August 16, 1918
Steve Rogers scribbles the date onto the corner of the page and checks the clock welded into the wall next to his desk. Looking out the window, he can see the sun is just starting to go down, the sky awash with color that bleeds out into the sea, the light still streaming out its last few tendrils over the water and illuminating the walls of his living quarters. Steve puts his pencil down and closes his tattered sketchbook. He’s tired of rendering the same pictures of the shoals and the ocean; he’s captured sunrise after sunset in oil, watercolor, acrylic, and even the fancy pastels Sam brought him with the last shipment. An early birthday present, he’d said. But after over twenty years living in a lighthouse, the only home he’s ever known, Steve’s bored of painting the same seemingly idyllic landscape of calm seas. Lately, he finds himself yearning for the storms.
It’s more of a challenge, a much more interesting canvas to fill: the churning of the dark water below, like an angry monster lurking beyond the shore. The way the dark clouds roll in across the ocean and seem to stare down at the lighthouse, like a rival wolf baring its teeth in challenge for a fight. He even wants to find a way to capture the way fear and crazed excitement rises in his throat when the waves crawl up the brick walls of the lighthouse, when the water licks at the windows and slaps against the glass like a creature trying to climb inside. The way hair rises on the back of his neck at the first change of the air pressure, how he has developed a sixth sense of knowing when a storm is coming even before the sky changes, before the first cloud even crawls into the sky.
It's that same feeling that itches along his skin now is as he stands from his desk to start his first set of rounds for the night, his knees popping and creaking despite his young body. Of the mere twenty-five years Steve’s been alive, most of them have not been kind to his body.
It’s sundown, which means the beginning of his shift working the light. He climbs the winding stairs to the top floor, which houses the large, brightly burning flame and the mechanisms that keep it turning twenty-four hours a day. Besides the fact that as of a few years ago, it is now considered a federal crime to let the light go out after sunset, Steve takes his job very seriously. It’s in his very blood.
By the time he gets to the top, his ailing lungs and fickle heart are screaming for rest, so he always opens the door to the top of the observation deck and curls his fingers around the railing, looking out over the ocean while he catches his breath. Diamond Shoals, this area is called, is a wide curving arc of shifting sands that span out from Hatteras Island. The island itself sits at the base of a chain of barrier islands that border the state of North Carolina, a triangular shaped land mass that points out toward the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a popular pass for cargo ships and the like, coming to port in Wilmington, south of the area. But the shoals pose a dangerous threat, their shallow waters and sand bars invisible to the barges and boats that try to pass by, especially late at night or during the storms that frequent the area. Which is why Steve’s job is crucial.
The lighthouse that Steve calls home, a concrete structure standing 208 feet above the water, is the tallest in the United States. Painted twin white and black stripes curve up the tower to the lantern, where the light shines out and flashes to warn passing ships of the dangerous shoals between them and the flashing light. A few feet from the base of the lighthouse sits a good sized wooden house. Aptly named the Double Keepers’ Quarters, it large enough for a family to call home and built for the lighthouse keeper and his family. Now it sits empty, as it has for a long time.
Steve lives inside the lighthouse instead, his small living quarters located a few flights up from the base where the lighthouse is still fairly wide. He has all he needs, a small bed pushed against one curved wall, his desk against the footboard and underneath one of the windows. Across the space is a fire box made of stacked brick that curves along the wall of the lighthouse, and next to it a coal-fired range, two little burners stamped out of the metal on top. There’s a large cast iron sink situated under the window on the other side of the room, though it only ever contains Steve’s single plate or mug at a time. A well-worn armchair and a small end table with a kerosene lamp sit across from the bed.
Once Steve’s breathing calms, he goes inside to the lantern room and begins his work for the evening. He walks down a small set of stairs to the lower level of the room and brings up two metal canisters of kerosene, one at a time, to fill the lamp’s tank: enough to allow the flame to burn throughout the night. Then he climbs another set of stairs that takes him under the towering cylindrical shaped Fresnel lens, hundreds of panes of rectangular glass framed in brass and arranged in organized rows to reflect the light out over the open water from the large flame. It makes a small room around him, nearly twelve feet tall and more than six feet across. Once he’s inside, he gives a light polish the individual panes of the lens, climbing up on a ladder to check each one that they’re completely clear for the night ahead. He gives them a thorough cleaning each day before he lights the flame each evening and after he extinguishes the light at daybreak after the panes have had time to cool.
When he’s satisfied each one is clean, he descends the stairs to check the mechanism that will keep the large lens rotating at the top of the lighthouse, tightening screws and testing springs. Because of the machine, along with a band of steel affixed inside the lens, the light flashes every seven-and-a-half seconds, and Steve knows the inner workings of each cog as if they were a part of his own body. They may as well be extensions of himself at this point.
He oils the tricky spots, checks for rust, and sets to the task of winding up the clockwork mechanism. He’s proud that the naturally lanky arms he was born with have built up lean muscle from his work over the years. He turns the heavy mechanism once every day, lifting the weight at the bottom of the lighthouse back up to the top, where gravity allows it to fall over the course of twelve hours and keeps the heavy lens constantly turning. At sunrise, the weight is back at the bottom of the lighthouse, and Steve will wind it back up again at sunset when he lights the flame again. The cable winds slowly, the muscles of his chest and lungs protesting as the thick cord falls into place around the barrel. He locks it into place once the task is complete, and pulls a separate lever to release it again, hearing the slight creak from above his head as the lens begins its steady rotation for the night.
With everything in place, he climbs back into the now-turning lens, pulls out his pocket knife, and trims the wick. Then, just as the heavy pinks and oranges of the sky are bleeding down into the water, Steve strikes open his lighter and feeds the flame to the cotton wick, the oil soaked fibers catching instantly.
It should be daunting, standing so close to the flame that quickly rises larger and wider until its nearly the size of Steve’s head and shoulders, but instead he always waits and basks in its warmth. The flame licks upwards towards the crown of the lens, filling the whole room all at once with stifling heat.
He stands like this for a moment or two each night, marvelling at the sheer existence of this mechanism that he’s granted the responsibility of maintaining, feeling like a tiny star amidst the entirety of its night sky. It’s so paramount to the shore and beyond, so imperative to keeping thousands of passing ships safe, and yet, this single structure seems to run the very cogs of Steve’s heart, of his life, no differently than it lights safe passage across the open ocean.
Not even an hour later, a particularly bad storm has rolled in, and the lighthouse stands in the throes of it. Heavy choruses of thunder crash outside, bright bands of lightning illuminate the dark clouds and inky black water below. Living on the coast, nightly thunderstorms are as normal to Steve as breathing, or rather, his regular asthma attacks.
But tonight, the static of something different has charged the air. The thunder continues, each loud peal shaking the glass windows in the living area. Steve shuffles his papers, trying to focus on the drawing in front of him, but it’s no use. Nervous energy and anxiety crawl beneath his skin, and he finally caps his pen and slides the papers into his desk drawer for the night. He checks to make sure the fuel knobs are turned off tightly at the stove and that the dishes in the sink are cleared away, nearly dropping his mother’s favorite mug when a wave crashes into the side of the lighthouse, shaking the structure like an earthquake. Steve merely stands in place, gripping the edge of the counter for balance until the building stops swaying. He tucks the blue clay mug safely away in the cupboard.
He turns to the door, pulls his cap snug on his head, and fetches his heavy rain slicker before stooping to light the kerosene lamp. He takes a deep breath, bracing himself for his ascent up the nearly three hundred stairs to the lantern room when he hears it.
The crack is so loud that it cuts through the night like a gunshot, louder than any lightning could possibly be, even if it had struck next to the lighthouse itself. Steve rushes to the window, yanking aside the curtains and peering out into the darkness.
Out in the open water, not 200 yards from the shore, a structure is engulfed in flames, yet is bobbing along in the water. White hot light shoots straight up into the night sky, roaring as if it were a well-fed bonfire, despite the heavy rain and ocean water surrounding it. The sheer sight of it is just wrong, and it sends fear shooting down Steve’s spine like a flash of lightning. Every muscle in his body recoils , but he can’t look away, as though a mythical sea creature or a dragon is soon to rise out of this oddity in the sea before his eyes. But when he looks closer, squinting at the flames, he can make out what appears to be a rescue boat, the fire licking hungrily at its sides. Something switches on in him, quick as a flash, and Steve is out the door and moving toward the boat shack before he has time to think, his arms and legs moving of their own accord.
Thrust out into the storm, he runs down the bank to the boathouse, a weather-torn shack that holds his father’s old rescue boat. One of the most important jobs a lighthouse keeper holds is one of a lifesaver—it is his duty to save any lost souls that have gone overboard while travelling through the waters in front of his post. But Steve’s wheezing lungs and rail-thin body could never muster rowing into the strong tides of the Atlantic by himself, let alone jumping into the water and pulling a man, or several men on occasion, to shore. His father had once saved a crew of ten from a sinking ship, paddling to shore and hauling them back two at a time.
It made Steve’s gut churn with anger and childish jealousy growing up, knowing that his ailments would never allow him to become a strong, healthy man, and therefore, no candidate to become a lighthouse keeper like Joseph Rogers. A lighthouse keeper had to be physically fit, and Steve Rogers was just the opposite.
But as time went by, Steve had found himself in the lighthouse alone, and if he wanted to stay there, he had to learn how to adapt. To make his mind work in ways that his body couldn’t.
While his body fought against him as a child, he’d spent nearly half his life in bed, passing the time with drawing and studying any book he could get his hands on. He’d studied books on the large motors that powered passing ships, great freighters and barges, and now, as a grown man, in between his shifts in the lighthouse, he’d designed and built a smaller version, a boat motor that could be mounted on a hinge on the back of his father’s wooden rowboat. Steve Rogers couldn’t row a man to safety, but he’d be damned if he’d sit in his tower and watch someone drown on his watch.
He’d never gotten the chance to put his plan into action until now. His fingers, trembling with nervousness and cold, fumble over the rope as he unties the knot keeping the boat tethered safely on shore. The motor has never even been tested in the water, and he’s been working on it for months now with no reliable luck. Chances are he’ll be swallowed up in the waves before he can even get the motor running, and at best he’ll be thrown back against the shore, where the wooden boat will be crushed like a toy--if he’s lucky. The flaming boat in front of him could hold nothing, could merely be wreckage tossed away by a passing ship. But Steve’s never been a good liar, especially not to himself, and he knows deep in his gut that someone is out there, and it’s his duty as the lighthouse keeper to bring them to safety, no matter what he has to do.
He grabs the rope attached to the boat, musters all of his strength and pulls it down to the shoreline, the flat bottom sliding easily along the sand. Because of its design, the boat will float in less than a foot of water, making it easy for Steve to navigate the dangerous shoals that stretch out in front of the lighthouse and pose a danger to the heavy cargo ships that frequent the Atlantic. He runs behind it, hands on either side of the motor, and pushes it into the churning water. He ties it off on the small pier at the shoreline, the boat bucking and jumping like a wild horse. Steve leaps in, pushing the motor backward on its hinge until the rudder is submerged in water, and then he grasps the handle of the pull string, sending up a prayer to God that this machine will somehow keep him alive.
He yanks on the rope with all his might, and by some miracle, the engine turns over and actually roars to life, loudly protesting like a leashed animal. A crow of disbelief and delight roars out of him, his eyes boggling that the damn thing didn’t sputter and die. He barely has time to celebrate, afraid his luck will run out and it will cut off, so he snatches the rope from the pier and sets off toward the mysterious structure out in the ocean.
Rain pelts his face, and he shields his eyes, trying his best to make sense of what he’s approaching. The closer he gets the more he can make out that it is in fact a boat, not much bigger than his own. Every facet of his body seems to be pulling him back to shore, like invisible hands tugging at him to turn around, to run as far away from this unexplainable beast that could lash out and drag him to the depths of the ocean. Steve merely presses into the rain and guns the throttle, pushing forward faster toward the flames.
Once he’s closer, he begins to smell the gasoline in the water, the colored sheen reflected in the light of the fire. He slows down, his little engine growling as he approaches the structure.
Only the front of the boat appears to be burning for now, but the flames are slowly encroaching on the stern. He allows himself to creep closer, the heat stifling and hot on his face as he approaches. A wave jostles both vessels, and it turns the burning boat just so that Steve can peer inside, where he spots a clothed figure crumpled inside, face down in the bottom of the boat.
The air is sucked from Steve’s lungs, all the warmth from the fire replaced with icy cold dread. He twists his wrist, steering his own boat out and away from the burning bow. He has to find a way to get the man out.
Away from the fire, he can make out that the figure inside appears to be of average height, but then, any full-grown adult is larger than Steve. He whirls around, looking for something, anything, to help haul the unconscious figure into his boat, helpless anger rising in his throat.
He spots the rope still tied to the bow of his own boat, considers cutting it free for a moment before deciding to leave it attached, and lowers the throttle of his engine to idle. He reaches out and grabs the side of the burning boat, pulling himself as close as he can. The man’s head is facing the flames, but Steve grabs the leg of his trousers and pulls his body closer, away from the heat. He slips one end of the rope around the man’s waist, swiftly knotting it and testing its give. He uses the force of the two boats pressing against each other to heave the man over the side, his crooked spine protesting with spikes of pain. Steve twists and jerks, planting his feet and pulling with all his might until he’s nearly overboard with the effort.
Sweat pours down his face, mixing with the pounding rainwater and sea spray stinging his eyes, but inch by brutal inch, he finally drags the limp body of the man into his boat. Steve pushes away from the crumbling boat with shaking limbs as the flames seem to sweep forward, dangerously close to catching the side of his wooden rescue boat aflame. He cranks the throttle wide open and his vessel leaps forward, crashing against the waves and speeding back toward the shore.
Steve uses the last dregs of his strength to wrap the man in a canvas tarp from his storeroom and drag him into the lighthouse, finally heaving the heavy steel door shut and sliding to the stone floor in a heap of bones. His muscles are screaming with exhaustion, eyes burning and head pounding, but worst of all his swollen lungs and airway fight to draw air in as he gasps in tight, painful wheezes.
Fear washes over him anew as he pushes himself toward the canvas tarp, knowing he has to look to see if the man wrapped beneath still has life in him. Steve pulls away the soaked cloth carefully, ignoring his trembling fingers. He rolls the figure onto his back, revealing a strikingly young, pale face, a shock of dark hair, blood and dark bruises crawling out of the collar of a dark blue coat, which, Steve recognizes at second glance, is military issue. A soldier.
Steve closes his eyes, and thrusts a hand over the man’s chest before he can avoid it any longer. He waits, counting silently in his head and searching wildly with his fingers for something, anything. The sounds of his own labored breathing is harsh in the dead quiet of the hallway, his own fight for life echoing garishly around him. He cautiously brings his head down to press an ear to the man’s chest, and there, suddenly, he feels it. The man’s chest barely rises beneath his cheek, and just there, deep beneath the cold and wet, he hears the faint thump of a heartbeat.
Steve sighs heavily, which his frail body turns into a shallow cough, but he quietly gets to work.
When the man blinks his eyes open for the first time, he knows something is wrong. It’s warm, strikingly, stiflingly warm, and that’s just odd. He shuts his eyes again, not knowing if he’s being watched. His mind jolts and he tries to remember where he was last, but the memories seem to swim just out of his grasp.
Was he on a---? No.
Is---? Am I---?
He dares not to open his eyes, but he knows he’s in a bed, under a blanket, the fabric worn and soft beneath his fingers. He does a quick head-to-toe assessment, pain stabbing up and down his body, with a particularly painful ache at the base of his skull.
He does not know why he feels the need to hide, wonders why he should be wary of what he will find when he opens his eyes.
Will he be at---No.
Will he see---Nothing.
He feels the tickle of something dark in the back of his thoughts, a feeling of dread at the base of his spine threatening to spill over, but he doesn’t know what causes the fear to lie there.
“You can open your eyes, you know.”
A deep voice comes from within the room, the sound reverberating in what sounds like close quarters.
“I know you’re awake.”
The man freezes in the bed, his breath stills in his lungs.
He opens his eyes, turning his head warily and trying to make himself smaller beneath the blanket he’s under, searching for the other man in the room, the source of the voice.
His eyes find a much smaller figure than he imagined. A thin, wiry man with an angular face and a mop of blond hair is perched in an armchair across from the bed. His small shoulders are stiff and thrown back, his bright, piercing eyes sharp, even in the dimness of the room. But when their eyes meet, the smaller man’s expression suddenly softens.
“Hey, it’s alright. I’m not gonna hurt you.” His shoulders fall and he holds his hands up in a non-threatening gesture. “You’re safe here.” He unfolds himself from the chair, placing socked feet on the floor.
“I am Steve Rogers,” he says, placing a hand on his chest. “You’re in a lighthouse, in the keeper’s quarters. You’ve been injured, badly.”
The man shifts slightly in the bed, white-hot pain awakening along his shoulder and shooting straight down to his fingers. He grimaces, teeth clamping down on his tongue to avoid making any sound, a low, gravelly groan betraying him anyway.
The thin man, Steve, leaps to his feet, then seems to stop himself and approaches more slowly, coming closer. The man in the bed sucks sharp breaths between his teeth, trying to fight down the pain.
“Try not to move—I’m sorry, I know you’re hurting bad right now. You’ve suffered multiple second degree burns, deep lacerations to your left arm, and you have two gunshot wounds.”
The man’s gaze snaps over to Steve’s, his eyes narrow. Him? Shot? By who? Where would he--?
But there’s nothing. He looks away, trying desperately to grasp where he’s been or what he was doing before he got here. How he got here.
“I pulled you from a burning rescue boat,” Steve offers, his eyes searching the man’s. But it brings forth no answers; he doesn’t remember ever being in a rescue boat, or how he would have gotten to be in one to begin with. “You were alone at sea.”
Being at sea feels familiar, in hearing the words he feels the first stroke of comfort and peace since waking, a piece of the puzzle falling into place. But he can’t explain why.
“What’s your name?” Steve asks.
The man opens his mouth, but the answer sticks in his throat. He looks up at Steve, then has to turn away from his peering blue eyes.
What’s his name?
He has a name, he knows he does. Everyone has a name. He feels the shape of it ghost over his lips, feels the familiar snap of it in his breast, in hearing voices call it out to him and the recognition of its cadence. But he can’t recall it, and a chill skates over his skin, gooseflesh erupting over his neck and chest.
His eyes widen, breathing quickens. Steve notices.
“It’s okay, nobody’s got to know you’re here. I live alone, nobody’s around for miles.” He places a soft hand on the man’s arm where the right one rests beneath the blanket, tucked next to his body. His touch is light, but firm. Comforting, even.
“There you go. Take a deep breath,” Steve instructs, nodding and giving him a reassuring smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “I just want to know your name. What do you go by?"
Bucky licks his lips, digs his voice from deep down where it feels it’s been tucked away.
“I don’t know.”
Steve stirs the mug of tea, notes of honey and cinnamon wafting toward his nose. The stranger in his bed is sitting up now, Steve’s quilt draped around his shoulders. His storm gray eyes dart around the room, and Steve’s heart twists painfully at the blatant fear there.
He’s strikingly handsome, creamy pale skin and dark hair, the sides short but the bangs falling over his forehead curl into a little wave. His sharp jaw and dimpled chin is shadowed with stubble, as if it’s not seen a razor for a few days, maybe even a week. He looks healthy despite his injuries, his chest and arms strong with muscle, and Steve can only assume he’s an active duty soldier. But his eyes are still downcast and fearful, his mouth is pulled into a frown. He hunches under the quilt like he’s trying to disappear beneath it.
Steve hands him the mug gently. “Careful, it’s hot,” he warns, and the man takes it with murmured gratitude. He settles back in the chair and lets the stranger get a few mouthfuls down before he tries again.
“Look,” Steve begins, sitting back in his chair, “You had a jacket on when I pulled you out of the boat, but I didn’t check the pockets or anything. Maybe there’s something in there that could help?”
The man slowly nods, pulling his injured left arm closer against his torso. He rubs his right hand over his chest absentmindedly, looking down as if he just realizes his shirt is missing.
“Oh, I um,” Steve fights the blush crawling up his neck. “Sorry, I had to take off your clothing to, ah…to tend to your injuries. Plus they were drenched.” He squeezes his knees to keep from fidgeting. “You were in a pretty bad way when you got here. You’ve been in and out of consciousness for three days.”
The man just blinks, his eyes focused on the mug in his hands. The silence hangs heavy between them. Steve goes to collect the man’s jacket from where he’d draped it across the hearth of the firebox to let it dry. He pulls the chair closer so the man can see what he’s doing. Tries not to think about why he flinches minutely when Steve gets close.
“Wanna see what we can find in here?” he asks gently, showing the man the jacket. It’s made of a thick navy blue wool, finely woven with a high Chinese collar and placket down the front. Gold braided rope trims the cuffs and twin gold anchors adorn the collar. Steve had recognized it as a Naval officer’s uniform when he’d first pulled it off of the man, who looks at it no differently than if Steve had told him it was his pet cat.
The man nods absently, and Steve checks the exterior pockets first, coming up empty. He carefully opens the jacket, and upon checking the interior breast pockets, finds a tattered square of cardstock and a round metal object.
He unfolds the cardstock first, holding it open for the man to see. It’s some kind of identification card, but it’s obviously been wet, the photograph on the right completely unrecognizable, and almost all of the written information smudged or completely washed away. He can make out the typed “American Expeditionary Forces” and “United States Navy,” but more importantly “Officer Identification Card,” and very faintly, a name.
“James B. Barnes?” he asks, showing it to the man. “Is that you?”
The stranger’s eyes flit off to the side, his brows drawing together. The cogs of his brain are almost audibly turning in the stillness of the room. He clears his throat. “I know—” he coughs, tries again, his voice gravelly with disuse. “I know this doesn’t make sense, but it feels familiar. I recognize it?”
Steve nods, unsure of what to do next, so he places the card back in the jacket pocket and turns to the round brass object. He presses a button and it flips open, revealing a compass and a word engraved inside.
“Bucky,” Steve reads, puzzled. “Huh. Who the hell is ‘Bucky?’”
The man stiffens suddenly, and when Steve looks up, his eyes are huge.
“Bucky?” he asks, recognition dawning so clearly over his face that Steve’s heart leaps in his chest. “That—that’s me,” he says softly, relief coloring his tone. “Bucky. Bucky Barnes. That’s my name.” He lets out a heavy breath, nodding to himself. The tiniest curl of a smile tugs at his lips, and Steve is thankful he’s already sitting, because he can feel his knees weaken at the mere sight of it.
“Yeah, this is you? That’s—that’s great,” Steve says, the giddy relief contagious as he can’t keep the smile off his own face. “Well, it’s real nice to meet you, Bucky.” He offers his hand, giving the man across from him a hopeful smile. Bucky rests the tea mug between his knees and takes the hand, giving it a firm shake and a meek little smile in return.
“Thanks, Steve. It’s real nice to meet you too.”
Bucky finishes his tea, handing the mug back to Steve and watching him move about the room. It feels like a cave, and where it should be claustrophobic, instead it feels cozy and lived in. He shifts beneath the quilt, tugging it closer around him. He’s bare beneath it but for his shorts, and he looks down at his pale knees, mottled with bruises and angry, red marks, like they will explain how he ended up here.
Across the room, Steve pumps water into a white basin and places it on the coal stove to heat up, poking at the fire with a wrought iron tool to adjust the coals inside.
He comes back to sit in the chair in front of Bucky, letting out a short sigh and straightening his small shoulders with something like determination.
“Okay, Bucky. You’ve got some pretty severe injuries. This might be tough to hear, but you’re going to start feeling pain again now that you’re awake and moving, so I want you to know what’s going on. Okay?”
Bucky swallows, thinking about the growing ache in his leg and the sharp pain he feels each time he moves his arm too far away from his body. He only nods.
“I know you don’t know me, and I’m sorry that you’re here like this, but I’m going to have to clean your wounds and inspect them several times a day. I’ll be as gentle as I can, I promise, though unfortunately it’s probably going to be really uncomfortable in the process. But if we want to avoid infection, I’m gonna have to keep them clean and keep your bandages changed until you can do it yourself. Is that alright?”
He’s so earnest, bright blue eyes serious and his sharp jaw steeled like a soldier preparing for battle, his wiry forearms braced on his knees. Bucky figures he doesn’t have a choice either way, but if he’s got to be under the care of someone, it might as well be this man.
“I’m no doctor,” Steve continues, retrieving the now steaming basin of water from the stove and setting it beside the chair. “But I am trained in first aid, and I have decent medical knowledge.” He goes to reach for a small straw basket on a high shelf, and he has to stand on a low stool to reach it, even then going up on the tips of his toes. “I know that’s still no reason to trust me, but I give you my word that I’ll give you the best care I know how.” He opens a low cupboard and retrieves a green metal flask, square in size with a screwtop lid, which he unscrews and places into Bucky’s open right hand.
“You’re gonna want to have a swallow or two of that before we get started, pal,” Steve says, nodding to the container, his lips in a thin line.
Bucky brings it to his nose automatically, a strong, sharp smell assaulting his senses. Alcohol, his brain helpfully supplies. He sniffs it again, this time keeping the lip of the bottle a bit farther away, catching notes of honey and sweetness. He brings the flask to his lips, and muscle memory tilts his head further back than usual, swallowing the liquid quickly. It stings and burns his eyes and nose, but crawls down his throat with a delicious warmth that blooms over his cheeks and coats his chest on the way down.
“Whiskey?” he asks cautiously. Steve gives him a rueful smile in return, his eyes bright, and the sight fills Bucky with a warmth that runs even deeper than the alcohol.
“Jameson,” Steve supplies. “It was my father’s favorite.” He settles down in the chair as Bucky takes another swig of the liquor, this one a little deeper, preparing for the inevitable pain.
“You’ve got a couple burns,” he starts, cool fingers touching Bucky’s bare knee and running down his skin gently as Steve lifts his leg and cradles the foot in his lap. “This is the worst one. He removes a soiled gauze bandage and adhesive paper tape with gentle fingers. Bucky hardly feels it pull away, but his stomach churns when he sees the ragged red skin underneath, the flesh blistered and peeling away.
Once he’s set his eyes on the wound, his brain seems to suddenly register the pain, and a white hot burning sensation radiates up his leg. Bucky sucks in a gasp and bites his tongue against the pain, keeping his gaze averted. Steve works quickly, murmuring apologies. He touches the skin as little as possible and dabs a sticky, sweet smelling salve thickly over the large burn. He covers it with another bandage and smoothes the tape into place.
“My mother made this stuff,” he says, taking the flask from Bucky’s hand and pushing a flat, round glass jar into his palm instead. Bucky briefly wonders if he should have drained the flask while he had the chance.
“I was forever getting sunburnt as a kid, believe it or not. Irish blood, I guess,” he shrugs, a sheepish little grin on his face that’s boyish and endearing. His easy smile is soothing to Bucky’s frayed nerves. “She mixed up a couple things from the garden, oils and herbs and stuff. Works like a charm. Now I know what you’re thinking,” he continues, looking at Bucky pointedly like he’s going to argue back instead of continuing to sit silently like a bump on a log. “Sunburn is a walk in the park compared to this, but you should’ve seen the blisters on my shoulders.” He shudders from head to tail, like a duck wriggling water off its back. “Nasty.”
When Bucky looks down again, Steve’s nimble fingers have already checked and re-bandaged three other burns, two near his sternum and another near his right elbow. He hadn’t even noticed.
“She’s the one who taught me all I know about first aid,” Steve comments. “My ma,” he clarifies at Bucky’s raised eyebrows. “She was actually a nurse, practiced in New York while my da was away at war. I was born not long after he came back. I’ve got crap lungs and I was always struggling to breathe, so the doctors suggested they move me down south to a warmer climate. Said it would help with my ailments. Da spoke with some of his commanding officers and they got him a job with the Lifesaving Service so he could be stationed here on the coast.” He seems to falter then, licking his lips and clearing his throat in a way that Bucky suspects has nothing to do with the aforementioned ‘crap lungs.’
“I’m sorry for the rambling. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, giving you my whole life story,” Steve continues, moving to a particularly nasty gash just under Bucky’s collarbone. He bends to dip a worn cotton rag into the water from the basin, wringing out the excess and scooting forward in the chair so that he’s mere inches away. Steve brings his fingers underneath Bucky’s chin, his touch gentle as he dabs at the wound.
“It’s just---I never really see anyone except for Sam, he brings me supplies every two weeks---and he’s really the only friend I have.” Steve shrugs, a light pink blush coloring his pale cheeks. “I guess I haven’t had much company in awhile besides a fish or a seagull.”
His eyes flit up to meet Bucky’s, whose throat runs dry in response. He wants to smile, wants to tease back, wants to reach out his hand and cover Steve’s fingers where they rest, cool and calming, over Bucky’s heated, throbbing skin, but he feels like he’s watching the scene play out from behind a thick pane of glass. Wants to tell Steve that he strangely aches to hear his stories. That he could listen to them all day. Instead he lets himself indulge in Steve’s close proximity and watches the subtle twitch of his crooked nose, the smattering of light brown freckles that trail across it and trickle down his cheeks, the slight purse of his pale lips as he applies more ointment carefully to Bucky’s skin.
When Bucky remains silent, Steve chuckles humorlessly, looking away with furrowed brows. “I’ll hush up now. I’m sure you’d appreciate the peace and quiet,” he says, turning to reach for a fresh bandage, the silence falling thickly in the small space, despite Bucky’s now pounding heart. Several long moments pass before Bucky finally clears his throat.
“No, I…You can talk. I don’t mind,” he rasps, and Steve looks up at him, eyebrows raised. “I like hearing you talk.”
Steve’s lip quirks, and he smooths the bandage into place right over Bucky’s heart.
“Oh,” Steve replies, his fingers stilling over Bucky’s exposed skin. “All right, I guess.”
Steve continues to work for the better part of an hour, smoothing ointment over even the smallest of scratches and bruises and checking each bandage with care. Finally, he turns to Bucky’s left arm where it’s tucked protectively to his side, as if he had been saving it for last. He wordlessly reaches for it with pity in his eyes. Bucky pushes his shaking fingers forward, the joints stiff and awkward.
He lets out a yelp despite himself once he stretches out the arm and the pain from his shoulder slams into him.
“Easy, Buck,” Steve murmurs, scooting even closer and rubbing a firm hand down Bucky’s back. “I know, I’m sorry,” he comforts, his knees slotting in between Bucky’s own.
“There’s a bullet lodged in your shoulder, the deltoid muscle,” Steve tells him, pointing to the area at the top of his arm. “I’m gonna take the bandage off now. It looks pretty bad, so if you don’t wanna look…”
As soon as Steve unravels the bandage, already painted with his blood, the skin of his arm slowly coming into view, and Bucky can’t look away. It’s a disgusting roadmap of burnt and bleeding flesh, yellow pus and pale, dead skin. There’s a dark, round hole in the place Steve indicated, blood and fluid leaking out. A series of thick rope-like stripes lick up his arm that match the marks on his chest and legs which look suspiciously like lashes from a whip, some deeper than others.
Steve tends to the wounds on Bucky’s forearm quickly, flushing one of the deeper gashes with clean water. Bucky screws his eyes shut, head ducked, as he sucks in gasping breaths, bearing down against the pain.
He hears a muttered curse from Steve and dares to glance over, only to see his own skin peeled away like wet tissue paper, leaving the exposed muscle whole underneath. Bucky retches, bile forcing its way up his throat, and Steve grasps his right hand suddenly, shushing him softly and murmuring reassurances.
“You’re doing so good, Buck,” he whispers, fingers moving lightning fast as he re-dresses the area one-handed with a clean bandage. Bucky clutches Steve’s other arm, the pain searing through him as if he’s being burned anew. He hears a whimpering, ragged cry cut through the air before he realizes it’s come from him.
“Almost done, Bucky. Last one, okay?” Bucky’s dizzy with pain, feeling like his head is being swallowed up with stabbing heat that won’t let up, like his own body is eating him alive as punishment for agitating its wounds.
But Steve’s voice is steady and soothing, little puffs of breath right at his ear. He’s practically got Bucky pulled into his lap, despite the fact that he’s nearly half Bucky’s size. He’s put an arm around Bucky’s back and is cradling him against his chest.
“I know you’re gonna hate me,” Steve says with a quiet, humorless laugh as Bucky pants against his neck. The smell of sea salt and clean cotton fills his nose and drowns out the smell of antiseptic and the heavy, cloying stink of blood. “But you’ll thank me later when you don’t die from sepsis, right?”
Bucky nods, delirious and gripping tightly at the shirt on Steve’s back. His chest heaves as he gasps in slow, painful breaths.
“I gotta pack this wound so it doesn’t close up, okay? I’ll be quick, in and out,” he promises. Bucky doesn’t look, having learned his lesson, but his stomach lurches again despite himself, as he feels something akin to having the muscle fibers pulled out of his shoulder in a steady stream, like thread unwinding from a spool. He feels liquid flood the wound, cool and dripping down his arm, at which Steve curses again.
“This parts gonna burn bad, I’m sorry.” Steve pulls back, pressing his forehead to Bucky’s, and their noses brush. Bucky’s eyes snap open at the contact, zeroing in on Steve’s steady blue eyes.
“Hang on tight, you’re not gonna hurt me, I promise. I’m tougher than I look,” he says with a fierce grin. Bucky feels some of the tension bleed from his body with the knowledge that he’s somehow safe in Steve’s small but sturdy embrace, his arm tight around Bucky’s back.
He’s not wrong, it burns terribly as Steve shoves something into the opening in his shoulder, a raw, scraping feeling that seems to go on and on, until it’s suddenly and finally over, leaving only a throbbing ache behind. Steve quickly winds the bandage up and over the rest of his arm, which he tucks back against Bucky’s side.
He’s done, presumably, but Bucky can’t find it in himself to pull away from Steve yet, feeling like he’s run for miles and scraped raw from the inside out. He can hear Steve’s heartbeat, strong but stuttering in his ears, and all he wants to do is close his eyes and stay tucked against the warm skin.
Thankfully, Steve seems to indulge him, whispering soft praise and running his hands gently over Bucky’s back until he succumbs to sleep again.
When Steve looks up at the clock over the mantle, nearly half an hour has passed since Bucky has been fast asleep in his arms, and though he’s been willing himself to roll the man back onto the bed where he would obviously more comfortable, Steve can’t will himself to move.
He watches Bucky sleep, how his breathing has finally calmed to a normal rhythm and how his jaw has unclenched. One dark curl has fallen down over an eye, and Steve carefully brushes it away. The rest of his fingers brush over the round curve of Bucky’s cheek. If only he could reach his pencil…
The now-dry rag he’d used earlier slips from his grasp and lands in the basin of water, splashing on his socked feet and startling him from his reverie. He jostles Bucky in response, who stirs in his sleep while Steve curses himself. Thankfully, the sleeping man only curls up more tightly against Steve’s chest, Bucky’s nose tickling the sensitive skin below Steve’s ear.
Steve chides himself, prying Bucky slowly away from his body and placing him back in the bed, tucking the quilt around him with more care than he wants to admit. Bucky doesn’t want to wake up tucked into Steve’s arms; he’s a grown man, a soldier, even. He’s probably dreaming of some dame who’s at home waiting for him. Maybe he even has a wife. With that handsome face, Steve thinks, turning to place the basin back in the sink, there’s no way Bucky could have an empty house to come home to. Not like Steve’s.
He gathers the first aid supplies and tucks them away, pours out the pink-tinged water in the basin but leaves it where it is in lieu of waking Bucky with the loud creaking of the pump. The clock reads half past six, so Steve still has several hours until sundown, but he dons a coat anyway and grabs a few polishing towels, turning to head to the lantern room.
Over the course of the week, Bucky continues to heal, and Steve finds that it’s actually not too painful to share his living quarters with another person. Bucky stays in bed for a few more days, only moving to relieve himself and when Steve rouses him for broth or a bandage change, which he takes with a firm jaw and a brave face. But it cuts Steve a little deeper each time Bucky whimpers into his chest, knowing that his pain is caused by Steve’s hands, even if ultimately, he’s trying to help him get better.
By the end of the week, however, Steve rouses from his armchair to find Bucky awake and sitting up in bed. Steve’s quilt is pooled around his waist and his gray eyes are bright and alert, studying Steve while he sleeps. His dark brown curls are tousled; that same damned lock of hair flopping over his forehead which always makes Steve’s fingers itch to tuck it back in place.
Bucky’s gaze darts away when he notices Steve is awake.
“‘Mornin’,” Steve grunts, pushing to his feet and pointedly positioning his hips toward the sink and away from the flushed, sleep-rumpled visitor in his bed.
“Tea?” he asks over his shoulder, pumping the handle at the sink and letting the clear, cool water rush over his hands. He splashes some on his face and neck, willing the chill to calm the rest of his body.
“Actually,” Bucky responds, “Ya got any coffee?”
Steve turns at the clarity of Bucky’s voice, the faint hint of an accent creeping in that feels oddly familiar, but one he can’t place. He chuckles to himself. “Yeah, actually, I do. Can’t offer you anything to go with it but some toast though, my supplies are running low.” He prepares the coffee, pouring it into the chipped navy mug with the Lifesaving Service’s emblem stamped on the side, the one he’s come to think of as Bucky’s, if only in his head.
He pours a cup for himself in the blue speckled mug, hot and black and bitter. Bucky’s lips turn up as he sniffs the coffee, like he’s seeing an old friend again.
“Sam’s due to bring in supplies soon, so we won’t starve,” Steve says goodnaturedly, but Bucky’s shoulders stiffen for some reason, and the little smile melts from his lips. He takes the first sip of his coffee and Steve doesn’t miss the little wrinkle of his nose.
“Needs sugar, huh?” he guesses, hoping he can make up for whatever he said to upset Bucky, though he’s obviously trying to hide it.
Bucky grins sheepishly at Steve, running a hand through his hair. “Yeah, I think so. ‘S okay though, I know that’s hard to come by.” He takes another sip, pointedly.
Before he realizes what he’s doing, Steve’s headed for the small pantry next to the door. He climbs up on the stool and pushes aside boxes and kitchen tools until he comes across a white china sugar bowl, tiny pale pink roses dotted over the lid and sides. He cradles it in his hands like a baby bird, and his lungs tighten in his chest, albeit more than usual.
Why is he doing this? Why does he feel the need to chase that fleeting curve of Bucky’s smile like an explorer hungry for new worlds?
But yet, he sits carefully on the bed next to Bucky, making sure to leave enough room between them so as not to make him uncomfortable. Steve carefully removes the little china lid, revealing eight sugar cubes inside. He gently pinches one between his fingers, willing it not to crumble in his grasp from time and age.
But the little sugar cube holds together, like a Christmas parcel perched in his palm.
In keeping with that theme, Bucky lights up like a Christmas tree, his smile bright and boyish. Steve is sure he’ll melt the damn sugar cube before it ever makes it into his cup.
“Steve! Where’d the heck did you get that?” He pulls Steve’s hand toward him to inspect the sugar cube like it’s a gold nugget.
“They were my ma’s,” he says, his voice low. “I, uh, I take a lot of medicine,” he starts, feels Bucky’s eyes on him, concern on his brow. “When I was a kid, I put up a fuss, because I had to take this tonic every morning that tasted like fish guts, I swear it,” he says with a chuckle. “Somehow Ma got ahold of these, and she used to give one to me with my medicine.”
Bucky’s eyes take in the seven remaining cubes and the one resting in Steve’s palm. He opens his mouth, but Steve dumps the cube in before he can protest.
“Go on, they’re getting old up there anyway,” he says. “‘S high time I cleaned out the cabinet.”
He peers over his shoulder as he places the sugar bowl on the mantle next to the coffee and his long row of medications, just in time to see Bucky’s slow curling smile as he sips the now-sweet coffee.
Dressed in a light cotton shirt and a pair of warn, well patched trousers, Bucky descends the winding metal stairs of the lighthouse with shaking legs, gritting his teeth at his own weakness.
“Don’t rush it, Bucky,” Steve murmurs at his elbow, his slight weight somehow supporting Bucky’s much larger body. “Won’t do us any good if you go tumbling to the bottom. I can do this all day.” He grins up at Bucky’s glower, who can’t help but laugh in return.
He’s nearly panting when they reach the bottom, and Steve leads him to the heavy iron door, the tumblers falling open with a surprisingly easy flick of Steve’s wrist, lean muscle bulging slightly in his forearms. He pushes the door open, and light streams in, momentarily blinding Bucky. He takes Steve’s hand and lets himself be led outside.
He knows it’s August, summertime--Steve has told him as much, but when he steps out onto the seagrass outside, it’s surprisingly cool, a strong wind blowing off the ocean that’s right at their heels. He can hear the waves crashing behind him, the sound a comforting presence, the salty mist refreshing on his skin. He turns, looking over his shoulder, past the structure of the lighthouse, and there she is: the ocean. Bucky gulps in breath after breath of the sweet sea air, a feeling of recognition and clarity and somehow, home that he can’t put his finger on. A memory tickles at the corner of his mind before slipping away like the lapping waves below him.
“Bucky! Hey, hey, wait up, pal,” Steve calls to him, laughing as his warm fingers curl around Bucky’s elbow. He shivers at the contact and Steve drops his fingers, though Bucky instantly misses the touch.
“You okay?” Steve asks, a boyish grin on his lips that Bucky can’t help but return.
“Yeah, just...wow. This place, Steve. It’s like heaven,” he breathes, staring out at the open water.
Steve follows his eyes, like he’s just noticing the miles and miles of ocean stretching in front of him. “Oh, yeah. It is beautiful. ‘S like I’ve got my own little world out here,” he murmurs, chewing on his lip. Bucky feels light brushes of Steve’s fingers, silently checking the state of his bandages.
“How’s your shoulder?” he asks, and Bucky thumbs open a few buttons of his borrowed shirt to pull the fabric aside, the two men peering at the bandage beneath.
Bucky watches Steve fuss with the edges of the tape, inspecting the site without removing the cotton bandage. He thinks back to a few nights prior when Steve had been bent over his bed, removing the bullet from his shoulder, beads of sweat rolling down his furrowed brow.
Despite his nerves, Steve was careful, so meticulous, as if he were disassembling a bomb, as if he did this every day. The pain seems like white noise in Bucky’s memory, focusing instead on Steve and his careful actions. He knows he should have been anxious, having a stranger perform a procedure on his that typically was reserved for medical professionals, but he finds that feels safer in Steve’s care than he would in the hands of a trained surgeon.
He’d watched Steve stress over the bullet all week, watched him tuck tattered medical books under his arm when he left to do his rounds upstairs. He’d woken in the middle of the night and found Steve reading by the low lantern light in his armchair, scratching notes in his sketchpad. So when the time came to remove the bullet, even when he was stretched out bare under Steve’s hands, he couldn’t find it in himself to be nervous.
It hadn’t taken long really, both men panting and drenched in sweat when Steve dropped the scrap of metal into his handkerchief, stretched out over Bucky’s palm.
“‘S good, Steve, really,” he says, giving him a small nudge. “Quit your fussin’ and show me around.”
They walk the grounds surrounding the lighthouse, Steve fetching a couple weathered-looking baskets that he tucks under his arm. They follow a worn footpath from the toolshed sitting next to the lighthouse down to a large grassy area behind it. A well-built white house looms over them, and Bucky wants to ask whom it belongs to, or better yet, why Steve doesn’t use the facilities himself. But Steve ignores the house entirely and leads Bucky around back, where he finds an impressive garden and a smaller structure that looks like a little house.
A chorus of clucks and crows clues him in on what’s inside. “Is that…?”
Steve grins at him. “That’ll be the girls.” He pulls a sack from one of the baskets, smelling strongly of decaying produce and hands it to Bucky.
“Mind they don’t scratch your leg, alright?” he warns, undoing a latch on the little structure and releasing a group of wobbling, tutting hens that immediately surround Steve until they notice Bucky. They descend on him like a group of grandmothers, fussing and inspecting, and eventually nuzzling at his pants. He’s still frozen in place, letting them take stock of him when he hears Steve chuckle.
Bucky looks up to see one of the hens honest-to-God perched on Steve’s shoulder, like they’re suddenly about to commandeer a ship for pirating.
“You can feed them,” Steve coaxes, stepping toward him while the hen balances neatly on his shoulder, nibbling affectionately at his ear. “I feed them some scraps, but they’ll munch on the bugs from the garden.” He motions toward the bag, but Bucky is still transfixed on Steve’s travelling companion.
“What? Oh,” he chuckles, collecting the bird in his arms and stroking her feathers as if she were a house cat. “This is Peg. She rules the roost around here. My da used to keep a rooster when we were coming up, but I hate ‘em. Ornery and mean, always felt like they were trying to claw my eyes out. They’re really only good for protecting the hens from predators, but Peggy has become the alpha of their flock. I’ve seen her kill a snake before,” he brags, smiling down at the black and white hen. Bucky lets a mushy tomato fall from his fingers, and he swears the chicken in question looks back at him smugly.
After much protesting on Bucky’s part, Steve allows him to poke around in the hen house and collect eggs while Steve tends the garden.
Armed with a basket, Bucky opens a hinged door that Steve shows him at the back of the chicken coop, where he finds mounds of smooth, brown eggs, lightly freckled and nestled amongst piles of grass and straw. He packs them gently in the basket while the hens supervise him at his feet. Bucky peers over the pitched roof of the coop to watch Steve working in the garden.
It’s an impressive spread, a big rectangular patch that’s larger than the living quarters in the lighthouse. Steve has neat rows of tomatoes and beans, their tender green vines curling up wooden dowels in the earth. Squash and cucumbers weave their way along the dirt, their vines intertwined with the pepper plants. Steve is bent over, his long fingers digging into the earth as he pulls long orange carrots from the ground.
At this angle, Bucky can see the knobbed curve of his spine, his white shirt already damp with sweat as it clings to his narrow waist, his navy pants pulled tight around his lean thighs and rear, surprisingly muscled for his frame. Bucky looks away quickly, his cheeks hot. The chickens look up at him knowingly from his feet.
He comes over to watch Steve work, trying to help him dig up potatoes next, but Steve only shoos him away like a chicken to lie on the grass. Bucky’s forced to watch Steve from the front now, which gives little reprieve to his wandering eyes. Steve’s blond hair flops over in his eyes, beads of sweat trailing down his neck and into his open collar. Bucky’s eyes helplessly follow the sharp curve of his clavicle, the line of his sternum and the hollow of his throat. He looks as if he were carved out of marble, not like a man who lives by the sea, weatherbeaten by sea and salt. Bucky lets the chickens eat soggy vegetable scraps from his hands to avoid their judgmental stares. Especially Peggy, who sits near the edge of the garden and watches Bucky watch Steve.
It’s been hardly an hour since they’ve been outdoors, but Bucky can feel his pulse throbbing in his arm; his burned skin feels as though it’s searing, even beneath the layers of white cotton. His jaw clenches and he tries to ignore the sweat leaking from his brow as Steve checks the exterior of the lighthouse, applying caulk to a window and repairing a bit of limestone that has crumbled away at the edge of the doorway.
“You wouldn’t believe the amount of paint we go through in a year,” Steve says, breaking the silence as he wipes his hands on a dirty handkerchief, then mopping the perspiration from his face with it. He looks carefree and boyish out here, his blue eyes bright and happy, the light breeze blowing his hair. Bucky notices that maybe he’s not so pale, notices the smattering of freckles that crawl out from his neckline and lead Bucky’s eyes down Steve’s open shirt. When he pulls his traitorous eyes away again, Steve’s looking at him with concern.
“C’mon, Bucky, let’s go back in,” he says, holding out a hand.
“Nah, I’m fine,” Bucky scoffs, despite the fact that his skin is practically screaming in pain. He doesn’t want to keep Steve cooped up indoors when he so obviously needs to get work done. Besides, Bucky hasn’t heard the rattling wheeze of his lungs once since they’ve been outside.
Steve squats to look at where Bucky’s propped against the railing of the porch on the white house, shaded from the sun but still boiling beneath his skin. Steve presses his palm to Bucky’s cheek, then his forehead, and Bucky’s breath punches out of him at the mere touch, surprisingly cool to his skin.
“You’re burning up,” Steve comments, fingers curling around Bucky’s elbow and pulling him to his feet. He can’t help but go willingly when Steve’s giving him the attention he finds that he’s come to crave. “It’s not good for you to be out in the sun with those burns, even if they’re covered.”
Bucky doesn’t realize he’s pouting until Steve’s eyes drift to his lips before darting back up again. “I’m sure you’ve broken many a girl’s heart with that face, pal, but it’s not gonna work on me.”
Steve gives him a sly grin that makes Bucky feel like his knees are soon to give out, so he guesses he’s lucky Steve has him by the elbow, one skinny arm wrapped around Bucky’s waist. He lets himself be led back up the winding steps of the lighthouse, wondering if he actually has broken any girls’ hearts. It feels hard to believe when the line of Steve’s slim body feels so good against his own, feels like something he would have craved all the time, though he feels guilty for thinking of Steve that way. Steve, whose solitary, peaceful life Bucky has obviously disrupted with his constant bandage changes and his restless nights that keep Steve awake even when he pretends to be asleep in the armchair. Hell, Bucky’s even kicked the man out of his own bed.
Bucky’s not faring much better by the time they make it back to the lighthouse quarters. Sweat is rolling down his back, leaving a stinging trail down his skin, and he’s gritting his teeth with each step. He lets himself painfully collapse on the bed while Steve pumps water from the sink onto a cloth and presses it into Bucky’s hand. Steve goes for the buttons of Bucky’s shirt, like he means to undress him, and Bucky startles, his hand brushing against Steve’s wrist as he does. Steve’s gaze jerks up to his own before dropping down to the open collar of Bucky’s shirt.
“Sorry, I shouldn’t--”
Before Bucky can fix it, Steve’s turned and gone back to the cookstove, rummaging around on the ledge for something while Bucky unbuttons the shirt himself, disgruntled for a reason he can’t describe. Bucky’s panting despite himself, and though he can’t pinpoint how, he knows that he’s usually in better shape than this, the pain and the time spent in bed doing a number on his injured body. He can’t remember it, but he just knows.
By the time Bucky’s got the shirt peeled off, feeling like he’s taken his skin with it, Steve’s shaken one oblong tablet from a bottle into his hand and gives it to Bucky along with a glass of water.
“I think you’re gonna need this; you can thank me later,” he murmurs, keeping his eyes down and pretending to read the label on the bottle, which Bucky makes out to be morphine.
“Aren’t you a bit young to be needing these?” Bucky says, tossing the pill back with a swallow of water, which he wishes he could turn over his head instead.
Steve swallows, fiddling with the lid of the bottle, and Bucky instantly feels guilty.
“‘S none of my business, of course. I’m sorry for asking.”
“No, no, you’re right,” Steve replies, placing the bottle back on the shelf in a row of over twenty different tonics and pill bottles like it. “I, um, they’re mine.” He says, eyes flicking back up to Bucky’s, almost guiltily. “I was born too early, back in New York, where my family’s from.”
Something fires in the back of Bucky’s mind like a gunshot in the distance. “Where at?” he asks suddenly, sitting up a little straighter.
“Brooklyn,” Steve answers, but the memory slips through Bucky’s fingers yet again, taunting him. He slumps back against the pillows and lets Steve go on.
Steve putters around the kitchen, washing vegetables in the large cast iron sink, his back to Bucky. “My da was in the service, my ma had me while he was overseas, and I was born with a lot of medical problems, if you couldn’t already tell,” he says bitterly, motioning to his willowy frame with a wet hand. Bucky doesn’t see what faults he’s supposed to be finding in Steve’s body: the smooth curved spine with its gently rounded nobs leading up the long column of his freckled neck, his tousled blond hair, his delicate wrists.
“He wanted to stay home with Ma to give her some help, and one of his commanding officers got him enlisted with the Lighthouse Service. My doctors told Ma that they needed to move me down south, that the warmer weather and the ocean air would do my lungs some good,” Steve says, and suddenly Bucky connects the rattling wheeze he’s come to recognize as a familiar sound for Steve with the tang of medicinal powder that he see Steve stir into his coffee in the mornings.
Steve finally turns to face Bucky, crossing his feet at the ankles and leaning against the sink. His white sleeves are rolled up to the elbow, revealing the lean muscles of his forearm, and Bucky pretends he’s watching Steve count off on his fingers instead.
“Asthma, anemia, stomach ulcers, scoliosis, hypertension, palpitations...oh, and I’m partially deaf. One good ear, one bad,” he finishes, his shoulders tight and his mouth pinched, like he’s expecting Bucky to have some kind of retort.
He only stares back at Steve. If Bucky’s being honest, he’s in awe. From what he’s seen so far of Steve’s daily life, keeping the lighthouse is a full-time job; enough work for two healthy men, let alone one man fighting with a whole fistfull of ailments.
Steve must not hear what he’s expecting Bucky to say, because he eyes him curiously before turning back to the vegetables in the sink, now setting to work slicing some of the summer squash.
“The morphine is for my scoliosis, it can get bad off at times,” he murmurs. “The ulcers, too.”
“I’m sorry,” Bucky replies softly, watching the way Steve slices angrily at the vegetable on the counter, the knife hitting the wood with a heavy clunk.
“Well, don’t be. I do just fine on my own,” he says curtly.
“I can see that,” Bucky responds, staring back when Steve looks at him over his shoulder. Steve goes back to cutting, more gently this time.
When the quiet stretches on, Bucky’s eyes begin to wander around the room as feels the effects of the pain killer starting to trickle through his body like creeping vines, the throbbing under his skin slowly becoming a dull roar. He leans back further and tries to be brave again.
“Is that...a two-way radio?” he asks, getting his answer when Steve’s shoulders stiffen. Bucky’s had a few memories like these, like photographs in his mind of things he’s seen, though he can’t pinpoint where or when. But he knows for sure what’s in front of him is a two-way, not a one way. Meaning at some point Steve must reach out and talk to people on the other end of the radio waves.
“Yeah, it is,” Steve grunts. “But it’s broken. Been broken for who knows how long.”
Bucky thinks back to Steve’s nimble fingers tinkering with the dazzling array of turning bolts and wheels upstairs, and then eyes the black box.
“So you’ve got no way to communicate with the mainland?” Bucky asks, feeling like he’s starting to press his luck.
“No, and why should I need to?” Steve snaps, tossing the ends of the squash into the cloth back with more force than is probably necessary. “I take care of all the work here myself. The light is lit from dawn ‘til dusk, everyday, is it not? The place isn’t falling down around you, is it? Sam brings me what I need, and I talk to him when I see him. Why in the hell would I need to go around chit-chatting with anyone else?” he says, ears red and voice rising by the minute.
Maybe Bucky should be worried, especially now that Steve’s gesturing with an actual kitchen knife, but he’s actually fighting to keep the smirk off of his face.
“No, you’re right,” Bucky agrees, putting his hands up in a peaceful gesture. Steve turns to look at him, rattling along like a creaky wagon full on a dirt road. “Man’s got a right to his privacy.”
“Exactly!” Steve exclaims, brandishing the knife. His face falls, dawning with realization. “But then, if you wanted to reach out--shit, Bucky, I’m so sorry. You probably have family, a C-O, somebody...I could…” he trails off, biting his lip, and Bucky’s heart twists at how quickly Steve goes from defensively indignant to hopelessly compassionate.
“Hey, I can barely remember my own name, let alone where I come from,” Bucky reminds him. “I don’t know who I would call, even if we could.” He gives Steve what he hopes is a reassuring smile, though a dark cloud of sadness settles over him at the thought.
“We could always reach out to the mainland through Sam,” he offers. “Send a letter or give them your name, see if they can get a message to the military?”
It seems logical; Bucky’s sure that he could probably get some answers that way, maybe even find out what and where home is, but right now, he wants to spend just a few more moments tucked away from the world in Steve Rogers’ company.
“Maybe later,” Bucky concedes, watching Steve’s face. “I think it might be best if I wait it out, see if any of my memories come back. Maybe rest up a bit,” and he adds, “as long as that’s alright with you.”
Steve’s blue eyes brighten just enough that Bucky’s heart swells in response. “Yeah, Buck, I think that sounds like a pretty good idea after all.”
After a dinner of salted meat and roasted vegetables, Steve is putting away their dishes while Bucky sits on the bed, picking at a stray piece of tape on his leg. He’s been scratching at his healing scabs and irritated skin, despite Steve’s reprimands to keep his hands away from them. When he goes to scratch at his jaw, Steve notices the growing stubble there.
“Hey Steve, you don’t happen to have a razor, do you?”
He thinks for a second, drying a plate with a faded blue hand towel. “Dunno. I don’t have much use for one,” he says, gesturing to his own smooth face, “but I’m sure there’s one lying around here somewhere.”
It’s a lie, he knows he has his father’s old shaving razor in the cabinet, one that he doesn’t need for himself but he hasn’t had the heart to throw away. He goes to the cabinet, rifles around for a bit and finds the metal tin that served as his father’s shaving kit. He opens it, and inside there’s still a wood-handled folding straight razor and a tin of soap.
He places it on the little table next to the bed, and starts checking Bucky’s bandages. He feels a sick thrill each time he’s able to do this, hating that Bucky is in pain, but secretly loving the closeness.
While Steve’s fiddling with a mostly healed cut on Bucky’s right arm, Bucky runs a hand through his hair with a grimace; the greasy locks are starting to flop over his forehead.
He thinks about their outing today, the dried blood and sweat on Bucky’s skin and the implications of what he’s about to ask.
“Do you think you’d be up for a bath?”
Bucky smirks, which Steve come to realize is just purely Bucky. “What, you sayin’ I stink, Rogers?”
Steve chuckles. “Well, yeah, but I smell worse than you, for sure. You’re covered in dried blood and I don’t want to risk the infection. Besides, you’ve been scratching like a dog with fleas since we got back.”
Bucky, who is currently scratching at a place on his chest, drops his hand like he’s been caught with it in the cookie jar, looking sheepish. It makes Steve want to grab his face in his hands and kiss him, or slap him. He can’t decide which would be worse.
“You, um, you can’t submerge your skin in water yet though, not good for burn wounds,” Steve explains. “So it’ll have to be a bed-bath. I’ll get everything together for you before I head upstairs. You could shave, too, if you want. I’ve only got the mirror on the door there, though.”
Bucky nods, letting Steve help him to his feet and taking the little tin with him while Steve pulls out soap and fills a wash basin with water.
Bucky gets a little water and lathers the soap in his hand with precise movements, spreading it over his face and as he watches himself in the mirror. He seems to slip back into himself then, and Steve can imagine Bucky in another world, shaving his face clean and slapping aftershave on his jowls.
Bucky flicks open the blade, but as he goes to hold it in his injured left hand, his fingers shake and fumble with the razor. Steve tries not to watch as Bucky pulls the skin taut with his right hand, then tries using the other, holding the razor in his uninjured hand, but it’s clear that he’s left handed; the right more useless than the first. He’s liable to cut his own throat at this rate.
Steve clears his throat. “Do you want a hand?”
Bucky’s eyes dart up to his in the mirror, and Steve suddenly realizes what he’s offered. Bucky bites his lip, shoulders dropping a fraction, but he turns to offer the tool in his open palm.
“Yeah, I...I guess I can’t do it.”
“‘S all right,” Steve murmurs, gripping the handle loosely as he steps closer and puts his fingers on Bucky’s plush cheek, pulling the skin taut and willing his hands not to shake.
He holds the blade delicately against Bucky’s skin. He tests the blade, but Bucky doesn’t flinch, just waits patiently for Steve to do the job. Bucky’s gray eyes are trained on him as Steve moves the blade across his skin in one smooth motion, pulling away soap and stubble. He wipes it clean and starts again, feeling his heart beat in his throat, like a nervous butterfly trying to force its way out.
Bucky is loose and pliant, turning this way and that at Steve’s direction. When his face is done, Bucky tilts his head and bares his throat, the strong curve of his neck vulnerable. Steve can feel the rise and fall of each breath as more and more of Bucky’s skin turns smooth beneath his hands.
It suddenly occurs to him that they’ve known each other for less than a month, and Bucky has such blind faith in him that he would allow him to hold an open blade to his skin. That he allows Steve free reign of his body, that he lets him poke and prod Bucky as he pleases, with no more than a grumble. Steve doesn’t deserve such trust.
Once it’s done, the air around them is still heavy with something, charged like a rising storm. Bucky’s hands rest on the buckle of his belt, and Steve feels like he’s fighting for air in a way that is decidedly not an oncoming asthma attack.
Bucky takes the rag from the basin and lathers it with soap, but turns to press it into Steve’s hands, his eyes silently asking for help that Steve isn’t sure Bucky really needs but that he is all too willing to give. What wouldn’t he do for Bucky at this point?
When he wraps his fingers around Bucky’s wrist to lead him to sit on the bed, something changes between them. Steve can’t put words to it, but he knows Bucky feels it to, can see it in his face as he watches Steve all the while, even as Bucky unfastens his borrowed pants and shorts and slides them down his legs.
Steve brings the rag to Bucky’s chest, gliding it over the smooth swell of his pecs, almost flips over backwards when he drags the cloth over one dusky pink nipple and Bucky sucks in a breath. He wonders what would happen if he did it again and does his damndest to ignore the slow rise of Bucky’s cock from between his thighs.
Steve washes each arm, which takes time as he carefully works around scars and healing wounds on Bucky’s bad arm, heart breaking with each whimper of pain Bucky makes. He works quickly, and then Steve suddenly finds himself kneeling between Bucky’s legs.
He rinses out the rag, bringing it to the jut of Bucky’s hipbone and wiping down his thigh, coming to clean around the large burn on his calf. Bucky’s fingers tighten in the sheets, and Steve lets his palm rest on Bucky’s thigh, rubbing the skin there with his thumb.
When he’s satisfied, he washes Bucky’s feet, pleased with the little crinkle of Bucky’s nose as he tries to pretend he’s not ticklish. He moves back up his leg, up the smooth skin of Bucky’s inner thigh, his cock jerking steadily upward as Steve’s hands come closer. He tells himself it’s just from exposure, that’s it’s just from being touched for the first time in awhile, that Bucky’s cock is no indication that he’s interested in Steve’s attentions. But then his hands are at the apex of Bucky’s thighs and he should ask, Bucky’s not so bad off that he can’t wash his own cock, right? But Steve’s plowing ahead, somewhere in between hoping Bucky kicks him in the teeth and praying he doesn’t.
The cloth is still soapy when he runs it along the crease of Bucky’s thigh, his knuckles just brushing the skin of Bucky’s balls. Bucky stiffens, but he doesn’t tell him to stop. Steve risks a glance upwards, and Bucky’s head is tilted back, eyes closed, his plump lips parted as he pants softly. Steve could devour him right now, wishes he could draw this moment just like this and keep it tucked away for eternity, for when Bucky’s long gone and this image haunts his nights until he’s an old man.
But Steve’s selfish, so for now he lets himself pretend that Bucky wants this, that he’s not probably imagining Steve’s hands are some pretty girl’s, and he fists Bucky’s cock in the soapy rag. It’s heavy in his hand, and he gives it a few pulls, trying to ignore his own growing interest when Bucky bites back a whimper that shoots straight to Steve’s cock. He freezes, eyes shooting up to Bucky’s, whose pupils are blown and is staring straight down at him.
“‘S okay,” Steve hears himself whisper, free hand sliding up Bucky’s naked thigh. “Almost done, alright?” He can’t look away from Bucky, the rise and fall of his chest and his ripe, open mouth; the way he merely nods in response, like if Steve were to keep touching him--
But that would be wrong, and he would be taking advantage, just like he’s doing now. Bucky doesn’t want Steve’s hands on him; any man would respond to touch in this way. So he bites down the thoughts of what Bucky’s face would look like if he kept going and throws proverbial cold water on his thoughts, swiping mechanically around the rest of his groin and wiping the soap away with a clean cloth. Steve stands stiffly, and the moment is over, and Bucky’s left blinking up at him. Steve places a pair of clean shorts by Bucky’s hand, wiping his wet hands on his trousers and suddenly feeling like the already-small room is closing in around him.
“I’ll be upstairs if you need me,” he grunts, not even stopping to grab more than his boots as he darts out the door, feeling Bucky’s eyes on him as he goes.
The sound of the heavy door banging shut shakes Bucky from his daze. He’s sitting on the bed, body scrubbed clean and covered in Steve’s touch, his wet skin sensitive in the open air. And his cock is still standing at full attention, the wet tip curved up to kiss his belly.
Bucky scrubs a hand over his face and tries to calm his breathing. Steve was just there, he was so close, and it felt like he wanted---did Bucky want that, too?
So he grabs the clean shorts Steve’s left on the bed before practically running out of the room and slides them on, hissing as they brush over the head of his cock. He busies himself with cleanup, rinsing the rag out in the sink and hanging it up to dry, pouring the pink-tinged water from the wash basin down the drain, and packing away the leftover bandages into Steve’s first aid basket.
He tidies the bed, settles in for sleep as he usually does while Steve is upstairs in the lantern room, but the quilt feels stifling on his skin when he finally crawls under it. The air is thick and heavy in the room, and his cock still begs for attention despite his best efforts to dissuade it.
Bucky crosses his arms over his chest, rolls from one side to the other, but finally there’s no choice but to slide the hand resting on his belly down to the waistband of his shorts. He runs a finger along the waistband, and when his eyes drop shut he can only see Steve’s face, eyes wide and determined and level with Bucky’s cock, his mouth just inches away. Bucky fists himself beneath the shorts just as Steve had with the washcloth moments before.
He doesn’t remember the last time he’s touched himself in this way. Thankfully, muscle memory takes over, and he loosely pulls at the shaft and thumbs precome from the head, pressing a muffled groan into his other hand. He sucks in lungfuls of air, massaging the tender head and letting his imagination break free. He imagines Steve’s pink lips closing over the tip of his cock, how his mouth would be as warm and comforting to Bucky as his hands have been, how his touch would soothe the itch under Bucky’s skin.
He lets his free hand fall to his chest and brushes his thumb over one nipple the way Steve had done before, and a little cry jolts out of him. Warmth rushes over his face and races down his spine, and why does it feel so good? He’s more embarrassed of this than the fact that he’s pleasuring himself in Steve’s bed, taking advantage of the man with his thoughts, but he does it again and again, pulling and teasing at the hardened nub and pretending its Steve’s calloused fingers working him over instead. Steve’s hands, too big for his small frame, would hold Bucky just right; Steve would pay just the right amount of attention to the head, would pump his hand along the shaft, and he’d slide his palm over Bucky’s thigh and say, “‘S okay, Buck.”
That, suddenly, is what sends Bucky over the edge, spurting into his open palm. He ruts his hips upward, chasing the feeling and imagining Steve coaxing him through that too, when the grinding sound of metal on metal wrenches him from his thoughts.
His hand clenches around his cock and he knows Steve is there, standing in the doorway. Bucky is turned on his side, away from the door, and he freezes, just holding himself and hoping that Steve won’t notice the way his breath is heaving in and out of his chest like he’s run a marathon though he’s supposed to be asleep.
He hears footsteps cross the small space and he knows Steve is standing over him, but Bucky keeps his eyes clenched shut. He feels a small, cool hand on his shoulder and a heavy sigh, and it’s almost Bucky’s undoing.
But then Steve’s gone, rummaging around the room for a few minutes before the lantern is extinguished and they’re both bathed in darkness again.
The next morning goes on like normal, Steve waking Bucky with a soft smile and a hot cup of coffee. Bucky always lets Steve help him sit up in bed, despite the fact that with each passing day his body hurts a little less. He doesn’t really need the help, but he doesn’t want to give up the slide of the Steve’s cool palms over his skin. Not just yet.
They go on as if nothing has happened, even though the night’s events are burned into Bucky’s brain. Steve still putters around the kitchen after coming back from extinguishing the light, checks Bucky’s bandages with carefully neutral hands.
Something has changed between them though, something that Bucky can’t quite put words to. It slips between his fingers, like the memories he tries so hard to bring to the forefront of his mind.
Steve can feel it too, he can tell. He lingers just a little longer when he touches Bucky, his usually serious face keeps a tiny smile curled at the corner of his lips. Bucky can’t remember a morning when he hasn’t woken to Steve watching him sleep, not a hint of a blush on his cheeks when Bucky catches him in the act.
With each day Bucky feels a little stronger, and he moves around their shared space a little easier. Luckily, Steve still stays less than an arms-length away. Steve lets him help with the daily chores a little more, doing dishes and helping with dinner, tending to the chickens and collecting vegetables from the garden. Bucky finds himself making a game of how many times he can casually touch Steve and get away with it.
Like today, he lets his hip bump gently against Steve’s as they wash dishes side-by-side, Steve washing and Bucky drying, gently humming a tune as he does.
“You like that song?” Steve asks, passing him a fork.
The tune dies in his throat as he thinks of the name, tries to remember why he knows it.
“ Take me out to the ba-a-all game, take me out to the cro-o-wd,” Steve supplies, his deep timbre soothes Bucky’s rising nervousness. The tune tugs in the back of his mind, wiggling around like it wants to take root.
“ Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,” Steve goes on, and Bucky can taste them all of a sudden, the crunch of a salty peanut and the sweetness of caramel popcorn.
“I love Cracker Jack…” he murmurs, staring down at his wrinkled fingertips. “Steve!” He says suddenly, fingers closing around the man’s slim bicep. “I love Cracker Jack!” He’s nearly jumping up and down because he remembers. He can see it in his mind, taste it like he’s holding it in his hand now.
“It’s in a red and white box, with a boy--a sailor! Like me!” he crows, grin feeling like it’s going to split his face wide open and Steve’s smiling right back at him, holding him closer with both hands. “And...and...he had a dog!” Bucky remembers.
“Bingo!” Steve shouts.
“Yeah, Steve. I used to eat that stuff all the time at the Dodgers’ games,” Bucky says casually, overcome with excitement that he’s got a shiny new memory to file in his head. He towels off his coffee mug, oblivious to what he’s just uttered.
“Buck, did you just say…”
“Yeah, ain’t that crazy? Off all the things I’d remember eating Cracker Jack. Man, I’d kill for some right now. Don’t think I could find some in the garden, do ya?” He says, smirking at a gaping Steve and elbowing him in the ribs playfully. “I bet ol’ Pegs would love that.”
“Bucky! Are you listening to yourself?”
“Yeah, Stevie, I told ya---”
“Forget the damn Cracker Jack!” Steve cries, grabbing Bucky’s shirt and shaking him a little, rising up on his tiptoes so that the tip of his nose barely brushes Bucky’s. “You just said you’ve been to a Dodgers’ game! What the hell, Buck?”
Bucky’s boyish grin falls a little, light dancing in his eyes. “The Brooklyn Dodgers’?”
“Yeah, yeah, Bucky, that’s right. Are you from Brooklyn? Did you live there? Does that ring a bell?”
Bucky’s gaze goes far away, chasing the tiny thread of memory in his mind.
“Do you remember your ma? Your family? Your house?” Steve asks softly, his resolve falling with each passing minute. He releases Bucky’s shirt, letting his palms flatten against the man’s chest.
“I think I have a little sister,” Bucky murmurs after a long silence, crease forming between his brows. “Becca. We used to fight over the prize in the bottom of the box,” he says softly. Steve doesn’t press, just lets Bucky remember.
“My ma…” He sees Bucky’s eyes darken, sees the memory flit across Bucky’s features. He sees Bucky’s beautiful face crumble, and Steve’s gut twists painfully with it. Bucky folds forward, pressing his face into Steve’s neck.
“I don’t remember, Steve. I can’t remember.”
Steve just presses his lips to the skin of Bucky’s neck and gathers him against him as much as he can. He knows that feeling all too well, the feeling of aching for your mother and wishing it was a memory that you could forget.
Around mid-morning, Sam shows up to make a supply delivery, the cargo boat pulling around the cape at mid-morning. Normally, Sam’s visits are a welcome sight, being the only human contact Steve gets for the month. Today, however, he begrudgingly walks down to the shore, reluctant to leave Bucky sleeping in the quarters of the lighthouse. He’d left a note and a fresh pot of coffee, hoping he doesn’t worry Bucky when he wakes to find Steve gone.
Despite his worried thoughts, Steve can’t help but smile when he sees Sam’s gap-toothed grin from the bow of the boat. Sam waves, as he expertly steers the craft up to Steve’s dock, throwing the rope out and letting him secure it to a wooden pylon.
“Cap! How’s it goin’? I swear, you’ve gotten taller,” Sam teases, stepping up onto the dock and pulling Steve into a hug, despite the glower Steve gives him in return.
“I’m the same size, you jackass,” he grumbles, helping Sam unstrap the safety ropes securing the bundles of supplies.
He pulls over a worn canvas liferaft, reclaimed from a shipwreck and now used to haul his supplies from the dock and over the yard. The load is far too heavy for Steve to carry on his own, and he would never let Sam do the heavy lifting for him. He has a small motor bolted inside the door of the lighthouse that will tow the lifeboat up the yard. Steve will carry the lighter bundles up himself, but the rest will be towed up into the window of his quarters via a separate contraption.
They fall into their routine, Sam grabbing the heavier boxes and Steve pretending not to notice. They stack them up one by one in the raft. All the while, Sam catches him up on the gossip in town, who’s courting who, who’s got the call to ship off to war, who ran down the street drunk in their underwear last week.
“Sounds like a normal Saturday night for Barton, then,” Steve says with a chuckle, looking over his shoulder and up at the lighthouse, peering into the midmorning sun.
“Oh yeah, I had a cup of coffee with him this morning. He was feeling it for sure. Hey Steve,” he says casually, “what are you not telling me?”
Steve freezes, his hand closing over a box of coffee.
“What--what do you mean?,” he asks, faking nonchalance. “Is there something I should be telling you?”
Sam’s brown eyes flick up to the third story window. “Wanna start by telling me what you keep looking for?”
Steve keeps his head down and tries to lift the box of coffee, his lower back protesting as his arms shake beneath the weight of the package. He frowns at it, refusing to meet his friend’s eyes.
Sam snatches the box out of his grasp with one hand and cocks an eyebrow at Steve.
Steve tries for a laugh, but it falls flat. His ears burn. “Well, I mean, I am the lighthouse keeper, Sam. Gotta be vigilant, you know?”
“Cut the bullshit, Rogers. You’re the worst liar I know because you’re also the most honest person I’ve ever met.” He shoves Steve playfully and crosses his arms over his chest. “So spill. Either you’re harboring a fugitive, or you’re hiding Blackbeard’s treasure in your hermit hole up there. Which one is it?”
“He’s not a fugitive,” Steve grumbles, leaning against a pylon. The realization dawns on him that Bucky may very well be a fugitive and he wouldn’t have a clue, though the thought doesn’t sit well in his chest.
“Okay, that’s a good start,” Sam says, and Steve can tell he’s holding back an eyeroll. “Then who is he?”
“Bad storm came in about two weeks ago, saw a burning lifeboat out on the water. I found a man, unconscious and injured, and I brought him in. He’s got amnesia, doesn’t remember who he is or where he’s come from. He barely remembered his name.”
Sam just blinks at him, then rubs a hand over his face. “So you don’t know a thing about him?”
“He was dressed in a Naval officer’s uniform, but it was in bad shape. Not just from a bad night at sea. And he was hurt---I don’t know Sam, it wasn’t just from a shipwreck. Some wounds were fresh but some were…”
“You thinking he’d been captured?” Sam’s brows crinkle in thought.
“Maybe? Because he had no crew, no ship. He was in a lifeboat, but alone. Have you heard anything in town?”
Sam shakes his head. “Nothing out of the ordinary, but I’ll do some digging.” He lets out a heavy sigh. “Steve, how sure are you that he’s safe?”
He knows Sam is just looking out for him, but anger rises hot in his gut at the implication. “He’s a good man, Sam. One of the best. I’d trust him with my life.”
Sam just nods, he’s used to Steve’s hot head and ire. But he has his own uppercut coming. “‘S there a reason why you haven’t called it in? Or just brought him to the mainland?”
Ice quickly quenches the fire in Steve’s heart and guilt swamps him. He opens his mouth, but he can’t even think of a good lie to cover his tracks.
A sharp grin splits across Sam’s face. “Oh okay, you’re taking matters into your own hands, then.”
Steve’s jaw drops. “Sam!”
Sam doubles up in laughter, holding his hands up like he knows Steve’s about to whale on him. He just might.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he concedes, gasping for breath at his own joke. “You just, shit Steve, you look happy. And healthy. I’m glad,” Sam says with an honest smile. “What’d I tell ya, being a hermit ain’t good for no one.”
The comment leaves Steve speechless again; all he can do is shrug in response.
“Look, just be careful. He’s got a past, and he’ll soon remember it. Just don’t let it burn you in the process.”
He squeezes Steve’s shoulder and they head back down to the boat. Steve hands over his list like always, but remembers one last item.
“Hey, Sam, you got a pencil on you?”
Hastily scribbled, he adds Cracker Jack to the bottom of the list, folding it up and pushing it into Sam’s waiting hand.
His pencil scratches against the paper, the lines forming the curve of Bucky’s cheek. In the dim, flickering light of the kerosene lamp, Steve draws Bucky. Again, his treacherous mind supplies. It’s a ritual he’s come to look forward to, one that feeds into his insomnia. Steve doesn’t sleep much, never has. Not as a heavily medicated and sickly child, and even still as a lighthouse keeper. Most mornings he’s awake at least two hours before first light, which has led him to put Bucky’s face to paper while he still can.
Sam’s words ring in his head today, guilt of a responsibility that he knows he can’t ignore for much longer. Bucky has a life, a position in the military, and possibly even family, even if he doesn’t know who they are. Keeping him here like this is just wrong; he could repair the radio and have Bucky in the hands of the Navy tomorrow. The device sits ominously on his desk, a place he’s been avoiding in the weeks since Bucky arrived.
He sketches Bucky in all the forms he’s allowed Steve to see: pensive, as he pours over his notebook, jotting down the scraps of memories that come to him as he tries to piece them together; openly laughing, his nose crinkled and mouth wide as he and Steve rib at each other like old friends; the soft, sweet way he looks when he’s tired and trying desperately to stay awake.
Steve can feel it in his gut; all too soon these moments with Bucky will be gone, just wisps of memory in his mind. So for now, he indulges himself and puts as many down on paper as he can before Bucky wakes. They gather in his sketchbook until it’s nearly full. He’ll have to ask Sam to bring him another one, though he knows he’d happily fill book after book of Bucky’s expressions.
This morning, Steve draws Bucky asleep in his bed. It’s his favorite way to draw Bucky, mainly because it lets him dream of a future where he wakes up to him every morning. A future he knows he’ll never have. Steve is used to not getting what he wants, but he knows this will be more than disappointment when he has to let Bucky go.
As if he can read Steve’s thoughts, Bucky blinks his eyes open, soft and sleep-rumpled beneath Steve’s worn quilt. His sleepy gray eyes find Steve’s, like they do each morning, and they just look at each other for a few moments. Each morning it lasts a little longer, and Steve can’t find it in himself to be embarrassed when Bucky finds him watching. They never talk about it, but Bucky doesn’t seem to complain. His lip turns up at the corner, giving Steve that little smile, and for a moment, Steve can pretend that Bucky chose to be here, that this is his home, that he knows of Steve’s overwhelming desires, and they don’t send him running back to the sea.
Steve feels brave for a fleeting moment, and he almost asks Bucky to pose for him. He thinks about it often, Bucky’s golden skin laid bare to his eyes for Steve to gaze upon, not just to glance at out of the corner of his eye when he’s changing Bucky’s bandages.
But it would be silly, ridiculous even. It would make Bucky uncomfortable, probably have him wondering about Steve’s intentions. So he breaks their eye contact and disrupts the moment, pushing himself to standing and stretches his aching joints before going to start the coffee pot.
Bucky sits up in bed, rubbing his forehead with a frown as Steve hands him his mug.
Bucky nods, taking a long sip of coffee.
“There’s a storm coming. It’s been drizzling for a while; it’s probably the pressure affecting you.” Droplets of water roll down the window behind Bucky, the grey sky keeping the room dim.
Steve checks his pocket watch and goes for his rain slicker, pushing one socked foot into his boot. He can’t help but glance across the room, meeting Bucky’s ever-watchful eyes.
“Hey, um, you think you’d be up for a trip to the lantern room?”
Bucky’s hands are already clutching the blankets, pushing himself up to standing with much more ease, a bright smile on his face.
“Yeah, thought you’d never ask,” he says, winking as he sways slightly on his feet, and Steve can’t keep the grin off his face as his fingers curl around Bucky’s good arm, steadying him.
Once his companion is dressed in warmer clothes, the early morning hours of September bringing a chilly nip in the air, they make the trek up the long winding stairway to the top of the lighthouse, Bucky grumbling each time Steve wants him to stop and give himself a break. They finally reach the top, grinning like fools at each other as they try to catch their breath.
“We’re a coupla old farts, aren’t we, Stevie?”
Steve laughs, shoving him playfully. “Look, it’s going to be sweltering in there, okay? So just wait for me--”
“Nah, Steve, I wanna see it. C’mon, I promise I won’t touch anything. I give you my word,” Bucky says, giving Steve a sharp salute.
They head up the ladder, Steve giving Bucky a hand up until they’re standing pressed together in the small space.
Steve suddenly realizes that this was a terrible idea. His worst yet.
Because now he’s in an incredibly tight space with a man who’s wide, amazed eyes are making Steve’s already unreliable heart speed to a maddening pace. It’s stifling in the room, sweat already breaking out over his skin and Bucky’s, and Steve has to bite his lip to keep from licking away the sheen of sweat on Bucky’s neck. The flame above them makes him look ethereal, and he looks over at Steve suddenly, excitement dancing in his eyes.
“Steve, this is--holy cow, this is incredible.” His voice is soft, awed. “Look at all these glass panes--the lenses, right? Look at this light, oh my gosh…”
Steve licks his lips and starts up the ladder that will take them inside the lens, pushing open the trap door and climbing inside the metal ledge. He stops Bucky on the top rung with an outstretched palm until he’s made a space big enough for Bucky to stand in. Then they’re pressed against the glass lenses, the flame dancing less than an arms-length in front of them. The heat envelopes them, and Steve’s hand snakes around Bucky’s waist, holding him close. He turns his head, and Bucky’s nose is nearly brushing his. He can see the dimple in his chin, the dark fan of his lashes as he blinks lazily at Steve, the air around them thick and heady.
Steve snaps back to life, feeling the cool metal of the extinguisher in his hand. He jerks away, slides the tool over the burning wick, and suddenly the air is cool and balmy, smoke rising from the lantern.
“Let’s, ah...let’s go get some air, huh?”
It’s still drizzling on the observation deck, the promise of a storm a couple hours off and brewing on the horizon. The waves begin to slosh harder against the rocks far below them.
Bucky leans against the metal railing, gazing out at the sea.
“Steve, how long have you been doing this?”
He feels himself stiffen at the question, something he does his damndest to keep locked away from anyone on the mainland. “Awhile.”
Bucky sighs, his shoulder gently brushing Steve’s.
“We moved here from New York when I was eight,” he starts, the story weighing heavy on him as it unfolds. But maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to share it, not with Bucky. Maybe Steve could have a secret-keeper, just this once.
“I told you all that, about my da getting the lifesaving job after serving, right?” Bucky nods, sliding over just a little closer until they’re touching, shoulder to elbow.
“He got sick after we’d been here barely a year. The doc said he’d contracted it overseas. He hung on for awhile, suffered for four more years until it finally took him. I was thirteen, and then it was just me and Ma.”
Bucky nods, keeping his gaze on the angry water below.
“I was already helping Ma a lot by then, the weather here really did wonders for my lungs, and I got stronger. When a keeper dies though, if he’s married, the job goes to his wife, if she’ll take it. Ma...” he chuckles, shaking his head. “She was somethin’ else.”
He pictures her face back then, how she had reacted when she’d gotten the letter asking if she were willing and able to take on the job of a Keeper. She’d stuck out her jaw and tossed the letter into the stove, snorting at it. I am well aware of what this duty entails, and I am more than capable of the task, she had penned back in her neat, even handwriting. And that had been that.
“Between the two of us, we had this place running like a well-oiled machine,” Steve says, smile taking over his face. “She kept me well and well-fed, and we split the duties when I was healthy enough to take over some of the more physical labor. I got stronger, didn’t live off of pain medicine and my asthma powders as much.”
He opens his mouth to go on, but his voice catches in his throat, his chest tight.
“We were on our own for four more years, then she got sick.” Steve feels Bucky’s fingers wrap around his bicep, squeezing gently. “She was bad off; it got in her lungs,” he murmurs. “She died a year later. So then it was just me.”
They’re quiet for a few moments, the increasing rain pattering on the glass behind them and the crashing waves the only sounds around them.
Steve drags in a breath. “You gotta know though, Bucky, the government classifies me as...as an invalid.” He nearly spits out the word. “With all my illnesses...I’m not allowed to hold this position. If someone found out...if they knew about Ma…”
“They’d kick you out and take the lighthouse,” Bucky finishes for him, fingers tightening over his arm. “So your ma…?”
“Sam knows. And Doctor Banner. That’s it. I haven’t been to the mainland in almost seven years. I don’t communicate from the lighthouse at all; Sam knows what I need, he brings me my medication from Doctor Banner. I do my job and nobody asks any questions,” he finishes, voice barely a whisper.
Steve blinks and he’s pressed against Bucky’s chest, the man’s good arm wrapped around Steve’s shoulder, and it’s so easy to turn his nose into the curve of Bucky’s throat, to hide his chilled skin in Bucky’s warmth.
“It’s alright, Stevie,” Bucky murmurs into his hair. “Ain’t nobody gotta know. Nobody’s gonna take it away from you.” He feels Bucky’s lips press against his forehead, lingering there, and Steve wants to burrow into his arms and not come out. Wants to crawl back in his daydreams and live in his little bubble here with Bucky, wants it more than he’s ever wanted anything else.
But then Bucky’s pulling away, his hands running over Steve’s arms. His hair is sticking to his forehead and beads of water run down his face like tears. They’ve been standing out here in the rain and he hasn’t even noticed.
“C’mon, Stevie, let’s go in and get warmed up, huh?” And then Bucky’s tugging him back inside, back down the ladder, and toward their room.
Steve’s quiet when they get back inside, his head buzzing as Bucky heats water in the kettle and makes coffee. They fit together here, despite the small space. Steve always thought it was the perfect size for one, no room for another person, but Bucky has wriggled his way into Steve’s space and settled in like he belongs there.
He takes the coffee from Bucky, poured in the blue enamel mug. “This was Ma’s,” he blurts, raising the mug to Bucky’s confused expression.
“And this was your dad’s, right?” Bucky says with a small smile, looking down at the mug in his hand and the Navy emblem stamped across it.
“Guess you and I do make a pretty good married couple,” Bucky says, eyes shyly peeking up at Steve over the mug, pink dusting his cheeks. Steve almost chokes on his coffee, images of gold bands and warm skin beneath cotton sheets flitting across his mind. The thought of never being alone again.
“So what d’you do on a rainy day, then? Pretty sure you’re not getting anything done outside today.”
Steve crosses to the window, seeing the storm clouds hanging heavy above them, the sky grows darker and the rain is falling in a steady downpour. It’ll be a rough storm, he can feel it zinging along his skin and raising the hairs on the back of his neck.
“Nothing too exciting,” Steve replies, turning from the window to run a hand through his sopping hair. “Usually just stay inside and draw.”
He meets Bucky’s bright eyes, and feels like there’s an invisible line tethering them together. One he’s terribly afraid will break.
“Why don’t you draw me then? I could sit for you.”
He doesn’t know if Bucky’s found him out, if he’s seen Steve’s sketchbook filled with Bucky’s face, or if he’s just put two and two together when he wakes to find Steve’s eyes on him, but either way he doesn’t seem bothered. He looks alight with energy, and Steve finds that his fingers itch for a pencil to capture it with.
“Yeah,” he coughs out, voice tight in his throat. “You sure you can sit still for awhile though? I know you, always got ants in your pants.”
Bucky pulls off his socks and sprawls out on the bed, grinning playfully up at Steve. “Just you wait, I’ll be the best model you ever had.”
Don’t I know it, Steve’s selfish brain supplies. He should shut this down, laugh it off and go scrape paint off the front door, weed the garden, clean out the chimney, hell, anything but agree to openly stare at Bucky’s body for an unlimited amount of time.
But, because Steve always dives headlong into trouble, he opens his mouth and says, “Take your shirt off.”
Bucky stills, his lips parted in surprise. But he recovers, fingers going to his buttons and shrugging the nearly see-through fabric off his shoulders, his white shirt wet from their time in the rain. His fingers go to his belt buckle, no differently than the night Steve bathed him, when he didn’t spare an inch of Bucky’s skin. It’s not like he hasn’t seen Bucky barely clothed, or even naked. But tonight there’s no tangible excuse that Steve can hide behind. With a nod from Steve, Bucky lets the trousers pool at his feet, and he’s left in only an undershirt and shorts.
“How do you want me?”
Steve’s heart thunders loudly in his chest, any response drying up in his throat. He takes a step toward Bucky, and grasps the fabric of his damp undershirt in two fingers, silently asking with a raise of his eyebrows.
Bucky’s not shy by nature, that much Steve has learned. From the time they’ve spent together, he knows Bucky is comfortable in his own skin, if the little dance he did while washing the dishes in his pajamas this morning is any indication.
But now that Steve is going to put him down on paper, he knows Bucky isn’t fond of his arm and torso, of the rippled scar tissue and uneven, healing skin. A few of his wounds are still open and oozing, but most have formed dark scabs and scars that curl up his arm and across his chest. The wound from the bullet Steve carved from his shoulder still looks like a dark hole, though it’s mostly closed up, scars spiraling away from it like a misshapen star.
Bucky drops his gaze and bites his lip, but he lifts the shirt up and over his head, tossing it to the end of the bed.
“‘S okay, Buck. I just want to see you. All of you,” Steve murmurs, pushing gently on Bucky’s good shoulder until he sits on the bed.
Bucky wraps an arm around his bare torso, eyes pointedly avoiding his left side. “Why do you want to see this?”
“Because it’s you,” Steve says, dropping to a crouch so he’s eye-level with him. “These scars tell your story, Buck. They’re a part of you. We might not know the story yet, but you will someday. They tell me that you’re a fighter and that whoever did this to you didn’t get the best of you. You may not be able to tell me who you are, but I still got to know you, all of you. Whoever hurt you couldn’t change who you are. That’s how I want to remember you.”
“Remember me?” Bucky asks, brows drawing together, but Steve’s gathering the quilt around him in folds, letting it pool around his waist the way it does when he pushes himself up in bed in the mornings, sleep rumpled and sweet.
Steve ignores the question, busying himself with getting a fire going in the box to warm the room. Once he’s satisfied, he picks up the empty mug Bucky’s set on the desk and hands it to him, ruffling his dark hair that’s starting to dry and curl at the tips, trying to tease a smile out of him. Somehow, it works.
“Gotta get this hair dry, before you catch cold,” he teases.
“Says you,” Bucky retorts. “Now what do you want me to do?”
“Just sit there and be comfortable,” Steve answers, curling up in the armchair across from him.
“This is it? But I look like this every morning,” Bucky says, frowning down at the empty mug.
Steve keeps his eyes on the empty page, sketching out structural lines and background shapes to get started. “I know you do. ‘S my favorite part of the day,” he murmurs, risking a glance upward.
He only has one chance to get it right, and he’ll be damned if he won’t do his best to commit this to memory: Bucky, cozy beneath Steve’s quilt and tucked into his bed like he belongs there, drinking from his father’s old mug. Comfortable beneath his gaze, like it’s Bucky’s morning routine. That’s what he wants to remember. This is the moment Steve will miss the most when Bucky’s gone and his bed is cold again.
Bucky was right, he’s a natural model. He stays fairly still, but Steve doesn’t mind when he moves and twitches, scratches at a healing scab or leans his head back to pop his neck. The shape of him alights on the page, and as the sky darkens, Steve turns to light the kerosene lamp next to him, moving it around the room until he’s satisfied with the light it throws over Bucky’s skin.
He scoots the chair forward, soon to start on Bucky’s facial features. He reaches out, touches Bucky’s chin and tilts his head until the angle is just right. Bucky’s eyes flick down to his fingers, then back up to hold his gaze.
“Okay, so I need you to smile.”
Bucky gives him his best shit-eating grin. “What kind? I got a million of ‘em.”
Steve laughs, though it sounds sad, even to his ears. “I know you do, Buck. Look, um, daydream with me for a sec, okay? Pretend you’re at home, okay? You just woke up, slept real good last night. Coffee’s brewing, you can smell breakfast cooking. You’ve got the whole day ahead of you.”
And like magic, that sweet smile curls the corner of Bucky’s lips.
“Pretend you get to wake up like this every day. Picture your life exactly like you want it.” Steve scoots to the edge of the chair, his knees bumping Bucky’s. He feels himself being pulled closer, like a moth to a flame.
“That’s easy,” Bucky murmurs. His gaze drops down to the mug in his hands and back up again. “As long as I get to be one half of an old married couple.”
Steve stills, fingers barely holding the pencil, as Bucky leans forward just an inch, brushing the tip of his nose against Steve’s. His eyes are bright, like twin pools of light, and his mouth is right there, warm and inviting. But Steve knows this is just a daydream, and he’s got to wake up before one of them gets hurt.
“Bucky, I--- You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“What?” The hurt on Bucky’s face is the first crack across Steve’s fragile heart.
“You’re still injured, Buck. You don’t know who you are. You could be married, you could have children. You have a life, somewhere that isn’t here.”
“You don’t know that,” Bucky pulls back, and Steve’s heart fractures a little more, fault lines forming in its wake. “You can’t know that.”
“All I’m saying is that I let myself take advantage of you, of our friendship, and it was wrong. We comforted each other because we needed to, but you’ve got to go home, Bucky.”
“What do you mean, Steve? You didn’t-- I’m not an invalid ,” he says, hurt, anger turning his soft gray eyes cold in a flash, using Steve’s words against him. “I might not remember where I came from, but that doesn’t mean you get to tell me what’s good for me.”
“I’m just doing what’s right, what I should have done the very first night you got here. I should have never kept you here, trapped you here.” Steve pushes the chair back, feeling like his chest is splitting apart, curses his unreliable lungs as they start to tighten and clench, a reedy wheeze coming out of him as he stands.
“Oh that’s rich, Steve. You actually think you’ve kept me locked in your tower against my will like some helpless princess?” Bucky stands, his bare chest nearly pressed against Steve’s own.
Steve can’t look him in the eyes, knows his resolve will crumble the moment he does. “I fixed the radio,” he murmurs. “while you were sleeping. We can call the mainland in the morning.”
“You can’t do that, Steve. They’ll know,” Bucky says fiercely, reaching for Steve, then pulling his hand away. Steve feels like his heart is about to shear clean in half.
“I’m just doing what’s right, Bucky. What’s best for everyone,” he says, his voice flat.
Bucky steps impossibly closer, their faces just inches apart again. “You don’t think I know what I’m doing here?” he whispers. “You think I don’t know what’s best for me?”
A resounding crack splits the silence between them, and Steve’s breath freezes in his throat. He dashes to the window, peering out through the rain when he sees it: a vessel aflame on the tossing waves, no different than the one that brought Bucky to him.
He blinks, rubs his eyes even. Has he allowed himself to get so caught up in the daydream that he’s locked himself in a vacuum of time?
But it’s there, as real as the sweat on his palms and the gaze on his back as Bucky crosses the room and looks out the window behind him.
“You see it, right? The flame?”
“Yeah, what the hell is it?” Bucky asks, peering closer.
Something dark and heavy churns in Steve’s stomach, but he forces himself to move, going to the door and grabbing his gear.
“What are you doing, Steve?”
“I’ve gotta go out there, Buck. Somebody could be in trouble.”
“You can’t. Something’s not right and you know it,” Bucky hisses, standing over him. He grabs Steve by the shoulders. “Look at me! You can’t go out there. You barely made it back alive with me, you said it yourself. What if it’s trouble?”
He shakes Bucky off, pulling his cap on his head. “This is my job, Buck,” he grits out, doing up his buttons. “I took an oath.” Even if no one was around to hear it.
“If you’re going down there I’m coming with you.”
“NO!” Steve snaps, puts a hand on Bucky’s chest and firmly pushes him back. “You’re still healing, and I can’t let you go out there and get hurt.”
“I can’t let you go out there and get killed! Listen to me, Steve.” Bucky’s eyes are wild, breath coming faster as he towers over him. “Whatever that is, it’s bad. Please. Don’t go out there.”
“Say it’s bad. Say it’s evil. We stay here, then it’s coming in after us,” he whispers, holding Bucky’s gaze. “And I can’t let anything happen to you. So for once in your life, stay here .”
He can’t help himself, he reaches for Bucky’s chin, holds it in his grasp until he rips himself away and out the quarter doors, locking it shut behind him. He pretends the howling he leaves behind is the wind, and not Bucky yelling his name in vain.
The wind tears at Steve’s clothes like a feral creature trying to drag him away. He holds the lantern up to eye level, taking step after step toward the ocean, his eyes searching the dark waves.
Bucky was right and he knows it; he feels the ominous sense of dread in his gut as he steps further into the night. But if someone is out here, lost at sea, it’s Steve’s duty to save their life, good or bad.
Except now that he’s on the ground, the sea is dark again, no sign of life whatsoever. He scans the shore, searching for the roaring flame that he saw through the window. Despite it being surrounded by water, there’s no way such a large flame could be doused so quickly, could it?
Steve makes it down to the sand, waves crashing around his knees and into his rubber boots, the water making his feet even heavier. He keeps scanning the skyline and the shore, hand shielding his eyes from the pelting rain and sea spray.
He dredges through the hungry waves, back and forth across the shore, but the open water is dark and empty. He turns to look over his shoulder and suddenly he sees it.
There’s a dark shape just down the beach, the figure of a man stooped in the water. He’s moving slowly, like he’s searching for something, or trying to make it up to shore.
“Hello!” Steve cries, hand cupped to his mouth. “Hello?! Wait there, I’m coming! I can help you.”
He takes off across the beach, his boots like stones sinking in the wet sand. He feels like he’ll be chest deep in the mud before he reaches the man who’s less than fifty yards away.
Steve’s water-filled boots catch on a clump of hidden seagrass and send him sprawling, the lantern flying out of his hand and landing several feet in front of him with a crash. The light is immediately doused and the glass shatters. He pushes himself up, fingers sinking in the wet sand and his breath rattling in uneven gasps. Something cold crawls over the back of his neck that has nothing to do with the pounding rain. When Steve finally clambers to his feet, the figure is gone.
He calls again and again, making his way to where he knows a figure had stood in the pounding surf. He isn’t crazy, someone was there. They can’t have vanished into thin air.
Steve swings around, eyes searching the lighthouse grounds. Are they hiding? Are they watching him right now? Are they climbing the steps of the lighthouse and coming for Bucky?
Panic crawls up this throat, a live and vicious thing that threatens to take Steve’s sanity. His heart thunders and he greedily sucks in breath after breath.
Suddenly, the door to the lighthouse swings open, and Bucky’s silhouette appears in the doorway. Steve lurches forward and runs back toward the lighthouse.
He darts up the steps and barrels into Bucky. Together they slam the steel door shut and twist the handle, tumblers sliding into place with a loud creak.
Steve doubles over, coughing and gasping for air. Bucky grabs him by the lapels of his jacket, his eyes wide and terrified, and such a welcome sight Steve could cry.
“ FUCK, Steve! What the fuck where you thinking?!”
“It’s my job, Buck, I gotta--”
“I don’t give a shit, you punk , you could have died!”
Steve can’t help it, he’s so happy Bucky is safe and warm and here , that he can’t help but grin up at Bucky. “‘S good thing I didn’t then, huh?”
Bucky sputters, clutching a hand in his own hair. “Dammit, Steve! You just...you--!”
He yanks Steve forward until they’re pressed together from head to toe. He pushes his forehead to Steve’s, and now they’re breathing in each other’s air. Steve feels like he’s about to go tumbling over the edge of something big, and he wants Bucky with him when he falls. He curls his hands into Bucky’s sweater, and Bucky lurches forward and presses their mouths together.
Steve is soaked to the bone, and they’re clutching each other here in the damp, frigid first floor of the lighthouse while wind and rain roars outside around them, but he has never been warmer. Bucky holds him tight against his body, like he’s afraid if he relaxes, Steve will be gone.
Steve lets his hands reach up and cup Bucky’s face. Their mouths move together as fluidly as the ocean waves, strong and sure and hungry.
They pull away for air, but still clutch each other tightly. Bucky looks like he isn’t sure if he wants to kiss him some more or knock his lights out, and all Steve can do is grin like a fool.
“You do that again and I’m going to clobber you,” Bucky growls, his mouth on Steve’s again as they stumble toward the stairs. “Couldn’t see a damn thing, didn’t know where you went and I had no way of finding you. What if you… What if you were…” His chest heaves and Steve pulls Bucky close again, his face turning into Steve’s neck.
“Shh, shh, I’m fine, I’m here now, Buck. I’m sorry I left, I’m real sorry I scared you Bucky. I’m right here,” he murmurs, pressing kiss after kiss along the side of Bucky’s neck, giddy with the thought that he’s doing this, he’s touching Bucky, he’s kissing Bucky.
He doesn’t know when they tumbled back into the upstairs quarters until the door shuts heavily behind them, punctuated by a peal of thunder. The room is dark, but sharp flashes of lightning brighten the room in fits and bursts, allowing Steve to see the lean planes of muscle beneath his hands and the bright, hungry look in Bucky’s eyes. He wants to look as badly as he wants to map out Bucky’s body with his mouth, afraid if he stops kissing him the moment will be gone. Bucky backs them up slowly until Steve feels the backs of his knees touch the bed. He sits, but Bucky pulls away, a reassuring hand on his face. He’s gone for only a moment, until Steve hears the strike of a match and suddenly the room is filled with a warm glow, Bucky having lit the kerosene lamp again.
Now, bathed in light, Steve can see all of him, and he can’t keep the grin off his face. It must be contagious, because Bucky grins back, little crinkles around his eyes. He’d put on a pair of pants and a shirt which hangs open, thrown over his shoulders in his haste to get downstairs.
“Every day,” Bucky breathes, eyes roaming up and down Steve’s body as he sits on the bed, his heartbeat thudding in his throat like a caged hummingbird, “you undress me, you tend to me, care for me. You touch me,” he whispers, stepping closer, his eyes boring down into Steve’s. Then Bucky slowly lowers himself to one knee before the bed, like he’s a suitor asking for his lover’s hand in marriage. The thought makes Steve shudder. But Bucky lowers himself to both knees, placing his hands almost reverently in Steve’s lap. Steve’s mouth runs dry.
“I think it’s about time I got to do the same, don’t you?”
Bucky licks his lips, and Steve’s lungs freeze. He can’t think, can’t move, can only watch the slick slide of Bucky’s tongue over those sinful lips and what Bucky wants to do with them.
Somehow he manages a nod, and feels Bucky’s hands reach for the belt of his uniform pants.
The clink of metal is akin to a gunshot in the silent room, the raging storm outside long forgotten. When his belt is free, Bucky frees the buttons of his pants one at a time, spreading the fly and thumbing open the button of Steve’s shorts.
Steve’s skin is aflame when Bucky wraps his cool fingers around his length and pulls him out into the open air. He looks his fill, staring at Steve unabashedly and then looking up at him from his lap with a gleam in his eye that has Steve fighting back the beginnings of an asthma attack.
His fingers are perfect as they wrap around Steve’s length, Bucky’s calloused thumb stroking the head as he moves his hand gently, touching Steve like he’s exploring him there. Like it’s something to be marvelled at.
“Has anyone ever touched you like this?” he asks quietly, his hand slowly pumping Steve’s shaft, catching the clear fluid that leaks from the tip and smearing it along the way. That punches Steve’s breath out of his throat.
“N-no, no one,” he replies, feeling a little cross-eyed. “Only me.”
“Well don’t I feel lucky then,” Bucky murmurs, grin tugging at the corners of his mouth, and it’s that same, boyish grin that makes Steve weak at the knees, that makes his heart soar with joy. Once he realizes that it’s Bucky, his Bucky , both the smoldering eyes and the Cheshire grin, his breath comes rushing out of him like opened floodgates. He moans, long and loud, and that seems to just egg Bucky on.
“I am,” Bucky confirms, as if Steve was questioning him instead of melting into the bed. His eyes are locked on Steve’s as he rubs his thumb just behind the slit of Steve’s cock, right where he likes it.
Steve can only gasp in response, the feeling of Bucky’s touch more than he can process.
“You take such good care of me, Steve. You’re so kind to me, always give me what I need,” he licks his lips once more, watching Steve’s face with apprehension. “Can I take care of you now?”
Steve thinks if he nods, Bucky will keep touching him, pumping his shaft until God knows what will happen, but then Bucky’s taking the head of Steve’s cock in his warm, wet mouth, and Steve very nearly folds over on top of him, letting out an embarrassing sound. He nearly rips the sheets in his fingers, and damn if he can’t feel Bucky smiling around his cock.
“ Bucky, ” Steve groans, sinking his hand automatically into thick brown hair and tightening his fingers.
Bucky lets out a low moan around the base of Steve’s cock, and isn’t that something? Steve scratches gently at Bucky’s scalp and tries to keep from leaping off the bed as Bucky softly tastes the length of him with his tongue, working him over again and again.
Steve can feel the hot tingle of an orgasm at the base of his spine, and he wants desperately to thrust into the warmth of Bucky’s mouth when Bucky puts his hands at the waist of Steve’s pants, working them down his thighs with his shorts, revealing more of Steve’s milky white skin.
“W-what...what are you…?”
Bucky pulls off of him with a gentle pop. “I wanna see you, Rogers,” he says simply, echoing Steve’s words from earlier. But why in the world would Bucky want to see him? He’s nothing like Bucky, stick-thin and sickly, where Bucky is curved with lean muscle, strong and healthy despite his numerous injuries. Bucky is tanned from the sun, where Steve is freckled from sunburn; he has round cheeks and a dimpled chin, where Steve is angular and sharp. Nobody wants to cuddle him or hold him close. Loving Steve’s body would be akin to nuzzling pin cushion.
“What, you think I’m just doin’ you a favor, pal?” Bucky says, his face suddenly serious as he reaches for the first button of Steve’s shirt, his thumb brushing the smooth, soft skin of Steve’s chest with reverence. “Because don’t misunderstand me when I tell you, you’re not the only one who watches someone sleep.”
Steve’s mouth falls open, gaping up at Bucky as he opens one button after another, nosing along the bare skin he reveals. He looks up at Steve as he places a soft kiss on Steve’s stomach, those big gray eyes looking as innocent as an altar boy’s, but Steve knows better.
It suddenly hits him that he wants to know Bucky, all of Bucky. Wants to see every curve of his lips and every emotion that crosses his face, not just now when Bucky’s tucked between his legs, but every day. It scares him, but when Bucky nuzzles against his skin before licking a stripe up his chest like an overeager puppy, Steve thinks it’s worth the risk.
With shaking fingers, he pushes Bucky’s shirt off his shoulders and slides his hands down to run over Bucky’s skin, relishing in the fact that he can touch and let his hands linger. Steve pulls him up until he can capture Bucky’s mouth with his own, the larger man trying to loom over him but forgetting about his injured arm. Bucky lets out a broken whimper, falling to one elbow as Steve catches him.
“Hey, Buck, slow down,” Steve cautions, rolling Bucky onto his good side. He looks a little disappointed, but he recovers quickly, pulling their bodies flush together. Steve wonders how he’s ever lived a day in his life not knowing how it feels to have another warm body pressed against his own. It’s almost more than he can bear.
Bucky’s fingers explore every inch of him, stroking his skin as they kiss, and Steve lifts his hesitant hands to do the same. What a wonder to be able to touch someone anywhere, to pull back and admire the planes of Bucky’s chest, to brush his fingers over his hip bones, and to be the one to hear the quiet sound Bucky makes when he does.
Bucky’s fingers trail down Steve’s back, and Steve can’t help but rut into the warmth of Bucky’s hips, his cock leaking on the rough material of Bucky’s trousers. His breathing is rough, like an oncoming asthma attack, but he’s never felt more alive.
Bucky’s fingers find his chin, lifting it so he can look him in the eye as his hand cups Steve’s ass, fingers gently stroking the skin. Steve blushes at the thought of Bucky pressing his fingers deeper, yet hopes that he will.
“Tell me what you want,” Bucky murmurs.
“You,” Steve manages, cursing Bucky for keeping him pinned like this; holding his chin fast so Steve can’t look away as one of Bucky’s fingers dips between his cheeks.
“Good thing I’m right here. What else?”
Steve swallows, his eyes on Bucky’s collarbones.
“You want me to touch you?”
Steve nods, biting his lip.
“Where?” Bucky rasps, their faces impossibly close.
“You know where, you asshole,” Steve snaps, trying not to squirm and failing.
Bucky barks out a laugh. “Sure I do, but I ain’t doin’ a thing unless I know you want it.” He kisses Steve softly on the cheek.
“I...I want you to touch me. I do.” he stutters, pushing his ass back into Bucky’s hand as a context clue. “Th-there.”
“Okay, sweetheart, I will. You got anything to ease the way?”
Steve nods his head toward the nightstand at the head of the bed, and Bucky pushes up onto his good elbow to rifle through the drawer, coming up with a small tin of Vaseline.
“Stevie!” Bucky stage-whispers, grinning mischievously. “What have we here?”
He feels like his cheeks are about to burst into flames. He shrugs weakly.
Bucky presses a gentle kiss beneath Steve’s jaw, the room silent except for their breathing. “You use this on yourself?” he mouths against Steve’s skin.
Steve nods, a shiver running down his back. He hears the faint scrape of metal.
Bucky tugs him close, holding Steve with his good arm while he slicks the fingers of his left. “Let me?” He whispers, his gaze sure even as Steve notices the soft pink blush on Bucky’s cheeks.
He nudges Steve’s thighs apart, finding the tight furl of muscle at his center. He coaxes Steve open with teasing brushes of his finger until he’s breaching him, and the tight, burning ache feels good, so good.
Steve sucks on the skin of Bucky’s throat, wondering how he can ever make Bucky feel this good.
Bucky stretches him open with one finger, then two, driving him crazy with the slow, punishing pace that refuses to let up, even when Steve becomes a writhing, panting mess in Bucky’s arms.
“Tell me,” Bucky begs, smiling down at Steve as he crooks his fingers and Steve cries out, overcome. “Tell me what you want, sweetheart.”
“Please, Bucky, more,” he begs, feeling as if he’s about to crawl out of his skin. “I want...I want…”
“What do you want?”
“I want you inside, Bucky, please, dammit!” He’s gasping, tugging at Bucky’s hair, his open trousers, desperate for more.
Bucky’s fingers pull out of Steve, one hand rubbing circles into his skin as he stands to push pants and shorts down his legs.
Steve watches him, Bucky’s body covered in mottled scars and various bandages and wrappings, but no less beautiful. Bucky drapes himself back over Steve, their naked bodies slotting together as Bucky settles back onto his good arm, slicking his cock with the other. Steve steadies him with a hand at his hip. He almost wants to pinch himself to make sure this is real, if Bucky is real. His tanned, toned body, a face that could woo anyone, and yet here he is, sharing this with Steve.
Steve feels the blunt press of Bucky’s cock, and his thighs tremble as he holds himself back.
“You want this?” Bucky asks.
“Yeah,” Steve breathes. Bucky licks his lips, pupils blown.
“Promise you’ll stop me if it hurts, okay? If it doesn’t feel good, if you don’t--”
Bucky laughs, sounding a little strangled, and Steve stretches forward to kiss him. Bucky presses into him then, sliding in inch by inch until he’s seated inside.
Steve has never felt so full, or so perfectly satisfied. As Bucky starts to move inside him, the sounds of their labored breathing and slick skin moving against one another fill the small quarters. Here, amidst the storm and spray on their tiny island, it feels as if they are the only two people in the world, and for just a moment, Steve lets himself believe it.
A few hours later, Steve rouses and unwinds his limbs from Bucky’s, shuffling over to relieve himself in the chamber pot in the corner. The kerosene lamp has burned out, leaving the room cloaked in darkness.
Steve sees a flash of light out of the corner of his eye near the window, maybe coming from the dark seas, but then Bucky shifts in his sleep and Steve easily ignores anything else. Instead, he slides back beneath the covers, pressing a kiss to Bucky’s temple and smiling as he nestles back into his embrace.
Steve is surprised how easy it is to live with someone again, especially since he’d gone for so long on his own. When his mother died, he’d only just gotten to the point where his healthy days outnumbered his bed-ridden ones, and even that had been over five years ago.
He’d been afraid that the dawn would bring the stress of reality with the light of day. Yet when he opened his eyes to see Bucky propped up on his good arm and watching Steve sleep, a peacefulness in his eyes and absent smile at his lips, Steve knows that nothing has changed.
“You’re beautiful.” It jolts out of him, like a frog leaping from his cupped hands. Steve’s voice even sounds like a croak, rough with sleep.
Bucky’s dimple deepens, his gaze turning to fall on his battered shoulder. “Says you.”
“I ain’t doin’ you any favors, Barnes,” Steve murmurs, echoing Bucky’s words from last night. He leans to press a kiss to Bucky’s warm skin, breathing in his scent. “I mean it.”
Bucky is silent for a moment, his eyes roaming down over his own bared body. He swallows, and Steve sees something settle in his eyes.
“Okay,” he says quietly. “Okay.”
It’s a sheer wonder at the amount of joy one person can get from being able to give and receive affection whenever one desires it. Like Tuesday morning, for example, while Steve’s cooking breakfast and Bucky is scrubbing the coffee pot in the sink, Steve just leans over and presses his lips to Bucky’s neck, mouthing at the skin just because he can. Or later, when they’re out in the garden, Steve plucking stray weeds from the crooked rows, and Bucky, who’s supposed to be gathering eggs from the girls, seems to materialize out of nowhere to squeeze Steve’s ass. It startles him so much he topples into the cabbage, head over heels, Bucky cackling along with the hens as Steve sputters in the dirt.
It really manages to take his breath away one night when Bucky follows him up to the lantern room. Their bodies are illuminated on the observation deck as Bucky presses Steve against the fresnel lenses. He sinks to his knees and Steve’s gasps are stolen away by the whipping sea breeze. What a marvel it is to love and be loved in return.
One day, Steve finds himself caught up on his chores (mostly due to having a second set of hands). After breakfast he throws a long-sleeved shirt at Bucky and grabs his mother’s faded wicker picnic basket. He tugs Bucky down the stairs and out the door.
It’s rare that Steve leaves the yard, let alone the lighthouse, but today he takes Bucky down an old path to the beach, the trail almost completely covered by sand and sea grass.
“I haven’t been down here since right after Ma passed,” he tells Bucky. He’s still got ahold of his hand as they trip down the path, stumbling over soft piles of sand. “We used to come down here all the time.”
“I think… I think I used to go to the beach at home,” Bucky starts, eyes squinting forward like the memory is up ahead if he can only make it out over the sunlight. “I remember lots of people and hot sand and having to wait for everybody to catch up.”
“Did you live in the city? Or you have a big family, maybe?” Steve asks, watching Bucky worry his lip in concentration.
“Yeah, I think I did. When I try to think about home I remember an apartment, and I remember it being noisy. I can’t see faces though,” he sighs, but he looks less sad now than he usually does when they talk about Bucky’s memories. “I know I had a ma. I just… I just know,” he says, rubbing his chest absently, and Steve nods. He knows. Mothers tend to lodge themselves in your soul and refuse to budge, living or otherwise.
“It’ll come back to you, Buck,” he promises, squeezing Bucky’s fingers.
“I know. I just wish I knew if they were out there. If they know I’m missing. Wonder if they’re looking for me,” he mutters, lips pulling one side.
Worry pools in Steve’s gut, and guilt is quick on its heels. He’s often thought about the fact that Bucky has a family outside of the tiny world Steve has built around himself, and it’s ridiculous to believe that he can just keep Bucky here like this when he could have people outside of the island worrying that he’s hurt, or worse, dead. This life Steve’s allowed himself to grow comfortable with is no more than a snow globe scene, and one day the glass is going to break.
But for now, Steve lets the sour feeling of dread be swept away when the ocean peeks over the top of the dunes, the waves crashing against miles and miles of secluded beach. Bucky crows with delight, and Steve lets the sunshine of his excitement soothe the aches of his own heart.
Bucky races toward the surf, towing Steve along behind him like an overeager puppy on a leash.
“Don’t get your arm wet!” Steve calls when Bucky breaks lose and splashes into the water, kicking and cackling and waving for Steve to join him. His clothes get soaked as he stands in hip-deep water. Steve laughs, shucking off his pants and shirt to wade in after Bucky in his shorts.
Bucky grabs for him, pulling their bodies flush, the combination of cool water and warm skin sending goosebumps racing over Steve’s skin. Bucky kisses him firmly, his large palm cupping Steve’s jaw as the waves lap hungrily at their legs.
Bucky’s fingers go to his buttons, yanking off his shirt despite the sun. He pulls off his trousers and tosses them back on the sand with Steve’s clothes and the basket before sauntering back toward Steve with a look in his eyes that’s nothing short of dangerous.
He tucks a finger into the waistband of Steve’s shorts, a thumb coming to rest over the button that’s protruding outward, the one covering Steve’s cock.
“Why’ve you still got your shorts on, Stevie?” he asks with a smirk, like Steve’s outside in a mink coat instead of his damned skivvies.
“Because I’m gonna go swimming, you punk,” he laughs, swallowing thickly when Bucky steps closer, sliding his palm down Steve’s front and the entirety of his cock. The feel of the damp cotton is rough on his sensitive skin.
“Why not take them off? Ain’t nobody around but the fishes.” Bucky grins, and Steve’s eyes widen in realization.
“B-Buck…” He chokes like he’s swallowed a mouthful of seawater. “I can’t--”
“C’mon,” Bucky breathes, pressing his forehead to Steve’s with a sharp grin, a gleam in his eye. “I won’t let you get too much sun.” He tucks his thumb deeper into Steve’s waistband and tugs.
“C’mon, honey,” Bucky says again, and Steve gasps in a breath. “You like that, huh? You like when I call you that, baby? You like when I’m sweet on you?” Bucky’s lips move to the join of Steve’s neck and shoulder, lapping sea salt from his skin.
Steve feels like there’s a vice around his heart and his cock, and damn Bucky for both. He manages a nod, gaze flicking up to Bucky’s and back down to where he’s pulling Steve’s shorts lower and lower, the sparse hair at the base of his cock showing now. Bucky raises his eyebrows and Steve nods, whimpering when the air hits his exposed skin. Steve steps out of them, and Bucky lets the shorts drop in the sand, as Steve is laid bare before him.
It’s different, different than when Bucky has taken him naked in the bed or undressed him in his chair in their quarters, or even when Bucky took him out of his trousers on the observation deck. This is on the beach, technically out in public where anyone could see him; a passing boat or the rare tourist could see his aching cock, so hard it’s curving toward his stomach.
“Look at you,” Bucky whispers in his ear, a hand on Steve’s hip as he holds him back, inviting them to look down at Steve’s exposed body, his cheeks burning hotter than the sun.
“Bucky,” he whines, trying to hide his face, but Bucky holds him back.
“You’re so damned lovely, Steve, can’t you see it?” He finally takes pity and hoists Steve into his arms, kissing down his bony chest. Bucky kneels in the sand and lays him out over their discarded clothes. He thrusts his clothed cock into the vee of Steve’s thighs before pulling away, drowning out Steve’s complaints with a searing kiss.
“So why do I have to be in the altogether and you get to keep your shorts on, Barnes?” Steve gripes, squirming under Bucky’s gaze.
Bucky draws the pad of his thumb over one of Steve’s nipples, and his quiet “ah, ah” is nearly drowned out by the crashing waves. Bucky smiles before drawing the nipple into his mouth, his eyes never leaving Steve’s as he sucks on it.
“Because you’re so gorgeous, see, and I wanted the whole world to see it,” he says against Steve’s skin, pressing his lips down, down, down, leaving a trail of wetness until he reaches his cock. Steve’s precariously close to begging, and Bucky knows it, his fingers holding Steve’s hips firmly against the sand. Bucky runs his nose along Steve’s length, and he suddenly wishes he could capture this moment and hold it forever.
“What if I don’t want the whole world, what if I just want you?” Steve asks, sounding petulant even to himself.
Bucky pulls away suddenly to search his face, and Steve can’t even pretend to hide from him.
“Whatcha talkin’ about? I’m right here, Stevie, you got me.”
Steve swallows, shrugging. His cock is still hard and leaking, but now his head is buzzing with shame instead of lust, willing Bucky to shut up and take him into his mouth and stop reading his damn mind.
Instead, he feels a sharp nip on his inner thigh, and he lets out a yelp. “Hey! What was that for?!”
Bucky’s arms come up to box him in, his face inches away. “Would you for once in your self-deprecating life let yourself be happy, and enjoy it?”
Steve huffs out a breath, eyes focused on Bucky’s collarbones. Bucky knocks their foreheads together gently.
“You know I don’t just want you because you’re the only warm body around, right? I may not remember much, but I know I had a life before I washed up on the beach. And you wanna know somethin’ else?”
Bucky jerks Steve upright, and kneels in front of him. Steve blinks against the sun, a little lightheaded.
“I would spend the rest of my days with you, whether it was only the two of us here on this island, or if I had to share you with a million strangers in the city. If I bumped my head again and remembered my whole life, start to finish, I’d still pick you. I would find you in a crowd or in the middle of the ocean, and I’d still pick you, every day, ‘til the end of the line. You hear me?” He tugs on Steve’s wrists for emphasis, but Steve can’t speak, not yet anyway, not when his throat is tight and a lump is trying to force its way out.
“Now would you lay back and let me love on you, sweetheart?” Bucky murmurs. “Whatta you say we give the seagulls a little show?”
Steve groans and Bucky beams, pushing him back in the sand and finally ridding himself of his damned shorts.
“Shit,” Bucky curses over Steve’s groans when he finally takes him into his hand. “I didn’t pack appropriately.” He licks his palm like an afterthought, and Steve cries out softly from the slick touch.
“Ch-check...check the basket,” he manages, and Bucky keeps rubbing him as he stretches over to tug it closer.
Upon further inspection, Bucky finds the tin of Vaseline and he crows louder than the gulls circling over head.
“Steven Grant Rogers, you sly bastard!” He grins like the cat who caught the canary, and crowds close to Steve, lips mouthing against his ear as he says, “Now how could you think I would ever want to be anywhere else when I could be right here?”
They spend the rest of the day in the water or stretched on the beach, their naked bodies tingling and raw from sand and salt, feeding each other bites of hearty sandwiches, cold, salty pickles, and plump hard-boiled eggs. They swim together like two dolphins, playing and splashing and diving after each other, wrestling in the surf, that turns into ragged moans and bruising kisses and the cool slide of one wet body against another. Steve finds he never wants to forget the feeling of his bare skin pressed against Bucky’s as he holds him in the water, the ebb and flow of the tide gently swaying them as they cling to one another.
It’s the perfect day, the best Steve has had for as long as he can remember. He’s watching the sun go down over the shore, the colors painting the sky and his head in Bucky’s lap when it hits him.
“Fuck! The light!”
It had been dark by the time Steve made it up to the lantern room and lit the flame. The ocean waves are an inky black as they crash angrily against the rocks below. Steve is sick with guilt and twice as angry at himself.
“It’s my fault. I should’ve looked at the time,” Bucky says over dinner, trying to console him.
“No, Buck, I’m the Keeper! My life literally revolves around the light. It’s my responsibility.” He tugs angrily at his hair, pushing peas around on his plate.
Bucky nudges his foot under the table. “We didn’t see anyone out there, Steve. No one got hurt. Everything’s fine.”
Steve just watches him across the table, his mind still reeling. How could he forget something that he does every day? The Light is like an extension of himself, it structures everything that he does. He doesn’t know what’s worse, the fact that he let nearly an hour of darkness blanket the Cape or that he ruined such a great day with Bucky by forgetting the one job that he has.
This is why they would take the Light from him, he thinks. And maybe they should, hell, he barely made it up the stairs today to make it to the light. He’s too weak and apparently too damned stupid to keep the place running.
“Cut it out, Rogers. Your pity party is turned up so loud it’s blowin’ my hair back.”
Steve only manages a scowl, but even that feels more muleish than mean.
“Seriously, everyone makes mistakes, Steve. You deserve this job because you’re great at it.” Bucky leans across the table and cups Steve’s jaw with one hand. “I mean, look at this place. If you weren’t doing your job, it would be falling down around us, but it’s far from it. Give yourself a little credit, huh?”
Steve sighs, leaning into Bucky’s touch. He nods, but he still can’t shake the heavy feeling in his gut. He feels like something’s coming, something’s changing, and he feels helpless to stop it.
They wash the dishes and Bucky digs out Steve’s battered deck of cards, dealing out round after round until the oil in the lamp is running low.
The moon is full and coming in through the window just enough to cast a glow over the bed and across the floor. Bucky’s been humming a tune for the past half hour or so, easy grin on his face as he pushes to his feet and sticks his hand out to Steve wordlessly.
Steve lets himself be pulled onto the floor, Bucky’s low timbre humming in his ears and settling in his chest. He presses his cheek to Bucky’s chest as he’s spun around in lazy circles, like they’re two lovers in a dance hall and the band is playing one last slow song.
“Do you know this one?” Bucky asks, stopping to take a breath. He holds Steve in his arms, murmuring in his hair.
“Nah, but it’s pretty.”
“I can’t remember the last part.” Bucky hums it again and again, like a broken record. “Wait, I think---”
A heavy thump cuts through the night, followed by the ping of metal striking metal coming from downstairs. It rings out again and again, rhythmically, and it’s been so long since Steve had heard any noises coming from the lighthouse itself that it takes him a minute to put two and two together.
“Steve,” Bucky whispers, going still in his arms. “Someone’s trying to get in.”
Steve stands frozen, but he knows it’s true. It’s the unmistakable sound of someone trying to get through the heavy iron door.
“It’s nearly impenetrable,” he tells Bucky, the two of them scrambling around the room for weapons. “We should be fine; it’ll take them hours to get in at this rate.”
Steve finds a hunting knife in the cabinet and hands it to Bucky, who tucks it into his pants. He pulls out a revolver, a Colt single-action Army, andhands it to Bucky.
“It’s all I’ve got,” he says, watching Bucky turn the weapon over in his hands. “I’ve never shot it before. Never…” he swallows, suddenly embarrassed. “Never shot a gun in my life. So it’s better you have it.”
Bucky nods, flipping open the chamber with familiarity to reveal six bullets before he snaps it closed. “Well, you fire this thing one time and it’d probably knock your socks off, Stevie.” Bucky elbows him, trying for a laugh, but it falls flat. Steve swallows heavily as the striking metal stops suddenly.
“Who in the hell would be trying to get in, anyway?” Steve asks, pressing himself to one side of the bedroom door while Bucky mirrors him on the other. “Whoever it is knows we’re up here, surely they could see the light from the window if they’re looking. Lighthouse keepers aren’t exactly known for their riches.”
Bucky crosses to the window, the light from the moon painting his face ghost-white.
“Maybe they’re not here for you. What if they’re here for me?”
Steve dashes across the room, snatching up the receiver for the radio. He thinks of all the times that he’d hidden it away, of the time that he’d smashed the processor on the inside to sever his ties from anyone who could tear down the walls he’d so carefully built for himself.
But now he looks over at Bucky, his handsome face staring out the window, searching for what could be coming for them. And he presses the button to initiate the call.
“Mainland, this is Steve Rogers, I repeat, this is Steve Rogers, Keeper of the Light. I need assistance--”
A loud boom ricochets up the stairwell and fills the room, leaving Steve’s ears ringing. He knows they’re coming, hears shouts from down below through the door of their quarters.
“Mayday, Mayday!” Steve shouts into the receiver. “We are under attack. I repeat, the lighthouse is under attack. Mainland, do you copy?”
Steve hears footsteps thundering up the stairs, and he feels like fingers are closing around his throat. His eyes search the room for something, anything, and he grabs the heavy cast iron skillet from the stove, the same one he fried eggs in for Bucky just this morning. He turns it over in his hands. It’s sturdy enough to shield him from a close attack, but not so heavy that he can’t hold it in one hand. When he turns the skillet over, he sees a star engraved on the bottom, the logo of the manufacturer branded into the worn metal.
He meets Bucky’s eyes across the room, their precious time together slipping away like cupped water in Steve’s hands. He throws the receiver down and goes to stand against the door, steeling himself to open it.
Bucky grabs Steve by the front of the shirt and kisses him like he’s going off to war, and Steve wants so badly to hate him for it.
He clutches the makeshift shield in his hands and twists the handle to the door, his heart pounding in his ears.
They fall out into the stairwell, the skillet braced on Steve’s forearm and his father’s pistol aimed over his shoulder, held in Bucky’s hands. Two men come into view, the first firing a bullet that ricochets off the cast iron and bounces away. Bucky shoots, a bullet zooming straight through the man’s shoulder, while more bullets blast toward them, pinging off the brick walls causing chunks of stone to rain down. Steve shifts, trying to block them with his make-shift shield, and hears the ping-ping of each shot he manages to block, though he feels a scorching heat run up his leg and he knows he’s been hit somehow. Bucky fires once, twice, still as a stone above him, and the men fall on the steps.
There’s still ringing in his ears, the heavy tang of discharged gunpowder in the air, and Steve dares to look over his shoulder at Bucky, who’s gaze is still fixed on his immobilized targets.
“Buck, do you--”
“ не двигайся !” A voice rings out behind them. “Don’t move!”
The breath is punched out of Steve as he’s grabbed from behind and slammed against the bricks, a hand clamped down on the back of his neck and a knee against his back, which screams in protest. He swings out wildly with the skillet, only to have it snatched from his grasp. He hears Bucky swearing and struggling a few steps ahead, held captive by another man who barks orders at him in heavily accented English.
Steve’s captor holds him easily against the wall with one hand, cheek scraping against it. The man laughs, calling to his partner and waving the skillet like it’s a handkerchief.
“Look, the sergeant has found his princess in the tower! Has your wife been feeding you well with this, soldat?”
Steve’s face burns, and he squirms uselessly. He can just make out Bucky’s legs thrashing on the stairs, his captor and upper body obscured by the curve of the staircase. The men laugh, their voices echo against the walls and fill Steve’s ears, fueling his rage.
Effortlessly, the man lifts Steve and holds him beneath one arm as if he’s a surly house cat and begins climbing the stairs. Steve frees a hand and claws at his captor’s torso, only to hear the tell-tale sound of a hammer being cocked, cold metal to the nape of his neck.
“Hold still, little one. The show is just beginning.”
When they reach the top, Steve can already feel the heat from the lantern room, stifling in a way he’d never felt before. He thinks of the late hour he had rushed over to light it tonight and can’t believe he didn’t see it for the curse that it was. Up ahead, the door opens, and Bucky is dragged out onto the observation deck, the door slamming shut behind them.
“Stop the spinning,” Steve’s captor orders, prodding him roughly with the gun as he deposits Steve on the floor.
Steve looks up from his hands and knees, his eyes on the great flame and the large mirror spinning within the lenses.
“I-I can’t,” he tries, which earns him a boot to the ribs. He curls in on himself, his eyes watering.
“Wrong answer.” The man grabs him by the hair this time, forcing Steve to look forward. “All eyes are on your friend, and he needs some light. I’m not going to ask you again, boy.”
“You’re going to have to stop the gears,” Steve answers honestly, pointing to the grinding machine that keeps the reflector turning. “It won’t stop until the weight reaches the bottom, and that’s not going to happen until morning.”
With a heavy clang , the cast iron skillet hits the floor before him. “Go on then,” the man pushes him forward with his boot. “I’ll let you do the honors.”
Bucky hears the screeching of metal on metal from behind him, sounding like a dying animal, and he twists futilely against the rope tying him to the railing. The searing lenses are just behind him, and the flashing of the lighthouse has stopped.
“What do you want with the lighthouse?” he tries again, but the man who dragged him out to the observation deck is scanning the open ocean, searching for something in the dark waters.
He’s dressed all in black; the hat he’d been wearing whisked away by the wind as soon as they’d come out to the deck. He’d looped rope around Bucky’s waist, securing his right wrist behind him, but he’d strangely stretched out Bucky’s left arm and secured the wrist separately.
“Hey, do you hear me? What do you want?”
The man’s voice is calm, just loud enough so that Bucky can hear him over the whipping wind. “I am not here for the lighthouse, Sergeant Barnes. I am here for you.”
Bucky’s throat grows tight. The name, the title--the same one Steve had read to him so long ago on the tattered card he’d found in Bucky’s jacket.
“How do you know my name?”
“We know everything about you, Sergeant Barnes. As a matter of fact, we placed you here.”
The heat from the light bearing down Bucky’s back makes sweat run in cold rivulets over his skin. Just then, he makes out a structure in the water, illuminated by the light.
There, a few miles from the shore, a ship silently crawls into the light, almost graceful despite its size. Bucky hears no roaring engine, yet the large vessel moves until it’s positioned directly in the circle of light thrown across the water.
The man smiles, turning his sharp black eyes on Bucky. “It’s time.”
At first it’s just a pinprick in his forearm beneath the chafed skin and ugly scars and white bandages that Steve had wrapped over them tonight. Then the prick becomes an itch, the itch a burn, and all at once his arm is engulfed in pain, as though he’s burning from the inside out.
Bucky roars in pain, snatching at the restraints and slumping away, trying to dodge the light. He feels like a moth beneath a magnifying glass, knowing that somehow they’re using the light to burn him, though he doesn’t know how.
The heavy peal of a bell rings out over the crashing waves, louder than anything Bucky has ever heard. The burning in his arm vanishes, and the soldier laughs.
He’s practically giddy, crowing in delight and throwing up his hands.
Just then, the door opens and Steve is forced out, hands untied, yet clasped behind his back. The soldier’s partner leads him forward with a gun to his head, and Steve kneels near Bucky’s feet, pressing as close as he can.
They giggle like school girls, their eyes focused on the ship below, and Steve looks like he’s about to be sick.
“What did you do to him?” he snarls, spitting on their leather boots.
The men ignore Steve, instead embracing fiercely, laughing and chattering in a language Bucky doesn’t understand, yet the sound makes fear gnaw in his stomach. Now that the soldiers stand side-by-side, Bucky notices that the one that had forced him out onto the observation deck is taller, his dark overcoat long, hanging past his knees, while the other man is shorter and stockier, his uniform olive green in the light. Bucky’s captor has a leather belt around his waist and a leather valise is attached to it. He reaches inside and withdraws something small.
“Gentlemen, you are lucky,” he begins, voice raised over the wind. “You have just witnessed the future.”
He looks down at Steve, and Bucky itches to push him behind his body and shield him from the piercing eyes that look so familiar. He knows this face, somehow he’s seen it before.
The man unlatches the belt and starts to remove the overcoat, revealing a simple white shirt and dark pants beneath it. He slips the object he’s holding into his pocket and begins rolling up his sleeves.
“My home country is filled with exceptional minds, but unfortunately also with many fearful men. Luckily, a few were brave enough to form an organization that knows no fear. You see, there are more ways to find ships in the dark other than by light,” he says, grasping Steve’s chin almost tenderly and tilting it upwards. Steve practically snarls at him, and hot tears form in Bucky’s eyes as he pulls futilely at his bonds.
“Our scientists wanted to find a way to track ships with radio waves to hunt out our targets and to protect our vessels, and they succeeded. Of course, we kept these findings to ourselves. Too many brilliant men have stupidly shared their work with others and received nothing in return. Maxwell, Hertz, Marconi, Hülsmeyer.,” He counts the names off on his fingers. “ But then we thought, what if we could track men in the same way?”
He turns to smile at Bucky, and that’s when he sees it. A tattoo, the ink faded to blue but still stark against the pale inner skin of the man’s forearm. A creature with the head of a skull and six tentacled arms curled inward.
“Hydra,” Bucky breathes, and the memories slam into him with such force he feels like he’s drowning beneath them.
He now recalls the dark, silent ship that had overtaken them before they could even attempt to fight back and his brave men, Dum Dum, Falsworth, Dernier, Jones, and Morita, fighting fiercely beside him. There had been a clash of bodies and gunfire, the outcry of sharp, foreign voices, and then the burning of his ship. The fear of not knowing if his crew had lived or died.
He remembers it so vividly now that pain shoots behind his eyes: the dark paneled walls of the Russian ship, the seal of Hydra pinned on soldiers’ arms as they strapped him, bludgeoned and bloody, to an exam table, leather belts tight around his arms, torso, and legs. His left arm outstretched as it is now. And the pain, so much pain comes back to him now, the memory so bright and awful he nearly retches.
The soldier grabs his wrist now, loosens the rope, and Bucky can only sag against the railing as the man flicks open a small pocket knife to cut away his bandages. There, carefully hidden by burns and scars, he can make out now what can only be a surgical incision. The man pulls a glass syringe from his pocket.
“Our surgeons implanted you with a transmitter, Sergeant Barnes. We needed only to find a radio tower with which to suspend you, and the theory has been proven. Hydra found you, and now you belong to us. We have much more to discover together.”
He pulls the cap from the vial with his teeth, and Bucky watches in horror as he primes the needle. This is it, they’re going to drag him back into the hell, into the belly of the ship and keep him there forever, only now he knows what’s coming.
Bucky curls a hand around the railing behind him and remembers where he is. He thinks about the days he’s spent in the lighthouse, lost in his own mind and tenderly cared for by Steve; this strong, quiet spirit who’d opened his entire world to Bucky when he had no reason to. Who’d loved him just as fiercely as he’d fought to protect the very structure that would be Bucky’s demise.
He’s remembering the last time he’d pressed his lips to Steve’s and is wishing it hadn’t felt like goodbye when he hears a grunt and a scrape, only to look down to see Steve sprawled over top of the taller soldier, knobby elbows delivering blow after blow to the back of his head. He’s taken the guy’s knees out and tackled him, despite the Russian being nearly twice his size. The glass syringe shatters and its contents spilled on the stone floor.
The other soldier shouts and draws his gun, but Bucky is quicker. He strikes the man’s wrist with his freed left hand, and the pistol falls to the ground. Steve snatches it up quick as a flash and turns it on the soldier, elbows locked as he stares down the barrel. Before Bucky can take a breath, the gun goes off and the man falls to the ground, dead. The bullet hit him square in the chest.
The man beneath Steve stirs, face gashed open but still very much alive, and Steve seems frozen, staring at the crumpled man before him. Bucky grabs him before the soldier can overtake him, and Steve presses the gun into his hand, his pale face deathly white.
Bucky holds the remaining soldier at gunpoint while Steve unties him with shaking fingers. Once he’s free, they stand before the man, roles inexplicably reversed in what seemed like seconds. Bucky’s head is still reeling.
“You think yourself a free man, Sergeant Barnes, but Hydra will always come for you. I am but the first of many. Cut off one head, two more shall grow in its place.”
“That may be so,” Steve says, voice strangely calm, yet simmering with barely contained fury. “But we will always be here to fight it.”
“Not this time, I’m afraid,” the soldier says, his jaw working. “Whether the experiment survives or not, Hydra will destroy all evidence of it. That includes the lighthouse and it’s keeper,” he sneers.
Bucky dares a glance at Steve, whose gaze still burns into the man, though he doesn’t move. The bright light from the lens behind them illuminates his pale skin that he nearly glows as brightly as the light itself. Like a flame, Bucky thinks.
“You’ll pay for your crimes, and I’ll make sure of it that you never hurt anyone again,” Steve swears, dropping to his knees with the rope to secure the soldier’s hands.
Before he can finish the job, however, Bucky watches in horror as the soldier opens his mouth and pops loose a molar tooth, and bite down on it fiercely.
Foam fills his mouth, and he groans once, jerking minutely in Steve’s hands.
Cyanide. “Hail Hydra,” the soldier hisses, eyes glazing over as he succumbs to death. Steve jerks away from him as if he’s been burned, and Bucky pulls him gently away.
He’s reaching for the door of the lantern room when an explosion hits, so loud it throws them to the ground. Bucky curls Steve against him, groping blindly for the door. This is it, he thinks. They’re taking the lighthouse.
“We’ve gotta get downstairs, Steve, we gotta go,” he mutters, dragging Steve’s squirming body with him and ignoring his feeble protests, his stomach churning with fear and grief. He pounds down the stone steps, head ducked and waiting for the steps to collapse beneath him, but they never do. They rush past the door to the keeper’s quarters, and Bucky pretends not to think about the pair of mugs inside, the tattered playing cards. The rumpled, sleep-warm quilt.
They burst out of the door and there it is, the black, ominous ship Bucky had spotted before, somehow even larger now that he’s not seeing it from above.
Yet now, it is engulfed in flames.
“Holy shit, that’s Sam’s boat!” Steve cries, pointing east to where another vessel has approached Hydra’s ship, and Bucky can only nearly make out the movement of men on the decks of the small cargo ship. Just then, another shot fires from Sam’s boat, practically shooting the Hydra vessel backwards in the water.
Steve and Bucky are knocked to the ground again, covering their ringing ears, and the final shot is just enough to send Hydra into the depths, the crackle and hiss of the burning structure so close, Bucky can feel the heat of it.
Bucky thinks suddenly of the Howlies and Dernier, his explosives specialist, sees his face so clearly Bucky can hardly believe the memory left him. He can’t stomach the thought of whether they’re alive or dead, so he focuses on the vessel still out at sea.
They watch as the boat turns toward the shore, and he can hear faint cheering as the ship approaches. Bucky squints, barely making out moving bodies on deck through the clearing smoke.
He runs forward with Steve to meet them at the dock, a beaming man standing at the bow of the ship, an enormous cannon bolted to the front that Bucky knows is not standard issue for a cargo ship.
“Sam!!” Steve yells to him, waving his arms madly. “What the hell are you doing?”
The man steps smoothly onto the dock, someone else driving the boat and killing the engines, water sloshing around their ankles. The man, Sam, embraces Steve like a brother, cackling, “You like my new ride, Rogers? I decided to freshen it up a bit.”
Steve elbows him, his gaze incredulous. “Where in the world did you get this?”
“Oh, it’s on loan from the United States Navy. Written off by one James B. Barnes, right, Sarge?”
A man with a heavy mustache and a wide grin steps into the light, and Bucky feels like he can hardly breathe.
“Dum Dum?” Bucky croaks, taking a step forward. One by one, they come into view: Jones, Falsworth, Morita, Dernier, and “Dum Dum” Dugan, stupid bowler hat and all. His men, the Howling Commandos, alive and obviously very well as they stand before him.
Dernier is the first to leap from the boat, laughing and yelling in French. The rest of the men clamber onto shore and practically pick Bucky up off his feet, slapping him on the back and squeezing him tight and yelling in his ear. Bucky shuts his eyes as tightly as he can to will the tears back. The men are here, they’re alive , not rotting in the bottom of the ocean after trying to save his sorry ass.
When he pulls himself together and he’s got two feet on the ground, Bucky finds his voice and asks, “How in the hell did you find me here?”
Dum Dum laughs loudly, head thrown back, and the rest of the men look like guilty teenaged boys. Sam rolls his eyes.
“By lurking around town and asking too many damn questions. Lucky somebody didn’t call the Marshall on them,” he complains, though Falsworth elbows him, a mischievous gleam in his eye.
“The Russians got you, Sarge--put the ship through the woodchipper,” Dum Dum explains. “We got a good glimpse of them when they took you, knew you weren’t dead.”
“We’re sorry they got ahold of you, Sarge,” Morita says solemnly in his quiet rasp, putting an arm around Bucky. Bucky gives him what he hopes is a reassuring smile.
“‘S no harm done. Nothing you could have done,” he says. “Besides, they spit me back out on shore anyway. Got myself patched up at the lighthouse.” Bucky looks over to find Steve, and he can’t help but smile when he sees him. Steve’s cheeks pink and Sam grins knowingly next to him.
“We hit shore about two hours north, started searching all the coastal towns and putting the word out,” Gabe Jones continues.
“Of course, we had our eye on them as soon as they came into town,” Sam cuts in. “Bunch of Navy guys come up on their own, unannounced. Start talking about a shipwreck that no one’s seen. But then I remembered Steve had told me he’d found a man alone on a burning lifeboat, and I knew it had to be their guy.”
“So we set up camp, as good men are wont to do,” Dum Dum cuts in, grinning broadly.
“Yeah,” Sam groans, cutting his eyes at the tall man. “Really made themselves at home.”
“I heard your mayday,” Morita says, nodding to Steve. “We sent out a return message, but when we didn’t get a response, we, ah--”
“We got creative,” Dernier says, practically stroking the barrel of the relocated canon. “We borrowed your friend’s boat.”
“It had your name written all over it,” Bucky beams, feeling like he’s floating above all this, still reeling from the past few hours. “They were planning on taking the lighthouse to the ground.”
“Thank you,” Steve blurts, suddenly seeming to find his voice. Bucky aches to pull him into his arms, hold him until he doesn’t feel like there’s a gaping hole in his chest. “If you hadn’t showed up when you did…”
“So who’s the Keeper here?” Jones asks, head tipped back to take in the black and white tower before them, lantern still burning bright up ahead.
Bucky watches Sam as he glances at Steve, and Bucky moves to stand next to him, feeling Steve’s cool fingers brush his own.
“I am,” Steve finally says, voice firm. “I’m the Lighthouse Keeper.”
Steve is not surprised to find that the first time he sees Bucky in his dress blues, his breath catches in his throat. He sputters and coughs, asthmatic lungs embarrassing him even more, and Bucky slides a hand around his shoulders, smiling apologetically.
“You, um, you look great, Buck.”
“I feel like I’m liable to snap in half,” Bucky replies, nose wrinkled as he tugs at his collar. “Forgot how long it had been since I’d been stuffed in one of these.”
Steve brushes at the faded fabric of his own suit, trying to overlook the threadbare patches. Like most of his clothes, it had once been his father’s, yet Wanda, the tailor’s daughter, had fitted it for him so that the sleeves didn’t hang past his knuckles and the jacket fell just over his belt instead of hanging to his knees. It was actually an impeccable fit, which still couldn’t change the fact that it was almost twenty years old. He feels like a vagabond next to Bucky.
Bucky’s dark curls are carefully combed and slicked back with pomade, dark bruises and scratches almost healed on his face, and Steve is hit with just how gorgeous Bucky Barnes really is.
It’s been a few weeks since Bucky’s gotten his memories back, though it’s gone by in a blur. Bucky’s commanding officer, Colonel Phillips, and some big wigs from the Navy had come down from Maryland to get his story for an investigation into Hydra. The Navy had even sent their own doctor down to inspect Bucky’s wounds, deeming him well-taken care of, only giving him a sling for his arm. Steve had glowed with pride at the news.
Bucky’s men, “the Howlies,” as he affectionately calls them, had stuck around in town after their superiors had visited, understandably not wanting to let him out of their sight. They’d stayed in the Double Keeper’s Quarters outside the lighthouse. Steve had nudged Bucky out of the lighthouse to go stay with them and catch up, insisting it was for the best, despite the forlorn look Bucky had given him. He didn’t look at his father’s empty mug or think about how much colder the bed was without Bucky’s big body wrapped around him.
It was better like this, Steve had told himself. This had been the plan all along. Bucky had contacted his family back in New York (he had been from Brooklyn, after all), and Steve was sure they’d be dying to see him, especially since he’d nearly been captured and killed in action. All of Bucky’s friends were back, and he had a job to get back to, so where would Steve fit in his life, anyway?
He couldn’t think about the daydreams he’d had of spending the rest of his days sharing chores with Bucky, climbing the lighthouse steps with someone else beside him, chasing the chickens around the yard and hearing Bucky’s laughter. He pushed away the memories of Bucky’s calloused fingers against his ribcage, and the sweet, sweet way he would kiss Steve just before falling asleep.
In truth, Steve didn’t think about it, because not only was Bucky sure to leave soon, but Steve had received a letter in the mail only a few days after the attack on the lighthouse--a letter from the United States Life-Saving Service. Black spots swam before his eyes, and his chest grew so tight he could scarcely breathe. This was it - they were going to take the lighthouse from him.
He hadn’t wanted to tell Bucky, didn’t want to see his pity at Steve’s pathetic demise, and he certainly didn’t want to make Bucky feel like he had to take care of him.
So here they are, standing outside the boardroom door at the capitol, waiting to be called in for Steve’s trial. There’s no jury, just a glorified meeting with the Board of the Life-Saving Service, but Steve knows what’s coming.
Bucky had come along for moral support. Steve both wants him by his side every spare second and yet wishes Bucky wouldn’t be here to watch him lose everything he’s ever held dear.
“Nervous?” Bucky asks, bumping Steve’s shoulder gently. They haven’t had any time to themselves since that last night in the lighthouse, and Steve hates how awkward it’s made things around them over the past few weeks. They’d been alone during the train ride to Raleigh, but they’d stayed mostly silent for the entire trip, sitting across from one another in their compartment.
Steve shrugs. “I guess you could call it that.”
“Hey, chin up. You don’t know what will happen. Everything could go back to normal.”
Steve swallows the growing lump in his throat and nods, staring at his scuffed shoes. “Yeah, I guess that would be best for everybody.”
He can feel Bucky watching him for a beat too long, but he doesn’t dare look over.
Finally, Bucky asks, “Is that what you want, Steve? For things to go back to normal?”
He glances up and meets Bucky’s piercing stare. He opens his mouth like he wants to say something, but the door opens.
“Mr. Rogers, the Board will see you now.”
Steve stands stiffly, watching the assistent turn back into the conference room. For just a second, he thinks about reaching out for Bucky’s hand, just a squeeze of his fingers. But he doesn’t, just pulls back his shoulders and tries to look taller and healthier than he really is.
Seven men sit at the front of the room while Steve sits at a small table across from them, Bucky seated beside him. Even though the tension between them is nearly palpable, he feels stronger having Bucky beside him, like this might not be the blow that kills him.
The Board asks for his story, and Steve tells them the truth. He explains about how his mother, the current Lighthouse Keeper on the books, had fallen ill and had been unable to continue her duties, so he had taken them over. He tells them how she had died peacefully in her sleep, and that he just kept on doing the very job he’d always done after her death. He explains about finding Bucky at sea, about the attack from Hydra. He brings them his meticulous, handwritten logs about his daily chores, about how the island is nearly self-sufficient and that he needs only minimal supplies from the mainland.
“Mister Rogers,” a tall, spindly man in the middle chair asks, looking down at Steve over his glasses. “Could you please provide to the board a list of your medical ailments?”
Steve closes his eyes, willing the hot flush of anger back down his throat and away from his face. He begs the tears of rage not to well up in his eyes, and he takes a deep breath before rattling them off. “Asthma, scoliosis, palpitations, hypertension, chronic ear infections, and--” He sneezes so hard it practically jolts him backwards, “sinusitis,” he finishes thickly.
The board member on the far right wrinkles his nose as if Steve had tossed his wet hankie in his lap. “And color-blindness as well, correct?”
He doesn’t roll his eyes in front of the very people dictating his future, but it’s a near thing. He just nods.
“Can you explain to the Board, Mister Rogers, why you felt it best to not inform authorities at the passing of your mother and instead took on the guise of the Keeper yourself?”
Steve swallows, feeling the first bead of sweat trickle down the back of his neck. Seven pairs of eyes are on him, and he feels Bucky’s knuckles brush against his so softly that he wouldn’t have noticed had he not been yearning for it.
“Well, sir, I...I felt it was the right thing to do. My father accepted his position as Keeper when I was very young, but he fell ill after only a few years. My mother and I took over his duties, and quite frankly, the lighthouse is my home. It’s all I know, and I felt that it was my duty to continue the role of the Keeper because under my care, I felt that the Lighthouse would be taken care of properly and that I could do the job as well as, if not better than any other candidate.”
Steve fists his hands at his sides, and once he’s started, he can’t stop. “I understand that I am not as strong as most men, but I have found ways to use tools and other inventions to continue to do the same work and perform the same jobs that my father did, as well as any Keeper before him. I may not be an ideal Keeper, but I do my job well and I take my duty to heart. Every day that I have held this post on my own, I have done everything in my power to uphold the same oath that my father and mother had taken, and I will continue to do so until my own death, if you would please permit me to continue.”
The room falls quiet, Steve’s own wheezy breathing practically echoing off the paneled walls.
Finally, after several agonizing moments of silence, the tall man in the middle rises. “Mister Rogers, we appreciate your honesty, but according to your records, we cannot allow an invalid to hold a post as Lighthouse Keeper.”
And just like that, Steve feels like his muscles have turned to jelly. No matter how hard he tries, no matter how good of a man he is, he’ll only ever be measured by the physical abilities of his body.
“We’re very sorry to inform you, but--”
“Wait!” Bucky’s voice rings out across the room, and the man falls silent, staring at Bucky. Steve freezes, glancing over at him.
“According to Clause Eight of the law, individuals not deemed able to perform all duties of the Keeper may appeal for an ‘appointed guardian,’ can they not?”
The men all glance at one another, murmuring and flipping through their notes. Bucky’s eyes stay on them, though Steve stares at him, incredulous. What’s Bucky playing at?
“And who are you suggesting take on that role, Mister Barnes?” the spindly board member asks.
“I do. My name is Sergeant James B. Barnes of the United States Navy. I have recently accepted an honorable discharge from the service and I would like to apply to serve under Steven Rogers at the Light of Cape Hatteras, sir.”
The man opens his mouth, confused, but Bucky jumps back in. “I have no training as a Keeper, but Mister Rogers is more than experienced at the task, and I have seven years of experience working in the Navy and performing lifesaving tasks. I would be willing to form a team with Mister Rogers, but I refuse to serve as his commander. I will take the position as his assistant and nothing more.”
Steve gapes at Bucky like a landed fish, hardly able to believe his ears. He knocks his knuckles against Bucky’s, but the man refuses to look at him, his only tell a slight twitch at the corner of his mouth.
The board members talk amongst themselves for almost five minutes, and with each passing second Steve presses blunt fingernails harder and harder into his trembling, sweaty palms. Then, one board member stands to look down at Steve and Bucky.
“We accept your proposal, Mister Barnes. Effective immediately, you will begin your position as Second-in-Command to the Lighthouse Keeper. Mister Steve Rogers, despite your ailments, and with the assistance of this guardian, Mister Barnes, you may resume your role as the Keeper of the Light.”
Bucky lets out an honest-to-God whoop of delight, wrapping Steve up in a hug and startling everyone in the room. Steve lets himself be tugged forward, pretending that he doesn’t feel the wet tracks that make their way across his cheeks. The Board, looking uncomfortable, straightens their papers and files out of the room.
Bucky tugs Steve by the arm and out into the lobby, grinning like a fool, but Steve still feels stunned, like he’s been slapped across the face. Bucky’s running his mouth, chattering about lunch and the big city and “Holy shit, we did it , Stevie!” and “Did you see that old windbag’s face?” until Steve grabs him by the shoulders and stops them both.
“Bucky, why did you do that?”
The smile slides off Bucky’s handsome face like raindrops rolling down a pane of glass. “What...what do you mean?”
“I mean you’re leaving the Navy? But Buck...what about your life? What about your friends, your family, the Howlies? I mean, you got your memories back, you know who you are now. Don’t you...don’t you have more things you want to do? Don’t you have a life you want to live?”
Bucky lets his chin drop to his chest, looking pained. “Do you think that just because I got my memories back that I lost all the ones I made with you?”
Steve’s mouth goes dry, his palms tacky with sweat. Bucky, with his coiffed hair and his perfectly pressed officer’s uniform, his dancing blue eyes and his soft, fond smile, just stares at Steve like he’s the biggest idiot on this side of the world. And maybe he is.
“You ever thought that maybe I’d like to stare at you some more while you sleep?” he asks, so soft Steve hardly hears him. Bucky takes a step forward. “Ever thought that I want to eat your terrible cooking and sleep in your lumpy bed and get terrorized by your chickens?”
A laugh burbles up out of Steve’s throat and he nearly chokes on it.
Bucky takes one step closer and slides his hand in Steve’s, dipping his head closer. “I got a life, sure. But I’d rather live it with you, if you’ll have me, that is?”
Steve sniffs, smiling wetly despite himself before pressing his lips to Bucky’s. He’s not surprised to find that it feels a lot like coming home.