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Sharp Teeth and Bird Bones

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There’s a legend about people who live in the sea.

A tale about a woman who falls in love and turns to foam.

There’s a myth about creatures called ‘mermaids’, the ones who live beneath the surface of the water. Sometimes they are indifferent to man, sometimes they are curious, but more often than not they are dangerous. They are alluring with their siren call, the predators and lions of the deep. More often, they would sooner eat a man than fall in love with one.

There’s a different tale, one that hasn’t been told, not yet, that’s different from all of these.

There’s a tale where one did fall in love with a man, but unlike The Little Mermaid, this one was not kind or forgiving or even what you would call loving.

But he was curious.

He was curious enough to save a man, instead of eat him.

And curious enough to see him again.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

It’s 1945, and he’s freezing.

It’s 2014, and he’s still cold.

It’s two weeks after he’s woken up, one week after a battle for the world (again. Not much has changed), and all he sees when he closes his eyes are piercing blue-gray, dark brown hair, and sharp teeth.

“How are you adjusting?”

“Fine,” he answers, for what feels like the fiftieth time in twelve days. He only got two off because he dropped off the face of the planet on the back of a Harley and went to the ocean.

“I know you’re tired of the question,” his therapist says, calm and soothing and sending part of Steve’s brain, the part that’s had to remain calm through each session since the day after he woke up, into a small frenzy. “And I know this wasn’t standard procedure in 1945,” he adds, a small smile thrown in to try and make it less...less, “But, while I know participating in therapy will take some adjusting, it’s been proven to help lessen the stress on the mind, and in turn the body.”

Steve’s heard the word ‘adjustment’ even more times than he has ‘How are you doing?

His therapist looks at him and he stares back.

He’s getting tired of trying to hide everything, but what other choice does he have?

Silence.

“How are you liking your new apartment?”

-

Steve climbs the steps, takes them three at a time because he has nothing else to lose and he’s feeling a little adventurous.

He unlocks his apartment door in under two seconds and is inside and has it locked again in under five, just before he hears the apartment door next to his open, a pause, then the door close a moment later.

Kate’s nice, but Steve’s not in the mood for polite small talk.

He heads for his kitchen, drops his keys on the counter and sheds his coat, hangs it over the back of a chair before he opens his fridge door and pulls out ingredients.

Grilled cheese doesn’t take long to cook, and when he bites into it, he lets himself close his eyes and savor it; remember wide eyes and then the start of a comically, exaggerated look of disgust.

And if he cries, after, sitting alone in his apartment with his forehead in his hands and only the kitchen light and the booming beats of cars passing by outside every so often as his only company, half eaten sandwich on the plate between his elbows, no one’s going to know.

-

“How has your ventures into modern society been coming along?”

Steve keeps his mouth from flattening into a line.

“Slow,” he replies.

His therapist nods.

“That’s perfectly okay,” he says calmly, “As long as you’re trying.”

And he is, trying, that is. It’s hard to step past the threshold of his apartment when he’s not heading out for a mission, but if the last month has taught him anything, it’s that going along with what people deem necessary for him to stay out of even more therapy sessions and meetings is worth the struggle.

Because he doesn’t think he could handle that, not at his age (and that would get a small laugh, if he were here, Buc-)

-

Steve shuts the water off when the tub is full and climbs in, clothes and all, and lays back against the back of the tub for a long moment in the cold water before closing his eyes and holding his breath and sinking all the way down beneath the surface, memories flashing left and right and still bright behind his closed eyes.

After twenty minutes, he breaches the surface with a huge gasp, hands coming up to clutch the sides of the tub while he heaves in air, the sound of water crashing back into water loud in his ears in the tiled space, clothes heavy weights.

And if he sucks in more air than he needs to, if he’s not pulling it in solely because he held his breath for almost too long, if his cheeks are wet for a different reason and he grits his teeth on a pained sound, no one’s going to know.

There’s no one to know.

Not anymore.

-

“Valentine’s is comin’ up,” Clint says while they pull their gear into place on the quinjet.

Steve keeps his eyes on his gloves, tightening them perfectly and wanting to make them tighter, cut off the blood flow and then let it all rush back into skin gone pale white like a ghost.

They gave him a new suit, darker than the one he wore during the war, even if that one was duller than the one he wore during the battle for New York.

This one, though, is subtler while still drawing the eye, darker and, unlike the one from the invasion, practical.

He kind of likes it.

That’s right,” Natasha says like she didn’t know it was, “Got anyone special, Cap?”

Steve drops his hands and grabs his helmet, pulls it on and fastens it into place before grabbing his shield and hitting the button for the quinjet’s back hatch.

“Nope,” he makes himself reply lightly, and then steps over and lets himself freefall out of the back of the quinjet before they can ask him anything else, before he has to lie any more.

He’s always been terrible at it, except where he was concerned.

Steve could lie with the best of them if it was to keep him safe.

WHAT ABOUT THAT NURSE THAT LIVES DOWN THE HALL FROM YOU?” he just hears Natasha call out over the wind, but he ignores it.

When he hits the water feet first, he only takes a moment this time to check around himself before moving towards his mission, looking for any dark shapes in the water.

-

“Your therapist says you’re doing as well as expected,” Fury opens with as soon as Steve closes his office door. Steve’s steps don’t falter. “And that you’re learning to ‘venture out into the world with less resistance’.” Steve stops in front of his desk and raises an eyebrow.

“You make it sound like that’s a bad thing,” he replies. Fury raises an eyebrow right back.

“Not at all,” he returns, steepling his fingers and looking up at him, “I’m glad you’re doing as well as you are.”

Steve hears the ‘but’ in there.

But…” he trails off, giving Fury an incentive.

But,” Fury continues, a little like it’s being pulled from him, dredged up from somewhere deeper than he wants to go, “You still keep yourself cooped up in your apartment like a hermit and don’t have much in the way of social interaction.” It didn’t take Steve long to figure out and learn that Fury never really beats around the bush, not when he’s trying to make a point.

He’s also sacrificing the knowledge to Steve that he has been keeping tabs on him. Close ones.

It makes Steve uncomfortable, but he’s not exactly surprised.

“I talk to the people who make me coffee and the waitresses that give me food,” Steve counters. Fury just inches his eyebrow up a little higher. “I talk to Agents Barton and Romanoff.”

Fury stares at him.

Steve stares back, not giving an inch.

It’s silent for a long moment before Fury nods his head a little past him and they finally break gazes, Steve turning his towards the large screen on the far wall opposite Fury’s desk.

“We got word on an asset, the asset, that I would like brought in,” Fury starts. Steve listens to Fury’s chair shift as he pushes himself out of it and his steps as he rounds the desk. “I want you to bring him in. Agent Romanoff will be taking point. This mission can’t go sideways.”

Steve frowns a little.

“Brought in for what?”

He sees Fury turn a little towards him so he turns his own head and looks back.

“Bring up all current connected files,” Fury instructs, and they both turn back to the screen.

There’s not many, but from what Steve reads of their content, it sort of makes sense that there wouldn’t be. It’s just-

“These are all by one man?” Steve asks, impressed, then catches the dates on some of the earlier ones.

“We’re not sure,” Fury says before Steve can ask, still looking at the screen when Steve looks over in question, “There’s the theory that his title is passed down from person to person over the years. Most think he doesn’t exist in the first place. Very few think it’s just one man.”

Both of Steve’s eyebrows rise a little.

“Point is,” Fury continues, “I want you to bring him in.”

“You want me to catch a ghost,” Steve says a little flatly. He’ll try, but even he has his limits.

He knows that from experience, even if all but once he’s never let it stop him.

Fury looks back.

“I want you to bring in the Winter Soldier.”

-

Status?” he hears in his ear, grunting briefly when he has to take a hard left, ankle quaking just a little with the strain of it.

“Chasing,” Steve grits back, sprinting forward after the dark figure ahead, leaping across the building divides five seconds behind.

Too long.

I could swear I remember Fury specifically telling us that this could not go sideways,” Clint quips, sounding a little out of breath.

“Tell that to the five second lead he’s got on me,” Steve retorts back, ducking and rolling when a shot skims past his cheek when the Winter Soldier fires while breaking a hard right.

Well, he is a ghost,” Clint returns.

“Not for long,” Steve replies, focused, determined.

This is his distraction. This is what he focuses on when he can’t think about his life.

Which is all the time.

He puts it all on the figure ahead, the chase, the determination, the focus, the missionmissionmission and runs faster.

Five seconds?” Natasha asks, sounding as out of breath as Clint does, “You’re getting slow, old man.”

“I’ll catch him if it kills me,” Steve replies flatly.

A pause in his comm while he jumps another break between buildings, getting closer to the ghost, closer.

Somehow,” Clint starts, “I think you mean that a little more literally than the average man.

Average?” Natasha asks flatly before her voice goes back to business, “Got you both in my sights. One second behind, Cap,” she reports.

He knows, he knows-

Got you in my sights, too,” Clint says, “Man, he’s fast.” Clint whistles low in his ear and then Steve dives-

He catches the ghost around the middle and makes him real, tackles him to the roof of the next building mid leap between the two and they both roll, Steve holding on tight and not letting go even when he gets a fist to the shoulder that hurts like dull fire.

He relishes it and then rolls them again, grappling to stay on top.

They roll and roll, fists flying and feet kicking, and Steve’s probably going to have the most bruises he’s had since he was fighting alone in an alley, but he doesn’t give or let up, just keeps giving as much as he gets while trying to pin the Winter Soldier down.

Dull fingers claw at him when he finally gets the Winter Soldier pinned, and it takes him a moment, a stupidly long moment to realize-

The Winter Soldier’s mask was knocked off.

And his teeth are sharp-

Bucky?” Steve breathes, the name wrenched from him like Bucky’s hand had been, freezing and holding Bucky down hard like he’ll turn to smoke and fly away on the wind. The struggling stops, the body underneath his deceptively docile, and goggled eyes stare up at him, teeth gritted hard and pointed. Steve ignores the question in his ear.

It might not be-

Maybe Steve’s just finally reached the point where he sees Bucky like he’s solid now instead of just in his dreams and every time he closes his eyes. Then-

Who the hell is Bucky?” the Winter Soldier demands, and Steve chokes on a breath. That’s his voice-

He shifts quick and rips the goggles off, meets disgruntled, angry eyes and then pulls his own helmet off over his head, letting it drop down to the cement with a thunk, ignores the damn questions in his ear-

You are,” Steve breathes, staring down at him, “You’re Bucky.”

Bucky’s eyes slowly widen.

And I’m-”

Steve,” Bucky says, sounding just as breathless as he does, staring up at him.

“Steve.”

“Bucky.”

Clint,” Clint inserts, sounding...stressed, “What the hell is going on? And why the hell is your Sergeant pinned to a roof in Moscow in 2014?

Steve doesn’t really have a reply to either of those, so he just leans down and presses his forehead to Bucky’s and stares into blue-gray, at brown hair and sharp teeth, Bucky’s wide eyes staring right back, looking between Steve’s own.

And for the first time since waking up, Steve can breathe.

-

“What the hell are up with his teeth? Were they always like that?” Clint asks, turning to him with his arms crossed.

Steve doesn’t say a word, is only half listening in the first place from where Fury only just managed to get him to stay outside the interrogation room, watching through the viewing window with focused attention and bated breath.

Did you recognize the man on the roof?” Fury asks, sitting across from where Bucky’s handcuffed to the table. God, his left arm-

Bucky doesn’t say a word, just stares blankly back.

Steve’s fingers curl into worried fists and he tries to keep his breathing steady. Clint will know if it changes and he almost doesn’t care, but he cares enough.

Fury studies Bucky for a long minute before shifting back in his chair slightly.

Steve Rogers,” he says. Bucky’s eyes focus more and Steve can breathe a little easier. That’s a good sign, right?

Fury’s quiet for another minute.

You need your mask?” he asks, and after a moment, Bucky inclines his head just slightly. Fury nods and they all wait.

A few minutes later, the door to the room opens and an agent walks in with the mask, only stepping forward to put it back on Bucky when Fury nods.

Bucky moves his head forward for it like he’s done it before, expects it.

Steve’s stomach twists.

As soon as the agent leaves the room and the door’s shut, Fury asks again, “Did you recognize the man on the roof?

Yes,” Bucky answers, voice a little distorted by the mask, flat.

In what capacity?” Fury asks next.

He is mine,” Bucky replies, and that makes Fury pause for a second. Steve can feel Clint’s eyes on him from his right.

In what capacity?” Fury asks again.

All,” Bucky answers, eyes shifting to the viewing window, settling on Steve like he can see him, “Steve is mine. That is all I know.” A shudder runs down Steve’s spine.

Elaborate,” Fury says, still leaned back in his chair and watching Bucky closely.

Bucky drags his eyes back to Fury, eyebrows drawing together a little in what Steve reads is frustration, even with the mask blocking over half his face.

His blood, flesh, bone. All that he is is mine,” Bucky replies, slightly testy, and Steve tries to suppress another shudder. Bucky blinks after a moment and then his demeanor changes again, goes blank and still, waiting or...pliant. Or both.

Fury studies him for another long minute before rising out of his chair and heading for the door, leaving Bucky to his own silence. Steve turns when Fury walks into the room, ignoring the look Clint’s aiming at him.

“I want to go in,” Steve says. Fury studies him, now, for a long moment before eventually nodding.

“He gets agitated, you leave,” is his only rule, and Steve nods before exiting the room, trying to keep his pace from slipping into in-a-hurry and eager.

When he steps into the interrogation room, the holding cell, Bucky’s eyes immediately find his, track him the whole way to the chair Fury had been sitting in.

Steve sits across from him.

They stare at each other.

I know you,” Bucky is the first to break it, and Steve takes a breath.

“Yeah,” he replies, “Yeah. I know you, too.”

 

You make this all go away, you make it all go away

 

“Who’s that for?”

Steve just throws a brief smile over his shoulder and Clint makes an intrigued noise.

“Really? You’re taking him an apple?” he asks, raising his eyebrows a little.

Steve just raises the apple to show it off, red bright under the hall lights, and then stops in front of the cell, walking in after the door opens. Bucky’s laying on the cot against the back wall, eyes closed and fingers laced on top of his stomach.

The door closes.

One pointed nail starts tapping a doubled beat on top of his metal hand and Steve can’t help smiling a little, feels his heart beat in time with it.

“I brought you something,” Steve says, and Bucky cracks his eyes open, slanting them in Steve’s direction. They widen and he sits up, spinning slow to plant his feet on the floor.

Steve walks over and stops an arms length away, offering the apple out to him.

Bucky looks between it and him before slowly reaching out and taking it, no sign of him restraining himself but for the muscles standing out a little more at the sides of his neck.

Steve backs up a few steps while Bucky watches him, watches Bucky look back down to the apple before slowly biting into the red, sharp teeth sinking in with ease and juice coating the sides of his lips while his eyes slip closed, chewing.

Steve’s lips curve up.

Bucky’s eyes open a minute after he swallows and he looks down at the apple then up at Steve, blinking once.

“I remember this,” he says quietly, mouth dropping open, just a little, “You were smaller.”

Steve smiles.

“So were you,” he replies.

Bucky looks back down at the apple and then shifts over a little on the cot. Steve walks forward, calmer than he feels, and slowly sits down next to him.

-

“What is your name?”

Bucky stares.

“James Barnes.”

“Your last known address?”

“Brooklyn.”

“Last group affiliated before Hydra?”

“Howling Commandos.”

“Position within Hydra?”

Bucky’s expression darkens.

“‘Asset’.”

The agent doesn’t look uncomfortable, but he does shift, just slightly.

Fury keeps his eyes on Bucky.

“Your relation to Steve Rogers?”

“Friend.”

Fury raises an eyebrow.

Steve swallows a little from behind the viewing window.

Bucky just glares.

The agent clears his throat.

“Are you still a member of Hydra?”

“No,” Bucky answers, firm and flat.

“Do you plan to go back to Hydra?”

No,” Bucky answers a little harsher.

Steve blows out a quiet breath.

“What is your relation to Agent Romanoff?”

“Former Red Room instructor, on loan from Hydra,” he practically spits out the word.

The agent jots it all down and then looks over to Fury, nodding once.

“Alright then,” Fury says, nodding to the thin folder on top of the table sitting next to the lie detector Bucky’s strapped to, “Let’s talk about Hydra.”

-

“No,” Steve says before Fury can start, sitting with Bucky on the cot. Bucky’s halfway through another apple.

“You would be very valuable to have in our organization,” Fury says anyway, looking at Bucky. Steve sends him a look but Fury just glances at him before returning his attention to Bucky, who just keeps eating his apple, eyes focused on it.

“You don’t have to accept, but we can’t let you out into your own custody. Not yet,” Fury continues. Steve gives him a harder look and Fury finally looks back, inclining his head a little. “I don’t want to have to do this, but the circumstances require it. He’s not just a run of the mill civilian, Captain Rogers.”

Steve’s expression tenses.

“No,” Bucky says, drawing both their attentions. Bucky keeps his eyes on the apple. “I don’t want to work for anyone,” he continues, finally looking up at Fury. His eyes go harder. “Release me to Steve and leave me alone.”

Fury watches him for a long minute before turning and leaving the room.

Steve sits still for another minute before looking over at Bucky, Bucky looking back.

“Are you sure about this?” Steve asks, softer.

Bucky looks at him for a minute before nodding, then taking another bite of his apple.

-

Steve gets his door unlocked, glancing over at Kate’s before pushing it open and stepping aside, keeping an eye on her door while also watching Bucky slowly walk in. He manages to get the door shut and locked behind him without her stepping out, and doesn’t hear her door open at all before stepping away from his to follow Bucky further inside.

When he stops, Bucky’s standing in the middle of everything: the living room, kitchen, the hall down the other end to the bedrooms and bathroom, looking around at it all. He pushes his hood down, hair hanging low around his face.

“It’s ugly,” he decides. Steve cracks a small smile and blows out a breath, moving and coming to a stop next to him, looking around at it all, too.

“Glad I’m not the only one who thinks so,” he replies, glancing over at Bucky.

Bucky’s lips twitch up a little as he looks back and then he looks around again, moving towards the kitchen first.

Steve watches him sweep the entire apartment, going left to right, and frowns a little, something uncomfortable curling tighter and tighter in his chest every time Bucky pauses to pull something out.

When Bucky’s finished, he walks back over and crushes the five bugs in his left hand before dropping the tiny, black pieces into the trash, looking over at Steve.

Steve clenches his jaw and looks back, shaking his head a little while his eyes drop to the floor before heading down the hall, hearing Bucky follow closely behind.

“Do you want a bath?” Steve asks, stopping at the bathroom door and turning to look at him, trying to force down the sense of...betrayal, for now. He’ll deal with it later. Now isn’t the time.

All of Bucky’s muscles subtly tense and he shakes his head, eyes slowly drifting to the bathroom.

Steve frowns a little.

“Buck?” he asks, softer. Bucky’s eyes snap back to his and Steve’s brows draw together.

“I can’t,” Bucky says quietly, and Steve frowns more.

“Why not?” he asks, but Bucky just shakes his head a little, eyes drifting back to the bathroom before going out of focus again.

“They…” he trails off, quieter, blinking hard before shaking his head again, faster, looking back to Steve. “I can’t,” he repeats firmly.

“Okay, Buck,” Steve says softly, worrying his lower lip while he thinks, looking back to the bathroom with a heavy weight in his chest.

“But I need…” Bucky trails off, drawing Steve’s eyes back to him.

Bucky’s are a little wide, intent, staring into the bathroom. He looks back to Steve.

“Steve, I needI haven’t...” he trails off. Steve’s eyes widen.

“How long?” he breathes, weight in his chest hardening. Bucky just stares at him. “Buck,” Steve repeats, “How long?

“Since the war,” Bucky finally replies, and Steve stands up completely straight.

Shit, Buck,” he says on another breath, blood turning to ice. He looks back to the bathroom, worrying his lower lip hard enough he feels like it’s going to bleed. “What about showers?” he asks, looking back to Bucky, “Did they…? Do they know…?” he tries asking, but can’t get it all out. Bucky shakes his head a little, pressing his lips firmly together.

“Only the higher ranking agents know. Three, maybe four,” he replies, eyes drawn back to the bathroom, “They’d wash my legs, one at a time, never together because-...” He looks back after a moment.

Steve swallows and nods, holding out his hand. Bucky’s eyes drop to it and he takes it, slow and careful, careful still when he curls his fingers so his nails only gently brush the skin of Steve’s hand.

Steve leads Bucky into the bathroom, stops, and turns the shower on, not bothering with the hot water nozzle, then turns back to him.

Steve undresses Bucky, not too fast, not too slow, brushes his fingers over scars he’s seen over the past two weeks but hasn’t been able to touch, touches metal that’s only slightly cooler than body warm. Bucky shudders under it all, sucking in a breath.

Bucky undresses him just the same, brushes his fingers and hands across and over Steve’s skin, traces over it with his eyes before looking back up to him, draws sharp fingernails lightly down Steve’s sides, both sets long, one set metal.

They sway closer together like they have all the time in the world even though they’ve both got a steady buzz of urgency thrumming under their skin, the water loud and a siren’s call behind Steve even to his ears.

Steve backs them up, pulls Bucky with him into the tub and then quickly sinks down, ignoring the cold, pulls Bucky back with him to the end of it and rests his side and shoulder against the back incline, Bucky mirroring him like two parenthesis locked in a porcelain bracket.

Bucky’s eyes slam shut with a full body jolt and barely in time contained, desperate sound, sharp teeth grinding and right hand grabbing Steve’s arm. Steve holds himself still through it, strokes his fingers gently over Bucky’s cheek and back through his hair, heart hurting and the backs of his eyes stinging. Bucky’s head drops with another, almost pained sound, left hand clenched into a fist and right gripping Steve’s arm harder while his lower half thrashes, hitting the sides and bottom of the tub with a few thumpthump-thumps.

Bucky’s body gives another jolt and then he lets out a gasp, eyes still squeezed shut, and collapses into Steve’s chest, grip on his arm slowly, gradually letting up while he lays limp.

Steve slowly wraps his arms around Bucky while Bucky melts against him with a long, relieved rush of breath, pressing his lips to the top of Bucky’s head and closing his eyes at the feel of scales rubbing against his legs, the both of them drenched.

He opens his eyes after a minute and looks down, chest tightening when he sees faint scars in the dark colors that stretch around like someone had cut gaps out of Bucky’s tail.

-

“Oh, Steve,” Kate says.

Steve pauses at the top of the stairs, turning to look at her.

She smiles.

“I heard some loud thumps the other afternoon coming from your apartment,” she starts, “I hope everything’s alright?”

Steve puts on a smile.

It’s mostly sincere.

“Everything’s fine,” he replies, continuing on down the stairs, “Thank you for asking!” he calls back.

No problem!” he hears just as he reaches the second floor.

He heads out onto the sidewalk and takes a left, stuffs his hands in his jacket pockets and whistles while he heads down to the corner store, mind still turning the scars on Bucky’s tail over and over in his head.

His stomach drops more and more when he finally lets himself acknowledge why they’re probably there, and what probably happened.

-

Steve locks the door when he gets back and sets his grocery bag on the table by the kitchen, looking around. He heads down the hall, glancing into the bathroom and then turning left to peer into his bedroom when he finds it unoccupied, quickly spotting Bucky by his dresser.

“Hey,” he greets, walking in, “I got you something.”

“You always used to say that,” Bucky replies without turning. Steve stops next to him, looking at the top of the dresser, too.

“Not always,” Steve says, smiling a little, “Couldn’t get you as many things as I wanted.”

“You didn’t ever have to get me anything,” Bucky replies softly, reaching up and scratching his nails gently down the glass covering one of the photos.

“I wanted to,” Steve says, softer, eyes trailing over black and white familiar faces locked away in glass prisons, kept safe and stuck in time, just like he was. “I want to give you everything.”

Bucky hums quietly.

“That’s the lure talking,” he replies, pulling his hand back.

“It’s not,” Steve says, turning his head to look at him. Bucky looks back after a moment. Steve smiles. “I feel it, and I know the difference. It’s not. I’ve always wanted to give you everything.”

Bucky looks at him for a minute before smiling a little, slowly, turning away from the photos and wrapping his arms around himself. Steve offers his hand after a moment and Bucky takes it, letting Steve lead him back out to the kitchen.

Steve lets go of his hand and gestures to the bag on the counter.

Bucky steps forward with an amused but interested look thrown at Steve and then opens the bag and peers inside, darting a hand in and snatching an apple out of it quickly and bringing it up to take a bite, eyes slipping closed with a sigh as his head tilts back.

Steve smiles.

“You gonna keep wooing me with apples, Rogers?” Bucky drawls after he swallows, looking over at Steve with a raised eyebrow while he takes another bite.

Steve snorts. “I know you love them,” he replies with a smile.

“Doesn’t answer my question,” Bucky says while he chews, smiling around another bite, sharp teeth sinking in like a knife cutting through butter.

Steve rolls his eyes.

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his other gift, silver plain but shining bright under the overhead lights. Bucky freezes for a moment before holding out his arm and Steve obediently latches the bracelet carefully around Bucky’s right wrist, eyes darting to the apple close to his face and then back down to the bracelet.

Bucky turns his wrist this way and that after it’s on, metal jangling soft and light around his wrist before he looks back up. He steps in close and wraps his right arm around the back of Steve’s neck.

Bucky leans up just a little and kisses him, soft but firm, and Steve winds his arms around Bucky’s waist, returning it in kind. Bucky sighs softly through his nose, Steve feeling it brush warm across his skin.

“It’s a start,” Bucky says cheekily after they pull their heads away. Steve snorts quietly.

“You love it,” he replies.

“I do,” Bucky says, smirking a little into his next bite, letting it ease down after he swallows. “You can afford this?” he asks, brows drawing together a little. Steve shrugs gently.

“I have backpay from- From when I was in the ice,” he replies, pressing their foreheads together when Bucky frowns heavily, “It’s the first thing I’ve used the money for that wasn’t a necessity.” Bucky’s expression softens a little and he leans up, presses a kiss to his lips that has Steve closing his eyes. “I always wanted to get you things,” Steve whispers in the scant space between them, looking down at him, “I know you don’t need it, but I know you like it, and I’ve always wanted to and now I can. So,” he pauses, smiling softly, “The first thing I’ve splurged on in seventy years, is for you.”

Bucky’s eyes get a little wet and he yanks Steve close, burying his face in Steve’s neck while Steve curls his arms around him tighter.

They stay like that for a long time.

-

They manage to get the bathtub filled up a quarter of the way before Bucky starts shaking so badly the water sloshes everywhere, tail jerking and hitting the knobs almost violently, the sides of the tub, Steve.

Steve reaches forward quickly to unplug the tub but Bucky catches his arm and Steve stops, waits with his jaw clenched and his heart in his throat while Bucky tries to take steady breaths, eyes closed and then focused straight ahead.

It takes him four hours before Bucky can breathe calmly, and four hours before he lets Steve hold him.

It’s a hard won victory.

One more step in getting back a huge part of Bucky that Hydra tried locking away.

-

“Steve,” Kate says, while Steve’s locking his door a few days later.

He looks up.

“Heading out?” she asks.

“Yeah,” he replies with a smile, pulling his key out and slipping a finger through the keyring, spinning them up into his palm to grip, “Have something I have to take care of.”

She nods, shifting a little and glancing down to the basket in her arms resting against her hip. “Me too,” she jokes, smiling back. “Be careful,” she adds.

“Thanks,” Steve replies, throwing a grin over his shoulder while he heads for the stairs, “You too,” he jokes back, and she laughs.

-

Bucky waits until he hears the sound of Steve’s motorcycle fading away before getting up and walking to the door, out into the hall, and to the next door over, raising a fist and calmly knocking on the dark wood.

A moment later, it opens.

“Yes- Oh,” the woman stops, smile dimming down a little into a look of surprise, “You’re...Steve’s friend. Right?” she asks, smile returning. Bucky just stares at her for a long moment and her smile slowly fades.

What are you doing,” he demands, watches her blink and tilt her head a little.

“I’m sorry?” she asks, frowning a bit.

Bucky grinds his teeth, watches her eyes dart down to them and widen before she looks back up.

Don’t. Play games,” he warns lowly. She swallows a little and drops the facade, standing straighter and widening her stance, just a little, just enough. “What. Are. You doing,” he demands again.

“I’m Agent 13 of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” she answers this time, “I’ve been assigned to protect Captain Rogers-” Bucky darts his hand out and grips her throat before she can react, listens to her choke for a moment before loosening it enough so that she can breathe, wide eyes on him and fingers clawing at his metal.

He leans in while pulling her close.

What else are you doing,” he demands. She shakes her head quickly, as much as she can, her hands ineffectually gripping his arm.

“...Just...protection...” she grits out, and Bucky stares into her eyes for a long moment before shoving her back, letting her fall on her rear on the floor. One of her hands goes up to her throat while the other holds herself up, wide eyes staring up at him.

“Steve is mine to protect or mine to lose,” Bucky growls out, “Tell Fury I want his dogs gone. Steve and his territory are mine and my territory.” She opens her mouth to speak but he cuts her off. “Your betrayal will hurt him,” he says, and she stops, closes her mouth. He stares down at her. “If you are still here when I tell him and have to see the look on his face, I will kill you.”

He turns and heads back to their apartment before she can say a word and locks the door behind him.

-

“You called me in, Sir?” Steve asks, stopping in front of Fury’s desk.

“I did,” Fury replies, “We’ve found a Hydra base. It’s a big one.” Steve’s fingers curl a little. “You, Romanoff, and Barton will each be leading a strike team. You’re wheels up in twenty minutes, briefing on the way.”

Steve nods and heads back out of the room for the elevator.

-

“What do we know?” Steve asks, sitting on the first quinjet with his team. Natasha and Clint’s faces are on the monitor.

It’s a main Hydra facility,” Natasha replies, “Spanning three, giant warehouses.”

It’s big,” Clint concludes. Natasha’s eyebrow ticks up a little but she doesn’t say anything and refrains from rolling her eyes.

Nothing else?” Steve asks, incredulous. It’s not unheard of, but...Well, maybe it makes sense that a base this large doesn’t have any more information on it.

No,” Natasha replies, “We’re going in mostly blind.”

So we all need to watch each other and our own backs,” Clint adds.

We’re coming up on the drop zone, Cap!” one of the pilots calls back from the front and Steve nods, standing up.

“Alright everyone,” he starts, “You heard them.” He heads over to the back hatch and hits the button, helmet already on and slipping his shield into place on his back while the wind whips inside the jet. “Watch each other, watch yourselves, and sweep hard and fast.”

And then he jumps.

-

Bucky pulls the sushi out of the fridge that Steve got for him before he left and takes it down the hall to the bathroom, setting it on the sink counter before he gets out of his borrowed clothes, setting them on the other side. He turns around and plugs up the tub, turning the water on cold and letting it pool. He pops open the sushi container while he waits, picking out a strip of raw fish that’s already missing a rice base and swallowing the whole piece down, closing his eyes.

If he really tries, he can almost, almost taste the ocean on his tongue.

He glances towards the tub when it’s halfway full, slipping another slice of fish into his mouth while he watches the water. He forces his eyes closed when he hears a voice in his head, feels pain shudder down his spine like a caress and chews slower, makes it last and keeps himself from swallowing.

He probably won’t be able to hold it down if he does it right now.

He moves towards the tub slowly when it’s almost full, carefully swallows and takes a deep breath and another step, another deep breath and another step, two more until he’s at the edge of the tub. He leans down and slowly shuts the water off, the sound of the last of the water hitting the pool of it echoing off the tile.

He stands back up and stares down at it.

He’s not sure how long he stands there, but eventually he swallows and steps into the tub, stops, one foot in, one foot out, and forces his breathing to slow from where it’s picked up before he keeps going. He bends down and grips the sides of the tub, taking three, long, slow breaths before slowly pulling his other foot in, gritting his teeth on a pained groan when his toes touch the water.

He slowly lowers himself down into the tub, gritting his teeth so hard he thinks they might shatter and trying to keep his scream caged in behind them, listens to the sound echo high and strained off of the walls while he finally sits, sucking in rapid breaths.

He remembers. He remembers it now.

‘Associate larger bodies of water with pain’.

 

“What is this?” a voice demands, heavily accented Russian, sounding shocked and surprised and-

Excited.

“You are only being briefed on this because we need your expertise,” another voice replies. Calm. American.

“What is- I have never seen anything so-”

“Enough,” the second voice cuts off the first, “This cannot be allowed to happen on mission,” a gesture to its tail, “The conditioning has long since been ingrained, but I need you to...refreshen it. The asset has been in cryo for ten years.”

A throat cleared.

“What are its current settings?”

“I’ve brought the file.”

“Good. Good. Then...let’s begin.”

 

Bucky sucks in a breath, nails scratching grooves into the tub, and drops himself back against the slope of it, pulling in breaths like he’s swam three thousand miles.

The pain ripples down his spine and he tries to keep breathing through it, looks down and sees scales dark and shimmering under the water, the end fanned out wide across the width of the end of the tub and bunched up under the nozzles.

He breathes and everything goes black-

-

Warehouse two, clear,” Natasha reports in his ear.

Darn it,” Clint cuts in, “Warehouse three, clear,” he reports sulkily, “Beat by two seconds. Two.”

A lifetime, clearly,” Natasha says a little too casually back. Clint makes a wounded sound.

“This isn’t a competition,” Steve replies, a little out of breath, bashing his shield into another Hydra goon.

Yeah. To you,” Clint retorts, “Speaking of. How are things?” he asks, and Steve gets the feeling he’s not talking about the mission.

“Good,” Steve replies shortly, bashing the last Hydra agent and watching him fall to the ground, “Sweep the warehouses,” he orders, into his comm and to his strike team, “Hydra always has something hidden.”

And it’s usually unpleasant, to boot,” Clint mutters in his ear.

Steve starts searching with the rest of his team. It’s only twenty minutes later when he finds it, and has to pause.

He glances around himself to make sure the rest of his team are busy looking elsewhere from what he can see around the large containers surrounding him before he turns back to the door and gives it a heavy shove, holding his breath when it opens to darkness before stepping inside.

-

Bucky shifts a little and blinks his eyes open slowly, finds himself looking up at the top crease where the walls meet high above the showerhead and blinks again, looking around.

Sushi on the sink counter. Steve’s clothes.

He’s still in the bathroom.

He’s not sure how long it’s been, but it’s dark now.

He drags his eyes back.

He stares up at the showerhead for a few moments and then shifts and slowly sinks below the water, body tense, and closes his eyes.

He blows out air, listens to the bubbles float up below the surface of the water and sucks water into his lungs like he’s taking his first breath, long and deep. He tilts his head back a little and lets out something akin to a long sigh, body going lax when the ingrained pain very slowly recedes. The backs of his eyes sting and he opens them, keeps his tears from merging with the water and stares up at the ceiling through the shifting surface, pulling as much of himself as he can beneath it, the end of his tail curving up to touch his back, gets himself fully submerged.

He closes eyes again and breathes, wishes Steve was here to see.

He hears a soft thump, feels it vibrate through the floor and through the water half an hour later and his eyes snap open.

-

Steve walks down what seems to be a hall, takes a left when he runs into a corner in the near pitch dark and keeps walking until he sees the faint, soft glow of light.

When he steps out into the room, lights slowly flicker on overhead and he pauses, taking in the sight.

There’s computer banks lined up against the right, a metal door straight ahead and nothing to the left, three chairs left abandoned in front of the computers.

He moves quickly but cautiously, doesn’t want to take too long because someone’s going to come looking for him sooner rather than later.

He forgoes the computers for now and goes straight for the second door, gets his hand on the handle and tries pulling.

It doesn’t budge.

“Of course it’s locked,” he mumbles to himself, glancing over and smashing the control key on the right with his shield and a few sparks and then trying again.

It opens.

The next room’s light’s flicker on and Steve sucks in a breath while he freezes, eyes widening at what he’s…

What he’s looking at.

-

Bucky waits, listens and feels the faint vibrations for a few more minutes before slowly sliding himself up, just enough to get his eyes above the water while he listens for a moment more.

He slides his head mostly above the water and cocks it a little, listening.

There’s the barest sound of someone talking, muttering, but he still only feels a single pair of feet walking around the place.

The voice doesn’t belong to Steve. The tread doesn’t, either.

He narrows his eyes and turns slowly, webbed and metal fingers bracing on top of the tub and slowly pulling himself up and over the edge, water dripping off quietly. He braces his hands one at a time on the floor before slowly pulling himself forward, straining a little to control his tail as much as he can as it slowly slides over the edge of the tub to the smooth, wood floor.

He stops again, listens, and then drags himself forward towards the doorway, leaving a wide, wet trail behind him as he goes, out of the bathroom and quietly down the dark hall.

-

Steve draws a hand down the glass, goosebumps raising where his bare fingers touch and slides them over the small, metal plate screwed into the front below the small, round window.

WINTER SOLDIER

“Bucky,” Steve breathes like he’s barely got any air in his lungs. He looks around the large tube but only finds a set of numbers in tiny print under the name plate, commits them to memory and then quickly steps back when he hears someone call for him out past the room and around the corner in the hall.

He pulls off a few explosives from his belt, presses the buttons, drops them, and runs, out of the room and past the computers, aiming for the hall.

Everyone out!” he yells, aloud and into his comm, “This place is gonna blow!” He takes a hard right and aims straight for the open door and the few men standing around outside of it, all of them running for the exit out of the warehouse.

He can’t let anyone find out about that room, or those numbers.

About Bucky.

-

Bucky stops near the end of the hall and listens intently.

“‘Captain America’s apartment’ sure is more bland than I thought it’d be,” a male voice mutters somewhere in the living room, “Thought it’d be cooler than this.”

Bucky turns and leans his back against the side wall, making sure his left arm is mostly hidden towards the darker end of hallway and staring straight ahead at the opposite wall for a moment, then closing his eyes. He reaches down and gently works his cock out of his slit, fingers rubbing gently around it until it’s fully exposed, then slowly picks up his breathing. The muttering and steps stop for a long minute before slowly getting closer, closer-

They stop with a squeak on the hardwood floor.

What the-”

Bucky cracks his eyes open while he pants and glances up through his lashes, find’s the man’s eyes with his. The man freezes, can’t be older than mid-twenties, human age.

You’re-” the guy chokes, “You’re a-”

Bucky lets out a breathy sound and the man stops, wide eyes focused on him. Bucky tilts his head back as he hums, lips parted slightly and half closed eyes still focused on him. Bucky raises his right hand and holds it out towards the man.

Help?” he asks, soft and desperate while he pants, a faint hum underlying his words, “It’s hard to breathe.” The man jolts.

I- You- What do I do?” he asks, eyes enraptured and locked on his, hands twitching at his sides.

“Carry me to the bathtub?” Bucky asks, tilting his head a little in the direction of the bathroom down the hall and making sure to make his neck look longer, exposed and inviting.

The man’s eyes drop to it, trace up the length of it before dropping down to where Bucky’s cock is resting in his lap.

Bucky hears him swallow.

“Okay,” the man says, a little dazed, stepping forward slowly and then crouching while holding his arms out, getting one behind Bucky’s back and the other under his tail, grunting with the strain as he lifts. Bucky wraps an arm around the back of the man’s shoulders, keeping his eyes on him. “This way?” the man asks, eyes drawn back to Bucky’s like magnets.

Bucky nods with a small sound and the man swallows again before he starts moving, Bucky’s tail swaying slightly with the heavy steps as he walks down the hall through the body-wide trail of water Bucky left on the floor, into the bathroom and to the side of the tub.

He slowly lowers Bucky down into the water, starts to pull back once Bucky’s all the way in but Bucky gently grabs the back of his neck, keeping their eyes locked.

“Come in with me?” he asks softly, leaning his face up a little closer, lips half an inch away from the man’s, breaths mingling. The man climbs in quickly, water splashing at his clumsy movements and his hands on the sides of the tub, knees on either side of Bucky’s tail, staring down at him like he’s some newly discovered, long forgotten treasure.

“What now?” the man asks, and Bucky smiles softly, breathing lowered back down.

“Now…” he trails off, slowly drawing the man’s face closer, hand still on the back of his neck. The man swallows, eyes darting down to Bucky’s lips and then back up, “Now…” Bucky whispers, lips a hairs breadth away, half lidded eyes locked on the man’s-

Bucky darts his left hand up to clamp it around the man’s mouth while his right grips the back of his neck, bringing his own head around and biting into the side of the man’s neck before the man can do more than widen his eyes, blood gushing out around the wound and over Bucky’s cheeks, down his neck and chest and staining the water red while the man tries to thrash. Bucky holds onto him tightly, twists his tail around the man’s legs like a snake and clamps his teeth down all the way, tearing a chunk out of his neck, blood squirting left along the dark, white, tile wall while he chews. The man’s body jerks and then drops with a gentle splash, Bucky holding up the upper half so the water doesn’t slosh enough to breach over the edge of the tub, slowing lowering the body down into the water with him.

He swallows his bite.

Now, I eat,” he says lowly, leaning down and dragging the body up while he opens his mouth, sharp teeth stained red-

-

What happened?” Fury demands.

“Explosives, Sir,” Steve reports, “They went off in a separate room I found in the wall before I could stop them.”

Fury sits back in his chair.

“What was in the room?” he asks.

“Computer monitors, another door,” Steve replies, “I only got a quick look.”

Fury studies him for a moment before nodding, letting out a sigh as he leans back in his chair. “That’ll be all,” he dismisses, and Steve turns to go.

He takes the elevator down to the parking garage and heads home, just managing to keep it at the speed limit.

When he heads up the stairs to his apartment and reaches his landing, he manages to get his key in the door and his door open without Kate stepping out, finds himself a little disappointed when she doesn’t, but also glad that he can go straight in. He...

He needs to see Bucky.

Steve gets the door shut and locked behind him and then heads across the intersection of rooms, pausing a little ways down the next hall and frowning a little when his boots squeak on the floor. He looks down and shifts the ball of his foot a little, finds the floor slick and looks back up, heading for the bathroom.

“Buck?” he asks, stopping a few steps into it.

Bucky’s already looking at him and-

And stripping the last of meat off of a femur-

“Bucky, what- What happened?” Steve asks, eyes a little wide. Bucky glances down at the bone in his hand before biting a piece off and chewing, tail shifting in the dark red water of the tub.

“Someone broke in,” he replies after he swallows, biting off another piece of bone and chewing with muffled crunchcrunchrunching. Steve opens his mouth and then closes it again, walking over after a moment and taking a seat on the edge of the tub, glancing over at the blood streak dried across the shower wall.

“So you ate them?” he asks, frowning as he looks back. Bucky gives him a hard look.

I had every right,” he replies firmly, “You know this.”

“I do,” Steve says immediately, “It’s just…” he sighs, shaking his head a little before pinching the bridge of his nose.

Bucky looks at him for a moment before saying, “I know it’s still hard for you,” and Steve looks at him, “We’re not the same,” Bucky continues, eyes dropping back to the half eaten bone in his hand. “I eat humans. You protect humans. You are human. I’m not. We’ve always been...different.” Steve frowns.

You protected humans,” he replies, softer. Bucky’s lips twist, bitter and cruel, looking at the bone again, and Steve hates seeing that look on his face, heart twisting.

“And look where it got me,” Bucky says lowly, anger quickly seeping into his voice. He bites another chunk out of the bone a little more viciously, chewing hard and quick before swallowing, shoulders tensing up. “A fucking lab experiment they-” he cuts himself off, glaring down at the bone. “They were right,” he says bitterly, glaring harder, “They were all right. They’re all just food. Every last one of them.” Steve watches him for a moment, heart sinking and hands resting in his lap.

“Me, too?” he asks, soft and quiet. Bucky’s shoulders untense a little and his eyes dart up to Steve.

“Not you,” he replies, quieter, softer, “Never you, Steve.” Steve gives him a helpless little smile and Bucky sighs, dropping his head back to the back of the tub and closing his eyes for a minute, lowering the bone into the red. Steve watches the white of it sink beneath the surface.

Bucky opens his eyes again and looks up at the ceiling.

“I know,” he says, “‘It’s not that simple’. Or at least, it wasn’t. Now…” Bucky trails off, eyes slanting back to Steve, “Now I don’t care about anyone else. I can’t, Steve. I can’t care about anyone else. And I’m not kind. Not anymore. Not to any human but you.” Something in Steve’s gut twists at that, almost like a knife.

Because he knows.

Bucky was different, from what Steve understood, from what he had learned from Bucky since they’d met. Most of Bucky’s people hated humans, or were indifferent, hated the pollution, the wars, the...’human stupidity’, they apparently called it. Their society was more like the sea life: everything had an order, and they were the highest in the water, like humans were currently the highest on land.

But they didn’t fight, not like people do, they didn’t have wars because there was no point, no need. There was an order, and that’s all there was to it.

Bucky, though, Bucky was one of the few that were...different. He’d been curious about people, a little like The Little Mermaid story that he had Steve read to him and that he hates so much. His first reaction to meeting a human wasn’t kill or be killed, eat or let drown; it was curiosity, interest.

And Hydra took that innocence, that kindness, and broke it.

Ever since that Hydra base in Austria, Bucky was never quite the same. The war touched him, too, made him angrier, embittered, confused. He remembers Bucky saying:

 

“Why do humans always fight so much? Why are they killing each other over these dumb things like the color of someone’s hair?” Piercing eyes finding his from where Bucky’d been jerkily cleaning his rifle, looking for answers Steve wasn’t sure he had to give. “Why are they so desperate for a reason to slaughter each other? I don’t understand, Steve. I don’t understand.”

 

And it hadn’t escaped Steve’s notice, either, that Bucky never grouped Steve in with ‘the humans’. Maybe because Steve himself was a lot like Bucky to them.

An outsider.

Hydra had fractured Bucky in Austria, after that, worse still after...after seventy years. He has more scars than Steve remembers, all light and barely there but still there, even the ones on his tail (and Bucky hasn’t told him, but Steve thinks he knows, is pretty sure he knows what at least those are from, and the thought makes his stomach twist).

They put Bucky through hell, literally, and he is so much harder now than when Steve first met him, and he laments that part of Bucky, wishes Bucky was never put in the position to lose that part of himself in the first place.

Steve knows Bucky won’t forgive, not anymore, and he will not bend like he once did. He’s been broken and fractured and put back together far too many times to be anything but unforgiving.

So Steve says, “I know,” and scoots higher up the tub so he can lean down and press their foreheads together, smells blood heavy in the room, in his nose. “I know,” he whispers, hovering over a sea of red and Bucky soaking in it.

-

Steve helps Bucky out, after, helps Bucky clean up any mess they need to and carries him out to the living room, careful to balance the weight of his tail so it doesn’t pull on Bucky’s spine, and sits with him on the couch. Bucky pulls a throw blanket off the side and wraps it around himself, tail curled around him like a looped rope.

“Do you remember when we met?” Bucky asks, voice soft and exhausted. He’s done a lot today: forced himself to submerge all the way, by himself, overrid the conditioning holding him back from it in the first place, then protected their home.

He’s tired, Steve knows it.

“Yeah,” Steve replies, “Yeah, I remember it.”

 

“Get up, Rogers!”

“Wuss!”

“Hey, look at that!” another kid laughs, “He’s as dirty as a chimney sweeper broom!”

The three kids laugh and Steve forces himself up, wiping at his nose with the back of his fist and spitting blood out while he raises his fists.

The leader sneers.

“You don’t know when to give up, do ya?” he asks.

“Nope,” Steve gets out, nose plugged up with blood and the top of his shirt stained through and through. His Ma’s gonna be upset.

The leader kid smirks before suddenly charging-

Steve takes a swing but the kid ducks, then shoves him, hard-

Steve goes over the top of the stone edge with a scrape of his shoe, eyes wide as he falls back and then squeezes them shut when he hits freezing water eight feet down, hands darting up to hold in the breath that his body tries to shock out of him. He kicks and moves his arms as hard as he can, gets his head above the water to the sound of the other kids laughing through the shlushshlush of water and manages to suck in half a breath before going back under again, struggling frantically to get back up there, get back up!-

He sinks, slowly, already strained lungs straining harder to keep his fought for breath held in while his legs and arms start to move slower, start feeling heavier while bubbles gradually escape out his mouth, his nose-

He has the absurd thought that the sun looks beautiful from down here, too, and that it’s quiet, real quiet. He can’t hear the kids laughing at him anymore, down here.

His vision starts to go black, just before he feels arms under his, pulling him up-

 

“You saved me,” Steve says, pulling himself back from far away and looking over at Bucky, smiling a little. Bucky’s lips twitch up a little back before he sighs softly, frowning.

“Couldn’t swim and you went and got shoved into the water,” he complains quietly, and Steve snorts a little.

“I had’em-”

“‘On the ropes’,” Bucky finishes for him, giving him a tired, unimpressed look, “Yeah. I know.” Steve shrugs a little and Bucky rolls his eyes, but scoots closer and leans against his shoulder.

They both shift after a minute and Steve lays back against the armrest, Bucky resting on his side on top of Steve’s chest between Steve’s legs.

“Still didn’t make a lick’a sense picking a fight in a place like that. If you’re going to do it, at least do it where you can’t get so easily beaten by your surroundings,” Bucky grouses quietly. Steve scoffs a little, then huffs when Bucky elbows him in the stomach, the sharp edge of it dulled by his uniform.

Okay, okay,” Steve concedes, and Bucky settles again. “But they were messing with this stray cat and I couldn’t just stand there,” Steve lets out.

I know,” Bucky sighs, “That’s why I like you.”

“Oh, is that all?” Steve snarks back, laughing quietly when Bucky elbows him again. Steve sighs quietly, looking up at the ceiling. “I’ve missed you, Buck,” he whispers. He feels Bucky shift and looks down to find Bucky a lot closer than he expected, faces a few inches away and Bucky’s eyes locked on his.

It’s unnerving. He’s not even blinking. But after being in the water so much with Bucky where he doesn’t really have to blink, Steve’s used to it.

“I had a hole in my chest the whole time,” Bucky whispers back, blinking once, “They made me forget it was you.” He reaches up and draws his fingers down Steve’s cheek, nails light and barely there and bracelet jinkling softly. Those nails could cut a steel can wide open with enough force, Steve’s seen it, but Bucky’s always careful with him.

Well, mostly.

Steve’s heart clenches and he pulls Bucky closer.

“I should’ve gone back,” Steve whispers, gritting his teeth, “I should’ve gone back to look for you, no matter what they said. I should’ve gone back-” his voice cracks and he stops. “I tried, Buck, I swear I tried,” he struggles to get out, Bucky’s eyes still focused on his, “Two days I tried, and then-” He stops again, pressing his lips firmly together.

Bucky’s eyes narrow a little.

“What did you do,” he demands quietly, “Steve,” he adds firmly when Steve doesn’t say anything.

“I found Red Skull. Snuck on his plane,” Steve replies, still a whisper. Bucky’s expression darkens a little.

And?” he asks. Steve blows out a small breath.

“I fought him. The plane’s autopilot was damaged. There were all these bombs on it- I crashed the plane into the water,” Steve forces out. Bucky’s whole body goes tense and rigid and his jaw clenches. They haven’t actually gotten to this part before, surprisingly. All Steve knows about Bucky’s past seventy years is that he was mostly frozen, and all Fury’s told Bucky is that Steve was mostly frozen.

They haven’t...gotten to this, the details, until now.

“You were frozen,” Bucky finally says a little stiltedly, eyes locked on him, intent.

“In the arctic,” Steve supplies. Bucky’s fingers tense on his cheek, nails pressing down against his skin a little, but not hard enough to hurt.

“You were frozen in the damn ocean for seventy years,” Bucky states, and Steve can tell he’s angry, but also-

Even now, Bucky misses the ocean, Steve knows he does. He won’t be able to take being locked up in this apartment for much longer, or even on land. Steve’s tried to make it better, more bearable, but he doesn’t want Bucky to have to be kept from it any longer, either.

Bucky lowers his head and presses his forehead to Steve’s sternum, taking a few, deep breaths. His fingers stay tense on Steve’s cheek for a long time, long enough that his tail’s completely dried.

Bucky pushes himself up, blanket falling down his shoulders to his waist and moves, straddles Steve’s waist.

“Kept away from me but so near,” he whispers, looking down at Steve, stroking his cheek again. Steve settles his hands gently on Bucky’s hips. “Near to the heart of me,” he whispers again, leaning down and pressing their foreheads together. His eyes are so close, light and dark like a shifting tide. “I want to kiss you.”

“I probably won’t die,” Steve whispers back. Because Bucky ate someone, but with the serum and Bucky grumpily brushing his teeth?

He’ll probably be fine.

You better not,” Bucky grouches, then leans down the slightest bit and kisses him, just the softest press of lips. Bucky’s left hand slides down and rests over Steve’s heart, and he could kill him with that hand. With the other, too.

Steve’s not afraid. He never has been.

Steve leans up into it and Bucky presses down, slides his fingers up and back through Steve’s hair and plays with the gentle tufts and spikes, slides his tongue along Steve’s lower lip, careful with his teeth. Steve slides a hand up to cup Bucky’s cheek, slightly cool to the touch, always, and slides his own fingers back through Bucky’s hair, patient and careful with the tangles he runs into.

“Heart of my heart,” Bucky whispers against his lips, and Steve smiles, soft and slow.

He’s missed those words.

“Heart of my heart,” he returns, and kisses Bucky again.

 

Steve blinks his eyes open slowly, squints and clumsily raises an arm to block the dull sun-

He blinks a few times, trying to get his eyes to adjust.

He feels pressure in his chest and coughs, turning onto his side and trying to get it under control before his asthma can start, catches glimpses of pink and gold covering the sky before he’s squeezing his eyes shut and coughing-

“You gonna live?” someone asks, and Steve forces his head up, looking around.

There’s a boy next to him, an arm and elbow on the tan stone that meets the water’s edge, staring at him, cheek in hand.

Steve blinks. Coughs again.

The boy raises an eyebrow.

“I’ll be fine,” Steve struggles to get out, rasping.

The boy’s other eyebrow joins the first and Steve pushes himself up on shaky arms and sits, just then realizes his feet are still in the water.

He slowly pulls them out.

“You’re weak, aren’t ya,” the boy says, and Steve’s head drags up even though it makes him a little nauseous, eyes focusing on him.

I’m not,” he replies firmly, staring at the boy hard, challenging.

The boy pauses, stares at him for a long time before his lips slowly curve up into some cross between a smirk and a smile, and he lowers his hand to the stone. “No,” he agrees, “You’re not. You’re different.” Steve realizes his teeth are sharp, glances down and blinks at webbed fingers and sharp nails. The boy raises an eyebrow at him and then turns, going down into the water and-

Steve blinks, watches a lower fin surface above the water on scales and then the end of a tail following shortly after, disappearing beneath the gentle splsh-splsh of the water hitting the stone edge. The boy comes back up, resting his forearms back on the stone again and looking at Steve, hair plastered to his forehead and the sides of his face.

“Huh,” Steve says. The boy blinks, then laughs, sharp teeth gleaming in the dying sun.

“That’s it?” he asks, snickering, “‘Huh’?” and Steve frowns.

“Well,” he starts, shifting to sit cross legged on the stone instead. It’s not exactly comfortable, but nothing really is, considering how boney he is. “I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the Angel of Death about seven times now, and I’m thirteen,” he replies, shrugging his shoulders, “‘Sides, who says dragons didn’t once take virgins and knights didn’t get turned ‘round by magic? No one, really. Better that way, I think.”

The boy blinks, expression sobering a little before he does that smirk-smile again.

Steve offers his hand out, because sharp teeth and webbed fingers or not, his Ma taught him to be polite.

“My name’s Steve Rogers,” he introduces. The boy stares at his hand for a long moment, long enough that Steve’s about to put it down because he’s exhausted, before slowly raising his own and mirroring it, the webbing the smoothest thing Steve’s ever felt against his skin, smoother even than his old baby blanket, and that thing’s smooth from age.

“You can’t say my name right above water,” the boy replies, frowning a little. Steve pulls his hand back and the boy follows suit a moment after.

“Can you say it at all above it?” Steve asks. The boy tilts his head slightly while he looks up in thought. He looks back after a moment.

“Beucharion,” the boy replies, and Steve frowns a little, thinking that over.

“‘Beau-CAR-ee-Un’,” he says slowly, testing it out, “That’s a mouthful.” The boy laughs hard like it’s an inside joke, and Steve can’t help smiling.

“My Ma wanted somethin’ real dignitary-like,” he says, laughter dying down, “People just call me Beuca.” Steve mouths it to himself, trying that one out.

“Beu-ca. Booka- No,” he stumbles, shaking his head a little. The boy laughs again and when Steve looks, he’s got his chin in his hands, elbows resting on the stone with a grin while he watches. “Beu-ca, beuka, book-a,” Steve tries again, “Buka, Bucka, Bucky,” he stops when the kid straightens up a little, smiling. “Bucky?” Steve tries, tilting his head. The kid grins again, water shifting while he rises a bit like he’s kicking his feet below water, or tail, in this case.

“Buck-ee,” the kid tries, “Buckee. Buck-y. Bucky. I like it,” he decides, “You can call me that.”

“Alright,” Steve agrees, “Nice to meet you, Bucky.”

They both share a grin.

-

“Coordinates?” Bucky asks, still laying on Steve’s chest and frowning heavily at the tv. Steve’s lips twitch, trying to hold in a smile.

“Yeah,” he replies, listening to Sebastian sing about the sea, “I found some in a second hidden room in one of the giant warehouses that made up the big Hydra base we raided.” Bucky shifts and rests his chin on Steve’s chest, frowning in thought. “They were on-...They were on a large metal tube that had ‘Winter Soldier’ on it,” Steve makes himself say. Bucky goes still on top of him. Steve keeps his eyes on the ceiling, gives him a minute. “I didn’t tell anyone about it. Blew the building up so they couldn’t find it.”

“Dangerous, Stevie,” Bucky says quietly. Steve brings a hand up from where they’re both resting on Bucky’s back and strokes over his hair, finally looking down. Bucky looks back, gaze unwavering.

“I know,” Steve replies, and Bucky relaxes a little. “I also,” he says after a moment to break the silence, “Got you something.” Bucky snorts, but wiggles a little closer.

“What is it,” he says more than asks, eyes a little brighter now.

“Second pouch to your right, on the belt,” Steve instructs, and Bucky sits up to get at it, Steve listening to the pouch open and feeling the belt shift around a little while Bucky digs his fingers into the compartment. Steve hears Bucky pull it out and looks.

Bucky holds the necklace up, just a plain, silver chain that goes with the bracelet.

“Got it on my way home,” Steve says, watching Bucky shift it and watch the light reflect off of it, enraptured, “Goes with the bracelet, but I wasn’t sure if I should get it at first or not.”

“You’re spoilin’ me,” Bucky says, half joking, half serious while he looks down at Steve, “Tryin’ to keep me complacent.” Steve laughs a little but reaches up with both hands and Bucky holds it out, bowing down so Steve can fasten it around his neck. Bucky sits back up after, pulling his hair out from under it and looking down at it, shifting it around with a fingernail.

“I am trying to make things easier,” Steve admits, and Bucky looks back down at him, “But I don’t want you trapped here, Buck. You belong in the ocean.”

Bucky looks at him for a long minute before reaching down again and working at Steve’s suit, just enough to get his pants open and pulled down a little and pull his cock out, angling his own hips forward to grind them together. Steve’s hands go back to Bucky’s hips and he breathes out a quiet sound, eyes locked on Bucky’s and Bucky’s on his.

Bucky leans down and kisses him deep, careful of his teeth while he rocks his hips, grinding down firmly with a soft moan that Steve whines into, eyes squeezing shut because it burns, the dry slide, but it also feels so good he’s having a hard time breathing.

His cock hardens quick between them and Bucky’s not far behind, reaching down between their bodies to smear their precome down, make the slide smoother, and Steve moans a soft sigh into his mouth, tongue tangling with Bucky’s while he rocks his hips up to meet Bucky’s movements.

Bucky releases his mouth to press kisses down along his jaw and to his neck and Steve presses his head back into the arm of the couch, eyes closed while he moans softly.

“You know how to love me,” Bucky whispers, sucking on Steve’s earlobe before biting it, just a little, piercing the skin and sucking on the red with a low groan. Steve wants to shake his head, but holds it still for him.

“I’ve had twenty-eight years to get it right,” Steve groans back, sliding his hands up Bucky’s back and feeling the scars and smooth skin and the barely there ridges of his spine. Bucky shakes his head, pulling his mouth off and looking at Steve, hands framing his face and fingers burying in his hair while he continues to rock.

“No,” he disagrees, looking down at Steve while he pants, “You’ve always known.” He slides a hand down to rest over Steve’s heart, still rocking their hips together, “You’ve always known me. Your heart.”

Steve stares up at him while he moans breathily, sliding his hand up to brush the backs of his fingers across Bucky’s cheek before pulling him down and kissing him, long and deep.

“Your heart is mine,” Bucky says when they break, panting against Steve’s lips and looking down at him, moaning softly as his movements start getting more erratic, “Mine.”

“Always,” Steve moans back, trying to keep his eyes open, “And yours is mine.” And then Bucky comes with a quiet moan, eyes squeezing closed and gripping onto Steve while white paints up between them. Steve follows a few seconds after, pushing his head back into the armrest with a longer moan.

They both pant, trying to catch their breaths, and Steve feels Bucky slide a hand down, curve it under and down to press his hand to the space between Steve’s cheek and thigh, gripping it through the thick material of his suit where the mark rests.

“Mine,” he whispers, firm and low. Steve lifts his head up to find Bucky staring down at him again, dark and intent but...scared, maybe, trying to turn it to possessiveness.

Steve grips Bucky’s wrist gently, just holding on, and lifts his other to rest it on Bucky’s chest, over his heart.

“Always,” Steve answers again firmly, and some of the tension leaches out of Bucky while the fear recedes.

-

“I’d like to request a few days leave of absence,” Steve says the next day, phone pressed between his shoulder and his ear while he packs away the groceries he bought for those days into a large cooler, frowning in concentration, “Four.”

Bucky leans his hip against the table, watching. If he tried, he could probably listen to both sides of the conversation. His hearing works much better in water, sharper, but still better than the average human on land.

This is too amusing to ruin, though.

“Then you can just call me,” Steve replies, tone feigning light while he packs away the sushi, “Yes, he’s coming with me. No, I don’t need backup. Yes. Yes. No. No,” Steve says firmly, “Only in case of a disaster- A national disaster,” he cuts in, “At the least. Yes. Yes. Okay. Fine. Goodbye.” Steve hangs up with a sigh, setting the phone back in its cradle at the back of the counter and going back to the cooler, frowning when he’s left holding a pack of crackers that he can’t find the room for.

Bucky watches him with a tiny smile and Steve glances over at him with a small frown, struggling to keep his own smile off of his face.

“Shuddup,” he complains.

“I didn’t say anything,” Bucky replies, and Steve rolls his eyes, lips finally curving up.

-

They take as few trains as they can trying to get to Prague after taking a plane to get across the water, Steve’s shield stashed in a box in cargo. Bucky takes the window seat and stares down almost the whole way across the ocean and Steve’s heart aches, wants Bucky able to swim in it, not have to fly over it.

When they land, Bucky just starts walking, map pulled up on Steve’s phone, and doesn’t say a word, so Steve doesn’t bring it up.

They don’t stop, even when the sun starts to set, and Steve notices the more and more they walk further out of civilization and up the mountain, the less and less Bucky looks at the map.

Steve doesn’t bring that up, either.

He keeps up when Bucky’s pace gradually increases, then slows as it decreases to a crawl, coming to a slow stop at the entrance of a cave in the forest outside of a small town, somewhere secluded.

That’s rarely good.

When Steve looks over, Bucky’s as pale as a ghost.

“Buck?” he asks softly, eyebrows pulled together.

“I don’t want to go in there,” Bucky says, low, almost a whisper, eyes focused on the pitch black entrance. Steve’s eyes drag back to it and he steps closer, putting a hand on Bucky’s shoulder, trying to ground him. Bucky jumps slightly, but settles again before Steve can pull his hand away.

“Do you remember?” Steve tries asking, not sure if he should be hoping for a yes or a no. Bucky shakes his head and Steve finds himself partly relieved, but Bucky’s still pale as a sheet and Steve doesn’t think that he’s blinked this entire time.

“I don’t want to go in there,” Bucky repeats, and Steve frowns at the entrance of the cave, dread curling low in his gut.

“You don’t have to,” he replies, looks over to watch Bucky blink once, shoulders lowering a little from where they’ve gradually crept up to his ears while he turns his head to look at Steve.

“But you’re going,” he says more than asks, and Steve nods, smiling small and apologetic.

Bucky swallows before straightening his posture and squaring his shoulders, looking braver than his eyes give away, at least to Steve. He starts walking towards the entrance and Steve can’t do much more but stare after him for a moment, awed and inspired at how strong Bucky is. Still. Always.

Steve takes a few minutes to stash their things up in a tree and follows as Bucky leads.

The cave goes practically unseeable in almost as soon as they walk in and Bucky turns on the flashlight on Steve’s phone so they can see, but Steve gets the feeling Bucky doesn’t need it to know where he’s going and is only doing it for him. He almost looks like he’s in a trance, and Steve’s so focused on watching his face that he almost stumbles when Bucky comes to an abrupt stop, turning towards the left wall.

He stands there for a few minutes, just staring at it, and Steve’s about to reach forward, ask if he’s okay when he’s done waiting it out when Bucky moves, pressing a nearly indistinguishable rock on the wall.

A door sized section of the wall pushes out towards them with a small flurry of dirt and a soft light spills out from around it. The door slides to the side and Steve sees a lit staircase going down.

Bucky doesn’t move.

“You don’t have to, Buck,” Steve reassures again softly, watches Bucky swallow and shake his head quickly, square his shoulders and march forward like he’s going to his doom. There’s a stairwell that drops and starts taking Bucky down, and for a moment, it looks like he’s marching straight into hell.

Steve’s stomach twists, gets heavier than it has been since they got on their first train and he finds himself praying for the first time in a long time that that’s not what’s happening, and follows Bucky and his flashlight deeper down

-

It seems like the hallway goes on for miles, lights bright and almost painful to look at on the gray walls. Sometimes there’s connecting hallways that seem to stretch on forever, but Bucky just keeps going straight, takes a right after a while and then a left, but doesn’t offer anything about it so Steve doesn’t ask.

He looks like he’s on a knife’s edge and autopilot, and Steve’s worried if he says or does the wrong thing Bucky’s going to slip off one edge or another.

So Steve doesn’t say anything, just sticks close and follows.

After a while, they come to the end of a hall and stop in front of a nondescript, red door.

Silence.

“This was mine,” Bucky says, soft and quiet and hollow, and reaches forward to turn the doorknob, letting the door fall open under its own weight while he takes in a quiet, shaky breath.

Steve shifts a little closer, enough that the backs of their hands brush, and Bucky lets out a slightly steadier breath, glancing at Steve briefly before he steels himself and steps inside, Steve following right behind into the dark again.

There’s soft a glow inside, multiple points emanating from a few different directions and spots in the room that Steve can’t see, all coming from behind or around the old bookcases placed and angled this way and that like a makeshift, zigzagging hallway from the door. It’s strategic.

He tries to read some of the dusty book spines while they weave past them, but most of them are either in languages he doesn’t know, are too old and degraded, or both. He looks forward again when he hears Bucky come to a stop and stops beside him.

“I don’t want to go any further,” Bucky says quietly, voice a little hollow and body trembling faintly while he stares straight ahead. The soft glow of light blue light is stretched out across the cement floor before them from around the bookshelf’s side to the left, and Steve swallows.

“Okay,” he says softly, “I’ll be right back.” Steve brushes his hand down along Bucky’s arm, trying to be soothing, and Bucky’s face remains blank, hollow, but his fingers tangle with Steve’s and slide away as Steve rounds the bookcase and-

And freezes.

“Oh,” Steve breathes, feeling like he’s out of breath, eyes wide, “Oh, God.”

It’s…

It’s Bucky.

Steve’s eyes trace up the arm suspended in the bright, light, luminescent blue tube, vaguely aware that his breathing’s gone shallow and his heartbeat is pounding quick in his ears with the sound of Bucky’s scream when he fell.

The arm is torn a little before the elbow, fractured, broken bone sticking out of the top and a few wires attached to it, connected to computers and equipment.

Steve brings his own hand up to cover his mouth with a palm, swallowing down bile.

He makes himself take a step, then another, then another until he’s standing directly in front of it, staring up for a few minutes while the train plays on repeat through his head. He turns and finds the next source of blue, wishes he hadn’t.

There’s a chunk of what looks like Bucky’s tail floating in a smaller tube, scales duller than the living thing but still a beautiful shade, all dark, near black blues and emeralds and shining, even stuck in a container of blue fluid.

Steve keeps walking, finds nails and scales and skin samples, hair samples, teeth, but it’s the last one that has his knees shaking and him trembling all over, eyes wide and breathing so shallow he can barely register it.

There’s a mermaid inside of the full, bright tank against the back wall. Not Bucky.

A different one.

It’s floating in the middle of the tank, arms splayed like a crucifix and sharp teeth on display in showing bone, body in a heavy stage of decomposition. There’s...bits of it floating around in the water, pieces and parts of decayed flesh and strands of hair. From the shape of the ribcage showing through thin skin and no skin at all and the dips in the waist, it was female.

Steve drags his eyes down and there’s scales gathered at the bottom of the tank, hints of dull red-pink. He drags his eyes back up and the sockets stare back, empty and black-

He covers his mouth again and squeezes his eyes shut while his body gives a slight heave, forces himself to breathe slowly in and out through his nose behind his hand while trying to focus on something, anything.

When he’s gotten his nausea under control, he slowly lowers his hand from his mouth and looks back up-

“She used to be beautiful.”

Steve jumps, head whipping around.

Bucky stares up at the tank and Steve looks back to it, looks to the right and just then notices the other tank.

Empty.

Bucky walks forward and reaches up, touches some sort of machine on the side of the glass.

“Sound dampener,” Bucky explains without looking back at him, “I remember feeling the faint vibrations of her voice, but I could never hear it.” The nausea starts to come back and Steve follows, steps forward and stops short of standing shoulder to shoulder, lingers back a bit while he tries to breathe. “They talked about mating us,” Bucky says, face blank, voice hollow, and Steve freezes, “But when they inseminated her, she was too stressed to carry to term, and the drugs they used to keep her calm poisoned the offspring. They couldn’t finish it.” Steve doesn’t know what to say to that or how to feel, all he can really feel right now is an overwhelming sense of horror, and a deep sadness.

“She wouldn’t eat,” Bucky continues, a little quieter, still staring at the body floating beyond the glass, “She died after a year. They wanted to see what the decomposition would look like.”

Steve bites his tongue so hard he tastes blood, tries to use it to ground himself because he feels like he’s floating, caught in some in between stage of shock, horror, pain, pain for Bucky and this woman Steve didn’t know.

And anger, but it hasn’t built yet, can’t.

God, it can’t yet.

Bucky shifts his hand to the glass and presses his palm to it, holds it there for a minute and then slowly backs up as he lowers it, eyes trained on her until he forces himself to turn away, glancing over at Steve briefly. He pulls something out of his pocket and presses it back behind him to the glass without looking, setting the timer with practiced fingers.

“There’s nothing else to see,” Bucky says quietly, holding out his hand.

It’s absurd, maybe, but Steve takes it, and lets Bucky lead him out of his personal hell, hand in hand to the sound of a timer ticking near silent beeps like a heart monitor.

Beep. Beep.

-

They’ve exited the cave when the explosion rocks under them and sends the inside of the cave collapsing, dust and debris rushing past and around them in large clouds of dirt as the rumbling settles like a dying beast. Steve covers his face with an arm and keeps walking, over to the tree where he stashed their things while he dusts himself off.

He didn’t ask about the other hallways, the very real possibility of other doors with other creatures in them. It doesn’t feel like he should, and he doesn’t think there’s anything that was in there worth risking Bucky for, because he’s still…

Steve pulls their things down, shield bumping against some of the branches and rattling the leaves, and then jumps down, cooler and bag in hand. He spots Bucky over by the mountain drop off and walks over, stopping at his side. They stand there for a few minutes, a cool wind blowing up and the stars bright overhead.

“Did you know her?” Steve asks quietly, because any louder feels like a crime.

“No,” Bucky replies after a moment, still staring out at the expanse of dark forest, “I never got her name.”

They stand there for a while more before eventually Steve turns to go, a question, and Bucky moves to follow.

-

They walk for a while, scale back down but not the way they came, just in case the explosion triggered a warning. Bucky stops a little ways down the mountain and tilts his head, and Steve stops with him. He noticed it a moment before Bucky did and half turns to watch him listen.

Bucky turns and heads left towards the distant sound of water, and Steve follows close behind.

After what feels like about ten minutes of avoiding branches and hopping over the occasional fallen tree, the sound of rushing water getting louder and louder, they step out into a large clearing with a waterfall opposite them. Steve’s eyes trail up to the top of it before dragging back down and he walks over with Bucky and crouches at the edge of the pool, reaching a hand in to drag his fingers through the water, goosebumps prickling up his arm. They both scan the area before Steve sets their stuff down and Bucky quickly sheds his clothes, diving in close and getting Steve wet.

Steve raises an arm with a laugh to try and block it and then lowers it, watches Bucky slowly poke his head up out of the water so just the top of it and his eyes are showing.

They stare at each other for a long moment, Steve slowly tensing, and then they move at the same time, Steve rolling left while Bucky twists sharply and sends a huge spray of water at where he just was. Steve smirks, crouched, and then gets a faceful of water, coughing and spluttering while Bucky laughs quietly. Steve looks up to find him smirking.

He stands from his crouch and pulls his own clothes off, Bucky raising his eyebrows challengingly. Steve drops them at the edge of the pool and dives in, a shiver running throughout his whole body at the cold.

Bucky circles him once like a shark and beats his tail to push Steve in the water with the force of it, and Steve grins, shoving some back with both arms. Bucky comes in close to curve around him and Steve skims his fingers along Bucky’s back and tail, tugging a little, playfully, on his lower fin. Bucky laughs, low and smooth in the water, and then darts away.

Steve waits, and then shudders when he hears-

When he hears Bucky singing.

God, Steve’s missed it.

Nothing else sounds like it.

He’s heard whale song, and if he was pressed to pick something to even start to describe it, he’d pick that, but it’s not…

It’s not even close.

It’s two toned, each tone alternating notes with an echo, almost like opera but smoother, seamless. He’s never heard a human voice make anything like it. Even the best he’s heard above water can’t match it, is choppy and blunt in comparison, like so much about the human race, any grace they had made to seem like a child stumbling.

But Bucky, Bucky is like a cloud constantly rolling across the sky and a low wind chime looping over itself on a ring, a record that never skips or stops to repeat. There is no cut off and choppy ending, no scratch and halt, it just keeps going and it’s the most beautiful thing Steve’s ever heard.

He’d understood then, the first time he heard it, why there were stories about sailors getting lured to their deaths. It’s one of the few things in the world worth dying to hear.

Steve turns in the water, looking for Bucky in the dim glow of moonlight, but can’t pinpoint him because the sound is coming from all over. So he relaxes after a moment and waits, knows Bucky will find him.

He closes his eyes and just listens, listens to the gentle curve of notes going higher, then lower, then somewhere in between, listens to the echo reaching back like a lover.

He sways his arms to keep himself below the surface.

Steve can feel it, the lure that drew sailors in strewn throughout the notes, but it’s a subtle pull, a gentle one, nothing like what he felt the first time Bucky did it, before the bite. It won’t make him plunge into water to his death or do whatever Bucky wants. It just caresses him from all sides, inside and out, and soothes the edges he hasn’t been able to smooth down from where they’ve gone rough and sharp in the wake of losing Bucky to a drop seventy years and a few weeks ago. From war and pain and an ache so deep he could never put it into words, not even for his therapist.

It’d felt like he’d lost half of himself, was walking around like someone already half gone.

He hears the waterfall close by, hears water rushing into water and the screech of an owl distant and above. The singing gets closer, impossibly close, and Steve’s lips curl up before he opens his eyes.

Bucky’s nose is an inch away, hair floating around his face like night and the scales faded up over various parts of his skin shimmering bright under the moonlight slanting down into the water, skin gone pale like snow under its touch.

His eyes are blue-gray, like a crystallized storm, easier to see the lightning inside of.

Steve has to struggle to keep his breath in or else he’s going to suck in water.

Bucky leans in, trails the last note off against Steve’s lips when they press and Steve lets his eyes close, reaches up to frame Bucky’s face with his hands. He feels Bucky’s tail wrap around his leg, hard and firm and rough and smooth all at the same time, and tug him down lower in the water, an arm looping around his waist. Bucky changes the angle of the kiss and pulls him closer, and Steve wraps his arms around the back of Bucky’s neck, pulling himself in and pressing all along his front. Bucky’s tongue slips past his lips and Steve holds in a groan and his air, tangles his fingers in Bucky’s hair and pulls their faces closer, rubbing his tongue along Bucky’s and tastes him and water, practically one in the same.

Fingers skim down his side, back and around to grip his ass, pulling them closer together while Bucky rolls his hips in a slow wave of a grind and Steve does make a sound at that, some of his air slipping out through his nose in noisy bubbles. Bucky makes a hum that echoes off rock and throughout the water and does it again, sliding a hand down to the bitemark between Steve’s ass and thigh and nudges.

Steve lifts his leg and wraps it around Bucky’s waist and feels Bucky’s fingers and nails lightly rub and scrape over the mark, making him shudder, metal cool and sending up a shiver.

Bucky’s hum gets lower as his cock slips out of its front slit and he grinds theirs together harder, and Steve moans back, more bubbles escaping to the surface, farther above than it was before. After another minute, Bucky’s tail slides away and he pulls back, gripping Steve’s waist tighter and pushing them up towards the surface, scales skimming along Steve’s legs as it moves, back and forth, away and touch.

When they breach the water, Steve takes a breath, feels rock press against his back after Bucky moves them and then Bucky’s mouth is on his again, left hand letting go of his leg to grip the rock while he grinds, tail beating between Steve’s legs and making the rock dig into his back a little more.

Buck,” Steve moans quietly between breaths, and Bucky presses in closer, moaning into his mouth as they grind. “Wanna hear you,” Steve says, pulling back from the kiss a little. Bucky gets his eyes open and looks at him while he pants, then sinks them lower so their heads are just below the water, and when Steve wraps his hand around both their cocks, Bucky keens, higher but like velvet in the water.

Steve shudders, pushes his head back against the rock but keeps his eyes on Bucky, catching the necklace floating up near Bucky’s chin and refracting moonlight. He strokes them faster and Bucky’s movements start getting more erratic, mouth finding his again, desperate. He’s close, close-

Sharp teeth bite down gently on his lower lip and Steve feels a small sting, eyes opening from where they’ve closed to find Bucky looking at him with heavy lids, sucking on the small wound.

Steve comes with a shudder and a moan full of floating bubbles of air, closes his mouth quick to hold in the rest as he strokes them faster, waits to hear Bucky come a few moments later with a last thrust up into his hand and it sounds like music of its own, echoing back off of the rocks through the water.

Steve’s missed it.

Missed him.

Bucky pushes them back up above the water and Steve takes a breath, leaning his head forward to press their foreheads together.

Bucky looks at him and Steve looks back, has a million things he wants to say and none at all.

Bucky shifts forward and presses a gentle kiss to his swollen lower lip before pulling back and Steve looks at him, just looks, and remembers all over again that words never mattered between them, not really.

So Steve pulls Bucky close, chin resting on his shoulder while Bucky buries his face in Steve’s neck, holding onto Steve like he might lose him, and Steve wraps the leg Bucky doesn’t curl his tail around up around Bucky’s waist and looks up at the stars, and he starts humming, not nearly as beautiful.

Bucky huffs a breathy laugh against his skin and joins in, and Steve smiles.

-

They keep walking starting the next morning, going down and then up the neighboring mountain, working on going around the town in case Hydra decides to pull up at their own front door. The facility was old, looked like it hadn’t been touched in a while, but Hydra’s driven, if anything. If they did trigger an alarm, Hydra’s going to come investigate why.

“What do you think we should do when we get back?” Steve asks idly, swinging their hands a little between them while they walk. Bucky’s quiet for a moment.

“Do we have to go back?” he asks, a little quiet, and Steve lets himself really think about it, rubbing his thumb gently along Bucky’s knuckle and slowing the swaying.

“A lot of people will come looking for me,” Steve sighs.

Bucky’s quiet again, silence thoughtful.

“What if they thought you were dead?” he asks, and Steve blinks and looks over at him. Bucky looks back, raising an eyebrow under his hat. “I’m serious.”

“I know you are,” Steve returns, studying him for a moment, “I’m thinking.”

“What’s there to think about?” Bucky asks, looking back straight ahead.

“Well,” Steve starts, then realizes he doesn’t have anything to say after that. “I guess I could just...leave my things to S.H.I.E.L.D. Or Kate.” Bucky’s expression tightens and Steve frowns. “I know you don’t like people, but-”

“She’s a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent,” Bucky cuts him off, and Steve stops abruptly, Bucky stopping with him.

“What?” Steve asks.

Bucky glances at the ground and then lets out a sigh before looking back up, turning to him.

“I was going to tell you when you got back from that mission, but…” Bucky trails off, doesn’t need to fill in the blanks, “And then you found the coordinates,” he continues, “And we left.” He pauses, doesn’t need to fill in those blanks, either. The destroyed Hydra research facility says enough. “I was going to tell you, Steve,” Bucky says, seriously, and Steve’s eyes drop to the ground.

“I know,” he replies, letting his eyes go a little unfocused while he tries to...adjust his view of his neighbor for the past...while, along with the organization he’s apparently been working for. He watches Bucky’s shadow move closer as he takes a step.

“Are you okay?” Bucky asks quietly, and Steve bites the inside of his cheek.

“S.H.I.E.L.D., huh,” Steve says more than asks, “I thought…” he trails off, distractedly sees Bucky’s hand move and then feels it on his cheek, slightly cool, just like the rest of Bucky, and looks up.

Bucky’s blue-gray eyes stare back, kind and hard all at once.

“I’ll be fine,” Steve says, quieter. Bucky just looks at him for a few moments longer before slowly dropping his hand. His eyes dart sharply to the left and Steve tenses, then he hears it. Bucky slowly turns his head and Steve mirrors him.

“How many?” Bucky asks lowly. Steve focuses.

“Three,” he replies, hears tires getting closer and closer, “Probably four agents a piece.” Because Hydra loves to have their manpower.

There’s rushing water nearby.

The trucks skid to a stop not too far off, Steve sees a dirt cloud curl over a cliff not too far above them and then hears voices giving out orders to one another.

Steve looks at Bucky and Bucky looks back, and then they run.

Steve hears shouting, but they keep going, pulling ahead of Bucky just a little but keeping their hands locked together, leaping over fallen trees and ducking when he hears gunfire. A few bullets bounce off of his shield on his back and a few more off of Bucky’s metal arm, but they keep going.

They let go of each other once they breach the trees and split apart, Steve dropping their things and skidding to a stop. He pulls his shield off just in time to deflect the bullets sent his way while Bucky presses his back to a tree to avoid the ones aimed at him, sharing a glance with Steve. One of the Hydra agents shouts, “It’s Captain America!” and then most of the gunfire gets sent his way, and he charges forward, shield first.

He takes down the first five before he sees Bucky come up on his left and join in, almost a dark blur under the sun, metal fist gleaming when it catches the light through the trees. They’re halfway through the second line of agents when Steve sees it and dives for Bucky, throwing his shield up and quick to drag them both low as he braces before the rocket explodes in fire against his shield and they both go flying from the impact. Steve’s ears are ringing but he forces himself up, Bucky doing the same, and they both get back into it.

He’s pretty sure one of the agents is yelling something about ‘Winter Soldier’, judging by the quick shape of the words coming out of their mouth, and Steve grits his teeth while he keeps going, bracing again when another rocket is aimed just at him.

He goes sprawling back and then glances over, sees the top of a waterfall drop before turning back and forcing himself up, body protesting a little. He brings his shield up and runs back in, glancing over.

Bucky’s a whirlwind. Steve didn’t get to see him fight much as the Winter Soldier, mostly just chased him, but seeing him now it’s-

It’s almost like watching him in the water, but on land, all dangerous, fluid grace and sharp strikes. It’s beautiful, but Bucky’s always been beautiful.

They’re almost finished, and when the rocket launcher is aimed at him again, this time he’s ready for it.

When it fires, Steve angles his shield and sends it back. It hits the ground between the last cluster of Hydra agents and explodes, sends them all flying, a few hitting trees hard enough that it splinters the wood. He scans the area and looks over when none of them get back up just in time to watch Bucky twist the neck of the last agent he’s fighting, body dropping to the dirt with a thump-thud. Bucky scans the area himself before looking back over, raising an eyebrow. Steve just shrugs, lowering his shield.

“Not bad,” Bucky says, walking over, “For a ninety-year old.” Steve scoffs.

“Ninety-six,” he corrects, mock-indignantly, grinning after a moment. Bucky snorts and Steve walks over to the top of the waterfall, looking down over the edge.

There’s a pool at the bottom, larger than the last one they were in last night.

“I don’t think I’ve been at the top of one of these before,” he comments, looking back over at Bucky.

“I have,” Bucky replies, coming to a stop next to him and looking over it as well. Steve’s eyebrows rise and Bucky just looks back, shaking his head a little with a quiet, serious expression, and Steve’s own sobers up.

“Will you tell me?” he asks quietly. Will Bucky tell him that story, or any of what’s been done to him besides what they were both recently confronted with. Will Bucky tell him about the seventy years they’ve both missed.

Bucky’s eyes drift back to the waterfall and he leans back, walking away from it and over to where Steve dropped their things.

“Maybe,” he says, righting the cooler and opening it, looking back over his shoulder, “Someday.”

Steve watches him for a moment and then nods, turning-

A shot rings out and something pierces his side, spreads up like fire and Steve blinks, watches Bucky’s head whip around in the direction of the gunshot and run over, twisting the arm of the agent pointing the gun at Steve from the ground. Steve’s steps falter as he looks down.

There’s red.

He’s been shot before, he knows he’s been shot before, but he’s just-

Surprised.

They were just about to have lunch.

Steve’s foot slips on a rock when another shot fires wildly and he falls backwards, hears a distant, “Hail Hyd-” cut off as the blue sky spins up and he falls, hears Bucky shout his name and sees him dive over the edge of the waterfall after him-

Steve’s back hits the freezing water and all his air rushes out, just like when he was-

 

“You didn’t come.”

A pause.

Steve can hear the, ‘I was worried about you.’

He sits down heavily on the stone, crossing his legs, oranges and purples reflecting across the surface of the small waves brushing up against the edge of the tan stone.

“Sorry,” he replies, voice rough, lungs straining.

Bucky’s brows draw together.

“You’re sick,” he says after a moment, “You shouldn’t have come.” Steve sends him a weak glare and Bucky narrows his eyes right back. “Your health is important.” Steve huffs out a breath and then leans back on his hands with a sigh, bathing in the dying light and listening to the water lap a couple feet away.

“I wanted to come,” Steve replies, closing his eyes, “I’m sick’a bein’ trapped in that damn room.”

He hears a soft sigh.

“That room is where you should be, regardless,” Bucky says, sensible.

Steve opens his eyes as he lowers his head to glare at him again. Bucky just crosses his arms, sinking below the water a little when he lets go of the stone. They stare each other down before Bucky finally relents with a conceding sigh and rests his arms back on the edge, expression softening a little.

“I’m glad you came,” he says, and Steve blinks, “Does that make me a bad person?” he teases gently, and Steve smiles, sitting forward.

“I don’t think so,” he replies lightly, resting his elbows on his thighs. They share a small grin before Steve’s lungs finally give and he coughs, bending at the waist when it just gets worse and covering his mouth with a hand, wheezing and hacking. When he pulls it back and looks down, there’s red tinted maroon by the sun on his skin.

Silence. Just the sound of the waves beating gently against stone.

“Steve,” Bucky says, sounding worried. Steve closes his fist.

“I’m fine,” he replies, not looking up.

Steve,” Bucky says more urgently, and Steve drags his eyes up.

“I said I’m-” he’s cuts off, Bucky’s mouth pressing against his, leaning forward on the stone with his hands braced. Steve’s eyes widen, watching Bucky’s closed ones.

One of Bucky’s hands reaches up after he shifts and grips Steve’s jaw firmly, pressing and forcing it open. It happens easily, Steve still-

Bucky’s breath gently breaches past his lips and into his mouth, and it-

It’s cool, almost like water after mint, and Steve sucks it in, surprised. It unfurls down his throat like a cool tendril of smoke and the burn from coughing for three days gradually lessens up, soothes, and he can take in one deep breath without pain.

Bucky pulls away slowly and opens his eyes and Steve stares back, dumbstruck, and not just by what just happened. Bucky’s eyes drop as he lowers himself back into the water, brows drawing together.

“I wasn’t supposed to do that,” he says quietly, voice just barely above the sound of the water, and Steve blinks himself out of his stupor. Bucky looks up. “Don’t tell anyone,” he says, deadly serious.

“Okay,” Steve agrees, just as quiet, “I wouldn’t tell anyone even if I had someone to tell.” Bucky blinks up at him, lips curving up just a little.

“I’m glad you don’t,” he almost whispers, “Have anyone else to tell.” Steve blinks and Bucky lowers himself a little more into the water like he’s both trying and trying not to hide. “Does that make me a bad person?” he asks again, seriously this time.

Steve tilts his head a little in thought.

“You’re different,” Bucky continues, a little stronger, eyes focused on Steve’s, “And everyone should know, but part of me is glad they don’t, because it means it’s just us. I shouldn’t…I shouldn’t think that,” his voice drops to a near whisper again, glancing nervously out towards the water then back at Steve, “I should’ve eaten you or drowned you.”

Steve blinks again, heart pounding, and scoots himself forward, slipping down into the water. Bucky’s eyes widen, mouth dropping open.

What’re you-”

“It doesn’t,” Steve answers, shivering. Bucky stops, still staring at him with wide eyes, “I’m glad it’s just us, too.” Bucky’s mouth slowly closes and he swallows, eyes shifting quickly like he’s memorizing Steve’s face.

“You idiot,” he says, brows slowly drawing together like he’s angry, but his lips keep twitching up, “You don’t just get in the water when someone says they should’ve eaten or drowned you.”

“...Huh,” Steve says, mock-dumbly, and Bucky growls with a roll of his eyes.

Get out of the damn water, Rogers, before you catch something,” he orders firmly, frowning heavily.

Steve grins. “Sir, yes, sir.” He gives Bucky a mock salute and goes to pull himself up out of the water.

Bucky helps him when he struggles halfway.

 

Bucky throws an arm over the edge and grips the grass, nails digging into the dirt. He struggles and lifts Steve up with his left hand while he grits his teeth, hauling him up and over the edge before pulling up himself after, ripping the shirt still on him off and ringing it out while he scans over Steve’s body.

There’s blood soaked into the white of his shirt between his ribcage and hip and Bucky presses his bundled up shirt there, leaning up to get a look at Steve’s face.

Steve,” he says, eyes dropping to his chest before pressing his ear to it and listening. “Fuck.” He lets go of the shirt to reach up, hand going up to force Steve’s jaw open while he plugs Steve’s nose, leaning over and pressing their mouths together and breathing out.

Storm clouds gather overhead.

He stops, listens-

There's a metallic click and he darts his eyes up.

Natasha’s standing ten feet away, gun trained on his face.

They stare each other down.

“Are you a danger to him,” she demands, and he bristles, lower fins flaring up.

Lightning flashes across the sky.

Steve coughs out some water with a small jolt and sucks in a breath.

“No,” Bucky says flatly, “But right now you are.”

She studies him for a long moment while Bucky listens to Steve’s ragged breathing before holstering her gun and walking over, slowing a few feet away and just as slowly kneeling down next to Steve. Bucky bares his teeth and she pauses.

“Are you going to let me help, or do you want him to die,” she says, staring at him.

He stares back before slowly relaxing his expression, just enough.

Steve keeps breathing and he relaxes a little more, fractionally.

Natasha turns back to Steve and lifts both shirts, gets them out of the way before reaching for a compartment on her belt. Bucky tenses again, watching her closely, but she just pulls out a tiny medkit packed with the essentials and unrolls it. He keeps silent with his ears trained while she works.

He glances down when she’s gotten the bullet out and has moved onto stitching and just then notices it, lips twitching up just slightly.

Idiot’s still clutching his shield.

“Let me guess,” she says as she’s tying off the stitches. He glances at her briefly, but mostly keeps his eyes roaming their surroundings. “You don’t want anyone to know about this.”

“We’d prefer it,” he replies, half distracted and hyper aware.

She pulls Steve’s shirt back down and sits up, looking over at him. He glances back. Both of their heads snap around when they hear a branch snap.

“Take him to cover,” he orders quietly, prying Steve’s shield from his fingers. Her eyes dart to his. “They’ll come close for this,” he finishes, sliding himself back down into the water with the shield and sliding his hand down Steve’s leg along the way before sinking into the pool up to his chin, shield floating with its target face up. “Push them in if you have to,” he orders, eyes on hers. She stares at him for a moment before nodding and getting up, dragging Steve in the direction of a nearby tree.

He lets the shield drift and sinks the rest of the way down, light rain tapping along the water’s surface.

-

She waits, guns in hand and her back pressed to a tree and Steve laid out at her feet behind the bushes. She listens, eyes catching the first of them as they walk out of the trees after a few tense minutes.

The leader stops, holds his hand up and the rest halt, looking around. When they spot the shield, a couple point and the leader motions them all forward. There’s eight, all armed, but not heavily.

She watches them approach the water.

The leader turns towards the rest and one of the agents steps forward, lowering his gun as he hops into the pool, treading water up to his waist. He walks forward and she holds her breath.

When he reaches for the shield, it slowly, just barely, drifts out of reach, and he tries again.

After a few minutes of the same, the leader barks out an order and a few more wade in, the shield slowly moving further and further away.

When six of them are in, the shield stops, and Natasha silently slips out from behind the tree while lightning flashes across the sky and the rain comes down harder.

She glances up briefly and then in the direction of Steve before focusing on her objective.

-

His fingers finally grab onto it and he holds it up with a victorious, “HA!” and turns, “I got i-” something grabs his ankle and he goes down with a shout, swallowing water-

-

Some of the agents laugh and a few taunt, then it all slowly dies down when the agent doesn’t come back up. Another steps forward to investigate then goes down with a yell and all the agents start firing into the water.

When they stop, some of the water is red, and they relax a little again.

Well?” the leader demands after few moments, “Grab it!

Another agent reaches for the shield-

A metal hand lashes out and grabs her wrist and yanks her below while she screams, dark scales briefly skimming above the surface and shimmering in the sun. The other three agents shoot wildly.

They stop.

It’s quiet.

Bucky surges up out of the water with his teeth bared, body arching and scales and fins and arm shining like a mirage in the barely there rays of sun still managing to shine through the clouds, grabbing hold of the arms of the agent swinging their gun around and clamping his teeth down hard around the side of their throat, blood spraying in an arc.

They both hit the water with a splash and the last two agents still in the water stare, eyes wide and mouths hung open. The first goes down with a surprised yell and the last scrambles towards the edge of the water, clawing his way up onto the grass. He gets halfway up before a metal hand grabs his ankle and yanks him back while he screams-

The leader scrambles for his radio and Natasha moves in, shoves the last two in and hears them yell and scream as they fall into the water, struggling to get back up before they’re pulled under too.

She sees scales curve and coil like a snake around one, shimmering as they barely skim above the surface of bloody water while they move, the silver arm and red star gleaming under the sun before they’re veiled in cloudy red, covering the shallower end of the pool in bloody water.

The rain stops, but the clouds don’t go away.

-

Bucky drags his tail through the grass, rolls his hips and whole body and shifts around, trying to dry himself off, motions getting more and more agitated the longer he feels-

What?” he finally snaps, sending a glare over his shoulder and baring his teeth, sharp and still outlined in red.

“You ate them,” she answers, staring back. He narrows his eyes a little and rolls some more, like a bird in the dirt. She snorts quietly and he stops, narrowing his eyes at her further. “Well,” she starts, “This certainly explains a few things.”

Bucky sighs quietly when he finally starts to feel the shift, holding himself up on his hands.

“They never let you take the mask off,” she says after a moment, and he stares down at his tail, “I never saw you eat.”

He knows what she’s trying to do.

“Why are you here, Natalia,” he demands.

She doesn’t move.

“To track Steve,” she replies.

“Your boss doesn’t trust him,” he states.

“My boss doesn’t trust you,” she returns.

Bucky considers that briefly before he turns and cross his legs, Natasha’s eyes widen but he ignores it, reaches a hand forward to check Steve’s pulse on his neck.

“We need to get him out of here,” Bucky says, pushing himself up and then kneeling down on a knee to get his arms under Steve, careful when he lifts. “Where did you park,” he says more than asks, because whatever she used to help her keep tabs on them is around here somewhere.

He looks up and she tilts her head towards the South.

“Five miles,” she estimates, and he nods, holding Steve closer as they start to walk.

 

And I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you, and I wonder what I’d do if I lost you

 

Natasha throws a blanket at him after they’ve reached her truck and he’s settled into the back with Steve. He gives it a dirty look before opening it and arranging it across Steve, keeping Steve’s head cradled under his hand and body pulled close.

“Won’t you get cold?” she asks. He looks out the window.

“No.”

“Right,” she says after a moment, “Cold water fish.”

He sends her a glare and sees her lips curve up in the mirror.

They drive in silence for a while after that.

Steve doesn’t stir.

Bucky’s eyes drop down to his face.

“Is this your doing?” she asks. He glances up into the mirror and she nods her chin towards the window, the gray clouds outside.

Bucky drops his eyes back to Steve.

“It’s just the weather, Romanov,” he replies.

She doesn’t say anything to that, and Bucky reaches over to brush Steve’s damp bangs to the side, sliding his fingers down after to press them gently to his pulse point, keeping them there.

He lays down with Steve and pulls the blanket over the both of them when they move further into the town, watches up through the window through the edge of the blanket as tall buildings roll by and then slowly decrease until they’re gone.

“Where are we going?” he asks.

“Quinjet,” she replies, “Ten miles out of town.”

He doesn’t want to trust her, and he knows well enough not to, not completely.

But this is Steve, and even if he’s stable now, he can’t be left like this.

He slowly sits up after the car goes up a metallic sounding, bumpy ramp and comes to a stop some time later, peaks over the edge of the door and out the window and finds the wall of the quinjet, harnesses and straps hanging from it. He sits up all the way and pushes the blanket off, glancing down at Steve before his eyes jump to Natasha when she opens her door and slips out.

“You’re leaving us in here?” he asks, suspicious. She just quirks a brow and leaves the door open, heading up to the cockpit.

He’ll be more comfortable in the backseat,” she calls back over her shoulder, and Bucky frowns, but he knows she’s right.

He rests his hand over Steve’s heart and feels it beat, slow and steady beneath his palm, and lets out a quiet breath, keeping his eyes on Natasha in the pilot’s seat.

-

Steve starts to stir after about an hour and Bucky finally lets his eyes drop down from Natasha, lifting his hand to Steve’s cheek while Steve shifts slightly, head tilting away and then into it before his eyes slowly blink open.

“Buck?” he asks, voice rough and eyes a little dazed. Bucky waits until he blinks a few times and they get a little clearer before he speaks.

“Hey, there,” he says softly, stroking a thumb over Steve’s cheek. Steve blinks again, then starts to sit up and Bucky drops his hand quick to push down against his chest, forcing Steve back with a shake of his head. “Never lookin’ before you damn leap,” he mutters, and Steve’s brow furrows before his face scrunches up a little in pain and Bucky huffs out a quiet breath, “Yeah. That. Forget you got shot? Worse than damn Dum Dum, I swear.” Steve frowns up at him and then sits up a little, and Bucky lifts his hand so Steve can lift up his shirt and get a look, still supporting him with his arm.

“Who-?” Steve asks, brushing a finger across the stitches. Bucky takes his hand and pulls it away, and Steve looks up.

“Natasha,” he replies. Steve tenses, “She saw,” he adds, glancing to the side, “A lot, actually.” He looks back over and Steve’s looking around, then rolls his eyes when Steve tries to sit up again.

Bucky helps Steve up and then get the back door open, as much as they can. There’s not a lot of room between the car and the quinjet seats, but there’s just enough for them to slowly wiggle out between the two and make their way up front.

“You’re up,” she says lightly without turning around. Steve stops, hand over his wound, and leans a little on the other pilot seat.

“Thank you,” he replies. She glances over. “For helping.” Her lips curve up a little and she nods, turning back to the console.

Bucky waits, watching.

“I’ll keep your secret,” she says after a few silent moments.

Steve shifts slightly.

“I wasn’t going to-”

“Don’t,” she cuts him off, looking over again with a small smile and then shifting her eyes to Bucky’s, “Ever tell him he’s a terrible liar?” Bucky snorts a little, crossing his arms.

“I wasn’t-” Steve starts again. Bucky just shakes his head a little and Steve lets out a sigh. “Thank you,” he says, quiet and honest. Natasha hums a reply and Steve turns and shares a look with him.

“You should lie back down in the car,” Bucky says. Steve frowns and glances between the two of them and then nods slowly, walking just as slow back to the car. Bucky watches until he’s actually in it before turning and stepping into the cockpit, sitting down in the second pilot’s seat. It’s quiet, just the sound of the engine’s soft thrum and the occasional beep from the console.

“I will keep your secret,” she says after a few minutes. Bucky keeps his eyes on the clouds ahead and the water below, night approaching fast and making it dark and shiny.

“He wouldn’t ask you to,” he replies, “Not unless he felt he needed to.”

“Like if you were hurt?” she supplies. He feels eyes on him. “Or in danger of getting captured and studied, like I’m sure Hydra has already done?” He keeps his eyes straight ahead, feels hers slide away. “I know,” she adds, quieter. He looks down at the console, over the various buttons and toggles. He knows what they all do now, and wishes he didn’t. Part of him wishes he’d never met Steve in the first place.

“I’ve never asked him to do anything but be there, when he could,” he says softly, after a few moments, “But we both know love can make people do dangerous things.” Natasha hums in agreement, leaning back a little in her seat.

It’s quiet.

“Your eyes are different now,” she comments idly. He glances over and she looks back. “Alive,” she adds, “He does that.” It’s not a question. She looks back forward. “His, too.”

“Is that all that matters?” he asks, because that’s the question, isn’t it. Is that all she cares about to keep their secret, or is there something more? Else?

Well,” she starts, looking at him again with a small quirk of her lips, “Not all, but it’s enough.”

Quiet.

“Is it?” he asks, lower. Her lips curve up a little further, not reaching her eyes.

“For him?” she returns, and they look at each other, really look, her smile fading, “For you?” She shifts her eyes back straight ahead, thinking while he waits. She looks back over. "I think it is.”

He watches her for a minute before looking straight ahead, feels her eyes slide off of him a second later.

“I’ve learned,” she says into the quiet, voice mingling with a beep, “That it’s ‘okay to want things for yourself’.” Bucky snorts quietly, can practically feel her lips twitch.

“Sounds like something a well meaning idiot would say,” he comments. She laughs quietly.

“You’re not far off,” she replies, throwing a small smile his way.

He looks back for a moment before his eyes are drawn back to the water.

“I don’t want a lot,” he says quietly.

He feels eyes on him again.

“You do,” she replies, just as quiet, “But, maybe now, that’s okay. For both of us.”

He thinks that over while he stares out at the ocean, leaning back in the chair a bit. “They took so much,” he finds himself almost whispering, wants to pull the words back in and tear them up. He doesn’t feel her eyes on him this time.

“I want to take back,” she replies after a moment, soft and deadly, “I want to take something small.”

“You haven’t already?” he asks, and she pauses, the quiet thoughtful. She hums noncommittally, but he knows better.

His lips curve up.

“Go put some pants on, Barnes,” she says, eyebrows raised cooly when he looks over. He rolls his eyes, shoving himself up after a moment.

“You don’t care,” he returns.

“No, but you do,” she counters, smirking over at him, “Now quit offending my delicate, lady-like sensibilities.”

He scoffs with a ‘HA’, but moves back down towards the car, pausing when she calls his name and turning around.

She looks at him for a moment, eyes unreadable, before inclining her head slightly.

His shoulders untense a bit and he blows out a quiet breath, nodding slightly. She looks back ahead and he turns back around and walks back to the car, slipping into the back seat beside Steve.

Steve looks at him for a moment before lifting his arm out. Bucky scoots over and gently presses all along his side, pressing his nose under Steve’s jaw and melting a little under Steve’s arm curling around his waist.

“Okay?” Steve asks, almost a whisper.

Bucky thinks about it, about Steve, and Natasha, and the secrets in between.

“Yeah,” he settles on, decisive, “Yeah. We’re okay.”

Steve nods and pulls him a little closer, and Bucky presses his nose to Steve’s skin and breathes him in, smells Steve and salt and water and blood and thinks it’s home.

-

Steve gets his key in the lock, glances over at Kate’s door before Bucky helps him inside, right arm wrapped around Steve’s waist and left hand gently but firmly gripping his wrist, using Bucky as more of a support than he’d like. But Bucky doesn’t complain, just pulls Steve’s arm tighter around his shoulders and gets the door closed, lock clicking into place behind them.

Bucky helps him over to the couch before carefully dumping him onto it, not bothering with the lights, then sits down next to him against the arm and pulls the throw off the back, carefully pulling Steve to him and arranging the blanket out over him.

“Buck-” Steve starts.

Sleep,” Bucky cuts him off quietly, and Steve sighs, leaning back against the side of Bucky’s chest. He reaches up and gently grips Bucky’s metal forearm where it’s laid across his own chest, protective, slightly cool, safe.

“I’ll be fine,” Steve says, eyelids drooping.

Shh,” Bucky shushes him, and Steve feels lips and a nose press against the top of his head and closes his eyes. “Just sleep,” Bucky whispers there, and Steve lets himself relax-

 

“We’ll set up camp five miles out. Move in, scout the area, light it up.” Dernier gives him a short salute and the guys nod and smile, Gabe saying something to Dernier in French.

Steve glances over at Bucky, sees him staring down at the map, shoulders stiff.

“Alright,” Steve starts, looking back to the others, “Everyone dismissed. See you bright and early tomorrow.”

The rest of the guys file out with a ‘Yeah, Cap’ and ‘’Bright and early’, he says, more like the crack of dawn’ and a few laughs, just leaving him and Bucky alone in the tent. Steve listens to their bootsteps retreat and squelch in the mud before looking over at Bucky again where he’s still staring down at the map, expression...tense.

“You can stay, if you need to,” Steve offers, voice lowered. Bucky doesn’t move. “I know you don’t…” Steve trails off, trying to think of how to word it, “I know this is meaningless, for you.” Bucky’s eyes snap up to his at that.

“‘Meaningless’?” he asks, and Steve takes in a slow breath, because Bucky’s eyes are...angry. But he’s been like that a lot, since Austria. “It’s not-” Bucky cuts himself off, eyes dropping back to the map briefly before he looks up again, “Steve, I can’t understand this.” Steve stands up a little straighter. Bucky shakes his head a little, eyes lowering back down to the map again.

“They have all this,” he says, gesturing towards the map with an arm, “All this...space. Land. And they fight over it like it’s going anywhere, like it won’t outlast them all. And they destroy themselves, do things I can’t…” he trails off, eyes going unfocused.

Steve thinks of a table and machines, smells smoke and fire, and stays quiet.

Bucky’s eyes lift to his, focusing again.

“I hate them,” he says, resentment curling sharp and hard around the edges, “And I can’t understand why you try so hard for them.” Steve’s mouth twists and Bucky shakes his head, walking to the opening of the tent.

“I’m one of ‘them’, too, Buck,” Steve says, just loud enough to be heard over the rain outside. Bucky pauses.

“Are you?” he asks, not looking back.

Steve watches him go and then drops his eyes back to the map while listening to the tent material settle, reaching for the map and rolling it up.

 

Steve slowly blinks his eyes open, glances around his day-lit apartment but stays where he is, rising and falling slightly with the expand and contract of Bucky’s ribcage. “You sleep?” he asks softly.

“No,” comes the reply, not quite as soft, but quiet. Steve lifts his arm the few inches it slid down in his sleep and grips Bucky’s forearm again, rubs his thumb back and forth over the metal, feeling the slight grooves.

He stops.

“I’m sorry,” he says quietly, feels Bucky shift, just slightly, “For the war.” Bucky goes unnaturally still beneath him then blows out a soft breath. “I shouldn’t’ve-”

Steve,” Bucky cuts him off firmly. Steve closes his mouth. Bucky lifts his arm and Steve lets it go, eyes closing a little at the metal fingers that touch his bangs, the sharp nails that comb slow and gentle down through his hair.

Bucky doesn’t say anything more and Steve shifts a little, restless, then hears Bucky sigh softly, tugging on Steve’s bangs a little.

“Stop,” he orders gently, and Steve settles again, frowning a little out at his apartment. Bucky sighs again softly. “You know I don’t blame you for it.” Steve blows out a breath.

“That doesn’t mean it’s not my fault,” he returns quietly. Bucky snorts softly and Steve frowns a little more.

“Like you could make me do anything,” Bucky replies, but they both know Steve could, to an extent, but for the most part, Bucky’s right, Steve can’t really make Bucky do anything he doesn’t want to.

He feels the fingers slide down past his cheek, stopping under his chin and lifting. Steve lets them move his head while Bucky leans over him, staring up into his eyes.

“I blame them,” Bucky says, somber, “Not you.” Steve stares up at him for a moment, shakes his head a little.

The fingers stay under his chin.

“Buck, I am ‘them’,” he says, like he had in his dream, memory, so long ago. Bucky’s expression doesn’t change.

“Are you?” he asks, and Steve opens his mouth, ready to say ‘yes, yes I am’, but nothing comes out.

Bucky’s fingers slide away, nails scratching along his chin, a barely there scrape, and slip back up into his hair while Bucky sits back up, still looking down at him.

“Sleep,” he orders, gentler.

Bucky was right. He’s not kind, not so much, anymore.

Steve lets his eyes slip back closed, unsettled.

-

They snap open again and the apartment’s dark. He’s not sure what woke him.

Bucky is tense underneath him.

“We’re surrounded,” Bucky whispers, and Steve darts his eyes around, catching on the far left window. A shadow shifts back, just slightly, fading back to the rest. “We have about five seconds.”

Steve takes a breath.

Three of the windows shatter all at once and Steve swipes up his shield from against the side of the couch and throws it, gets four of the intruders coming in through the windows before catching it on the rebound, bringing it up and blocking gunfi-

Wait-

The impact is too light, pitch higher.

They’re darts.

Bucky,” Steve says urgently in his direction, risking a glance over.

Bucky’s outmaneuvering the darts and the agents trying to corral him into a corner, and Steve starts to head over in his direction before four more agents catch up with him, all attacking at once. He can feel blood soaking into his shirt again from the bullet wound, and ignores the pain lancing up his side while he fights back, trying to dodge harder when they seem to pick up on it and aim specifically for that area.

They’ve got about half of them down between them when the rest whip out batons. One gets past his defenses and he braces himself for the hit to his wound, but what he’s not expecting is the electricity when it hits, and he can’t hold back a shout.

Steve!” he hears as they knock his knees out from under him and shock him again, knees hitting the floor hard while his vision blurs. Shit, he can’t-

He hears a harsh, double toned snarl and then a third shock hits the back of his neck, floor getting too close too fast while the world goes dark-

-

“I hate them.”

“I am them.”

Blue-gray eyes find his.

“Are you?”

 

Steve slowly blinks his eyes open, sees hardwood floor.

 

“Are you?”

 

He shifts his hands forward and pushes himself up with a grunt, pain shooting up his side. He looks down and sees red sticking his shirt to the bandaging underneath.

“Shit,” he curses quietly, pushing himself up to his feet with a wince and looking around, “Shit,” he repeats more emphatically, looking around again and picking up his shield with another wince before stumbling slightly in the direction of his house phone.

The front door gets kicked open on his way and he whips around, shield raised. Natasha comes storming in her with her guns raised, eyes scanning the apartment briefly before landing on him.

“What happened,” she demands.

“They took Bucky,” Steve makes himself say, “Probably Hydra. I don’t know how they followed us.”

Natasha frowns slightly before holstering her guns, eyes dropping to focus somewhere around his wound before shifting back up to his and nodding towards the door. “Let’s go.”

“But how-” Steve starts, freezing, “S.H.I.E.L.D. can’t know abou-”

“We won’t tell them,” she cuts him off, and he closes his mouth, “But we’re going to need help.” He gives a conceding nod at that, then follows her out, glancing around at the wreckage of his apartment one more time as he goes, heart sinking.

It was home, but now that Bucky’s not here it’s just a room full of broken memories.

Again.

-

Something jars him and he shifts slightly, opens his eyes to black, hears muffled noise that dissolves into words-

“He’s moving.”

“Get it in now.”

More jostling, the sound of metal groaning, and then-

Whatever he’s in upends and he rolls, dark becoming light and he hits comfort with a splash, and feels the shift, turning in the water while two legs become one and everything’s spinning until he can right himself, webbed fingers catching currents and tail pushing him up-

Something slams shut just as he reaches the surface and his fingers find and grip metal bars, pulling himself up above water and blinking it out of his eyes while he hears five locks snap shut.

He finds three men standing above him, two with wide eyes and one familiar.

What the hell-”

He’s a-”

“Back to your stations,” the familiar one barks out, hair black as ocean deep and face the kind of mean the bullies that used to pick on Steve had.

The unfamiliar two scatter down the metal stairs attached to the side and the familiar one crouches down, hands dangling between his thighs and mouth tilted up in a smirk.

Bucky watches him and they stare each other down, then Bucky lashes a hand up between the bars and just manages to scratch a couple sharp nails across the man’s cheek, water jostling while the man straightens up quick with a sharp sound. Bucky pulls his hands back below the bars before the man’s boot can crush them, cage door rattling under the force.

Behave yourself,” the man sneers, the smirk coming back after he wipes away the blood on his cheek and licks it off his thumb, “Wouldn’t want another chunk taken out of your tail, would you?”

Bucky growls, double toned and low in his throat and lets himself slowly sink below the surface, water distorting the man into colored shapes that take a moment before walking away.

But Bucky knows the man’s still smirking.

-

“Surveillance shows a black van exiting the alley of your building fifteen minutes after the time you said they most likely attacked, anywhere from between eight to eleven pm,” Fury says, looking at him, and Steve nods. Fury looks back to the large screen. “They managed to evade a good share of the cameras, but fortunately for us, not all of them.”

The footage on the screen changes to one by the docks, everything green and dark with an overhead light above some shipping containers, bright like a star. Night vision.

“We pick them up again here, stopping at this warehouse,” Fury indicates. Steve sits up a little straighter, watches the van pull in and a large metal door slide closed, just manages to see the back doors of the van open and a small group of men pull a weighted body bag out before the door lowers and cuts it off.

“Seems kinda sloppy,” Barton comments. Fury turns to him.

“My guess is this was more of a snatch and grab job than a serious, thought out attempt,” Fury replies, glancing at Steve, “We removed the tracer found on the truck Agent Romanoff used on assignment.” Distractedly, Steve knows Natasha is beating herself up over that, but it’s background.

His eyes are still on the looping footage on the screen, on the body bag.

“They saw their opportunity and took it,” Fury continues, standing up from his seat at the head of the table, “Now we take ours. Romanoff, you’re running point, Rogers-”

“I’m going,” Steve says, eyes snapping to his.

“I wasn’t going to stop you,” Fury replies, raising an eyebrow, “But you are not leading. Romanoff is in charge of this one.”

“Understood,” Steve replies, and Fury studies him a moment before nodding.

“Alright, then,” Fury says, “Move out.”

Steve’s the second to stand.

-

Bucky laps the tank, double his full length long and a little shorter than his full length wide, back and forth back and forth.

It’s not big enough, not by far, but the swimming helps him think.

He could use his song, take control of the two agents guarding the room.

He heard the familiar man say, “Don’t listen to it. Don’t talk to it,” but they don’t know.

When Hydra found him, he couldn’t remember his own name let alone what he was, couldn’t even remember his own face. By the time he did remember anything, any of it, they’d gagged him and forced him into...into the chair. Then he couldn’t remember much of anything until Steve-

Until Steve found him.

They don’t know about his song. He could use it now.

But then what?

Two agents isn’t enough to get him out of this room, and his tail will take time to dry so he can shift to legs. It’d take too much time. A quick escape is out of the question.

But he could, he could do it, and that thought helps.

He knows Steve’s coming, it’s just a matter of timing, but it’s comfort to know that he has something he can fall back on.

Bucky brings his hand up to his chest while he twists down and around at the end of the tank to loop back around, and grips his necklace between his fingers.

Steve will come. It’s just a matter of time.

He watches the two agents guarding the room while he swims, notes which one looks at him the most and in what way:

Light haired: Curiosity, horror, confusion.

Dark haired: Curiosity, interest, intrigue, greed.

One of them will be useful.

-

Steve presses his back to the shipping container next to Natasha and watches her lean closer to the corner and glance around it before pulling back. He hears twin, slight whistles stream through the air and then quiet thunk-thunks, too quiet for anyone else to hear, and waits.

Natasha glances down as they both listen to Clint quietly report, “Cameras down,” in their ears and looks to him.

He nods and she nods back and then darts out and around the shipping container and he follows quick, glances up at the sparks flying out a little from the two surveillance cameras mounted at the top corners of the warehouse as they get closer. They stop on either side of the smaller door next to the large metal door from the video and wait.

Team two, in position,” they hear a few moments later.

Team three, in position.

“Move in,” Natasha orders quietly, then looks to Steve and he reaches for the door handle.

Locked.

He twists it open with a soft groan of metal, handle snapping off before he pushes it open.

They sweep through quick, silently take out the few guards posted near the van and meet teams two and three in the center, made up of two groups of four. They spread out and search the floor further and then an agent gives a low whistle.

Steve’s head snaps up and he moves over, meets the rest at the top of a stairwell behind a small, built in office, a guard slumped over on the other side, barely visible with a leg sprawled out and a shoulder peaking just around the white cement corner.

Natasha takes point and leads the way down, Steve second, and when they reach the bottom, he looks at the three way split, frowning and then glancing to Natasha.

“Underground lair?” he asks.

She smirks slightly, it doesn’t quite reach her eyes and what does is not nice.

“They’re fond of them,” she replies, then signals the other two teams.

They head down straight while team three goes left and two goes right. Steve gives her a look as they make their way down, worried and pinched. Natasha just shakes her head slightly and looks back forward.

If Bucky’s in water and they’re not the ones to find him, he knows. She can’t hide something like that.

In which case, if Steve could find a way to warn him-

They’ve just reached the end of the hall and have taken a left when an explosion rocks the whole thing, some cement dust shaken loose and littering part of the floor from of it. Steve blinks, glancing to Natasha, and then they both move quicker.

Well, at least that solved that problem.

At least, Steve hopes.

-

The water sloshes a bit at the top with the sudden vibrations and Bucky stops, sees the agents freeze too and then start to move for their communication devices. Bucky darts up to the top of the tank, hands gripping the bars and pulling his mouth up above the water before he parts his lips and sings, soft and soothing. He hears their words cut off and stops, embedding it as a low hum instead.

“Come here,” he calls gently, hears footsteps start to move, “Quick,” hears them move faster. There’s clanking up the metal stairs along the side of the tank and then the two agents are standing above him, staring down. “What is your name?” he asks the dark haired one.

“Rob,” the man replies, blinking slowly. Bucky smiles a little, slow and soft, and the man bends down a little towards him.

“Rob,” Bucky says soothingly, “Shoot him.”

Rob pulls out his gun and fires right, shoots the other agent in the head without looking away, blood spattering the side of his face and hair.

Bucky smiles a little more.

“Let me out?” he asks, brows drawing together, “This tank is so small, and I can’t do it by myself. I need your help. I need you.”

“I don’t have the key…” Rob trails off, worrying his lower lip, “Move back.” Bucky lets go of the bars to sink down to the bottom of the tank and the vibrations of bullets hitting metal move like a shockwave through the water, short and loud and sharp. Bucky swims back up when the cage top squeals open and grips the side, pulling himself up. Rob helps and Bucky sits on the edge, looking around before looking back up at the man.

“Carry me down?” he asks softly. Rob bends down, gets an arm behind his back and under his tail and lifts with a quiet grunt, wobbling a little before he forces himself steady and heads for the stairs, taking them down slow and steady.

“What do you need?” Rob asks, eyes back on his once they’ve stopped, drawn there.

Bucky glances around. “That chair,” he says, nodding his chin towards it. Rob nods and walks over, carefully setting him down into it. He stands back up and waits. “Your shirt,” Bucky says after a moment. Rob strips out of his vest and then his shirt quickly, handing it over. Bucky takes it and starts drying his tail off. “I need you to contact that agent from earlier,” he says.

“Rumlow?” Rob asks, voice a little strained, “Why?”

Bucky looks back up, reaching out a hand to take one of Rob’s soothingly. Rob relaxes again.

“It’s important,” Bucky says softly, leaning forward to rest his cheek against the hand, eyes open and staring straight ahead. “I need to tell him something,” he adds a little flatly, voice still soft.

Rob pulls out his earpiece and slips it in.

“Sir?” he says into it, “You’re needed. Yes. It’s important,” he says, sounding a little dazed, “Yes, Sir.”

Bucky can finally pull his cheek back and looks up, eyes locking on Rob’s again. He shakes his head a little at the question there.

“Everything’s fine, Sir,” Rob answers, “The asset is still in the tank.”

Bucky gives his hand a comforting squeeze and Rob smiles, lowering the earpiece and letting it drop to the floor as he kneels down.

“Is that it?” he asks, begs, like he’s hanging on Bucky’s every word.

Bucky smiles, mostly teeth, and traces a fingernail down the side of his freckled cheek.

“Almost,” he replies softly, and opens his mouth as he leans in.

-

The door opens ten minutes later.

“We’re being attacked. We need to-”

Rumlow draws his gun and Bucky hums.

He freezes.

Rum-low,” Bucky pronounces quietly. Rumlow’s body twitches, straining. Strong will. Bucky holds his hand out, fingers stained red. “Why don’t you come here?” he asks softly. Rumlow strains a little more, taking a stiff step forward, and Bucky smiles, increasing the suggestion in the hum when he repeats it.

The tension snaps and Rumlow strides forward, gun lowering.

He stops, kneeling down on both knees at Bucky’s feet.

“What do you need?” he asks, looking up.

Bucky looks back.

 

“It’s thrashing, but the bindings will hold.”

“Good. Cut off section C-A through C-F.”

“Are you sure? That much will-”

“The blood loss is measured for. The amount will heal within the tested parameters.”

Metal piercing flesh.

White hot pain. Fire.

Bucky screams.

“There is a tale,” he hears through his ragged breathing, after cool air brushes into flesh that shouldn’t feel air at all, or water.

His chest heaves under the binding there.

The man turns, white lab coat bright when he steps under the circle of light, glasses over his eyes and white surgical mask pushed down. He’s holding-

Bucky’s stomach churns while his eyes widen, pain pushed to the background.

“There is a tale,” the man repeats, holding up the chunk of flesh, his flesh, his scales shimmering in the overhead light- “That if one eats the flesh of a mermaid, they will be immortal.” The man looks from the piece of him to him, eyebrow raised. He turns his attention to someone else, but all Bucky can do is stare at- at a piece of himself-

“You,” the man orders, “Agent. Come here.”

Footsteps. Bucky’s surprised he can hear it over the white noise in his head and the breaths coming out of his mouth like a speeding train.

“Sir?” the agent asks.

A pause.

The sound of something small and metal scraping on more metal.

Flesh parting-

He can see it.

Bucky’s stomach roils.

“Eat this.”

Bucky’s eyes track the removed, bite sized piece, watches the agent stare from it to him and then back again before hesitantly taking it, staring at it for another few moments before sliding it into his mouth-

Bucky watches him chew, swallow.

The man stands there for a minute before his body goes stiff and his eyes widen and then he’s doubling over and hacking, shaking, then dropping out of Bucky’s line of sight with a thump. He hears more gagging and hacking, then a muffled scream before-

Nothing.

Silence.

“Hm,” the man holding a piece of Bucky says, sounding disinterested, “Perhaps we should try cooking it first.”

A few minutes later, Bucky hears fire and then sizzling, then smells himself burning-

 

Bucky stares back at Rumlow.

“Wouldn’t want another chunk taken out of your tail, would you?”

“Do you have a knife?” Bucky asks.

Rumlow nods, puts his gun away and pulls a knife out of his utility belt, flicking it open swiftly and with familiarity and then holding it up. Bucky shakes his head a little.

“Slice off a chunk of your arm,” Bucky orders.

Rumlow looks down at his arm for a long moment before holding it out, knife poised over skin. He looks back up.

Bucky smiles a little, nodding his head once. “It’s alright,” he says softly.

Rumlow nods back a little and then looks back down, pressing the knife in.

Red pools up and over and he slices down a few inches, pulling a chunk of flesh out with a little yank before offering it up.

Bucky looks at it for a moment before shifting his eyes back to Rumlow’s.

“Eat it,” he orders flatly.

Rumlow brings the piece of flesh up to his opening mouth-

-

They’ve checked all the doors so far, but haven’t come across anything yet. They’re on their fifth short hall to check in a row when Steve spots the open doors at the end and glances to Natasha, who looks back with a raised eyebrow before they quietly make their way down.

Steve presses back against the wall with Natasha at his right and listens, but he hears-

He frowns a little, trying to make sense of it.

Squelching?

He looks back to Natasha and shakes his head a little, shrugging slightly. Her lips purse a little but she nods and he nods back, mouthing, ‘One, two, three-’

They dash out, his shield and both her guns raised, and then they both freeze, Steve’s eyes widening a little.

Bucky’s sitting almost straight ahead near a desk with a couple of laptops on it, arms on the armrests and naked, a man kneeling at his feet. The man turns around slowly-

“Rumlow?” Natasha asks, sounding a little strained.

His mouth is stained red and there’s blood dripping from his chin, he turns a little more and Steve sees-

“Slice your throat,” he hears Bucky order quietly, eyes on them, and Rumlow blinks slowly, looking back while he lifts his knife and-

Rumlow doesn’t make a sound, just falls to the floor with a thud, body twitching slightly.

Bucky stares at them.

His back and head are bowed a little, hair hanging damp and low around his face, necklace, bracelet, and arm gleaming a little under the lights. He looks like-

He looks like a forgotten king, from some of the lonelier tales Steve read as a child. Kings who lost everything and were lost to time.

Steve’s heart twists and his mouth twists a little with it as he swallows.

He walks forward.

Bucky’s eyes stay focused past him.

Steve comes to a stop in front of him.

“Bucky,” he says softly, and Bucky closes his eyes for a minute before slowly looking up.

“They...ate me,” he says, low and quiet, and the backs of Steve’s eyes sting. He knew-

He saw that tube in that room in the mountains with a chunk of Bucky’s tail in it, and he knew.

Steve starts to kneel down and Bucky shakes his head abruptly, so Steve stops, stepping in closer. He reaches down and cups Bucky’s cheek gently, and Bucky’s eyes close again.

“They ate me,” he repeats in a whisper, jaw clenching under Steve’s hand while he slowly curls in on himself a little. Steve bends down, presses his forehead to the top of Bucky’s head.

He feels Bucky’s hand come up and grip the back of his uniform sleeve tightly, then Natasha requesting a status report from the rest of the team.

-

They’re taken in, both of them, after they’ve cleaned the blood off of Bucky with the tank water.

S.H.I.E.L.D. wants answers, though Steve doesn’t think they’re likely to get many.

Bucky bares his teeth at anyone who tries to touch him once they meet up with the rest of the team and the S.H.I.E.L.D. backup outside the warehouse, and Steve has to be the one to take the blanket and give it to him to cover himself with.

Bucky gives it a dirty look but takes it and wraps it around himself, glaring at everyone except Steve and, he notices, Natasha, as they’re both escorted to a black SUV.

Steve tangles their fingers together over the blanket over the leather seats as they’re driven away from the warehouse, glancing over at Bucky and holding his stare for a moment before looking back out the window at the city rolling by, stars traded in for skyscraper lights.

-

They pull up in front of the Triskelion not too long later, agents opening each of the backdoors. Bucky doesn’t spare his side’s a glance, just scoots out after Steve and keeps their hands locked together, agents on either side of them, front and back like an entourage.

When they get inside, they all pile into one elevator. Steve glances out at the view outside the four glass walls, catches moonlight reflecting off of water and looks over at Bucky to find him staring at it.

Bucky’s eyes drop down after a minute before he looks over.

Steve gives his hand a gentle squeeze and holds his gaze until the elevator slows to a stop and the doors slide open, the agents boxing them in leading them out.

-

They’re separated halfway down the interrogation hall. Steve wants to fight it, keeps his fingers locked with Bucky’s as long as he can, but lets his fingers untwine from Bucky’s as they’re escorted into opposite rooms, looking back over his shoulder to find Bucky doing the same.

Fighting it will only make it worse, make things take longer, so he obeys, for now.

The door closes after the agents lead him inside.

Steve takes a seat and waits.

-

Bucky stares down at the table surface, counts his heartbeats. When he gets to two thousand, the door to the room slides open and he can smell gunpowder and leather. He looks up.

Natasha takes the seat across from him, all coiled, but easy grace, as always, and they stare at each other.

Silence.

“What you did,” she starts, “To Rumlow. Have you done it to me?”

Bucky holds her stare.

“No,” he answers.

She studies him, face unreadable.

“I would not,” he says after a moment, quieter, “Not unless I had to. Even then…” he trails off, shakes his head a little and keeps his eyes on hers, so she knows.

He doesn’t want to do that to her, not to someone who understands.

He trained her in the Red Room, but it wasn’t without its consequences. She, more than anyone, maybe, understands that side of him. Not even Steve, and for that, at least, a small part of him hates her for it.

She looks at him for another minute before nodding and standing up.

-

“What do you want me to tell you?” Steve asks, eyes darting to the door when it opens. Natasha walks in and stops next to Clint.

“What do I want you to tell me?” Fury asks, leaning forward on his hands a little across the table, “I want you to tell me why there’s a giant tank in an underground Hydra base, and why ex-Agent Rumlow was slicing his skin off his own arm.” Steve looks at him and Fury leans forward a little more. “I want you to tell me how there’s a body missing but roughly four pints of blood in a pool on that room’s floor. I want you to tell me why Barnes was found naked. I want you to tell me what’s missing, Rogers, because the facts don’t add up to an answer I can put together and make sense of.”

He stares at Steve and Steve stares back, swallows down any immediate response he might have.

He can’t tell Fury anything. Wouldn’t, besides.

“Could’ve been for torture,” Barton speaks up after a minute, drawing all of their attention. He shrugs a little. “The water.”

Fury frowns and when Barton just shrugs again, looks back to Steve.

Steve doesn’t look to Natasha, can’t, but he’s grateful she hasn’t said anything.

Fury stares him down.

“I don’t know,” Steve answers, shrugging his own shoulders.

Fury’s stare goes a little blank.

“See,” he starts, pointing a finger at Steve, “I don’t buy that. You’re a terrible liar, Rogers.”

Steve shrugs again and Fury’s eye narrows a little.

“What I don’t understand,” he starts after a minute, lacing his fingers together on top of the table, “Is why you won’t say anything. I’d understand if Barnes was simply defending himself, it’s understandable, so if that’s all it is, you don’t need to protect him for it. We’re not trying to lock him up for fighting back against some Hydra agents.”

Now Steve narrows his eyes a little.

“But you are trying to lock him up,” he says slowly.

Fury opens his mouth to reply but the door opens again.

“There you are,” a man says. They all look over. “I’ve been looking for you, Nick.”

“Secretary Pierce,” Fury says, surprised, standing up from the table, “There wasn’t a need to come all the way down here.”

“Nonsense,” Pierce replies with a smile, expression sobering, “One of our agents turns out to be Hydra? I’d say that’s a pretty good reason to step out of my office.”

Fury sighs and looks back over to Steve. “Stay put.”

“Yes, Sir,” Steve says calmly. Fury narrows his eye a little but steps out with Pierce, after Pierce says, “Captain.” Steve nods back and then the door closes again.

“Okay,” Barton says after a minute, “What’s really going on?” Steve and Natasha both look at him. “And why are we not telling Director Fury?”

Natasha looks to Steve and he frowns. She raises her eyebrows a little and he sighs.

“Bucky’s...a little different,” Steve hedges, “That’s all.”

Barton frowns.

“Different how? We’re all ‘different’,” he replies.

“Well…” Steve trails off, mouth pinching, “Bucky’s special.”

Clint’s brows furrow.

-

Bucky glances over when the door opens again and then looks away, holding in a sigh.

Great. The director and another human in a suit who thinks he’s important.

“So,” the man in the suit starts, and Bucky’s eyes widen fractionally, “You’re Sergeant James Barnes.” Bucky’s aware of the man sitting down across from him in his periphery, but he can’t move. “My name is Secretary Alexander Pierce,” the man continues, “It’s an honor to meet you.”

Pierce holds out a hand.

Bucky slowly draws his eyes over to it and then to the man’s face.

Voice: Calm. American.

The man’s hair is graying, face lined in wrinkles.

Suit: Gray.

Eyes: Blue.

Smiling.

Bucky’s eyes drop back down to Pierce’s hand.

 

The conditioning has long since been ingrained, but I need you to...refreshen it. The asset has been in cryo for ten years.”

Another time: Fingers running once through his hair. They smell old, past their prime.

 

Bucky drags his eyes back up, meets blue again.

“You-” he starts.

An explosion shakes the building and the man’s smile widens a little.

-

“Special? Special how?” Clint asks, and then the whole room shakes. “Aww, explosions,” he says, looking up.

“I have to say, I prefer them when I know you’re the one causing them,” Natasha comments, looking up with him.

“Bucky,” Steve says, immediately rising from his chair and looking over at the door. He looks back and Natasha nods.

“They’re after him again,” she concludes.

“Yeah, but to attack the Triskelion?” Steve hears Clint ask while he moves for the door, “Ballsy. Even for them.”

“There’s something about this we don’t know yet,” Natasha says quietly, thoughtful. Steve gets the door open.

There’s no one guarding it.

He looks over and Bucky’s room door is open.

His stomach drops.

Steve runs for it to make sure and finds the room empty. He turns back around.

“He’s gone,” Steve says urgently. Natasha’s expression turns solemn and she nods her head to the left, down the way they were brought in, and Steve nods, joining Clint as they both run after her when she takes off.

When they come to the end of the hall, there’s a...war zone going on.

Or there was.

Natasha and Clint both run over to check the few bodies littered on the floor, both rising after a moment with a shared look between them.

Damn,” Clint curses quietly, looking around before looking back over to Steve, “Where do you think they’d take him? By land, air, or water?”

“Water would be the most dangerous,” Natasha says thoughtfully. Clint’s brows draw together and Natasha glances over at Steve with a nod.

Steve nods back, rubbing at one of his pouches with his thumb. Natasha’s eyes dart down to it but she doesn’t say anything.

“That means they went by water,” he decides, lowering his hand back to his side.

“Right then,” Clint says, pulling his bow off of his back and snapping it open, “Let’s head for the sub bay.”

They run.

-

They’re both herded onto a boat, up the ramp and inside. It’s opulent in a way, like a yacht, but smaller.

Bucky glances over, watches the muscle in Nick Fury’s jaw tick once.

“So,” Fury starts, “This whole time, you’ve been Hydra.”

“Afraid so, Nick,” Pierce replies easily from behind them, “The world needs order. Path it’s on now, it might actually get it in time to save it.”

“By Hydra’s ruling hand, I presume,” Fury snips back. Pierce laughs, low and quiet.

“Yes,” he replies. They come to a stop. Bucky’s already staring at the tank. “But there’s something I want to show you first.

Fury turns around.

Bucky doesn’t bother.

“And what’s that,” Fury says flatly.

“Oh, it’s quite a rare sight,” Pierce replies calmly.

There’s too many guards for him to take out on his own, and he’s not sure he’d be able to even with help and without getting shot. Better to bide his time. Steve’s coming. Bucky knows he is.

Steve always comes for him, whether he knows he is or not.

“There used to be sightings,” Pierce starts, and Bucky refrains from rolling his eyes.

He’d forgotten how much his handlers liked to talk.

“They’ve gotten increasingly, increasingly more rare as time’s gone by,” Pierce continues, “But once in awhile, just once in awhile you’ll hear about it. They’ll get dubbed as fake, of course, and only the fanatics and the daydreamers will buy it, or the idea of it, but make no mistake, they do happen.”

“What are you talking about?” Fury asks.

“You see, Nick,” Pierce goes on like Fury hadn’t spoken, “We had another one, once. She was beautiful, but they all are. Isn’t that right, Sergeant.” Bucky doesn’t turn around. “Even the males,” Pierce continues, “As you can see for yourself.”

Bucky feels eyes on him. Ignores it.

“It was a shame we couldn’t get them to breed,” Pierce says, sounding disappointed, and Bucky grits his teeth, “Would’ve made for an interesting subject.”

Bucky forces himself to relax.

It’s quiet. Fury doesn’t repeat himself.

“Why don’t you show the Director, Sergeant, what I’m talking about,” Pierce speaks up after a minute.

Bucky glances back over his shoulder at that, at the guns trained on them, and avoids looking at Pierce’s smile. He turns his head back around and lets go of the blanket Steve made him take, listens to the material collapse quietly to the floor before stepping forward, feeling eyes on him again.

Always feeling eyes on him.

He’s so sick and tired of it.

Bucky stops at the stairs that lead up the side of the tank, hears a gun cock after a few moments and takes a step, then another, and another, keeps his fingers from curling into fists as he nears the top and then stops.

It’s just like the one in that damn basement.

Bucky takes a steadying breath, listens closely for any sign of Steve, and then takes a step off the metal edge over the gently swaying water.

He drops in with a splash and watches his tail shift like it always does, shift in a way that’s hard to look at, even now, something even his mind still can’t comprehend even though he’s done it more than a few times now. When it’s finished, he circles around once in the water and then uses his hands to slow to a stop, looking out of the glass of the tank.

Fury’s staring at him, single eye shocked-wide. Pierce comes up behind him, walks past and stops in front of the glass.

Bucky swims away when Pierce reaches up to touch it and he can hear the faint sound of Pierce laughing.

He hears more low hums and feels the vibration of the boat's engines starting up. He can’t make out what Pierce is saying with sound, so he reads his lips instead, staying in the corner of the tank.

Steve will come.

He always comes, even when it feels like too late.

-

Last doors,” Clint says, and Steve bangs them open with his shield like a battering ram while they run, metal of the doors denting with the force and Nat and Clint flagging his back right and left. There’s gunfire that quickly stops when Nat returns some of her own and Clint lets off a few arrows.

There!” Steve shouts after a quick scan, spotting a large boat just pulling out of its cradle. “Come on!” he orders, and they all run.

They jump off the last few inches of cement pier and sail over the gape of sloshing water, rolling once they hit the deck and all coming up in a ready crouch.

Steve blocks the gunfire with his shield while he pushes himself up and aims for the shooters, Natasha darting off left and Clint firing from his back right. Steve takes down the two firing at him and listens for the silence of the all clear before taking off again, Nat and Clint’s steps barely there shadows following his own.

He spots stairs ahead left and ignores them, heads straight for the large double doors while Natasha and Clint take off left and right to scout the rest of the ship.

Steve bursts in, doesn’t wait for the shooting to start and quickly takes out the two closest agents before any actually does.

A bullet skims his arm and legs, stinging fire zipping up his limbs, and he pushes it aside, blocks the majority of gunfire with his shield while he moves.

A black shape moves in his periphery, takes down a few of the agents and Steve works in tandem with Fury, grabs the gun out of the last agent’s hand and bashes him in the side of the head with his shield, then looks up.

“Captain,” Pierce says calmly. Steve’s eyes dart to Bucky, hovering in the corner of the tank, eyes already on him.

Steve looks back to Pierce.

“So this was your great plan?” Fury asks, gun raised, “Escape on a boat with a mermaid after attacking the world’s leading intelligence community?”

“You think that was all the agents we had rooted in S.H.I.E.L.D.?” Pierce counters, smiling, “You think we have them just in S.H.I.E.L.D.? Try everywhere.” He spreads his arms with the gesture, and Steve notices the phone in his hand. “Ah,” Pierce says, watching him, “You noticed it.” He raises his phone. “Any move and I press this button, and our mutual fish friend gets electrocuted. I think we’re both well aware of just how well water and electricity go together.”

Steve catches Bucky moving and keeps his eyes on Pierce.

“You wouldn’t,” Fury says, gun still trained, “You said sightings were getting rare. You’d be frying your golden goose.”

“True,” Pierce acknowledges, “But it’s the kind of thing that once you have it, well...If you can’t have it, no one can.” Pierce’s thumb hovers over the button-

Bucky lifts himself up out of the water and sings.

Pierce freezes, his expression tensing, and his thumb twitches closer to the button.

Steve darts forward, gets a hand around Pierce’s throat and presses him hard up against the glass, wrenching his phone away and throwing it to the side, hears it skid across the thin carpet and wood floor.

“You wouldn’t,” Pierce mimics Fury, eyes on Steve. He chokes a bit when Steve lifts him a little off the ground. “It’s not your style,” Pierce struggles to get out, “Killing a defenseless man. That and you’re a soldier. You have no reason to kill me.”

“I disagree,” Steve replies calmly, leaning in a little closer, “I am a husband before I am a soldier,” he adds, quieter. Pierce’s eyes widen. “I have plenty of reason to kill you.” He sees hands in his periphery. “But I won’t,” he says. Pierce relaxes a little.

Bucky’s hands grip the sides of Pierce’s head and twist sharply.

Steve lets go and the body drops with a thump-thud to the floor. He leans forward as Bucky sinks back down into the water and presses his forehead to the glass, sees Bucky press his own in the same spot on the other side.

He hears Fury’s gun lower and another set lower with it, a whispered, “What the hell.”

“What now, Captain?” Fury asks after a minute. Steve pulls back from the glass and looks at Bucky, turning and heading for the metal stairs that go up the side.

“Now, I’m going to get my husband out of this tank, and take him home,” Steve replies, stepping off the last stair onto the small platform, bending and taking a hold of Bucky’s hands where they’re stretched up, fingers poking up just above the water. He lifts and pulls Bucky out, water cascading off of him back into the tank.

“He’s a- Wait a minute,” Clint says, “Did you just say husband?” Steve hears a soft sigh and Clint ask, “What? I grew up in a circus. I’ve seen some things. So yeah, I’m having a harder time wrapping my head around Captain America being married than the whole fish tail.”

 

Steve fidgets. Just a little.

“Look,” he starts, “I don’t know what your people do, but here we have things called marriage, and it means I want to be with you. I mean spend the rest of my life with you. I mean-”

Steve sighs, dragging his palms down his face before looking back up into the mirror.

“You don’t even have a ring, Rogers,” he mumbles to himself, “What the hell are you doing?”

Steve heads down to their usual spot, after, and as soon as he sees Bucky, he ends up blurting it all out anyway.

Bucky blinks up at him and Steve covers his eyes with a hand, groaning quietly before peaking through his fingers, lowering it back down.

“I didn’t mean for all of that to come out,” he starts, “It’s just…”

Bucky’s lips quirk up.

“Okay,” Steve confesses, “I was going to ask you, but it just...I don’t know if you have things like…” He gestures a little with his hands, like it’ll make sense to anyone but him. Bucky smiles a little, patient. “Marriage? I just…” Steve sits down cross legged on the stone, dragging the tip of a finger through a dirty crevice. “I just want to spend the rest of my life with you, however long that is,” he adds quietly, glancing up through his hanging bangs, “And I know guys aren’t supposed to do that with other guys…” Bucky smiles a little more and Steve flushes a bit. “But I love you,” he forces out steadier than he feels. Bucky smiles wide and Steve chooses to take that as a good sign.

“We don’t,” Bucky says, still smiling, “Have ‘marriage’. Or at least we don’t call it that.”

Steve perks up a little.

That’s not a ‘no’.

“What do you call it?” he asks.

“I can’t say it up here,” Bucky replies. Steve shifts forward and Bucky turns a little. Steve dunks his head under the water with Bucky and listens while Bucky says it.

It’s short, with two, brief beats, and it echoes off of everything, like most of it does.

It’s beautiful, like all of it is.

Steve pulls his head up and shakes his hair out, looking at Bucky after.

“Do you…” Steve stops, worrying his lower lip for a minute. That’s not a good way to start that question. “What do you think?” he asks instead.

Bucky tilts his head to the side with a thoughtful hum, lips twitching up. Steve scoops some water and flicks it at him and Bucky laughs, scooping some and flicking it right back. Steve manages to dodge half of it.

“I want to do that, with you,” Bucky says, softer after they’ve settled down again. Steve grins, feels it stretch so far he’s actually slightly worried about his face, but the rest of him is focused on Bucky.

“Yeah?” he asks softly, and Bucky nods, grinning just as hard, and pulls himself up out of the water a little more on his arms. Steve leans forward and they press their foreheads together.

“Yeah,” Bucky confirms in a whisper, tilting his head up to kiss Steve, soft but firm, decisive, “I want to spend forever with you.”

Steve grins harder and then blinks.

“How do we-?” he trails off. Bucky’s smile goes a little sad.

“We can’t,” he says, “Not the way my people do it. The bite...it would be too much on your body.” Steve’s shoulders slump and Bucky shakes his head a little, reaching over to take Steve’s hand and rub a thumb across the knuckles, looking down at them. “Steve Rogers,” he says solemnly after a minute, looking up at him. Steve looks back. “From this moment forward, you are mine and I am yours. Repeat it.”

Steve blinks, sitting up a little straighter, as much as he can.

“Bucky,” Steve starts, then says, quieter, “Beucharion.” Bucky’s eyes soften and Steve smiles, slow and warm. “From this moment forward, you are mine and I am yours.”

He leans forward and meets Bucky in the middle for a kiss that gets deeper and deeper before Steve finally needs to come back up for some air, lungs squeezing taut. He takes a slow breath.

“Eighteen and married,” he says, grinning, “Ma would be proud.” Bucky grins back.

“Do you have a name for your new status?” he asks, teasing. Steve sits up a little straighter again.

“Actually, yes,” he says, mock-confidently, and Bucky perks up, “It’s called ‘husband’. But since we’re both men, we’re both husband.” Bucky tries the word out on his own tongue, smile slowly spreading.

“You have ridiculous names,” he decides, and Steve snorts.

“Ain’t that the truth,” he replies.

They both share a grin.

 

Steve gets his arms around Bucky’s back and under his tail and holds him close to his chest. “Hey, there,” he says softly, ignoring the chatter.

Bucky raises a hand and cups his cheek gently, metal cooler from the water. “I knew you’d come,” he says quietly, and Steve smiles a little.

“I couldn’t leave my best guy,” he replies, leaning his head forward to press their foreheads together, this time with no glass between them.

-

Steve slows his motorcycle to a stop, turns it off and pushes out the kickstand, leaning it on it and waiting for Bucky to get off before getting off himself. The water looks like gasoline this time of night with the lights reflecting off of it, but he’d recognize this bay anywhere.

Steve unhooks his shield, holding it in front of him and just looking down at it.

Bucky steps in front of him.

“You’ll miss it,” he says quietly, and Steve sighs.

“Yeah,” he replies, rubbing his thumb over the outer red, “Like saying goodbye to a part of myself.” He looks up at Bucky, watches New York City lights make him sharper but just as beautiful. “I’ll miss you more, though,” he says after a minute, looking at the shield one more time before turning a little and bending down, propping it up against the side of his motorcycle.

He looks at it for a minute before straightening and turning back around.

 

“I have to go, Buck.”

Bucky shakes his head, brows drawn down and teeth bared in a growl.

“Steve, you can’t,” he argues, snapping his mouth shut as soon as it's out.

Steve’s fingers curl into fists and he takes a slow breath, watches Bucky’s eyes drop down to them.

“I know what my body looks like,” he says after a moment of just the water sloshing, slshlshlsh, and Bucky looks back up, “But I can’t just-...I can’t just stay here while people are dyin’, Buck. I need to do something. I need to help.” Steve takes a breath. “I have to.”

Bucky looks up at him for a long minute, doesn’t move, doesn’t say a word, and then he shifts his hands and pulls himself up, hauling himself out of the water. Steve rushes forward, fight forgotten, and quickly looks around to make sure they’re alone.

“Buck, what-” he starts.

“I’m going with you,” Bucky cuts him off, and Steve goes quiet, brows drawing together. Bucky pulls his tail all the way out of the water and holds a hand out. “Give me your shirt.”

“Buck…” Steve trails off quietly, but Bucky just keeps his hand out, eyes on his, and Steve takes it off slowly before reluctantly handing it over, shivering a little but not saying a word, watching silently as Bucky dries his tail off.

They haven’t done this in a while. Bucky’s seen the sight that is the poverty and destitution of Brooklyn, but not much beyond that, that Steve knows of. But this-

“Buck, you can’t-”

No?” Bucky asks sharply, eyes snapping to his. Steve closes his mouth.

Bucky stands up after a few more minutes, using Steve’s shirt to wrap around his waist, stepping in close.

Steve swallows.

“My husband is going off to war,” Bucky says quietly, looking down at him. He reaches up and Steve closes his eyes briefly at slightly cool skin on his cheek, looking back up at Bucky.

Bucky leans down and Steve tilts his head up, pressing lips to lips.

“And I’m going with him,” Bucky whispers after they pull away, and Steve frowns a little, the backs of his eyes stinging. Bucky’s thumb strokes his cheek gently, nail dragging light like bird feathers back and forth across his skin. “You are mine and I am yours,” he says quietly, “I do not leave what’s mine on its own. I am going with you, Steve, and you cannot change this.”

Steve sighs quietly, reaching up to grip Bucky’s wrist gently. “It’s not gonna be pretty, Buck,” he says, just as quiet.

“No,” Bucky agrees, still stroking his cheek, “But that’s where you are going.”

Steve’s heart pulls at that and he looks down, forcing himself to look back up when Bucky tugs gently on his jaw.

“I wouldn’t change you for anything,” Bucky whispers, slowly smiling a little. Steve can’t help his own lips twitching up. “I’m with you, till the end of the line.”

Steve sighs softly, leaning forward.

Bucky leans down and they press their foreheads together, looking at each other.

“Till the end of the line,” Steve promises.

 

Bucky steps forward into the space it used to occupy and tilts his head up. His lips are slightly cool, like the rest of him, and Steve sighs into the kiss, leaning into it. He feels hands come up and slide through the sides of his hair, sharp fingernails like a deadly, gentle comb.

“Are you sure?” Bucky whispers, breaths ghosting across Steve’s lips. Steve opens his eyes and looks at him.

Bucky looks back.

“I got you something,” Steve says after a few moments. Bucky frowns but pulls back a little when Steve reaches down.

He gets the pouch open on his utility belt and pulls out a small box, opening it.

Bucky’s eyes widen a little, darting back up to his.

“Steve…” he says quietly, eyes darting between his own.

“I told you what this meant,” Steve says, lips twitching up a little bitterly, “A long time ago.” Bucky watches him. Steve looks down at it. “I know it’s not the same where you come from,” he continues quietly, “But I know you know what it means...for me.”

Steve looks up again and Bucky stares back, nodding once. Steve nods back.

“I love you, Buck,” Steve says softly, and he doesn’t expect to hear it back. Bucky’s never said it in English, but Steve can recognize how it sounds underwater, by now.

Bucky’s eyes look a little wet in the light, and Steve blinks a few times to stave off the sting at the backs of his own. He could say all sorts of romantic things now, but he doesn’t think he needs to, or that he should. So he settles on:

“It’s up to you,” and waits.

Bucky looks at him for a long moment before looking back down at the box. He reaches up after another few as he turns, lifting his hair up out of the way.

Steve pulls the ring out and puts the box back into the pouch, closing it and holding the ring in his palm before reaching up and undoing the necklace clasp. He slips the ring onto it and then clasps it shut, and Bucky reaches up to slide the ring down to his chest while he turns back around, letting his hair go.

Bucky looks at it for a long moment before finally looking back up, and Steve drags his eyes from it to Bucky’s in return, swallowing, heart beating a drum in his ears.

Bucky reaches up and wraps his arms around the back of Steve’s neck, pulling him close and pressing their foreheads together. Steve lets his eyes close, wrapping his arms tight around Bucky’s waist.

“Will you come with me?” Bucky whispers, and Steve nods, opening his eyes again.

“Yeah, Buck,” he whispers back, watches the light catch Bucky’s eyes and make them glow, like a predator’s in the dark, “I’ll come with you.”

Bucky leans up and kisses him, firm and sound, careful of his teeth, and Steve returns it, pulling them tightly together. Bucky breathes out into him and Steve feels it go down his throat, cool like mint without the sting, like it has before, but...different, this time.

When they pull back, Bucky takes his hand and Steve lets him lead them down, down to the stone steps and down to the water’s edge, water lapping gently at the stone border. It’s more weathered than the last time he was here, worn, but still the same stone. Just like them.

Bucky lets go long enough to strip his clothes off and Steve does the same, then Bucky’s taking his hand again and they both jump in-

It isn’t cold.

Steve looks for Bucky but can’t see him in the dark, only feels his hand, and then his body gives a sharp jerk and he curls inward, trying to hold his air in while something twists like fire up his legs, up his spine-

He clamps his free hand down over his mouth, bubbles slipping out around his fingers and out of his nose, and keeps kicking while gripping Bucky’s hand tightly until he- can’t keep kicking. He presses his hand firmly to his mouth, lips to teeth that ache, ache-

He lets his air out in a scream when the pain punches into his stomach and ripples like a sharp, sudden shock wave throughout his whole body, bubbles escaping to the surface and squeezing Bucky’s hand so tightly when he sucks in water he’s afraid he’ll-

His eyes snap open.

It doesn’t hurt.

He can breathe.

And Bucky’s right in front of him, eyes a little wide and a smile pulling up his lips like it hasn’t since Steve was eighteen, wide and open and young and-

Happy.

He pulls Steve to him and their lips crash, teeth digging into the inside of his lip sharper than he remembers and he winces, but doesn’t pull back, doesn’t want to.

When they part, Bucky gives his hand a tug and tilts his head out to the open water, and Steve looks from it to him, smile slowly stretching across his own lips.

Bucky grins back like he’s a teenager again and takes off, and it takes Steve a few minutes, but after that he can swim with Bucky instead of Bucky having to pull him along.

He doesn’t have to hold Bucky back anymore.

Bucky says something, double toned and beautiful, and for once, Steve can understand what it is, not just recognize the sound.

And for once, Steve can say it back in Bucky’s language instead of his own, no longer bumbling and blunt and jagged, but double toned and beautiful and with the same meaning it's always had no matter which language he was using, body, voice, or soul:

I love you.

-

“I thought only mermaids could lure men.”

She looks up.

Clint’s got his arms crossed, looking from the shield out to the water.

“But he was a merman. They only lure women, right?”

He looks over and she presses her lips together. He pouts a little like he knows she’s trying not to laugh at him.

“All those disappearances by the sea,” she says instead, running her fingers across the glinting red metal, fingers playing across sunlight before standing back up and walking over, stopping next to him, “You ever wonder?”

He looks out at the water again, brows drawn together in thought.

Something skims the water far out and flips up out of it, two of them, dark and light, and Clint’s lips twitch up.

“Well, now I do,” he replies lightly, turning towards her.

She draws her eyes from the water to look at him, raising a brow.

“So,” he says, heading back for the motorcycle. She looks back out at the water. “What are we gonna do with this?”

She hums in thought, looking for another breach of the surface for a moment, but nothing comes. “Give it to Fury?” she suggests. Clint makes a drawn out, thoughtful sound before humming in the negative.

“Actually,” he starts slowly. She turns away to look at him. “There’s this guy, down at the VA I visit sometimes. Name’s Sam Wilson. If I had to pick a place to start looking for the next Captain America, I’d probably start there.”

She raises an eyebrow, lips curving up, and nods her chin towards the motorcycle.

“Dibs.”

"What-” he cuts off, sighing as he looks to the sky. “Aww, Nat.”

She looks back to the water one more time, but it stays peaceful and turbulent as ever, sharp as shark teeth and gentle as bird bone, just like they always were, never separate, but together.

Now for good.