“Bah,” Captain Pierce said. “They give us trinkets, to kill the Prince? I’ll not have it. That foul creature has used me for the last time.”
“Whatever you say, boss,” Rumlow, the first mate, said. “You know, keeping that thing alive until we hit the shore’s gonna be a bit of an ordeal.”
“You think some lord won’t pay handsomely for it, you’re mistaken,” Pierce said. “We’ll get back on investment. Figure out what it needs and make sure that it gets it.”
Bucky crouched low, out of sight, just below the porthole, listening as the Captain and First Mate bickered about what they’d caught up in the nets that morning. Along with the usual haul of mackerel and crabs, they’d brought up something red and gold, beautiful. Man-sized, and when Bucky had managed to push Rollins out of the way enough to get a look…
There had been yelling and wagers, suggestions and cries from the men. Sailors aboard the Hydra were a rough lot, so Bucky had been disgusted, but not surprised, by some of them. They had wanted to treat the creature like it was nothing but an animal, and not even a useful one, but one they could torture and torment. Like a bear-baiting pit.
Bucky had gotten one look at the creature’s face, beautiful, terrified… intelligent. It might not be the same as a human, but it was obvious that the creature had a sense of self. A soul.
Hurting it, killing it… that would be the same as murder.
Unfortunately, Bucky knew quite well that the crew were capable of it. They’d done it before, and for even less reason than sport.
The Hydra swayed in the upcoming storm. The rest of the crew were already battening down. If Bucky was going to do something about the poor creature they had trapped in the brig, it was going to have to be now. If the seas got rougher, he wouldn’t have a prayer of getting them through it, and if Pierce was planning to try to get it to shore, he’d probably set guards.
Tonight. Now or never.
Bucky gripped his knife, kept to the shadows, and slipped below.
There was still one whaling lamp lit in the brig, a handful of buckets in the narrow passageway. They were all empty save the last one, and the creature -- the merman -- was trying to stretch one arm far enough between the bars to reach it.
Bucky paused, knife still in his hand, to look at it.
Male, as far as Bucky could tell, with elaborate facial hair, a dark mop of curls that were matted to his head. A blue gem hung around his neck, adorning a bare chest. That much was as human as Bucky was, save for the slits at the sides of his throat. Gills. And the somewhat more talon-like fingernails, sharper teeth.
From the waist down -- no navel, Bucky noticed, but it was likely that the creature hatched from an egg or something rather than being born -- he was a scaly fish-tail. Red, and sleek, and beautiful, with golden fins. Mermaid.
Except for the whole, not being a maid part. Merman, Bucky decided.
The creature managed to grab the bucket, hauled it closer, and made a sound of triumph. He cupped the water inside -- tepid salt water -- in his hands and splashed it over his throat, chest heaving with the effort of breathing.
Bucky shifted, and his shadow fell across the creature, who looked up at him, bared those sharp teeth, and hissed.
“Come for another laugh?” he snarled. “Another try for my fins, perhaps?” His eyes were dark and flashing with fury, but the skin around his gill-slits was grey and sickly-looking, his hands trembling where they clutched the bucket.
“You can talk?” Bucky practically swooned. He’d thought the creature more human than beast, but talking? He took a step forward like he was going to comfort the merman, who slithered and thudded away from the bars, eyes going warily to-- oh, the knife. “Oh, shit, no, I’m sorry, I’m not… I ain’t gonna hurt you.”
The merman’s lip curled into a sneer. “Humans lie,” he spat. “What else would you be here for? Come on and try me, then.”
“Yeah, I don’t blame ya,” Bucky said. “Look, you-- uh, yeah, those are some sharp teeth, and I imagine you can do a bit of damage to me before I can get back out of range. So, uh, is there anything I can do to get you to trust me while I have a go at that lock? I don’t got a key and I don’t need you joggin’ my elbow.”
The creature eyed Bucky suspiciously for a long moment. “Water,” he said, flipping the end of his tail at the empty buckets. “I need more water.”
“Salt… yeah, you’re a sea critter, ain’tcha? Five minutes,” Bucky said. “Look, you, uh… you got a name? I’m Bucky.”
“Call me Tony.” Those dark eyes watched Bucky closely, but seemed, perhaps, slightly less openly hostile.
Bucky nodded. “Good to meet you, Tony. Be right back.” He darted in and grabbed the buckets, two in each hand, keeping a wary eye on Tony, just in case. He really did not want to deal with the slices he imagined those claws could deliver. Also, bleeding while carrying buckets of water didn’t seem like fun, either. Because he was still going to do it; angry and frightened as Tony was, Bucky didn’t blame him. And he didn’t deserve death.
He dodged two groups of sailors to rope the buckets, toss them over, and haul them back up. The storm was coming in faster now, the sky was black as pitch and the sea was deceptively calm, the strong wind was slicing the tops of the waves off. They’d be in for a rolling adventure in less than an hour’s time.
Back into the hold, buckets splashing against his calves. “Here, you-- do what you need to do, and, I’ll see what I can do about this lock.” Bucky unbuckled his belt, removed two thin metal rods from the secret pockets sewn into the leather, and crouched near the lock. He could have wished the hasp was lower down, or higher up than it was. Either his knees were going to aching by the time he got this unfastened, or his back was going to hurt from hunching over.
He slid his tools into the lock and started delicately probing inside the mechanism.
Tony grabbed the sides of one bucket in both hands and plunged his whole head into it, submerging himself nearly to the shoulders. He stayed there for long enough that Bucky’s own chest began to ache a little with unconsciously-held breath -- but of course, Tony could breathe the salt water; that was the whole point.
Finally, just as Bucky had tripped the last tumbler in the lock, Tony emerged, looking much less pale. He upended that bucket over himself, and his scales and fins glittered brighter as the water washed over them.
“There,” Bucky said, and he opened the door. “Christ, I’mma get keelhauled for this, but let’s get you out of here an’ back in the ocean where you belong, okay? Will you let me carry you, or we gotta do this the hard way?”
Tony pushed up onto his arms and pulled himself out of the brig. He was stronger than Bucky would have guessed, for a creature that didn’t have to carry heavy things around, but that tail had to weigh more than a hundred pounds all by itself. If he was going to insist on going the whole way under his own power, this was going to be slow as hell.
But Tony stopped just out of arm’s reach, then flipped over and sat up with a huff of annoyance. “I’ll have to trust you,” he admitted.
“I know it’s hard,” Bucky said, and he crouched down, getting his arms under Tony’s back and the slightly bendy spot in the tail -- where his knees would be, if he had them. “You’re gonna be right at my throat, so, we’re trusting each other, right? Mutually assured destruction, if we gotta go that way. But we don’t gotta go that way. What they-- what the Captain’s plannin’ for you, that’s wrong, and I don’t aim to let him do it.”
Tony wrapped his arms around Bucky’s shoulders and tucked up his tail as much as he could so it wouldn’t drag on the floor and trip Bucky’s feet. He was surprisingly warm, so close. “What is it that your Captain is planning?”
“Sell you to the circus, I’m guessing. Or some private collector’s zoo,” Bucky told him. “Put you in a pretty glass tank and let you be gawped at by all the ladies for ten cents a ticket. So far inland, I don’t guess you’d have much of a fighting chance to get free. It’d be either do it, or die. Slavery’s against th’ law, but it don’t keep people from tryin’ to be awful to each other, I guess.”
Tony hissed again, which was particularly disconcerting so close to Bucky’s ear. “And what will happen to you, when I am found to have escaped?”
Marooned. Keelhauled. Whipped. Lashed at the mast. There were any number of creative and unpleasant punishments that Hydra’s captain had at his command. Bucky’d seen a few of his fellows put through them. One had died, two more had not been so lucky. “You let me worry about that,” Bucky said. “If th’ storm’s as bad as it seems, they won’t notice ‘til it passes, an’ maybe they’ll think you got out on your own.”
Tony lifted his head as they reached open air, sniffing at the wind. “It will be very bad,” he said solemnly. He looked at Bucky consideringly. “I wish I could take you with me. I owe you a great debt, for this.” He scrubbed a hand across his tail and came up with a single scale, translucent and brilliantly red. He tucked it into the collar of Bucky’s shirt. “If you ever encounter another of my kind, show that. They will help you.”
So, like, never. Bucky’d never even known the mer people were anything more than a myth, and despite being at sea since he was a child, he’d only imagined seeing one. Or, so he’d been lead to believe. “Thanks. Now, be real quiet, as soon as the coast is clear, I’mma dash to the rails and toss you overboard. Watch for the rudder, you don’t wanna get smacked. Swim down, fast as you can, and get clear. And stay away from fish nets.”
Tony nodded. “Of course. Thank you, Bucky. I’ll remember your kindness.” He kissed Bucky’s cheek.
The spot where Tony’s lips pressed seemed somehow to burn and tingle and warm him all at once, like a precious gift. Bucky stared at the mer for a long moment, noting that, tail aside, he was beautiful, with warm, generous eyes, and a sarcastic little smirk that danced around his lips. “Right, yeah, okay, so-- that’s a thing,” Bucky said, aware that he was babbling. He forcibly drew his attention to the working sailors. “Ready, steady--”
And go. There was a gap in the men, a path, and unless Bucky had very ill fortune and the crow’s nest sailor was watching that exact spot, he probably wouldn’t be seen. He tightened his grip around the mer, took a deep breath, and ran. “Go, go, go.” He lifted -- Christ, Tony was heavier than he looked -- and got Tony balanced on the rails. “Good luck and good life.”
“And you,” Tony replied. He twisted and dove off the railing, and entered the water with barely a splash -- if Bucky hadn’t been watching and listening for it, it would’ve been just another slap of water against the side of the ship. A long moment later, and much farther away than Bucky expected, Tony’s top half emerged from the waves, just long enough for him to wave, and then he was gone again.
Just to be safe, Bucky let his lockpicks sink below the surface as well; that would be one lie he could tell, and he didn’t have a key. He grabbed some rope from a pile and, with one more look out to sea, got to work. If he could mix it up with the crew enough, no one would ever notice he had been missing for half an hour.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t that lucky.
“Barnes,” Rumlow said, and Bucky barely got turned before Rumlow’s fist came down and knocked Bucky to the deck. Rumlow and Rollins dragged him before the Captain, who didn’t even listen to Bucky’s frantic excuses. “Tie him to the figurehead, let him ride out the storm. If he lives-- we’ll call it even.”
Bucky struggled, screamed, and fought, but it was no good. He was barely conscious when Rumlow stretched him over the Hydra’s figurehead, a skull with eight tentacles. Spread eagled and defenseless against the coming storm, he hung, limp in the ropes, waiting for it to be over.
Rain dashed at his face, the waves were dark and deadly. The wind howled, and the ropes held him, salt water stinging in the cuts that were digging into his skin.
If he didn’t drown, he’d like be pummeled to death by the waves and the flotsam in the water.
Bucky lowered his head, let his hair hanging in his face. Neptune, I saved one of your own. Help me live through this.
Bucky glanced up at the temple, a smallish shrine to the Old Gods. He knew what everyone else saw; a one-armed beggar who was probably going to try to wheedle a meal out of the priest. But it didn’t matter, the temple had a mermaid carved against the door. Maybe someone would know something.
He’d had a life once, a sailor on a fisherman’s ship, drawing nets and gutting fish. It wasn’t glamorous, or important, but it put food on the table and kept him in beer. If he’d wanted more, or better, he hadn’t let it bother him.
But there wasn’t much call on a fisherman’s ship for a one-armed sailor. Squared with the Gods, Pierce had decided, but useless. They’d put him ashore with his pay, and sailed off.
Bucky didn’t even have the will left in him to be angry about it.
What he was, however, was obsessed. He couldn’t forget about the beautiful merman. Surely someone knew something about them. He’d traveled to libraries and questioned learned scholars. He’d grilled old sailors and priests.
All of which had finally led him to this temple. Maybe, maybe… someone would have some answers.
And soon. Bucky’s money was all but gone. If there was nothing here, he soon would be a beggar, hoping to scrounge a meal.
He straightened his shoulder, scratched at the healing stump of his arm, and pushed into the temple. “Hello?”
The priest was sitting at a small table at the side of the temple, but he rose as Bucky entered. He was a big man, broad-shouldered and bald, and even before he’d slung a friendly arm over Bucky’s shoulders, smelled of salt and fish. “Come in, come in, my boy!” He led Bucky back over to the little table and urged him into a chair. He produced a teakettle and poured a cup, pressing it into Bucky’s hand, and then put a plate of dried fish and salt crackers on the table between them.
“There. It’s not much, but you look like you could use a little something,” he said. “Have a sip, take a bite, and tell me what’s brought you to my quiet little corner of the world, here.”
Bucky took a sip of tea, rich and warming, and ate a few crackers. “My thanks. I’m looking for a priest of Neptune,” Bucky said. “I’ve been told there’s one here, still remaining.” He reached inside his vest, touching the pendant he’d had made of Tony’s scale, his one link to sanity and hope.
“Well, I like to think that Neptune and I have a special relationship,” the priest said, grinning broadly. “Tell me what’s on your mind.”
“I’m looking for information on how I might find a merman,” Bucky explained. “Talk to one, maybe.” He’d had fantasies of having a small home on the coast, a dock out to sea where he might be able to sit down and just… talk with Tony. Like neighbors. They would be neighbors, wouldn’t they? Somewhere far away from other people. That was all he wanted really. And if he had more lurid thoughts about that brief kiss, well, that was his own business, wasn’t it?
The priest sat back in his seat, rubbing a hand over his chin thoughtfully. “A merman?” he repeated. “Now, that’s an unusual wish. I’ve had the occasional adventurer looking for mermaids, but... Well. What put this in your mind, if I can ask?”
“I’m worried about him,” Bucky admitted. The more he thought back to the conversation he’d overheard, the more he remembered about that night, and every bit of it was etched on his memory like an engraving, the more he believed he was right, and Tony was in danger. “I think… I think someone paid my former captain. To catch a merman, and not just any merman, but that specific one. A Prince. I need to warn him.”
The priest just looked at Bucky, his eyes seeming to drill down into Bucky’s very center. “Well, now,” he said after a while. “That’s a very particular need. The mer are very secretive folk. They don’t often come close enough to human territory to be seen, much less talked to.”
Bucky pulled out his pendant, a little glass case that he’d placed the scale inside. “He’ll talk to me,” Bucky promised. “At least once, long enough… long enough for me to tell him what he needs to know. I just don’t know how to reach him.”
The priest leaned sharply forward, his breath catching roughly as he looked at the scale. He reached out, but stopped when Bucky flinched back away. “Sorry, sorry. It’s just...” He spread his hands, big and work-rough. “You’re not chasing a wish. You’ve actually seen him before. That... That puts a different spin on things. A very different spin, indeed.” He got up and paced, back and forth across the little temple, frowning in thought.
“I can think of a way,” he said slowly, “but it would be dangerous.”
The warning was real, Bucky knew it. Tony was in danger, and it was a good enough excuse. But Bucky wanted -- a wish, the priest had said -- to see Tony again. He couldn’t stop thinking about the mer, the way he’d moved, the way he’d been afraid and yet determined. Trusting, when he shouldn’t have been. Beautiful and graceful and changing as the sea. “Danger’s not… a concern.”
The priest smiled. “Yes, I can tell you’re brave. Well.” He came back over to the table, sitting in his chair and leaning toward Bucky, eyes intent. “There’s a process by which I can -- by Neptune’s grace -- make you into a mer. You could go and find him yourself. I’ll even enchant your necklace there to draw you to him.”
Bucky absently put one hand to his stump. He wasn’t sure he could swim really well, with one arm, even if he’d had a powerful tail; he remembered how strong Tony’s arms looked; they had to get a lot of use, under the sea, to be that muscular. “Permanently?” He didn’t have a lot to come back to, but… would Tony take him in, give him a home? That seemed a bit much to ask for someone who he’d only done a single favor.
The priest wobbled his hand back and forth. “I can give you three days. If you want it to be permanent, you’ll have to get your prince to kiss you, before the time runs out.”
Bucky eyed the priest suspiciously. This seemed… awfully easy. “What’s this gonna cost?”
“If you’re right about the prince’s life being in danger, it’s my duty to do what I can. I can promise, it won’t cost anything that you’ll miss.”
Bucky nodded. “All right, I’ll take your help. What… what’s your name, so I can tell the Prince who helped us.”
The priest grinned wide and held out a hand for Bucky to shake. “Obadiah,” he said. “Obadiah Stane.”
There was something almost overly cheerful and avuncular about the man, with his sharklike smile and his broad, abrasively dry hand. But Bucky would have done just about anything, made just about any bargain, for the chance to see Tony again. “Thank you, Mr. Stane. So, uh, what do I do?”
“Mm.” Obadiah opened a small door at the back of the temple; it led outside. They weren’t right at the edge of the water, but it wasn’t far, either. “Yes, I expect you’ll make it that far,” he muttered, and reached up into a cabinet. He pulled out a seashell and a piece of frosty sea glass, and a glass jar that looked like it had a starfish in it, clinging to the side. “Just sit there, my boy, and we’ll get you on your way.”
He came back over to Bucky and held out a hand. “First, that pendant.”
Bucky clutched it, still feeling the connection to Tony through it, the way he’d brushed his mouth on Bucky’s cheek. “I… you’ll give it back?”
“Of course, of course,” Obadiah said genially. “I’m just going to let it lead you.”
Bucky pressed it to his lips, then slipped the cord over his head. He’d been wearing it since Hydra dumped him on the docks, practically out of his head with fever, arm a weeping stump. He felt strangely naked without it.
Obadiah folded his hands over the pendant carefully, almost worshipfully, closing his eyes. “Yes,” he said softly. “Yes, that’s him.” He brushed his thumb across the glass, and then suddenly his pale, watery eyes glowed, the bright blue-white of sun glinting off the sea.
Bucky reared back, startled -- and then blinked, because the glow was gone. Had he imagined it?
Obadiah held the necklace back out to Bucky. “Here, put it on. Make sure it works.”
He took it, looped it loosely over his head, and then--
There was a strange hooking feeling, like someone was tugging on his hand. Leading. Pulling.
He'd barely nodded his agreement that it worked when Stane was doing something else.
Something squirmed deep inside him, like a tendril of evil, and it writhed. Bucky pressed his hand to his gut, and he could feel it, moving inside him. “What… what did you do to me?” He tried to stand up from where he was sitting and his legs gave out-- or… disappeared… or… something. He fell, as if he’d broken off at the waist, into a pile of reddish… stuff.
“Exactly what I agreed to do,” Obadiah said, reaching for the jar. “You’re a mer, and that scale will lead you to the prince.” He took the starfish out and laid it against Bucky’s shoulder, just over the stump. It clung there, the suction of its grip almost searingly painful. While Bucky was still gasping, Obadiah picked up the shell, and it began to glow, as if someone had lit a candle inside it. “I even gave you an extra arm... or seven.”
Bucky lifted a-- tentacle, and stared at it, horrified. “What-- what is this? What am I?” There were more of them, seemingly a half dozen of the disgusting things all around him. He stared up at the priest.
Obadiah rolled his eyes. “You’re a mer,” he said. “Octomer, to be precise. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it once you’re in the water. Now, hold still.” He touched the glowing shell to Bucky’s forehead.
Three days, three days, Bucky thought frantically. He didn’t have to stay like this, he just… needed to get to Tony, tell him about the traitor, about the danger, and then…
A cold, seeping mist touched him, coming from the shell. Like a teaspoon full of laundnum, it burned over his tongue, and then everything went… numb.
Not exactly, not--
He stared up at the creature, a dryland thing, all long stupid legs and hard bones. It didn’t look safe and he wondered how he’d gotten here. He squirmed backward, arms pushing him away from the drylander, already scenting the air, searching-- there, there was the sea, and…
There was a thing around his neck, a sort of… pull. Like it wanted him to take it somewhere. He scrambled further, and it pulled in the same direction as the water. So, he’d humor it.
The mer got himself turned around, moving quite fast. Faster than the drylanders.
There were shrieks and sounds, and things moved to get out of his way. Stupid, slow drylanders, pointing at him and yelling. He stopped long enough to squirt ink all over one drylander that had a weapon of some sort, and then kept moving.
The water wasn’t far, the sea was calling him home.
He scrambled over the wooden path, and then… dropped into the water.
Ah, that felt much better and he stopped long enough to twist his arms together, rubbing the grit and dirt and filth of dry land off him. He had some sort of kelpy mess all over his chest and around his waist, and he used his powerful arms to shred it, throwing it into the ocean, getting rid of it.
The thing around his neck tugged, and he used one arm to wrap gently around it, wondering what it was.
A glowing, red scale was trapped inside some very hard water. Beautiful. He rubbed at it with the tip of his arm. It wanted him to go-- west.
So, he would go west.
It wasn’t like he had any pressing engagements.
He dove deep beneath the waves, following the pull.
Tony flipped his tail, splashing his chest with water, and turned the human thing over in his hands again. The knife, he understood well enough -- handle, sharp bit. It wouldn’t last very long in the ocean -- most metal things didn’t -- but the men who’d captured him had shown him well enough how it worked.
But these slender rods, bent at the end, stumped him. Somehow, the human who had rescued him had opened the cage with them. He’d pulled his head back out of the bucket of water just in time to see Bucky pulling them from the lock. But they definitely weren’t keys -- Tony had seen those before, too. He wondered if he could find a recent shipwreck that still had a lock somewhere on it that hadn’t corroded into uselessness yet. Something he could test theory and practice on.
Behind him, on the other side of the rocky beach where Tony was sitting, the water splashed, just a bit. “I’m calling it a dinglehopper,” Tony called.
“It doesn’t matter what you call it,” Rhodey responded, “if you don’t know what it does. And if you keep running away from your subjects to obsess over human stuff, you’re going to be overthrown, you realize that, don’t you?
Tony flipped a splash of water in Rhodey’s direction. “I’m not obsessing,” he scoffed. “The humans invade more and more of our space with every year. It makes sense to try to understand them. Besides, it’s not like my subjects actually need me. I’ve got Obie for the day-to-day jetsam.”
Rhodey snorted and pulled up onto the beach next to Tony, staying a little deeper in the water of the lagoon. “Obie’s been gone for weeks, this time. He might be almost as obsessed as you.”
“Yeah, well, I wish him all the best in hunting down the ship that captured me,” Tony said. “Even if he’s taking it a bit too far.”
Out of the corner of Tony’s eye, something shifted, moving closer to his position on the beach. A lump of reddish colored rock that seemed… out of place. A slide of sand rattled down one of the rocks.
Tony narrowed his eyes, tucking the dinglehopper back into his bag and sliding a little farther down the beach, getting more of his tail in the water. “Who’s there?”
The lump of reddish rock moved, fast, slithering, until it vanished into a puff of beach bramble. The bush shuddered all over, then went still.
“If that bush tells you it’s no one, I am gonna laugh at you,” Rhodey said, but he’d pulled up to guard Tony’s flank, hand on the haft of his coral-tipped spear.
“You’ve never hesitated to laugh at me before, angelfish; I don’t know why you’d start now.” He turned back toward the bush and raised his voice a little. “Come on out! We’re not going to hurt you.”
“No, you ain’t,” a rumbling, dark voice said. “Can take you both, if I need to.” There was a glint of reflection, glass or metal, and the bush shifted and the camouflage turned off, showing an octomer, his face in the shadows, brandishing any number of weapons in his many arms. Well, mostly arms.
Tony noted that one of his human arms ended just above the elbow in a smooth stump, and one of his tentacles was short, stubby, and apparently being used mostly for balance.
“Why would you need to?” Tony wondered. “You know who I am. Don’t you?”
The octomer put down a few of his weapons, but kept a broken glass bottle in his human hand and a pole of some sort in the other. He moved closer, keeping out of reach. “Maybe. Don’t know. Don’t… but it is you.” He slithered a few more feet to one side, still facing Tony. “Yeah, it’s you. Thought it might be.”
“In the flesh,” Tony agreed. “Sorry, I don’t think I recognize you, but I can--” He stopped, staring at the pendant on a leather cord around the octomer’s throat. That was... There was no mistaking that scale. He looked at the mer’s face again, imagined the hair pulled back into a queue, the eyes a little less wild, the teeth human-square. “Bucky?”
“Who the hell is Bucky?” the mer wondered.
“Neptune’s beard, what happened to you?” Tony wondered. He pushed himself farther up the beach, closer to Bucky. He could feel Rhodey disapproving behind him, but Bucky hadn’t hurt him before. “How did you... How did you do this?”
Bucky, if it was Bucky, slithered backward, keeping his distance. “Sneak up on you? Fishtails are dumb. I can be right there, they don’t even see.” He reached up his hand and clutched at the pendant around his throat as if it gave him comfort. “Been looking… looking for you? Maybe. Not sure.”
“Tones, that guy’s more than a few arms short, here,” Rhodey warned. “Someone’s rattled all two of his brain cells together really hard.”
“Yeah, I can see that, crabcake,” Tony said, frowning, not taking his eyes off Bucky. “Back up a little. You’re making him nervous.” To Bucky he said, “If you’ve been looking for me, you’ve found me. What’s next?”
“Don’t know,” Bucky said. He kept his hand around the amulet, hiding it from Tony’s sight. “Don’t remember. Got hurt, I think. I was… I was on dry land, the drylanders were throwing things at me. Screaming. They’re very noisy. Mean. I made it to the water. And there was this-- telling me where to go, but I don't… I don’t remember.”
“Hm.” Tony studied the octomer’s arms. It was a reasonably pretty red, if not quite as showy as Tony’s scales. “Well, I might have someone who can help you with that,” Tony offered. “I mean, if you were meant to find me, then you’ve done that -- good job, mission accomplished. But if you don’t have anything else to do right away, why don’t you come home with me? I’ll put you up for a few days, and we’ll see if we can’t get your memory back. Okay?”
“Okay,” Bucky said, hesitant, still eyeing Tony warily. “You’re not gonna throw anything at me, are you?” Two of his tentacles went up, like part of him was ready to fight.
Tony held up empty hands, though he was very aware of Rhodey, waiting in silent judgement behind him. He jerked his thumb back over his shoulder. “He won’t hurt you, either. Not unless you try to hurt someone else. You don’t want to hurt anyone, do you?” He held out a hand, inviting. “Come on, you look like you’ve had a rough time. Let’s go somewhere quieter.”
Bucky let go of the rock and slithered over to Tony, arms moving in perfect synchronicity to keep his entire upper body steady as he moved. Given the squat demands of his body, he was quite a bit shorter than Tony, although he was probably about the same mass. Those tentacles looked pretty strong, though. “Is this yours? Am I supposed to give it back? I don’t want to.” Bucky was very close now, as if he was scenting Tony, sniffing at the air around him, examining him. Those arms were a little grabby, the end of one poking at Tony’s tail fin, another one wrapping around his wrist to turn his palm up, and a third threading through Tony’s hair.
“No, it’s yours,” Tony assured him. “I mean, it was mine, but I gave it to you, so it’s yours now. You can keep it.” He let Bucky look him over -- it was harmless.
“Tones,” Rhodey said, warning.
“Relax, would you?” Tony said. “He’s not doing anything horrible, it’s fine. It’s fine,” he repeated to Bucky. “I guess if you don’t remember your own name, you probably don’t remember mine, either. It’s Tony.”
“Tony,” Bucky repeated. That seemed familiar to him, as he continued to poke and prod at Tony, the tentacles wrapping here and there. One went around Tony’s waist, the suckers grabbing hold and then popping off, leaving little red circles behind on Tony’s skin. “Tony. Three days. Supposed… three days, I have three days.”
“Three days for what? No, of course you don’t remember. Let me know if it surfaces.” He reached down and wrapped his wrist under and around the nearest octo-arm, so Bucky was holding him again. “Come on, it’s not too far.” He tugged Bucky toward the water and flashed Rhodey a bemused half-smile. “You want to go ahead of us and clear the way? Maybe warn Pep that we’ll have company for dinner?”
“You want me to tell Pepper we're having an octomer for dinner,” Rhodey repeated. He slapped the water with his tail, making the silver scales flash in the sunlight and soaking Tony with sandy water. “When am I gonna get a job that makes sense, Tones?”
“Dinner,” Bucky repeated. “I can hunt. Good at finding, little tasty clams and fishes.”
“Later,” Tony suggested. “We have more than enough for now, but if you want, you can help out some later.” The thought of letting Bucky out to wander the depths alone made Tony want to shudder with dread.
“You’re very pretty,” Bucky told Tony, using one tentacle and the suckers on it to wrap around Tony’s arm. “Do I know you? I… I know you? Don’t I?”
“Tones, who is this guy, you know him?” Rhodey wondered. “I dunno, maybe he went too deep. Stayed up too long. You know how those types get.”
Tony shook his head. If Bucky didn’t know he was supposed to be a human, hearing it now might upset him. “I’ll tell you later,” he promised, and trailed his fingers over the tentacle on his arm, caressing the soft skin. “You do know me,” he told Bucky. “We met seasons ago, only briefly. You helped me. I’m glad to see you again.”
“I’m gonna swim on ahead,” Rhodey told him. “If this guy starts yanking your hair out or something, just holler.” Rhodey flipped his tail again, very rude, and swam off, a blur of bubbles in his wake.
“I’m not going to yank your hair out,” Bucky said, earnestly, as if this was a legitimate concern. He unwrapped his tentacles from Tony, all but tucking them under himself, demonstrating that he was on his best behavior. Or maybe just preparing to swim. Bucky moved faster than Tony did, but not in the same way. Instead of flipping a tail or pulling himself through the waves with strong strokes, he sort of… squished through the water.
“That’s good,” Tony said, sliding into a current and letting it carry him toward the palace. “I disapprove of hair-pulling except under certain limited and very personal circumstances.”
Bucky bunched his tentacles up again and squirted on ahead, leaning back to watch Tony, and then gliding forward another twenty yards or so. Apparently he found Tony’s steady pace to be too slow, and started swimming loops around him, twisting freely in the water and sometimes reaching out to touch Tony’s tail with a tentacle. “I like this,” he decided. “Swimming with someone. It was a long, long swim to find you. And I was alone.”
“That’s too bad,” Tony said. “Being alone when you don’t want to be is awful.” Though he’d always thought octomers were generally solitary, much like their octopus cousins. But maybe, since Bucky had started out as a human, he hadn’t acquired that instinct. Though he’d picked up swimming and camouflage quickly enough. It was an odd question. And nothing Tony could answer, not while Bucky’s memories were missing.
He dropped out of the current and led Bucky over a reef, and then down into the fissure where the palace was. “Here we are,” he said, doing a little spiral through the water, waving his hands. “What do you think?”
The palace stretched out, huge and lovely, made from living coral and adorned with nacre, a shimmering and secret place below the waves. Humans couldn’t find it, not without a guide, the entrance was small and enchanted. If a human looked, they would only see more ocean sand and rock.
“It’s lovely,” Bucky said, and he crept closer, staying closer to the bottom, clinging to rocks and hiding behind reeds. “Big. Like Brooklyn. Only cleaner.” When a pair of patrolling mers swam by, Bucky all but vanished into the rocks, until all that was visible of him were a pair of curious blue eyes.
Tony didn’t roll his eyes, quite, but he reached into the rocks and felt around until he found Bucky’s arm. “Come on, it’s okay, you’re my guest. No one’s going to hurt you.”
Bucky grumbled, but he let go of the rocks and stuck much closer to Tony’s side, watching warily. He wasn’t the only one. Octomers could be aggressive and reacted badly to having their territory encroached on. There’d been… well, not battles, but skirmishes in the past, and there weren’t many other octomers who visited the palace or the city. Which meant that Tony’s people were, in fact, staring at him.
Tony ignored the stares, but looped his arm through Bucky’s and held on as they made their way into the palace.
Pepper descended on him in a flurry of bubbles as they drifted into the central chamber. “Tony! Rhodey said you were--” She pulled to an abrupt halt, blinked twice at Bucky, and then nodded. “Right. Not pranking me. Good to know. Accommodations?”
Tony nodded. “Find a room for him. Something close to the floor, I’d think.” He glanced at Bucky. “Yes?” He looked back at Pepper. “And as soon as Obie gets back, alert me. I don’t care what time it is or where I am or what I’m doing.”
“What’s an Obie?” Bucky wondered. He drifted a little closer to Pepper, reaching out to touch her hair with one curious tentacle, then tugged on the bright blue of her tailfin. “Pretty.”
“Very pretty,” Tony approved. “But maybe ask before touching; not everyone’s as easy with it as me. And Obie is my, mm, call him an advisor. He’s the one that I think might be able to help with your memories. He’s much better at magic than me.”
Bucky’s tentacles all disappeared under him again. “No touching. Sorry.”
Pepper raised an eyebrow. “It’s all right,” she said. “You can touch, if you want. My name is Pepper. What’s yours?”
Bucky shook his head, making his hair cloud out around his face. “Don’t know. I don’t… I don’t remember. Tony--” and he pointed one limb at Tony. “And Rhodey-crabcake. And Pepper.”
“For the time being, we’re going to call you Bucky,” Tony said. “If that’s okay. You look like a Bucky to me; doesn’t he look like a Bucky to you, Pep?”
“Bucky, then, all right. If you’ll come this way, Bucky, I’ll show you where you’ll be staying, while you’re with us,” Pepper said, strictly professional. She knew the whole palace very well, it wouldn’t take long to find something that an octomer would be comfortable with, small and close to the ocean’s floor, with crevices to climb into and explore.
Bucky nodded, then, looked back at Tony. “It’s okay? I’ll… see you for dinners? Soon? Soon, right?”
“Soon,” Tony agreed. He tapped the amulet on Bucky’s chest. “This means you’re my guest.” Well, not quite, but that was close enough. “If you need anything, show it to anyone around and they’ll make sure you get whatever it is.”
Pepper gave him a quick, searching glance, then nodded. “Here we go then, let's find you a place to stay. You can sleep there, and keep anything you need there. Of course, all the public areas of the palace are open to you, I’ll show you how to know where someone else’s space is, so you don’t surprise them.” Still chattering, telling him things he might need to know, Pepper led Bucky away. Bucky kept looking back at Tony, until they turned a corner and were out of sight.
Tony sagged back against the coral, sighing, and then let himself drift upwards, into the upper chambers of the palace. Rhodey was going to want an explanation, and soon.
“We don’t usually have quite so many guests,” Pepper said, looking out at the vast cavern. “But everyone wanted to see you, so…”
Bucky took one look at the place, stuffed to the gills with merfolk, fishtails and seahorses, a few hard-shells, and blended in with the nearest rock. “No. Where’s Tony?”
Pepper pointed with one delicate arm. She only had two, but it didn’t seem to deter her any. “He’s there, at the head table. You’ll be sitting right with him, we have special instructions on that, so… you can come and be looked at. No one will touch you without asking, just like me, right?”
Bucky probably took too long to consider it, but Tony’s friend Pepper kept urging him on in that soft, gentle voice of hers, and she was going to take him right over to Tony, she promised. Eventually Bucky let go of the rock and while he kept his colors duller, not nearly the bright, brilliant red that he preferred, he didn’t blend in with the rocky floor, either.
Conversation went completely quiet as soon as the mer saw him and everyone was staring.
Tony looked up at the sudden quiet, and when he saw Bucky, he broke into a wide smile. “Bucky!” He shot up and away from the table, swimming toward them, reaching out with both hands. “You’re okay? How’s your room?”
“I’m okay,” Bucky agreed. “The room is small and squishy. I like it.” He looked around nervously, watching everyone watch them. “Why does everyone all eat together, aren’t they going to steal our food?”
“No,” Tony said firmly. “There is enough for everyone, and no one is going to steal anyone else’s food.” Bucky wound a tentacle around his arm and Tony didn’t object, just used it to tow Bucky back down toward the table. “Come on, let everyone get a good look and then they’ll get bored and go back to gossiping.” He hovered just above the table with Bucky, waving with his free hand. “I’d like to introduce Bucky,” he said, his voice clear and carrying. “He is my guest, and I ask you all to extend him every courtesy.”
That started up a low murmur of voices, but Tony didn’t seem bothered. He drifted back down onto the shaped coral seat, pulling Bucky down beside him. “What do you want? Oysters? Clams? There’s several fish, too.”
Bucky had already found whole beds of oysters, scooped them up and emptied out the succulent little meats from them. “Oysters are good,” Bucky decided. “What do you eat-- not crackers and dried fish, no, nope. Only the drylanders eat that.” Bucky wondered why he’d even thought of drylander foods, but it made his head hurt, so he poked through the offerings that were piled in front of Tony’s seat. He took up an oyster and let his suckers grab it on both sides, yanking it open. “You like oysters?”
Tony nodded, picking up an oyster of his own, and a short blade made of sharkstooth to pry the shell open. “One of my favorites,” he confided.
Bucky’s way of opening the clams and oysters was much faster, and he popped open several of them before offering a piece of the tender flesh to Tony, who was prizing his open one at a time. Bucky had a lot of suckers, he could grab hold of a dozen or more at once. “Fishtails have two hands. I only have one, but I have lots of arms. So I can still move faster than you.” He turned his shoulder to show Tony the starfish on his stump. “It’s still pretty, though, even though I lost it.”
Tony smiled, though it was a bit strained. He trailed gentle fingers down the skin, tracing the edges of the starfish, and then a line of scarring. “I guess you don’t remember how you lost it, either?”
Bucky tried to remember, he tried, thinking about it, when it hurt, it had hurt, when he’d still had it, and-- “The Hydra tore it,” he said, finally, slowly. He couldn’t remember, nothing but water in his face, and choking and-- darkness. “The Hydra tore it off. I almost died. There was so much blood, and--” He noticed everyone close to them was watching, listening, and he shoved several pieces of clam and most of an entire fish tail into his mouth to block the flow of words.
“Sorry,” Tony said quickly. “I didn’t mean to bring up bad thoughts.” He reached over the table and offered Bucky some kind of plant with little round bubble-looking fruits on it. “Here, try this.”
Bucky chewed and swallowed until he made some room in his mouth to try the thing Tony was offering. “I spent a lot of time after that getting better,” Bucky said. “I had to get better, I had… I had…” Bucky put one arm to either side of his head, as if he could pull the thoughts out. They were in there, he knew that, but something had happened, something… something. “Three days. Almost done with the first one.”
“Well,” Tony said, and his smile eased a little, but not entirely, “we’ll just have to make sure you enjoy the other two, while we’re trying to remember.”
Bucky stripped the little fruits off the plant and ate those. They weren’t terrible, but they weren’t as good as clams. And then he ate the leaves and the stem, too, while he was at it. And then, when Tony wasn’t looking, he ate another clam, to get the taste out of his mouth. Yuck.
Tony seemed determined to make sure Bucky tried all his favorites, though, and not all of them were so nasty. There were a dozen kinds of fish, prepared in many different ways -- the tuna wrapped in seaweed was especially good, Bucky thought. Sea urchins, carefully cracked open, had a rich meat under their spines. And Bucky did not want to like the krill and algae salad, but it had an interesting texture, and before he realized it, he’d eaten the whole serving.
Tony talked to him the whole time, telling him about the way the palace had been built, living coral encouraged to grow in exactly the right shapes, every ruler leaving their own stamp on the structure as it grew to suit their purposes.
Bucky considered that for a long moment. Tony was still talking, but Bucky had almost stopped listening, just watching the way his mouth moved as he talked, the way he gestured with both hands, almost enough that he wasn’t eating. Tony had advisors. And he gave orders. And they were sitting at the front of the room, where everyone was looking at them.
“Are… are you the king?” Bucky asked, suddenly, trying to keep his voice down, because he didn’t know that, and he didn’t know if he’d ever known it. It didn’t seem… You gave us trinkets to kill a prince… “Were you a prince, once?”
“Still am, if you want to be technical about it,” Tony said. “Can’t officially be crowned for another season.” Whatever expression Bucky’s face was making, Tony obviously found it highly amusing. “You didn’t know?”
Bucky stared. “Someone was supposed to kill you,” he said, knowing his voice went flat, emotionless, trying to remember why he knew that. “My broken brain, I don’t… I don’t… I don’t remember. Paid trinkets, to kill a prince.”
Tony took Bucky’s hand and squeezed it until Bucky looked at him. “It’s okay,” he said slowly. Carefully. “We’re safe here, in the palace. I promise.”
Bucky found one last clam in the remains of the offerings, opened it. “It’s okay,” he repeated, then, “I’ll protect you.”
After dinner, Tony escorted Bucky back to his assigned quarters. He peered through the door at the small, dimly-lit chamber. “Hm, well, let me or Pepper know if you want something bigger, or more light, or anything. I know you’re probably pretty dried out tonight, but I thought, if you wanted, tomorrow I could take you to see some of the sights? The kelp forest is really nice this time of year, and there’s a series of caverns that are just amazing.”
“This is good,” Bucky said. “Nice and cozy and safe.” He kept wrapping his arms around Tony’s tail and waist and wrist, occasionally leaving another one of those round red spots where a sucker got too enthusiastic. They made a soft popping noise when they came off. “Where will you go? Are you safe?”
“I’ve got my own rooms, and there’s a sharktail guard and everything. I’ll be fine. No one’s going to try to hurt me here.” Bucky’s concern was sweet, if a bit overenthusiastic.
“If you’re sure,” Bucky said, and he slowly started unwrapping himself from around Tony’s limbs. “I mean, if you’re not sure, you can stay here, I’ll make sure you’re okay. I don’t want anyone to hurt you.”
“That’s really nice of you,” Tony said, “but I promise, I’ll be fine.” He closed his hand over Bucky’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “I’ll come find you first thing in the morning so you know I’m all right.”
“Okay, promise, all right,” Bucky said, and then, like any other octomer, squished himself into one of the little cubbies in the room, blending in with the rock. They hadn’t had many octomer guests over the years, but once in a while one would come for a few days, to report on the land dwellers’ doings, or sometimes on troublesome deepwater beasts.
Tony smiled at him, or at least where he was pretty sure Bucky was, gave a little wave, and headed back toward his own rooms, feeling oddly... lonely.
Don’t get used to him, for Neptune’s sake, Tony told himself. As soon as Obie gets back, we’re going to figure out how to turn him back into a human and send him back home.
He got back to his rooms and picked up his bag of human things. He ignored the puzzle of the dinglehopper for now, instead pulling out the knife, turning it over and over in his hands and wondering... well, many things.
He fell asleep still wondering, and spent a restless night dreaming of being chased and the feel of octomer tentacles closing around his limbs.
When he opened his eyes, there was an octomer looming over him.
“Great Neptune!” Tony gasped, darting for the corner of the room in startled panic before finally waking up enough to realize that it was Bucky, and he was sleeping. On Tony’s ceiling, his camouflage perfectly rendered to match the ceiling as it had been the night before -- but the coral shifted colors with the cycles of day and night.
If it had still been night, Bucky was flattened out enough, clinging to some of the natural protuberances in the coral, Tony might not even have noticed him at all, but now, all blue against a bright yellow background, he was exceptionally obvious.
“Hmmm?” Bucky mumbled, stretched one tentacle way out, the end shaking briefly as he flexed the muscular limb. “What’s th’ fuss about?”
Tony swam up to the ceiling to look at Bucky more evenly. “You startled me. Are you all right? Was something wrong with your room? We could’ve changed it.”
“Nothin’ wrong with my room,” Bucky said. “You jus’ weren’t in it. Felt better if I could keep an eye on you.” He rubbed the tip of one tentacle along Tony’s jaw. “You snore.”
“Which would not be a problem for you if you’d slept in your room,” Tony pointed out. “You think you could keep me safer than Rhodey and the guards and literally everyone else in the palace?” He tried for scolding, but it came out more like amused.
Bucky gave him a flat look. “I’m in here, yeah? Rhodey and the guards and literally everyone else in the palace never even saw me come in,” he pointed out. “I don’t know who wants to hurt you, but-- I couldn’t sleep, thinking something might happen.”
Tony sighed. “Okay, okay, if it makes you feel better, you can sleep on my ceiling. Do you still want to go sightseeing today?”
Bucky nodded. “We can do that,” he said. “Two days left. I wish… I’m sorry, I tried, I did, I tried to remember, but I just don’t know.” He gathered one of his tentacles up and stuffed the end in his mouth, nibbling on it with sharp teeth, a nervous habit.
“It’s okay,” Tony said. “Maybe it will come to you when you’re not trying so hard. That happens sometimes. And if not, Obie should be back soon, and maybe he’ll be able to help you.” He caught Bucky’s hand and pulled him toward the door. “Come on, we’ll have breakfast and then I’ll show you everything!”
“Oh, breakfast,” Bucky exclaimed. “I could really go for a cuppa.” And then he frowned, making a motion with one hand like raising something to his lips, but… “Nevermind, I don’t know what I’m talking about. I never know what… I’m talking about.”
Humans had drinks and cups. Under the waves, they had other options. Tony grinned and pulled a little harder, trailing Bucky behind him like wake. “You’re going to like this,” he promised.
The dining chamber wasn’t nearly so crowded as it had been the night before, so Tony pulled Bucky to his accustomed spot, where Rhodey and sometimes Pepper would join him eventually. A server brought in the bubblers, and Tony took his with great relish, handing another over to Bucky. He positioned his face just over the bubbler and squeezed, releasing a thin stream of flavored bubbles. He breathed them in and sighed as they worked their magic, dusting the cobwebs from his thoughts and giving him a surge of energy. “Go on,” he told Bucky. “It’s good.”
Bucky hesitated, but followed Tony’s lead, although admittedly, his tentacle squeezed a lot harder. Tony’d done that a few times as well, giving himself a head rush instead of a welcome jolt of energy, and Bucky came out of the stream of bubbles blinking, wide-eyed and grinning. “Oh, that’s… that’s amazing,” he said.
A few of the other mers in the dining room looked… well, not quite shocked, but condescendingly amused. Look at the poor rube octomer, among civilized peoples. Imagine, never having a bubbler before.
Bucky didn’t seem to notice them, though, only paying attention to what Tony was doing, or saying.
So Tony told him about the kelp forest, thick and green and peaceful; and the caverns, with their amazingly varied colors of luminescent algaes and small plants. He talked about his travels -- he’d been all over the sea, on business of the kingdom, and the variety of mer was both shocking and beautiful.
“I like it here,” Bucky said. “It’s pretty. You’re pretty.” He followed along as Tony led them outside the palace, to show him some of the things that Tony had been telling him about. Bucky was a born scavenger, too, grabbing bits of shell to examine and discard, plucking up little curiosities, showing them to Tony, putting them down again, and the whole time, filling up one of Tony’s carry-pouches with food.
He seemed greatly stymied by a small sea turtle he managed to find; maybe a month out of hatching, that kept biting his tentacle when he tried to make the creature come out of its shell.
Tony laughed a little and rescued it from Bucky’s curious clutches, cupping it gently in his hands and releasing it into a gentle current. “Not everything wants to be examined,” he told Bucky, fondly. “Come on, let’s go have a look around, shall we?”
“Okay,” Bucky said, grabbing one of his tentacles in his hand, to apparently keep it from chasing after the turtle. “Don’t touch!” He shook his finger at it, like the thing had a mind of its own. “What do you do when you travel and talk to the other mers? Do they like it? You like them? Is there anyone special?”
Tony grinned. So many questions. Lost memories or not, Bucky must have been overflowing with curiosity after his encounter with Tony. “Trade, some. Exchange of information and goods, talk about boundaries and new hazards and...” Tony waved his hand idly and watched, bemused, as one of Bucky’s tentacles curled around it. “It can be fun. Fishtails are schoolers, most of us, you know, so we like gatherings. I don’t know about anyone special. I mean, they’re all special, really.”
Bucky made a humming sound. He plucked a small, pinking plant from the sea floor, passed it from one tentacle to the other, and ended with placing it in Tony’s hand. And before Tony could say anything about it, Bucky had squirted away to chase a school of tiny bluestripe snappers into scattering everywhere.
Tony tucked the little plant into his hair and followed gamely after. “What do you like? I mean, I know you don’t remember anything, but you must have some thoughts about what sounds fun or interesting.”
“Ah, you know, fairs and dancing, picnic lunches. Racing. Sports, sometimes. A friend of mine used ta drag me off to baseball, sometimes. On… on.. We used to play checkers, when the sea was calm. With the crew.”
Tony didn’t know what baseball or checkers were, but the rest of it was familiar enough, if probably not what Bucky was recalling, distractedly. Tony was more certain than ever that Bucky’s memories were in there somewhere, if they could just be freed. “We have dancing, sometimes,” he said. “And races. Though I don’t think I want to race you.” He caught up to Bucky, who was peering into a little crevice in the rocky floor. “Come on, it’s not much farther to the kelp forest.”
“Well, of course, I’m faster than you,” Bucky said, smug and satisfied, “but I meant, like… horses. You… you can’t ride, I guess?” Bucky peered over at Tony, poking at his tail a few times. “No, I guess you can’t, really.”
“What’s a horse?” Tony asked, then shook his head. “I’ve caught rides on whales. Dolphins, sometimes, for shorter trips. There are daredevils who ride sharks, but not me.” He grinned. “Sailfish give a hell of a ride.”
“Dolphins,” Bucky said, thoughtfully. “Those’d work, if you could train ‘em up. But you know, horses. Four legs, hooves, tail and mane.” Bucky made a strange, whickery sound. “Maybe they’re just where I come from.”
The kelp forest was vast, full of marine life, spreading as far as the eye could see, disappearing into the gloom of the deeps. “Wow,” Bucky said, looking at it from the drop-off. “That’s… huge.”
Tony beamed, pleased to have impressed Bucky. “It spreads farther than a mer can swim in a day,” he said. “Want to go down?”
“Bet ya can get lost in that,” Bucky said. “Like… like a cornfield.” He linked one tentacle and his hand with Tony’s. “Sure, let’s go look up close. But not too far. I don’t want to lose you.”
“You won’t lose me,” Tony promised. He led the way down, into the gentle green of the kelp, the fronds swaying in the current, brushing at Tony’s scales with a soft tickle. “It’s nice, right?” Closer to the sandy floor, there were colorful fish darting around, shells and crabs and smaller plants. Tony settled on the bottom, a cloud of sand puffing up around him, and rolled over to look up. The kelp blocked most of the ocean out, making it feel closed and safe.
“Like bein’ in the woods,” Bucky said, and he squirted over to plop next to Tony in the silty bottom. He scraped a few tentacles through the sand, turning it over to raise little clouds, and “oh! Look, a doubloon.” He dropped something round and metal into Tony’s hand, shiny, with a raised mark on it. “Must be a shipwreck nearby.”
“Is that what they’re called?” Tony said, rubbing his thumb over the little marks. “Yeah, there’s a wreck a little bit that way.” He waved in the general direction. “Do you... want to see it?” He hadn’t planned on taking Bucky there, not sure what such a blatant reminder of humanity would do to Bucky’s odd memory issues, but if Bucky wanted to see it...
“Well, some are doubloons,” Bucky said, absently. “Depends on the currency, although most people just call any pirate treasure a doubloon. Sure, we can look. Do you know what happened to the boat?”
Tony shook his head. “Storm, probably. The wreckage is pretty scattered. It’s been down here since before I was spawned.” He led the way; it wasn’t terribly far. It might even be a nice place to pause and eat lunch.
The ship formed its own little clearing in the kelp forest. Broken in half, with a good stretch of sandy bar through the middle, it stabbed itself upward out of the kelp like an accusing finger. Bucky swarmed over bits of the wreckage, examining it avidly. Most drylander-things didn’t last long under the waves, but there were a few relics left. Some of the mer collected drylander things, as curiosities, or to adorn their persons or places of residence. “Oh, this is nice,” Bucky said, and handed Tony a packet of thin, flat… things. “It’s an ivory fan. Made from elephant tusks.” He unfolded it, to show a shell-shaped item with carvings through it, making a lacy half circle. “I knew some ladies back in the day who would have slit your throat to have something so nice.” He folded it back up, carefully.
“It’s pretty,” Tony agreed, and he could see that some skill had gone into carving the... whatever a tusk was. It felt hard and smooth. “What’s it for? Just decoration?”
“Flirtin’ and fluttering, mostly,” Bucky said. He took it back and spread the flats again, making a strange little gesture with it, and then hiding his face behind the wide surface, peeking coyly at Tony over the top edge.
Tony laughed, surprised that a human thing so closely mimicked a mer behavior. He pulled his tailfin up in front of his own face and batted his eyelashes at Bucky over it. “Like this?”
Bucky’s eyes went wide. “‘Zactly like that,” he said, his voice coming out a little rough. “Sort of thing to encourage sneakin’ off and stealin’ kisses.”
Tony’s top half flushed warm suddenly, and he was grateful he still had his tail up in front of him. “Yeah,” he agreed. “We, uh. That’s pretty common for fishtails, too. You should keep that,” he added, nodding at the-- fan. “In case there’s anyone you want to flirt with.”
Bucky gave him a long, steady, searching look, then muttered something that sounded like, “Fishtails are dumb.”
Tony flushed his gills a little to cool himself down and then pushed off toward the other half of the ship, in search of a distraction. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to kiss Bucky, but... what good did that do him, if they were going to restore him to his human shape soon? He picked up the first thing he saw that wasn’t obviously broken and held it up. “What’s this do?”
Bucky took it, looked at it, a curve of wood with a stubborn barnacle affixed to it. “It’s a pipe,” Bucky said. “It’s all clotted up now.” He plucked a small piece of broken metal from the ground with one tentacle and prodded at the clump of sand and debris, then-- put one end to his mouth and spat water through it, using the pressure to clean the rest of the gunk out. “You’d put a wad of tobacco here, and light it on fire. Breathing in the smoke, though here. Like your bubbler. It’s for… the smoke relaxes you.”
Tony knew what fire was; when he’d been held captive, the lamp on the wall where they’d held him had been a fire. He hadn’t found the smoke at all enjoyable, though maybe that was just the circumstances at the time. Or maybe, like a bubbler, it mattered what kind of smoke it was. He took the pipe back from Bucky and peered into the long tube. “Interesting. I can think of some mer who could stand some relaxation, let me tell you.”
“Gets to be a habit,” Bucky said. Bucky looked down at sand. “This-- this is supposed to be me, ain’t it? I know this. I been here. This is more like home to me than… your palace, pretty as it is.” He looked sad. “I belong here. Not with you.”
Tony couldn’t stand that sorrowful expression. He took Bucky’s hand, twined their fingers together. “I... think so,” he agreed. “I don’t know how you... how this happened, but when we met before, you were a human. But I’m glad you came. I’m glad I get this chance to show you my home, to see you again. You were... I liked you. I like you.”
“I like you, too,” Bucky said, looking down at their fingers, tangled up together, the way his palm pressed against Tony’s. “I-- think I did something. So I could be with you.” Slowly, as if Tony was some sort of shy fingerling fish that had to be lured and tempted closer, he pulled Tony toward him, one tentacle going around Tony’s waist to steady him. He tipped his head to one side, mouth opening just slightly, as if to ask a question that Tony already knew the answer, which was yes, yes, yes.
Bucky let go and scuttled backward so fast that his sucker left a bruise on Tony’s hip, just above his scales.
Tony nearly protested, half-reaching for Bucky again, but the messenger was closing in quickly. He sighed. “Yes, what is it?”
“Obadiah has returned to the Palace,” the messenger said. “You wanted to see him, as soon as possible.”
Damn it all, he had said that, hadn’t he? “Very well,” he said. “Thank you. We’ll return to the palace at once.” He looked over at Bucky with a wry apology in his eyes.
Obadiah, as it turned out, was not a fishtail. He was a huge orca-tail, with slick black and white splotches and he looked at everyone as if he was considering whether or not they’d make a satisfying meal.
Bucky loathed the mer at first sight. His jovial attitude just made it all worse, like Obadiah was honestly enjoying playing with his food.
He made Bucky’s head hurt, familiar and completely alien, friendly, yet dangerous. A mess of contradictions that Bucky couldn’t even start to get a hold of, not even with eight arms.
Tony didn’t seem to have Bucky’s reservations, but he wasn’t as chipper and open with Obadiah as he’d been with Bucky -- or even what Bucky had seen with Rhodey, or Pepper. Still, he let Obie pull him close as he offered up a scattershot explanation of Bucky’s predicament, winding up with, “...and you’re better than I am with transformation magic, so I was hoping you’d be able to help Bucky out.”
“Well, I am th’ best, my boy,” Obadiah said, rubbing his hands together cheerfully. “Let’s just see what we’re--”
Bucky inched behind Tony, softly blending his colors with the mer, until he was practically disappearing into Tony’s shadow.
“Whoa, hey, what’s--” Tony twisted around to look at Bucky. “Hang on, Obie, he’s a little skittish. Should’ve seen him at dinner last night.” Tony put his hands on the closest tentacles, stroking them gently. “Hey, Bucky, what’s happening, what’s wrong?”
Bucky shook his head, not knowing, exactly. Just knowing that Obadiah made him feel sick, squirmy inside like he’d eaten a whole swarm of eels. “He’s too big,” Bucky said, finally, knowing his tentacle was clinging too hard to Tony’s tail and not being able to help it.
“Don’t mind it, m’ boy,” Obadiah boomed. “Just turn a little, there, I can see him now.” He had a blue piece of glass held up to one eye, peering at Bucky through it. “Oh, yeah, I see. Simple shape-changing spell. Cheap, really. Probably got it from a hack, a drylander caster. Won’t last too much longer, really. It’s unfraying as it is.”
Tony looked mildly alarmed. “Do we need to move closer to the surface, then? In case he changes back? I don’t know if a human could get from here to the surface on one breath. How much longer will it last?”
“It’s about half unravelled,” Obadiah reported.
“Three days,” Bucky whispered at the same time, remembering, but not remembering. Someone had told him. Three days… unless. He turned to look at Tony, that beautiful face. “I was supposed to tell you something.”
Tony brushed a hand over Bucky’s shoulder, soothing, and glanced at Obadiah again. “What about his memory, can you do anything about that?”
“I’ll have to do some research,” Obadiah said. “Give me… a few hours to look through some things; it might just be the shock of the change. I’ll see if I can find anything, but if he’s just going to change back, maybe it’s best to just let him go. Drylanders are pretty, but not very bright.”
Bucky hissed, hiding behind Tony’s tail.
Tony chuckled a little. “You said something similar when we met on the beach yesterday,” he pointed out to Bucky. “Thanks, Obie. You’re a big help, as always. We’ll see you around tide-turn, then?”
“I’ll do what I can, you know that,” Obadiah said. The huge orcamer swam away, tail barely finishing a full lash in the small corridor.
“He’s dangerous,” Bucky told Tony, tugging on Tony’s arm. Whatever else he knew, that much was the truth.
“Of course he’s dangerous,” Tony said, not concerned. “That’s what makes him such a useful advisor. But you don’t have to worry. He was a friend of my father’s; I was tugging on his tail when I was just a guppy. He’s always been helpful.” Tony’s mouth twisted ruefully. “Sometimes even when I didn’t want him to be.”
“Where is your father?” Bucky wondered. If Tony wasn’t the King yet, but would be soon-- Bucky shook his head.
Tony looked away, all humor disappearing from his face. “He was killed. He and my mother. By humans.”
Bucky twisted a few of his tentacles together, squeezing, worried, and then he got two of them in a knot and had to patiently pick them apart again. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said, finally, poking one of the knotted tentacles with his fingers, coaxing the muscle to relax so he could slide it out of the kink.
Tony huffed out a humorless-sounding laugh. “It was your ship,” he said, still not looking at Bucky. “I don’t know if you were on it, then, but it was the same ship. That’s how they caught me. It was a few years later, but Obie let it slip that he’d finally found it, and I didn't want to wait to organize a group. I went looking, by myself.”
Bucky scowled, feeling his teeth grinding together. “I don’t remember,” he said, dully, as if that meant anything. “I’m sorry. You--” He squirted around the water, trying to look at Tony’s face. “-- was it me? It wasn’t me, was it?”
“I don’t know for certain,” Tony admitted. “But I don’t think so. When they captured me, you knew it was wrong. You helped me. You rescued me. I don’t think... I don’t think you’d have done that, if you’d been the one who...” He trailed off, and his eyes flicked up to Bucky’s face. “You were the one good person on that ship.”
“Doesn't say much about me, the company I was keepin’,” Bucky muttered. “I don't know. I don't think I'm bad, but how do I even know? We were friends, though? I helped you?”
“You did. You brought me water so my gills wouldn’t dry out, and you opened the cage and you carried me to the ship’s rail. And I’m pretty sure doing that was risking your life.” Tony reached up, fingers brushing lightly over the stump of Bucky’s arm. “You still had both arms, then. It’s... it’s possible they did this to punish you. My fault.”
“I have plenty of arms,” Bucky pointed out. “I can spare one.” He touched Tony's face gently. They were running out of time, and he still didn't know what he was supposed to do.
Tony put his hand over Bucky’s, tipping his face into the touch. “Bucky, I--”
Tony closed his eyes. “...Yes, what is it?”
“Your presence is requested in the Great Chamber. There is a territorial dispute requiring your decision.”
Tony groaned and dropped his hand from Bucky’s. “Fine, fine, I’ll be there in a minute. Sorry,” he said to Bucky. “I’m... I have these duties. I’ll see you later.”
Bucky rather absently wondered where the damn guards kept coming from, and why had they not prevented the prince from being fishnapped in the first place.
“I… I'll just go to my room?” Bucky says, pointing. He could use some extra sleep anyway.
Tony nodded. “Get some rest. I’ll come find you if Obie turns up anything useful, all right?”
Bucky made a face at that; if Obie came up with anything useful, Bucky would eat one of his own tentacles. “Come find me after anyway,” he invited.
Muttering to himself about interfering guards and crazy magic spells and his stupid-sievelike memory, Bucky occupied himself all the way back to his chamber.
He’d only been there long enough to work his way through the coffer of mollusks that someone had left for him -- probably Tony, because Tony was thoughtful that way, and also didn’t like to draw attention to his own generosity that way -- when the doorway went dark.
Bucky yelped, started to go grey to blend in with the rocks and stones behind him, when--
He couldn’t. Everything froze up. His limbs, his skin, everything except the steady rush of water over his gills and the beating of his heart.
And his eyes. He could move his eyes.
“To be honest,” Obadiah said, drifting further into the room, “I thought you’d get eaten before you even made it this far. You were supposed to be the end of it. My revenge on the Hydra, ostensibly as punishment for capturing Tony, and for his parents, years ago. You were the last.” He circled Bucky, a tight, predator’s loop, and ended right in front of Bucky’s face. He was still making that genial smile.
“But now it turns out that you were the one who helped him escape, and I wonder if I should’ve been a little more forgiving to the rest.” He plucked the last of the mollusks from Bucky’s hand and pried it open with clawed hands. “But then again, maybe not,” he mused thoughtfully. “They were supposed to kill him, not put him in a cage.” He sucked the meat into his mouth and let the empty shell drift to the floor. “On the other hand, you being here... That’s an opportunity. I shouldn’t let it go to waste. I don’t have to arrange another accident, now, do I? Prince Anthony can meet his demise at the hands of a deranged octomer that he’d taken under his wing, who suddenly went mad.”
It was you, it was you all along, Bucky thought desperately. Trinkets, to kill a Prince. You’re the traitor.
Obie took a shell from his pouch and pressed it to his own chest. He grimaced in pain and his whole body writhed, thrashing so hard it was a miracle he didn’t knock Bucky over. His movement stirred up a cloud of sand, and when it settled again... Bucky was looking at himself, sprawled on the floor in a heap of tentacles.
His doppleganger smiled thinly and slowly, laboriously, managed to get himself up off the floor. “Well, it’s not what I’m used to, but I think I’ll get the hang of it. It only has to last a little while. And these arms are very handy.” One of them reached out, sliding around Bucky’s throat and squeezing, just a little.
Then he let go. “Too bad I can’t kill you now. That would be neater, but you need to be alive when I lead the hunt that will chase you down and kill you in revenge for our beloved Prince Anthony.” The tentacle patted Bucky on the cheek, condescendingly, and Obie, wearing Bucky’s body, squirted toward the door. “Wait.” He drifted back. “I’ll need this, won’t I?” He pried the starfish from Bucky’s stump. It hurt just as much coming off as it had going on.
Obie stuck it to his own shoulder, and then he left again, without another word.
Bucky couldn’t move, he couldn’t do anything at all except lay there. There was sand in his gills, and he couldn’t cough. His arm was bleeding from where the starfish had been -- not too much, but as Bucky looked at it, watched it ripple upward in crimson ribbons, he… remembered.
A flash from his childhood -- he’d been a drylander, and fascinated with the sea for as long as he could remember.
His ma had told him, once, years ago, that he’d fallen in the ocean as a baby, not more than three years old, and that he’d come out talking of a fish with human hands and a woman’s face, who’d pushed him toward the shore.
Everyone had thought he was an imaginative child, badly frightened from nearly drowning, but since that day, Bucky had ached for the sea, had done anything, everything, to get close to it. Even signing away five years of his life as a crewman on the Hydra, just to get the experience he needed to, maybe, later, join the King’s armada.
Tony-- oh, god, Obadiah… he was going to kill Tony.
Bucky struggled, trying to move, but whatever chains had been wrapped around him held him fast. He couldn’t move so much as a fingertip.
The petitioners had argued and bickered and seemed no closer to a solution after several hours than they had when they first entered; no longer seeming interested in finding a solution, either, merely exhorting Tony to chose one side, or the other.
It was horribly tedious, and Tony was tempted to take both their territories and give it to someone else, just to unite them, and shut them up. It probably wouldn’t work, though.
By the time Rhodey finally threw them out, with a “the Prince has heard your arguments, you’ll get a verdict in the morning,” Tony was almost ready to scream and throw a dramatic fit himself. Pufferfishes, the lot of them.
“This isn’t going to be any less stupid in the morning you know,” he told Rhodey as they finally drifted out of the Great Chamber. “In fact, it’ll probably just be stupider.”
“Yeah,” Rhodey conceded, “but now they won’t be standing right there when you decide the whole thing by flipping one of those human disks.”
They made it about halfway to Tony’s room when Bucky slid out from under a ledge, changing colors as he went. “Tony, Tony, Tony,” he said, and waved a few tentacles at him, smile a little dimmer than usual, but maybe the octomer was just tired.
“Hey, I thought you were going to get some rest,” Tony said, reaching for him. “What’s going on?”
“Thought we might take a swim, stretch out my limbs,” Bucky said, amiably, almost forcibly cheerful, putting one tentacle around Tony’s waist. “Bye Rhodes.”
“Um. Yeah, we can do that. Are you sure you’re okay?” Tony said. “See you at dinner, Rhodey.”
“No, not really,” Bucky said, drawing Tony away, leading, toward one of the lower exits that would bring them out away from the city. “I… I was thinking. Three days, and they’re over tomorrow. As soon as the sun touches the waves. I’ll be gone. Unless I do what it is I came to do.”
Tony nodded. “Yeah, and Obie is going to figure out a way to get your memories back so you can know what that is. Hang in there just a little longer.”
“Oh, no, Obie already fixed it,” Bucky said, and he ducked into one of the seldom-used storage caverns, pulling Tony into darkness. “I remember… everything.”
“You do?” Tony perked up. “You should have said right away! I thought Obie would have let me know, first, but-- So what do you remember?”
“I remember keeping this kingdom together, when all your father was interested in was chasing every tail that flashed at him--” Bucky said, and that didn’t make any sense. The tentacles that had been lightly gripping Tony’s arm and fin squeezed, harder, stronger, painfully tight. “I remember being thrust aside, by a fish barely able to call himself a man. I remember… I must say, I never quite had a taste for doing things myself, but I do love this body.”
Tony gasped and tried to pull himself free. “What-- Obie?”
“So many extra arms to kill you with,” Obie said, and now Tony could see him, like a reflection on the water, just under the surface of Bucky’s skin. “I’m going to tear you apart.”
“Why?” Tony demanded, struggling against the grip of those tentacles, but they were immoveable. “Neptune’s ghost, Obie, you-- You practically raised me!”
“I held you up, I made this kingdom what it was, a force to be reckoned with, and you-- you little fry-- you tried to throw it all away. Want to be fair, well, let’s see which side gets the bigger half of the fish--” And Obie began to pull, one tentacle wrapped around Tony’s tail, two twined around his chest and throat, and twisted, like Tony was something to be wrung out and tossed aside.
Tony writhed in Obie’s grip, crying out in pain. “Stop, stop this! You don’t have to do this, Obie! You don’t-- aaaaaah!”
There was a sudden shriek, and then the water was full of blood. Tony scrambled out of Obie’s grip, and -- there were two of them. One Bucky, bleeding from the arm, starless and furious, the other leaking from a-- stab wound? In his belly.
“You--” Bucky snarled, at least Tony thought it was Bucky. “You did this, you did all of this. You told Hydra’s captain where to find the King, you set Tony in their path. Did you murder the whole crew, while you were at it? You turned me into this… this thing.”
“You begged me to turn you!” Obie roared defiantly. “It was mine, and I wasn’t about to let some upstart tadpole steal it from me!”
“The king?” Tony repeated dumbly. “The... Dad? Mom?” Tony’s hands were shaking, suddenly. “You?”
“Cheat,” Bucky yelled, stabbing at Obie again, hitting one of those black tentacles with his blade, severing it. “Liar. Deceiver. Murderer.”
The two octomer twined together, struggling, fighting, each striving for the blade. The water went muddy with blood.
“Bucky!” Tony flipped his tail at the water, trying to clear it enough to see the fight. “Bucky!” He swam in quick circles around them, frantically trying to imagine a way to help. He groped in his bag, but all he found were a few shells, the slender metal rods Bucky had dropped from the Hydra, and the ivory fan they’d found at the wreck.
He opened the fan. Maybe if he broke off one of the pieces, it would be sharp enough to do some damage...
“Tony-- watch out--” Bucky was being crushed in the curls of Obie’s tentacles, and Obie had managed to wrench the knife away.
“Meddlesome child,” Obie yelled and lunged at Tony with the knife.
Tony thrust up the fan, knowing even as he did that it was too weak, that the knife would break it. It punched through one of the delicately-carved slats, easily. Tony’s hand spasmed on the fan, snapping it shut -- and wrenching the knife out of Obie’s grip. Tony gasped and grabbed for it before Obie could regain possession. “Give up, Obie!”
Bucky was gone, Tony couldn’t see him, and Obie was stalking him, tentacles thrusting out to grab at Tony’s hand, at his throat…
And then there was Bucky, coming down from the ceiling. He dropped onto Obie’s broad back, wrapping several tentacles around Obie’s throat, squeezing. He held on, even as Obie thrashed and twisted, smashing them both into the wall. “Tony, Tony, end it!”
Tony lifted the knife, hesitated. Could he really kill Obie? His first advisor, the mer who’d practically raised him? Tony looked into Obie’s face, searching. Obie’s lip curled into a sneer, and Tony’s heart squeezed, hardened. “You killed my mom.” He gritted his teeth and sliced the knife through the water, through Obie’s throat.
Obie smashed himself backward one last time, in his death throes, and Bucky made a soft, pained noise as he crunched into the wall. Limp, the octomer slid to the floor. Obie struggled, blood clouding the waters, mixed with a sudden, probably involuntary, ink spray.
“The star,” Bucky said, and Tony couldn’t see him through all the mess. “It’s got my memories, he took-- he… took them, when he changed me into this… I don’t know… if you can use them. As evidence?”
Bucky crept closer, Tony could hear him, tentacles pulling himself across the room, toward Tony. “Tony-- are you hurt?”
“Me?” Tony demanded. “What about you?” He flung the fan and the knife away, groping through the water for Bucky.
“I already know how hurt I am, ya dingbat,” Bucky muttered.
“I’m not hurt, I’m fine,” Tony said impatiently. “Bruised. Lost a few scales, probably. Nothing serious.” His hand found a tentacle and it immediately curled around his wrist, and Tony surged toward it. “How bad is it?”
Bucky patted himself down with another tentacle. “I’m still only missing one arm, so I reckon that’s an improvement on the last time I was bleeding this much.”
Tony pulled Bucky closer still, feeling along his tentacles and chest and back, looking for the wounds. “We’ve got to get you back inside,” Tony said, half-frantic. “Get these seen to.”
Bucky sucked water through his gills. “What we need to do, Tony,” he said, seriously, “is decide.”
“Decide? Decide what?” The ink was finally clearing away, enough for Tony to see Obie’s body collapsed on the sand. He reached down and pulled the starfish away. Probably too roughly, but Tony was in no mood to be gentle with the traitor.
“There’s no time,” Bucky said. “Three days… that’s all I got. It’s almost over. So… you need to decide if you want me to stay, or if you want to take me home.”
Tony froze, staring at Bucky. “I... there’s a choice?” He swallowed. “I’d think... I’d think, if you get to choose, it should be your choice, shouldn’t it?”
“The only reason I’d ever stay would be for you,” Bucky said. “I told any number of lies and half truths, to get here. Said I wanted to warn you about what I knew, said I just wanted to talk. But that was never true. I only ever wanted to stay with you. For you. If you don’t want me here, I’ll go, but if you do...”
Bucky was a drylander and Tony had only known him for a few days, but the thought of him leaving, going back to live on the land, of never seeing him again -- it made Tony’s throat close in panic. He grabbed Bucky’s hand, put it on his chest. “Stay. I want... Stay.”
“Then kiss me,” Bucky told him, “and the spell becomes permanent. I stay like this, the rest of my days. With you.”
“Oh.” Tony wasted no more time. He didn’t care if a hundred messengers suddenly appeared, he wasn’t going to be diverted. He cupped Bucky’s face in his hands and kissed that soft, sweet-looking mouth.
Bucky wrapped several tentacles around Tony’s back, waist, and tail, pulling him closer, closer, until they were all tangled together, and kissed Tony back like his life depended on it. Each flick of his tongue, each press of his lip, made the kiss deeper, sweeter, than any Tony had ever experienced before.
Magic swirled around them, sparkling and jolting, like tiny little prickles of sensation. Bucky gasped, yanked himself away from Tony’s mouth to suck water desperately over his gills, and-- he glittered, shimmering and perfect and glowing in the dark.
When Bucky stopping shining like the moon, he was patting himself down with his one hand and a tentacle, making sure that he was all in one piece, maybe. “Huh, that-- that was weirder’n I thought it would be.” He peered at Tony. “Seems to have worked, though.”
Tony looked Bucky over closely. He didn’t look much different from before, though the bleeding seemed to have stopped, at least. “We... may still want to take a trip closer to the surface before sundown, though,” he said. “Just in case.” He glared at Obie’s body. “He lied about a lot of things.”
“Just to make sure,” Bucky repeated. “I don’t think-- I mean, I think the spell worked because I wanted it to work. The first one, I mean. I wanted to come here, wanted to find you, and, he made it possible. But I think it only worked because I wanted it to. Because you were the only thing of value to me, and I just… I couldn’t give you up. Not after everything.”
“I’m glad you came,” Tony said. “I’m sad that you didn’t have anything else. But I’m glad you’re here. With me.”
“It’s enough,” Bucky said, and drew him in for another kiss, this one only slightly less magical.