He's unique. First ever of his species found alive and you want to kill him?" Tony argued back.
Sam's argument was a little more personal. "Did you see the way he reacted to Steve? Or heard the way he talks to him? Bucky's not just some creature. Putting him down would devastate Steve!"
Natasha glanced at the doorway at Sam's words and her frown flattened out when she saw him. "I don't want him euthanized," she said quietly. "As I was the one he bit, I think I have the most voting power here. Bucky was out of the water, distressed, and trying to make sure Steve was okay—did you guys see that too?—he was checking the back of Steve's head for a wound where he cracked it on the sidewalk. I'm the one who darted forward and tried to separate them. I already make him agitated, unlike the rest of you, I haven't seen him calm. I should have known better than to get so close."
"Captain?" Vision said from further in the room revealing Steve's position. "What do you think?"
Everyone turned to look at him and he stepped further inside. He squinted to try and ease the sharp glare of the lights in his eyes. "Please don't put him down. I'm sorry he bit you, Natasha."
Her lips quirked. "In that situation, a dog probably would have too."
"And we would put a dog down in that situation. I don't see how it's any different," Helen argued.
Sam tipped his head to the side like he was about to say something but stopped himself. "Why don't we all get settled and head to bed. Natasha's still bleeding and Steve needs checking over, he's probably got a concussion on top of his migraine. It's late. Cooler heads will prevail in the morning."
Helen pursed her lips but turned, focusing her attention on the wound at Natasha's hip. Steve saw just a flash of ripped and jagged flesh where Bucky's sharp teeth had torn into her. Even with the Cradle, that might scar. He felt horrible. It was his fault Nat got bit. All of it was his fault. If he hadn't rescued the mermaid... if he'd just left him on the beach where he'd found him instead of taking him back to the cabin... His temple throbbed extra hard and he longed for his bed.
He made his way out of the room, wanting to go to his bedroom but also wanting to check on Bucky again when Wanda called out to him. "Steve?" He turned and raised his eyebrows at her.
"Did you get your memories back?"
He blinked, confused for a moment at the question before it registered. "No."
"Oh. When I first saw you and your mermaid, I could see images from your war. Bullets flying. Snow. That sort of thing."
He frowned. He didn't want to think about this now. He was just so tired and his head hurt so bad. "Are you sure it was my war you saw?"
"I..." she paused, stepping closer, "I saw the shield. And the uniform. Maybe your memories are just... hidden."
He nodded, regretting the motion immediately as the world around him swam out of focus. "The doctors said they were probably suppressed rather than forgotten. Maybe you just saw past whatever is blocking them. I've been fighting a migraine for the past day or so."
"I can't see anything now. I'm sorry."
"It's fine, Wanda. I don't... I don't really need them. It was a long time ago." Although he said those same words to himself whenever he had a flare up—especially when veterans would stop him and talk with him—they sounded flat and pitiful when he spoke them to her. He tried to give her a little smile to go along with them, but the expression on her face said that she could see through it.
"Hey Steve," Sam called from Natasha's room again, "We've got to check you over."
Steve closed his eyes and sighed. He took a moment to straighten his spine where he'd subconsciously curled in on himself in pain. He gave a parting nod to Wanda and Vision and headed back to Sam.
He didn't really remember what happened after he sat down to be examined, but he woke up in his bedroom and his migraine had eased significantly. There was still an echo of it left that made him want to be cautious with every step he took or every move he made that might cause the pain to flare back up.
The doctors had called it a migraine hangover, and like an alcohol-induced one, he needed proteins to make the feeling fade. So he took a hot shower and dressed and then headed to the communal kitchen. Sam was already there, grabbing a cup of orange juice after a run. He gestured with his cup to ask if Steve wanted any. He started to say no but changed his mind. He was hungry and orange juice sounded good.
Without a word, Sam poured him his own glass and slid it to him across the counter. Natasha emerged from her rooms next, walking gingerly and favoring her right side a little.
"Sorry, Natasha," Steve said again. She waved dismissively at him and then caught sight of what he was drinking. She debated it and then went to the coffee maker instead. It was already steaming hot and waiting, so she poured a cup.
"Thanks, Friday," Nat murmured into her cup.
The lights dimmed even lower than they were once in acknowledgment but the AI didn't say anything.
It took Steve a moment to figure out why. "My migraine's eased, guys, thanks though."
"Want some eggs?" Sam asked, though his voice was still soft.
"Full spread, really."
Sam chuckled. "How about you, Nat?"
"I could eat."
Steve helped Sam cook and by the time they were settling down to breakfast, all of the other Avengers had wandered in to eat. Tony yawned but after a sip of coffee and a bite of bacon, seemed ready to start the day. "So, I think we need to get Dr. Cho and Bucky the mermaid on speaking terms today. She's right in the fact that without x-rays I don't have much to work with in order to make him a new arm and we don't know if the Cradle is capable of attaching muscle tissue to surgical steel like I was thinking."
"Did you sleep?" Steve interrupted.
"A little. I was also thinking our newest resident might get bored in the empty pool so I thought about building a larger tank—further out, maybe out past the SHIELD obstacle courses?" He looked up at Steve and then around at the others. "I mean, we are keeping him, right?"
Steve supposed he hadn't thought beyond getting Bucky's arm healed but he supposed that keeping him might be better—especially if they couldn't get the Cradle to work—but he felt bad about taking Bucky out of the ocean. What if he had a family? "I don't know. I guess."
"Well, that way we can keep an eye on him and stuff. Observation. I think it would ease some of Dr. Cho's worries." He shrugged and took another bite of food. "Besides, you want to to keep him around, right? You can't—well, I guess you could technically retire and move to a cottage by the sea—but I'd think it'd be hard to have a mermaid best friend if he still lives in the ocean. You wouldn't get to talk to him nearly as often."
Steve thought Tony was being silly. The idea of retiring didn't sound appealing. At least not yet. He wouldn't know what to do with himself.
When they had all finished eating, Steve spotted Natasha and Wanda slip out of the room. He wondered briefly where they were going but decided it wasn't his business. He and Vision helped Sam clear the table. Tony didn't put up any complaints about doing the dishes this time, seeing as the dishwasher worked here. "Go talk to Bucky-boy out there—take a coat, there was frost this morning—you convince him that the doctor's not going to hurt him and Sam and I will talk to Dr. Cho," Tony insisted. As Steve was leaving, he heard Tony ask Friday to queue up some rock music. His head was feeling much better but he still didn't want to tempt it, so he didn't feel bad getting shooed out of the kitchen. He swung by his room to grab his coat and headed through the common room towards the pool.
Natasha and Wanda were out there already. Nat raised her finger to her lips when he opened the door and he made sure to close it as quietly as he could. He joined them, walking softly until he could look over their shoulders to see what they were seeing. Bucky was floating on his back, sleeping from the look of it. He was mostly underwater but every few moments his tail would swish through the water to raise his face up so he could breathe. Every breath caused a burst of steam and water particles to cloud up above his face in the cold morning air. He looked very relaxed and at a distance, would definitely be confused for a human.
"Have you seen him sleep?" Nat whispered, the words so soft that if her breath hadn't ghosted up in front of her he might not have thought she'd spoken.
"Yeah," Steve said, still looking at Bucky.
After a moment she asked, "Does he remind you of someone?"
Steve's temples gave a single throb. He shook his head. "Not anyone I can remember. Why? Does he look like someone I should remember?" he asked.
She flattened her lips and shook her head. Bucky snorted another breath and inhaled longer and deeper, arching his chest up to stretch. He opened his eyes and looked at them, blinking slowly, before swimming in their direction. He didn't seem to notice Natasha was there until he got close and then he made a sad whale-call before flipping and swimming away.
She frowned. "Sorry."
"I don't know why he doesn't like you."
The door behind them opened and Sam, Tony, Vision, and Helen walked out. Steve nodded in greeting and walked down along the side of the pool. In his periphery he saw Natasha retreat further back, so she could still hear the doctor's diagnosis but not agitate the mermaid.
"Bucky, hey," he said. He knelt at the side of the pool and Bucky approached him. Despite his overall whale-like shape, when he was in the water he seemed capable of bobbing mostly vertical which made talking to him easier. He even reached out like he wanted Steve to join him in the water. "I know you aren't particularly fond of Helen but she's our resident doctor. She needs to look at your arm."
Bucky rolled to the side and swam off. Steve started to stand to walk further down the pool but the mermaid turned and splashed his tail, then came back to Steve. He didn't know what that was supposed to mean but he settled back onto his knees.
The mermaid seemed to pout before snorting another breath. He dived and swam towards the end of the pool where Helen was standing near the ladder. He was cautious and turned around to look at Steve once before swimming up and grasping the pool ladder with his right hand. He turned, allowing his left side to face Helen and pinned Steve with a glare. Steve stood and headed back their way.
Helen was looking over the stump and after a hesitant moment, reluctantly reached out to touch. "This has been cut."
"What?" Steve asked, feeling he must have missed something.
"The stump; it was surgically cut." She cupped underneath the stump and Bucky shifted his shoulder, allowing her to see the bottom of it. "There are suture scars. That means it survived in the ocean without its arm already. The shark bite wounds could be stitched closed, which would promote healing but they're already scabbing over. I don't think it beached itself because it couldn't survive. Maybe it was just tired after the shark attack and beached itself for safety to recover."
She stood and Bucky dove, swimming all the way to the end of the pool.
"The stump looks atrophied. It doesn't seem to have the same blubber density or muscle mass as his other arm. There are scars all over the stump itself and up over its shoulder like something had latched on and only recently came off."
"Something like a metal arm?" Natasha asked, stepping closer again now that Bucky had decided that he didn't want to be near them.
Steve tilted his head. "Didn't you say the Winter Soldier had a metal arm? The one that trained you, I mean?"
Sam was nodding, remembering the conversation she'd shared with them. When they'd found that SHIELD was corrupt and that HYDRA had sent their asset—the Winter Soldier—after them, Nat had shared what she knew. Only, what she knew wasn't much, as it turned out. The Winter Soldier was a code name passed down to as many as eight or nine different highly trained operatives. One of which—the one whom Natasha believed to be the first—trained her. He had a metal arm.
"Really? You think Bucky the mermaid is your missing HYDRA assassin?" Tony asked.
"He has a passing resemblance from what I can remember. They wiped some of my memories after that. I don't know why," Natasha said. She folded her arms over her chest. It shifted her stance enough to mask the protective way her shoulders curled over at the admission. She didn't like sharing this information. "I think his name was James."
A sudden spike of pain shot through Steve's temple and he winced. Everyone's attention was on Natasha so he didn't think they noticed.
"Is no one going to acknowledge that your missing beau now has a tail?" Tony asked, sounding a bit more hysterical.
"There are other types of magic out there," Wanda said, looking from Tony to Natasha. "Sea Hags. Witches that draw their power from the oceans."
Tony didn't look convinced. "Like Ursula from the Little Mermaid?"
"They aren't half-octopus if that's what you're asking. They're normal women. They just... have a bit more power than your typical practitioner," Wanda said, shrugging a little.
"Where did you—how do you even know this sort of thing?"
"The internet. There are forums and stuff," she answered.
He turned and looked at Steve, rolling his eyes in a can you believe this? gesture. Steve didn't doubt that she could have found something like that on the internet. He knew he hadn't even scratched the surface of the amount of information there and he'd been out of the ice for four years.
Vision was nodding, agreeing with her. So was Nat. "Give me two days. I need to look into something," Natasha said. She turned and left them all standing around the pool.
Steve made to walk around the edge of the pool to grab a chair when he was splashed with a giant wave of water. Bucky turned around and bobbed, leaning back and clicking. It sounded almost like giggling.
Steve spent most of his day poolside with Bucky. Sam had found some simple little water-safe balls that would sink when wet so he and Bucky spent some time playing fetch, though Steve was reluctant to call it that. He still wasn't sure what he thought about Natasha and Wanda's theory, that Bucky used to be a man. If that were the case, he felt wrong calling the play they were doing fetch. It dehumanized him. Which was ridiculous, he wasn't human at the moment.
He knew Natasha was much older than she looked, older than Tony or Bruce by a few years. He knew she'd been experimented on and had a light version of the Serum. Was it possible that Bucky the mermaid had once been James the man? He tried to visualize what Bucky would have looked like as a man. Was he originally that pale? Did he have wrinkles around his eyes? Steve's migraine seemed to creep back up.
When Bucky got tired of diving for no reward, Steve went in search of fish for him and found a few five-gallon buckets in the walk-in freezer. He grabbed one and a knife and headed back out to the pool. He used the tarp that he'd pulled off the deck chair he'd been using and worked at scaling some fish.
Bucky sang him a happy sounding whalesong and did a lot of jumps. He couldn't seem to breach entirely because the pool wasn't deep enough but he did try. The third time Bucky reached out and did something that looked like a come-hither motion with all five fingers, Steve addressed him. "Maybe when it's not winter, I'll get in the pool with you. Tony said he's going to build you a proper tank. Would you like that? Something really big to give you lots of space?" Bucky stopped and tilted his head, clicking in a deeper pitch than usual. Steve wasn't sure what the mermaid was trying to ask. He wasn't sure if he could get in the water. Would his fear of the ocean extend to salt-water pool systems? He didn't know.
Bucky turned and seemed to jump, reaching farther outside the pool than Steve thought he could and snagged one of the scaled fish he'd set there. The mermaid tore into it happily, making a cheery red mess and Steve tried not to cringe. If Bucky had been James, he wondered what the man he was thought about the food he ate. Was the man still in there?
It got colder as the day wore to an end and Steve took to doing calisthenics in the dead grass nearby to keep warm rather than go inside. Every time he would think about going in and leaving Bucky alone, his system would flood with anxiety. What if something happened to him while Natasha was looking for answers? What if Bucky needed him and he wasn't there?
Sam even brought him a big bowl of soup around dinner time. "Are you going to come inside, Steve? It's freezing out here."
"I think I'll keep Bucky company a while longer," he answered. He was cold but he'd survived the cold before; he knew he had, it felt familiar in a way though he couldn't remember the specifics.
The longer he'd contemplated who James was and what he would look like and what he thought of being Bucky, the more his migraine returned. With the return of his migraine, Steve felt pathetic. He shouldn't be having them. He was a super soldier. That didn't help with the feelings of weakness and vulnerability. He should be able to push through them. He couldn't remember needing any sort of medicine when he did the USO circuit. Migraines, weakness of any kind really, just didn't happen to him. Whatever had happened to him in the ice—that's what had changed him. Steve spent the next few hours staring mulishly at the pool water. Bucky had seemed to want to nap when twilight settled in and Steve continued to sit there. He wasn't really thinking, in fact, he was probably half-sleeping, but it wasn't a restful doze at all.
Sometime in the middle of the night, Vision brought him a blanket and laid it over him but didn't speak.
When morning came and Steve still hadn't moved, Sam came back with reinforcements. Wanda stood at Sam's elbow, worrying her hands. Every so often she would look over at Bucky, who seemed to be hiding at the far end of the pool. Or maybe he was eating the last of his shrimp, Steve wasn't sure.
His headache was horrible. Even the soft sound of the water gently lapping against the side of the pool wall seemed to echo in his head, the early dawn light that was starting to creep over the horizon caused another sharp stab into his brain, and every thud of his heart made his eyeballs feel like they were going to burst.
"Come on, man," Sam said. When Steve turned his head vaguely in Sam's direction and half squinted at him, he lowered his voice. "You need to go to bed. Nat said two days, I don't know why you're holding vigil out here. It's freezing. Bucky's fine. You need to take care of yourself. Sleep might help. Or maybe take some more of your medicine. Something's setting off your migraines bad lately." He paused and looked back at the pool. "Maybe spend a bit less time with the mermaid."
Something inside Steve's head screamed and the sound scraped out of his throat in a rough, "No."
"Why not? He's fine. One of us can sit out here with him. I'm sure Sam or... or Vision can scale the fish. It's not like he won't get fed," Wanda offered. She rubbed at her arms through her thick coat and her breath billowed out in a cloud around her face. It made her look hazy like he was seeing her through wet paint. "You're making my head hurt, you know."
"Sorry," he apologized. He hated when they worried about him and now he was hurting her just by his proximity. "I just... he needs me. I need to be right here."
"You need to take your medicine and sleep it off. This isn't functioning. You can barely open your eyes. Come on, a meaty breakfast, a hot shower, your medicine, and a nice long nap." Sam's plan did sound nice, but something just felt wrong and Steve couldn't figure out what it was.
"You're afraid Dr. Cho is going to take him if you're not here, aren't you?" Wanda asked. He didn't know if she'd plucked that out of his head or if she was getting that good at understanding other people's motives. Now that it was said out loud, however, the nebulous feeling of wrong solidified.
He nodded slightly.
Sam knelt down next to him in his chair. "She wouldn't dare. We explained it. She's not going to euthanize the mermaid. I promise. Come on, hot shower, medicine, bed."
"I can ask Vision to sit out here with him. He doesn't need to sleep. Would that make you feel better?" Wanda asked, coming around to his other side. She was clearer now, closer up.
It did sound better. Vision was a good guy. Vision would keep Bucky safe. He finally nodded and Sam stood and helped him up. He leaned heavily on him and apologized when he stumbled. His head felt too big for his body, oversized and overwhelmingly heavy. As they walked, the early morning shadows made odd shapes in his periphery.
The hot shower Sam promised was more like a hot wet down as Steve didn't have the energy to even grab his washcloth. He haphazardly dried off, dutifully took the pills Sam handed him, and collapsed face first onto his bed.
While Steve slept, he dreamt.
Hazy figures standing around wearing lab coats. Foreign whispers and furtive glances. He was manhandled out of a vertical chamber and forced to sit through electroshock torture. He screamed until his throat was raw. He jerked and twitched and was shouted at to be still, even as a needle was stuck in his arm. He saw Dr. Erskine in his dreams, Howard too, and he went through the painful process of becoming Captain America over and over again.
At one point, he thought he woke up and he ventured into the common room for coffee and breakfast. The topic of discussion at the breakfast table was boring and he didn't pay attention to it. He dismissed himself to the pool. When he got there, the mermaid was gone and Wanda and Natasha and another woman with dark hair and red lips were filling it up with rocks. With every plop and splash from the rocks, he felt a cold spray of water across his face. When he went back to the common room, he was shivering and soaked. He asked Sam and Tony what had happened to the mermaid but they feigned innocence.
"What mermaid?" Tony—or was it Howard?—asked. "Oh, on a related note, did you enjoy the sushi we had last night?"
"It's a delicacy," another voice said. The voice belonged to a Japanese man with angry eyes. Someone else with a walrus mustache laughed.
"I wouldn't eat that if you paid me!" another man said, shaking his head. Steve couldn't see his face but in his dream, he looked like Bucky. He shook his head back and forth under a spray of water. He opened his eyes and smiled; his teeth, jagged and sharp, were stained red.
Steve jerked awake and sat up. The world around him spun and dipped and he leaned over the side of the bed to vomit. He hadn't eaten much, and the bile burned. He needed to see Bucky. Something was wrong.
He crawled out the other side of the bed and stumbled his way to the common room. Vision, Sam, and Wanda were sitting there watching TV. The sound from the TV was distorted and loud in his head. He passed by them, letting his fingers tap on Sam's shoulders as he went. Sam turned and started to say something but Steve had already opened the door and walked out into the freezing evening air.
It was raining. Sleeting, actually. Steve could feel the ice as it pelted his skin and it reminded him of the way his skin tingled as the Valkyrie filled up with water. He took two steps onto the deck alongside the pool and looked at it. He could see little ripples as the ice hit the water. The still, empty water. He turned around and looked at the door to see Sam standing there.
"Steve? What are you doing? No coat? Jeez, you're barefoot too? Get in here. How are you feeling? You slept for about eight hours. Do you want some dinner? Natasha brought Chinese when she got back an hour or so ago."
At the thought of food Steve gagged. He turned and spat out bile and then stumbled his way back towards Sam.
"Steve?" he asked again, turning his body so Steve could come back in through the door. Steve stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do. His head was aching and everything from the middle of his back and up felt tender and sore.
"Is he sleepwalking?" Wanda asked.
"Where?" Steve asked. He blinked half-glazed eyes at Vision. Vision was the one who was supposed to be protecting Bucky but Vision was here.
"Natasha and Dr. Cho asked me to take him to medical room B." Steve turned and started towards the medical wing of the compound, every heavy step he took making the pounding pain in his head worse. Vision continued talking, having to raise his voice slightly to finish his sentence before Steve was out of the room, "He was supposed to have his arm looked at more thoroughly. I think they were supposed to do x-rays."
"Steve!" Sam called but Steve didn't care. He ran. He slipped when he needed to turn a corner and slammed against the wall, the impact dull compared to the pain already in his head. He had to get to medical. It was imperative. If he got there in time... but how long had they had him? How much of Bucky would be left when they were through? He got to room B, at the end of the short hall, but the door was shut and locked.
He threw himself at it but it didn't give. "NO!" he shouted. "Bucky!" He punched at the door, felt the steel give a little under his knuckles and punched it again and again. Every few punches he'd shout, but the throbbing in his head was too much and he didn't even know if the words he was trying to say were coming out of his mouth now.
He closed his eyes, he couldn't see beyond the white door and the white walls around him and the pain behind his eyes anyway. "No, Bucky! Bucky!"
He vaguely heard Sam and Wanda behind him, vaguely felt hands pulling on his arms and his shirt. The door felt wet under his hand and lumpy from how often it gave under his knuckles but nothing he did would open it. His head hurt beyond belief and he couldn't think and nothing was helping and he was probably too late anyway. He sobbed and dropped his head against the steel, knobby, wet door. He tried to take a deep breath and the world spun on him again. He stumbled sideways and fell against the wall. He let it guide him to the floor. He sucked in another wet, gasping breath and breathed out one last weak, little, "Bucky."
His head hurt. Beyond the pain of becoming Captain America. Beyond the stabbing sensation of ice water swallowing him up and the quick pins and needles of being frozen alive. Beyond the shocking burn of being shot last year. Beyond thought. He wasn't even sure he had eyes anymore, as they felt like they'd probably burst and deflated in his skull from the never-ending, roaring pain. He sucked in another jerking, painful breath.
The door in front of him squealed sharply as it was wrenched opened from inside. Someone was standing there. Hairy legs stumbled forward and a man dropped next to him.
"Steve, Stevie," a voice said. He recognized it from his dreams somehow but hearing it just made the pain in his head twice as severe. He felt his head being tipped up until he was looking at the face of the man. "Steve, look at me." The man's voice was rough with disuse. His eyes had wrinkles at the corners and his face was framed with long, scraggly brown hair. "It's me, Bucky. Do you know me?"
Steve blinked at the face in front of him as his brain slowly comprehended the words the man was saying. "Bucky?" Steve asked. He wasn't sure the word even came out with how much snot was clogging his throat. "But..." he reached out and touched the man's hip, belatedly realizing that the man was naked. Bucky was a mermaid. He was big and heavy and overweight and had lots of teeth. This man didn't look like Bucky. He shook his head. "Not Bucky."
"Steve, I am Bucky. My name's James Buchanan Barnes. You know me." The man's voice was kind and soft like he understood the pain Steve was in.
"He doesn't remember the war," someone said, just as soft and quiet as the man.
"We knew each other before the war, Stevie. Can you remember that?" the man asked.
Steve wanted to cry. He couldn't handle the pain anymore and he just wanted it to stop. He didn't care how they stopped it, even if it meant putting a bullet in his brain. He was ready for it to be over. He sobbed again, breathed out a quiet, defeated, "Bucky," and closed his eyes.
There was a voice of an older woman, thick with an accent that Steve couldn't recognize. "May I touch him?" There was another beat, another double throb in his aching head, and then a woman's soft, calloused hands pressed to his temples. He thought that maybe this was it, whatever she was doing was going to be the end and then he wouldn't hurt anymore, but all that he saw was a bright, searing light behind his closed eyelids.
When Steve opened his eyes, everything seemed remarkably clear and bright. He could see dust particles flying around in the sunbeam coming in through the window above his bed.
The pain was gone.
There wasn't even a hint of the migraine hangover he expected to have. He wasn't sure how he'd managed to get back in his bed. He was warm, almost overly so, and very comfortable. He blinked, realizing he felt someone's breath on his neck and turned his head. He smiled. "Bucky," he whispered.
Bucky opened his light blue eyes and smiled. The skin at the corners of his eyes crinkled with the movement. "How do you feel?"
"Good. Entirely too comfortable." He paused, trying to think through the foggy memories of the night before. He tilted his head and looked down the length of Bucky's body in the bed. "Didn't you have a tail?"
Bucky's smile faded a little. "What do you remember?"
"You were a mermaid, weren't you?"
"For a while. Since the early eighties, actually. Before that, I was a man." He swallowed. "Your best friend. One of the six men you commanded in a special tactical unit during the war." His gaze darted back and forth as he focused on Steve's eyes, searching for something.
Steve's entire body tightened as he braced for the pain he expected to come at hearing about his life in the war. He held his breath but when nothing throbbed, nothing at all hurt, he released it slowly. He'd thought about the war and it hadn't hurt. He returned his attention to Bucky.
"Do you remember?"
"Yeah. Most of it. How did you get legs? And how'd I get here?"
Bucky's smile was back. "The sea witch Natasha found healed you after she lifted the curse on me. I carried you in here afterward." He pushed the covers down and climbed from the bed. Steve followed more slowly, checking the floor on his side of the bed. He could have sworn he'd vomited there. "Come on, slowpoke," Bucky teased gently as he pulled on some of Steve's clothes over his shorts. "Stark says he's got something for me and I'm extra curious. His Dad always had fun little, complicated gadgets."
Steve stood and slowly removed the pajamas he found he was wearing. He didn't remember changing into them. He was still moving cautiously, still expecting the terrible pain to come rushing back with a single wrong thought. He was having trouble believing that Bucky—his Bucky, his best friend!—was alive. He pulled a long sleeve shirt and a pair of sweatpants from the chest of drawers and glanced at Bucky. "Did you train Natasha?"
"Natalia?" Bucky asked, turning back around. His grin had faded somewhat. "Yes. I trained her."
"She called you James and a Winter Soldier," Steve said.
Bucky nodded but gestured towards the door. "Come on, I'm sure the others will want to hear this as well and I know I owe her an apology. Speaking of apologies, I think you own Dr. Cho one. You terrified her last night."
Steve tentatively pushed at the foggy memories from the night before. "Last night?"
"When you came after me, in the medical wing? You—well, you'll see. Come on." Bucky reached out his hand and grabbed Steve's. It felt odd for a moment, he didn't really remember holding Bucky's hand except when they were kids. He squeezed his palm close to Bucky's and Bucky squeezed back before leading them through the common room and towards medical. Natasha and Wanda were talking in the corner but when they saw them, they followed. Sam was in the short hallway leading to medical room B with a tape measure in his hand.
"Oh, hey, glad to see you're awake. How are you feeling?" he asked, stepping closer. Behind him, Steve could see the door, or rather, what was left of it. The steel door was hanging by one hinge and streaked bloody. It looked like it had melted almost, with the way it was bubbled before Steve realized what he was seeing were indentations from his knuckles where he'd punched it. He looked down at his hands, but he knew they'd be healed. They weren't even slightly bruised or sore. Sam caught him looking and waved dismissively. "Don't worry about it. Friday's got one ordered already."
Steve still felt sheepish for being so uncontrollable. He could have really hurt someone rather than just scared them. "Did I hurt anybody?" he asked.
"No. I tried once to grab your arms but Wanda said just to let you wear yourself out. She sort of blocked you in so you couldn't turn around and take a swing at me... but it's all good. I'm just worried about you."
Steve always hated it when they worried about him. He shouldn't need to be worried about but he appreciated it nonetheless. "Thanks. I'm sorry."
Sam nodded and turned his attention to Bucky. "Tony's in room A with your..." he pointed at Bucky's left side and Steve glanced back, only just realizing that yeah, Bucky's left arm was gone. Had been cut off. Steve felt the worry and pitying expression slip over his features but Bucky shook his head. "Don't even think about it. Not your fault. Come on," he said, tugging on Steve's hand. He pulled him into the room and Natasha was sitting on the counter, while Tony was bustling around a bed with an enormous box on a tray beside it. It reminded Steve of a rifle case.
"How're you feeling whale-boy?"
Bucky wrinkled his nose at him. "Don't call me a whale. I was part dolphin, thank you very much."
After all the pain and horrible things that Steve had been feeling, the comment seemed incongruous to his mood and it jolted a laugh out of him. Bucky turned enough to show off his grin and Tony and Natasha were grinning too. "Good to know I can still make you laugh." He hopped up on the bed and scooted back, only letting go of Steve's hand at the last moment. "Whatcha got for me, Stark?"
Tony flipped open the box, saying, "State of the art prosthesis." There was a metal left arm in the box, shoulder all the way down to fingers, cushioned snuggly in black foam.
"I've had a metal arm before, you know," Bucky said softly even as he admired what was in front of him.
"Yeah, but you haven't had a Stark one."
"No. It looks nice. Dexterous. The previous one had fat fingers."
"I can add claws and webbing if you'd like? Might make peeling shrimp a bit easier," Tony teased.
Bucky shook his head. "No, no. I'm good with it being completely human. I am very tired of water-living."
Steve shifted closer to the head of the bed like he didn't—couldn't—be too far from Bucky and asked, "What happened?"
Bucky inhaled deeply and looked around. Steve noticed that Sam, Wanda, Vision, and Helen were standing at the doorway, looking interested. "Well, how much do you want to know?" he asked.
"From the moment you fell off the train if you can."
"Don't torture yourself, Steve."
"I want to know."
"But you don't need it," he said. He frowned and looked down at the metal arm. His right hand curled so his thumb could pick at the cuticles of his other fingers. "I lost my arm in the fall. Hit rocks; tried to stop myself. I don't remember. I know I got back up afterward though. Collapsed later. Russian soldiers found me." He bit his lips, self-editing. "Zola came back. I woke up cold, to them cutting the worst of it off. I only remember bits and pieces. Remember killing a scientist with my new metal arm as soon as they gave it to me." He nodded like he was listening to an internal monologue. "I fought 'em for a long time, Steve. Until there wasn't much of me left. Brainwashing, electroshock. I killed for them. I was their weapon. They got me to train kids. Little boys." He glanced at Natasha and looked down again. "And the older girls. Did something I shouldn't have and got wiped again. On my next mission out, I killed a woman—my target—and I got caught. Not by a government but by a sea witch. Turns out they don't like it when you mess with one of their own, right?" He laughed at himself a little.
"Spent the next, what, it's 2015 now? Thirty-three years or so as a mermaid. Dolphin. Human-dolphin. Whatever. I still had my metal arm for a while but..." he pointed at the healing wounds on his left shoulder, "Shark bite. He crunched on it and sunk. I think he choked to death. Swam to the nearest coast and you show up, saving me yet again."
"How do you remember it? I remember you knew about the mind wipes but you didn't know who you were or what all they did to you." Natasha asked.
Buck smiled, self-deprecatingly. "Did you know dolphins have extraordinary long memories? The longer I spent time as a dolphin, the more I remembered. I didn't like remembering everything but..." he gave another shrug. He turned his attention back to Tony. "So how does this work? I'm pretty sure the reinforcement they put down my spine and along my ribs is still there."
"Yep. The X-rays Dr. Cho got before Natasha brought her friend in..." Tony spiraled into technical jargon and though Bucky listened avidly, Steve tuned it out a little. He felt Natasha lay a hand on his side and gesture with a tilt of her head to follow and he did. It felt odd to walk away from Bucky—it was still strange seeing him, hearing him—but he did it anyway. He couldn't live attached to Bucky's side.
"The witch that cursed James unknowingly cursed you at the same time. Øydis said your lives were so intertwined that when he was cursed, so were you."
"Oh," he said, looking down at her.
She continued, "So you don't have to worry about the migraines coming back. At least not for this. I mean, if you were prone to migraines before—"
He shook his head. "No, I didn't even get them before the serum."
Someone cleared their throat behind them and Natasha slipped away when Steve turned around. "Dr. Cho," he said, greeting her. She was standing halfway across the room but he didn't move closer.
She looked down for a moment then met his gaze, "I need to apologize."
"I do too."
She gave him a little smile. "I'm sorry I talked about euthanizing it—him—before. I just," she paused. "Natasha's important to me and to see that she was hurt... It might have been more than my professional opinion fueling that line of thought. I'm sorry it upset you so much. I wouldn't have. Not without consent."
"I'm sorry I scared you. I was a bit out of my mind with pain and there had been nightmares. I shouldn't have..." he trailed off. He had been out of his head and that sort of thing was unacceptable.
"Apology accepted," she told him.
"Yours is accepted too. I appreciate your professional opinion. This was... extenuating circumstances, I think."
"Hey, Steve!" Bucky called. Steve gave Helen a nod and turned back to follow Bucky's voice. He inhaled deeply as he went. Things still felt tentative and dream-like but if this was a dream, he wasn't sure he wanted to wake up. Bucky was here, was alive, and... well, maybe he hadn't lost everything in the war after all.