Bucky Barnes always said he couldn’t swim and he couldn’t sing, but if you asked Steve Rogers, that was a lie. Bucky Barnes could do anything. But no, Bucky insisted: he couldn’t swim, and he couldn’t sing. He couldn’t even learn.
(It was definitely a lie. Steve was gonna be saying ‘I knew it!’ for the rest of his life.)
Honestly though, it didn’t take a grown-up to see there was something weird about a healthy kid not being allowed to go to the pool with his friend and his friend’s mother in the middle of a heat wave. Steve’s mom even offered to try and teach him how to swim while they were there!
“But mooooooom,” Bucky whined. His shirt was stained dark with sweat under his arms.
“No, Bucky,” his mom said, looking sorry and just as clammy, but sounding unmoved.
“You know why not.”
“I won’t go in, I’ll just sit on the edge and cool my legs.”
“I’ll make absolutely sure nothing happens to him,” Steve’s mom said.
“It’s just not a good idea,” Bucky’s mom said with an air of finality. “I’m sorry, Steve, Sarah. It was very nice of you to offer.”
Whining, Bucky dropped in a boneless heap on the doormat. “I’m melting. I’m gonna shrivel up and die.”
Bucky’s mom looked half like she wanted to box him around the ears and half like she wanted to cry. “I can fill the tub if you really want.”
But he couldn’t go swimming with Steve, so he and his mom made their leave as Bucky moaned tragically on the floor.
It was like that every summer. The Barneses had a giant, old-fashioned claw-foot bathtub. It took up a lot of room and had no drain, so they had to use buckets to fill and empty it, which was such a hassle when there was also a perfectly good shower that Bucky said they pretty much never used it to wash in. But it was the closest Mister and Missus Barnes ever let their kids get to swimming.
“You got some contagious disease or something?” Steve asked one time.
“No.” Bucky kicked a pebble off the sidewalk in frustration. “And I’m not a baby or an idiot either.” He stopped then, squared his shoulders and set his jaw. He looked scared but determined, like he was about to do something really stupid. “This sucks. I’m going. Can I borrow a towel?”
Steve grinned until the top of his head might fall off, which brought a cautious little smile of excitement to Bucky’s face too. “’Course you can!”
“Don’t tell my mom, she’ll be so mad,” Bucky said as they marched for Steve’s house side-by-side.
“Your mom is so weird.”
Bucky frowned. “And you gotta promise not to push me in. And warn me if you see anyone else coming up to push me in.”
“You’re not gonna drown, dummy. There’s a big part of the pool where you can stand in the water and not even get your elbows wet.”
“I’m serious, Steve. I just wanna paddle.”
“What’s the point of going to the pool if you’re just gonna paddle? Come on, Buck, don’t let your mom get to your head. She’s being stupid.”
“MY MOM IS NOT STUPID!”
(Looking back, Steve would be really sorry about this conversation one day.)
Steve’s eyes went wide. “I didn’t mean –”
“It’s not stupid, okay? And we’re not weird either. What do you know, anyway?”
“You know what, forget it. It was a dumb idea. If you’re gonna call my mom stupid, I don’t even wanna be friends with you anymore!”
And just like that, Bucky stormed off.
Steve had never seen him so worked up. They didn’t speak for two whole days. It was their summer vacation, two days felt like a lifetime. But they were children yet. Afterwards, neither of them ever thought to bring the fight up again.
They were twelve when it happened.
There were bullies – because when weren’t there bullies? – and they ran into Steve so close to the bay there was only one logical outcome. Now Steve was a fine swimmer, and getting thrown in wouldn’t have been a problem, because he’d already spotted the nearest ladder leading back up to the docks. But it was November, and the sun was setting, and even if it hadn’t already been a particularly bad year for Steve’s health, getting thrown into the water, having to stay in for however long it took the bullies to tire of tormenting him, and then walking home soaking wet in the cold, could easily have meant a bout of pneumonia he’d never recover from.
It was no wonder, then, that Bucky came barreling in fists flying just when Steve needed him most.
It also wasn’t surprising at all that Bucky got shoved over the edge in Steve’s stead. It was four to one. Bucky may fancy himself a fearless defender, but he was no circus strongman.
Just your typical Thursday, until the part where Bucky started screaming bloody murder from down in the water. It sounded like he was being flayed alive, and even with arrhythmia and asthma and the unexpected twist of becoming a superhuman war hero later in life, Steve would never again feel as close to having a heart attack as in that moment.
The bullies took one look at each other and high-tailed it out of there. Steve got to his feet, scraped and bloody knees forgotten, and raced toward the edge of the dock.
Bucky looked up, wide-eyed and grimacing, and promptly disappeared under the water.
“Bucky, no! Swim, you gotta swim! Kick your legs! BUCKY!” Steve looked around, frantic. “SOMEBODY HELP! HE’S DROWNING!”
But there was nobody.
“Crap, crap, crap.” Steve kicked off his shoes and started unbuttoning his coat. “PLEASE, HELP!”
“Steve, shut up!”
He whipped around. There was Bucky. Bucky, with his sodden hair in his eyes and two seconds away from crying. But also Bucky, who had never dipped in anything bigger than a bathtub, staying effortlessly afloat without even using his arms.
“Bucky,” Steve exhaled, as if that one word was enough to encompass all of creation. He ran over to the ladder. “Over here, you can get out here.”
“I can’t,” Bucky said, starting to cry now, though he made it to the rusted metal steps with just two easy strokes of his arms. “Steve, go get my mom.”
“Come on, just pull yourself up.”
Bucky clung to the bottom rung, sobbing. “I can’t! They can’t see me, Steve! Please, go get my mom, please!”
Steve reached an arm down. “Just get up here!”
“I can’t!” Bucky yelled.
And, to emphasize his point, he twisted like a cat and splashed Steve in the face with...
...a sleek, shiny fish tail.
“Nobody can see, Steve,” Bucky said. “Please, get my mom.”
Struck speechless, Steve nodded and ran.
It was a small miracle he didn’t set off an asthma attack. When he reached the Barnes residence, he threw himself bodily against the door and jabbed the doorbell, yelling for Bucky’s mother with all the breath he had left.
She opened the door looking disturbed. Bucky’s biggest and littlest little sisters curiously poked their heads around the living room door. “Steve, what’s the matter?”
“It’s Bucky,” Steve gasped, hands on his knees. “Some guys – pushed him – into the bay.”
Vera and Rebecca gasped. All the blood left Missus Barnes’ face. “Did they see – ?”
“No, they ran. But he’s r – really scared. You gotta come right away.”
“George!” Missus Barnes shouted, whirling around and grabbing her coat. “George, come quick!”
They ordered the girls to take dinner off the stove and Steve, bundled into the family car, to show them the way.
Steve nervously plucked at Missus Barnes’ coat sleeve from the back seat. “Ma’am, is Buck – is Bucky going to die?”
“Oh, honey, no.” She squeezed his hand. “There’s nothing wrong with him. It’s just supposed to be a secret. You can’t tell a soul, Stevie, do you understand?”
“But how does he have a tail all of a sudden?” Steve whispered, voice tiny. “What happened to him?”
Mister and Missus Barnes exchanged a look.
“I’m a mermaid,” Missus Barnes said, very seriously. “The kids and I all grow a tail when we go into the water. That’s why Bucky can’t go swimming with you in the summer.”
“Is this it?” Mister Barnes cut in, pointing to the side street ahead.
Mister Barnes parked, and Missus Barnes grabbed a blanket from the back seat and ran to the water. “Bucky? Honey?”
“Bucky!” Mister Barnes echoed, he and Steve right on her heels.
“Mom, dad!” Bucky cried tearfully.
Mister Barnes climbed down the ladder. “I got you, buddy. C’mere, arms around my neck.” He leaned down so Bucky could grab hold of him and he could wrap an arm around Bucky’s back, and then made his way back up the ladder one-handed.
Steve stared, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. Bucky’s tail, sticking out from under his coat, was a bright, gleaming reddish brown, like copper. The color darkened towards his flanks, where a white stripe ran from his hips down to his – well, about where his knees usually were. Where his feet should have been was a big, floppy fin, pale and almost transparent but for dark spines that seemed soft until the tips brushed the dock, causing Bucky’s tail to twitch up and the fin to flare out into two firm forks.
It was beautiful. And incredibly weird. Weird and beautiful and...
As Missus Barnes swooped in to wrap the blanket about Bucky’s waist, hiding the tail from view, Bucky met Steve’s eyes over his shoulder – and immediately hid his face against his father’s chest.
Steve’s mouth closed with a click.
Missus Barnes heaved Bucky from the back seat and carried him into their house, and Mister Barnes drove Steve home. He stopped around the block first, to take Steve by the shoulders and talk very seriously about why he must never tell anyone, not even his own mother. If people found out about Bucky’s family, they’d get in trouble – with the neighbors, with bad men, with the police and the government. Bucky and Rebecca and Josephine and Vera and Missus Barnes would all be taken away. They would meet bad fates, and Steve and Mister Barnes would never see them again.
Later, Steve couldn’t remember what story Mister Barnes had spun to explain why Bucky’s parents hadn’t fed him like they usually did when Steve stayed late with them. It felt like a dead giveaway of trouble to Steve. But his mother hadn’t questioned it.
Bucky didn’t show up for school the next day.
He doesn’t wanna see me, Steve knew with agonizing certainty. Even so, he was at the Barneses’ door first thing that afternoon.
Missus Barnes smiled and looked pleased when she saw him. “I knew you’d be back. Come in.”
“Is Bucky okay, ma’am?” Steve asked, which turned her smile sad.
“He’s in his room. Come with me to the kitchen for a moment, Stevie, I want to talk to you first.”
She gave him tea and a cookie and watched him silently while he finished them. “It must’ve been strange, huh? Seeing Bucky like that. Scary?”
Steve didn’t want to say he was scared of Bucky, but after Mister Barnes’ dire warnings last night that was all he could think of. Because why would anyone want to hurt him if they didn’t think he was scary somehow? Bullies were always cowards deep inside. So he said nothing and stared at his hands.
Missus Barnes laughed a little. “No, you’re not scared. I can see it in your eyes. But you must have a thousand questions.”
He looked up, then, and nodded.
Missus Barnes nodded back. “Well, to start at the beginning – I’m not really from Florida. George is from Indiana, though. He’s a human, I’m not. Winifred isn’t the name I was born with, either. I chose it when I got old enough to go on land with my parents’ permission. One day I’ll take Bucky and the girls to the deep, and they’ll choose a second name for themselves as well. I grew up in a little underwater kingdom off the coast of Florida. It doesn’t have a name I can pronounce right above water, but it’s part of the Atlantic Alliance. You ever heard the legend of Atlantis?”
Steve gaped. “There’s underwater mermaid kingdoms?”
“You bet! Lots of them. It’s a little like Europe down there, but with a lot less people. There’s billions of humans on the land, but only a couple hundred thousand mermaids in the water. And the Earth is seventy percent water.”
“That sounds lonely,” Steve said. She sounded lonely.
“I thought it was. As a girl I was always sneaking onto shore because human towns were so nice and busy.”
“Is that how you met Mister Barnes?”
“Yes, eventually. He was down south picking oranges for a summer. We met, we fell in love. And one day I took him sailing and jumped off the boat. That way, if he saw that side of me and decided he didn’t love me after all, I could swim to safety under water, and nobody back on land would believe him if he tried to tell them the girl that went missing from a sailing trip with him was a mermaid.”
Steve couldn’t decipher the little smile on her face as she said that. Not at twelve years old. The look she pinned him with next was very serious, though.
“You see, Stevie, we have to be very careful. Even though it would be safer to live far, far away from humans, mermaids can’t live in the middle of the ocean. The water is too deep and heavy there, it makes us sick. We’re creatures of the sea, but we have just as much of the land in us. We can never be just one or the other. So we live where the water is relatively shallow, near the coasts, or on underwater mountain ranges.” She sighed. “Unfortunately, people are afraid of what they don’t know, and for humans, that means us mermaids. We’ve been hunted since antiquity. At best,” she sneered. “we’re creatures with no souls who need to renounce our godless ways or die trying, or belong in a laboratory, to be dissected in the name of science. At worst, we’re sirens who lure sailors to their deaths and need to be killed on sight.”
Steve gulped. “Then why didn’t Bucky stay away from the docks?”
“Because if you’d fallen in the water, you would’ve gotten sick and died for sure,” Bucky said from behind him.
Steve jumped a mile.
Squeezing Steve’s shoulder, Missus Barnes got up to press a kiss to the top of Bucky’s head and take his face gently in her hands. “And I couldn’t be more proud of you. I never meant for you to be afraid of what you are, sweetheart. Careful, yes, but not afraid.”
“’M not,” Bucky mumbled morosely, pressing his face into his mother’s shoulder.
Sighing, she wrapped her arms around him. “Good, because neither is Steve. Right, Steve?”
“Right!” Steve said immediately.
“See? I told you it wouldn’t change anything.”
Bucky stiffened. “I don’t like it when you talk about me behind my back, Mom.”
“We weren’t talking about you. I was telling Steve about our kind.”
“That counts,” Bucky groused.
With a huff of laughter, Missus Barnes let him go and ruffled his hair. “Then how about you answer the rest of his questions yourself, huh? Tell him, you’ll see. Tea? Cookie?”
“Yes, please.” Bucky dropped into the chair she’d vacated and glared mistrustfully at Steve, arms crossed over his chest and shoulders hunched. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Steve said. He fought the urge to wilt under the look Bucky gave him. “Tell me and you’ll see what?”
Bucky shook his head.
“You’ll see what?”
“You’ll see what?”
“Oh, come on.”
Bucky’s face scrunched up in a scowl. “Did you know mermaids eat raw fish?”
Steve blinked and shook his head.
“It’s really good.”
“Uh.” Steve tried not to let on how queasy the thought of eating raw meat made him. Was Bucky really doing what he thought he was doing? Steve was almost offended. “Okay.”
“And we don’t grow a tail until we go under completely, but if I stand in the shower long enough my gills start showing.”
Bracing himself, Steve sucked in a huge breath and let it out in one long rush of “That is so neat I wish I could do that.”
It was Bucky’s turn to blink.
Steve couldn’t help but grin. “What about if you stick your head underwater?”
“Good instincts,” Missus Barnes said. She set Bucky’s tea and a cookie down on the table. “You’re right, that would bring out the gills too. And don’t forget the third eyelids.”
“So we can see underwater,” Bucky said, relaxing slowly.
“Wow. How does all that work? Magic?”
Bucky shot a look at his mom, who smiled encouragingly. “Pretty much,” he said, finally sounding his usual chipper self again.
Steve hesitated only because, even at twelve, he knew that not looking as eager as he felt was the only way to make what he wanted even remotely appropriate. “Can I see?”
“Finish your tea first,” was all Missus Barnes said. “I didn’t pour it for the cleaning fairies.”
“Those are real too?!”
Not long after that day, something occurred to Steve. “Hey, does the swimming thing mean you actually can sing too?”
“No, I suck at it.”
“Sucking at something doesn’t mean can’t do it.”
“Keep it up and you’ll wish it did.”
Every couple of years, if the money wasn’t too tight, the Barneses would go upstate for a few weeks on holiday. When Bucky was fifteen and Steve fourteen, they invited Steve along.
“We’re going swimming,” Bucky told him with undisguised glee.
They’d rented a cottage in the woods, by a lake. Remote and isolated, barely accessible by car. Even aside from the fact that Steve had never left the city before, it was like a whole other world.
And then the lake filled up with mermaids.
The lack of clothing going on was a little awkward with Steve around, but it was a problem minimized by the fact that once Bucky and Mrs Barnes and the girls were in the water, they didn’t come out again all day. They’d all eat breakfast together in the mornings, and then Steve and Mr Barnes would make their own lunch and dinner, while Mrs Barnes taught her children how to live off the land. Well, water.
Catching and killing fish with his bare hands and eating them raw turned Bucky into a gleeful, cackling savage. No surprise there.
“Not turning green around the gills, are ya Steve?” Bucky asked, grinning, as he popped the eyes of a big dead something-or-other into his mouth. Steve had no clue and Bucky didn’t seem to care about the English name so much as the taste, which had been his favorite since the first time his mother had caught one for him.
“You ever had a medical enema, Buck?” Steve shot back.
“I’d tell you, but I don’t think it would be fair, seeing as you’ve got actual gills to go green around and all.”
Bucky raised an unimpressed eyebrow.
“Also, I really don’t want to find out what half-digested seaweed smells like.”
Bucky used his dead fish to splash him.
“You know, Stevie,” Mr Barnes said. “Now that you know our secret you’ve got no choice but to marry one of my daughters.”
Steve’s cheeks all but caught fire.
Chuckling, Mr Barnes clapped his shoulder. “Nah, I’m just messing with ya.”
Forcing a laugh, Steve stared out across the lake. Mrs Barnes and Rebecca were underwater, ‘singing’ – language lessons, not sailor-killer training, they’d joked. Bucky was tossing Vera and Josie into the air over and over. In the moments before they disappeared back into the water, whooping with delight, the scales on their tails and chests flashed like fire in the sun. The youngest were more fair-haired than chocolate-topped Bucky and Becky, who took after their father, and their scales matched; gold like Mrs Barnes rather than copper.
Bucky’s sisters were just little girls and it would’ve been awfully impolite to stare at his mom, but Bucky himself – Steve constantly caught himself drinking Bucky in.
“I am glad you’re here, though, kiddo,” Mr Barnes said. “The girls have each other to confide in, but Bucky didn’t have any boys his own age to talk about it with. I think it’s been good for him.”
“I hope so, sir.”
“When they were just babies, Winifred would put the kids in the tub to swim. They looked like wriggly little tadpoles.” Mr Barnes grinned for a moment, punch drunk in love. “I feel bad sometimes because we don’t live somewhere more remote, where they can swim more often. But Winifred loves the city life. Can you believe it? A big city mermaid?”
“I guess mermaids wouldn’t be able to grow legs if they weren’t supposed to like living on land, sir.”
Mr Barnes looked at him fondly. “I suppose you’re right.”
But Steve understood completely. He thought of Bucky splayed out along the grassy bank, soaking up the sun as his tail swished lazily through the shallows, like a contented cat’s, and streaks of mud dried on his face and chest. He thought of Bucky cool and slippery to the touch, twisting like an eel and gleaming like newly minted pennies. He thought of Bucky’s warm arm slung across his back and the way his shoulders were growing broader and his jaw had gotten itchy with stubble when it brushed Steve’s temple. He thought of Bucky’s eyes, blue and dark, and the pale membrane of his third eyelid that slid over them before he went under. He thought of Bucky’s smile, wide and white and slightly crooked. He thought of falling asleep back to back in the bed they shared out here and waking up with Bucky wrapped around Steve like an octopus.
He thought of Bucky.
And Bucky thought of him.
The water was too cold for Steve to swim for long stretches of time, but as he once said to Bucky when they were kids, what’s the point of going to the pool if all you’re gonna do is wet your feet? He swam with Bucky toward the far shore of the lake, straight across the center where the water was deep and dark and a little frightening. Not that he would admit that, or let it stop him. Not that he had anything to fear with Bucky gliding along with him, either. Steve had his neat breaststroke and Bucky leisurely kicked his tail in the vicinity of his legs. Sometimes he’d tickle Steve’s feet with fingers or fins, or swim along on his back, arms behind his head, and grin up at him.
They were still what felt like miles from shore, with an unfathomable darkness beneath them, when Bucky surfaced, shook the hair out of his face, and looked furtively around.
“Hey, Steve, do you trust me?” he asked with the shadow of a grin that spelled trouble.
“That question never means anything good.”
“Yeah, but do you?”
Bucky nodded. “You know those stories about sirens dragging love-struck sailors down to the bottom of the ocean?”
For one brief, horrible moment, Steve thought of werewolves – the way the full moon made them lose their minds and stop being themselves, turned them helpless in the face of their inhuman instincts.
Could Bucky smell it on him? Taste it in the water?
“Still trust me now?” His eyes were terribly bright.
Something in Steve’s chest somersaulted. He straightened up in the water. “Of course I do.”
“Then do exactly as I say,” Bucky whispered. And he swam very, very close, one arm slipping around Steve and pulling them chest to chest. It made treading water without kicking him difficult, and Steve could feel the tickle of gills working against the sides of his ribs. “Legs around my waist.”
Steve obeyed, heart jackrabbiting and breath shallow, and gripped Bucky’s shoulders too. Bucky swallowed thickly. He hurriedly slid his free hand up Steve’s thigh and pushed up against his butt to adjust his position.
Steve shot off what must be the most sinful prayer ever to thank God for the cold water.
Bucky licked his lips thoughtfully. “Better keep your nose pinched shut, I think.”
Steve obeyed. Bucky made awkward gestures at his wrist, not quite touching, but Steve thought – hoped – he knew what he was getting at here and obediently angled his hand to free up his mouth.
“Okay.” Bucky nodded, shot a wide-eyed look at the house and his family in the distance, and nodded again. “Okay.”
Oh, Christ, Steve thought in reply, his insides all aflutter. Oh, Christ.
“Now take a deep breath and hold it until I do this.” Bucky tapped Steve’s back with the arm that was still around him. “And when I...” He bit his lip. “Open your mouth when I tell you.”
Steve took a deep breath.
Bucky pulled them under.
For a few moments, nothing happened but Bucky breathing, deep but not slow. Steve focused on the rise and fall of Bucky’s chest to distract from the near-immediate burning in his own. Water in, water out, water in, bubbles out, water in, water out, water in...
Steve exhaled in a blinding flurry; Bucky wound his fingers through his hair, tight.
Then he pressed their mouths together, his tongue pushing between Steve’s lips. Steve opened obediently, and Bucky blew sweet, sweet air into his lungs.
All of it went straight to his head.
Unwinding his arm from Steve’s waist, Bucky withdrew his tongue and pushed up against the underside of Steve’s jaw, urging his mouth closed.
Water in – water out. Water in – mouth slotted to mouth – air out. Legs clamped firmly around slick scales and the rest of him lax, their hair haloing around them, strong hands around his head, sliding over his ears and cheekbones, thumbs kept curled under his jaw. Everything tasted like fish and pond scum, Steve shivered from the cold of the water and the lack of movement and not even getting any body heat off of Bucky, and they had to be careful, oh so careful not to flood Steve’s mouth. But they did it. They did it, Bucky breathing a little faster than usual and Steve a little slower, attuned to each other like they’d never done anything else. There was no place for laughter in this exercise, but if he could’ve, Steve would have. It wasn’t quite kissing, but it was intoxicating, exhilarating.
If Steve hadn’t been in love before, he was now.
When finally Steve hit Bucky’s shoulder and they broke apart, Bucky had to rush them to the surface, they’d sunk so far. They broke the surface panting, which soon turned into laughter.
“And that’s how the sirens do it,” Bucky concluded.
That night, they quietly locked the door to their bedroom and spent hours kissing in the dark. Properly kissing. Bucky was hot and hairy then, smelled like soap and tasted of toothpaste. Steve was still a little breathless; from the weight of Bucky’s body on top of him, this time.
“And this is how the humans do it,” Steve whispered when he thought Bucky had fallen asleep.
Bucky hit his shoulder, snickering.