If you look into the distance, there's a house upon the hill
Guiding like a lighthouse to a place where you'll be
Safe to feel our grace 'cause we've all made mistakes
If you've lost your way
I will leave the light on
—Leave a Light On (Tom Walker)
There is a light set in the lantern room; a flame of soft blue caught in a small cage of iron that hangs from the stone ceiling. The cage is cold to touch and the light as faint as the flame is small. He climbs the stairs of the lighthouse twice a day—once in the morning and once in the evening—for this purpose; to feed the fire.
It is four hundred stairs from the bottom gallery to the lantern room. He knows this because he has spent the past year counting them, starting with one, at the ground, and stopping at three hundred and ninety-nine, one step from the doorway. It is here that he stops to catch his breath.
It is not a normal fire and he is not a normal man.
He braces a hand on the door handle, takes a mouthful of air into his lungs, and pushes the door open.
The gallery is quiet no matter the time of day, but it feels different depending on when he climbs the stairs and how grey the press of his chest is. He feels in scales of grey now; sometimes something lighter, a grey that’s closer to white, and other times darker, his soul a charcoal smudge that he holds in the cage of his ribs.
It’s night when he reaches step three hundred and ninety-nine today.
He braces a hand on the door handle, takes a mouthful of air into his lungs, and pushes the door open.
Today, the night sky presses against the gallery. He closes the door behind him, the soles of his worn shoes slipping across stones that have grown smooth with time. He waits a moment, to allow his eyes to adjust to this—the black of the night, swallowing the lighthouse and him with it.
His hands press into the metal railing as he looks out and his breath knocks out of him, not by the cold, but by the breadth of this—the endless sky and the perpetual ocean. He can’t see the blue of the water because tonight it’s black, as the sky is black, as the lighthouse is black, as he feels the black in the back of his throat, the color of his bargain, the color of waiting.
There are stars in the sky tonight, but that’s almost worse. He tilts his head up toward them, trying to catch something he knows—any that he might recognize—but he finds they’re wholly unfamiliar. These stars do not belong to him and neither does the sky.
He tightens his grip against the railing and he hears the waterlogged sounds around him—waves in the distance, crashing into each other, and the cold, wet air, sliding over cold, wet stones, and the roiling turmoil beneath it all. He shivers under his jacket and his sweater under that.
He turns to the caged torch and the blue flame and steps forward.
The flame, dim to see, is also cold to touch. He opens the cage with a little click and closes his eyes. He takes a familiar, steadying breath. He sticks his fingers in by inches, one by one, until the flames are licking up his wrist, the fire caressing his hand.
In the space between its feeding and him opening his eyes, the light seems to grow. It grows brighter—brighter—brighter—until the lantern room is bathed in it, until the whole lighthouse glows with it.
The flame crawls back into its chamber and he retrieves his hand. Fed, it is happy, licking merrily up the sides of its prison. He closes the cage and steps back.
His intentions aren’t meant for much anymore, in this place, but it can at least do this; it can feed.
He watches it for a moment more because he turns and makes his way back across the stone circle of the gallery to the door, slipping through it and out.
He climbs each of the four hundred stairs back down, stopping not once. He opens the door on the ground floor and steps out from the lighthouse.
It’s two hundred paces from the lighthouse door to the beach. He crosses it in a few minutes, maybe less. Time doesn’t work the way that it used to, here.
He stops feet away from the shore, the angry waves licking up the stretch of sand, coming closer, closer.
He takes in a breath then—a deep, shuddering breath that hurts his lungs and fills all of the cold, empty spaces inside of him.
He sits down on the sand, cross-legged, and waits.
He always waits—twice a day, every day.
And twice a day, as he waits, the dim, blue flame burns a dazzling, bright, white.
He doesn’t know what it will look like, when—
But until it does, he will do this—his offering, his pilgrimage.
Until then, he will wait.
Well anyway, he can’t spend his entire time waiting.
When the sun begins to lighten the sky, the deep, smudged ink of the night softening to the pastel colors of the morning, he finally shoves himself up to his knees and then to his feet.
He’s covered with sand and chilled to the bone; an entire night’s wet, cold sea salt air sinking through his jacket and into his skin. He always thinks he’ll bring a coat—something thicker, something with another layer. He never does and it makes him wonder, distantly, if he thinks this is what he deserves—to be held in perpetual stasis—like a breath never exhaled—until he has found what he’s seeking.
He shakes the sand off of him, shakes his head to clear it of the sluggish, lingering doubts. He runs numb fingers through his hair, now stiff with sea air.
He trudges back up the slope to the lighthouse.
He will climb four hundred stairs to the lantern room and make his morning offering.
Then, Steve will sleep.
The lighthouse is much larger than one man’s needs. Steve recognizes this and appreciates it. He had spent his entire life in shoebox apartments that he first shared with his mother and then, briefly, with Bucky, before he traded his apartment for military tents in Europe and then an iceberg in the middle of the Atlantic and then more shoebox apartments.
In comparison, the space here is luxurious, almost overwhelming, but there’s a nice solitude to it, to know there’s five floors of space and only one of him and even if he spent all of his time occupying each nook and cranny of the lighthouse, still he couldn’t fill all of them and certainly not all at the same time. It makes him feel the way he did on hot summer nights in the middle of Manhattan, dwarfed by skyscrapers and lights, a fleeting moment—a mere speck—in the living, beating, heart that was New York City. He feels both smaller than ground dust and larger than his skin. It makes it easier to breathe.
Steve swings his legs over the side of his full-sized bed. He’s in sleep shorts and a thin, white t-shirt, because the lighthouse is cold, but he’s run hot to the touch since the day they had shoved him into an oven in 1943 and he had come out a bakery experiment.
He runs a hand through his sleep-mussed hair and scrubs it over his face. His blond hair is longer now than it had been before, although not quite as long as it had been when he had been running across Europe with Sam and Natasha. That gives him a brief reason to smile—the thought of Sam and Natasha. There are nights in Prague and Berlin and Lyon that he will never share with anyone else again and he’s glad that it was them, that these memories belong to him and to them alone. His face is getting scruffier as well, just a layer of stubble because he had been too lazy to shave lately. That, too, reminds him of Europe.
He groans, twisting a little to pop his back. He gets up, puts on his slippers, and plods to the bathroom.
He looks in the mirror—at his tired, quiet face. He looks the same and he looks nothing like the person he used to be. In a way, it was inevitable and in another way, unfathomable. He guesses it can be both ways, just as he can be multiple people. He rubs a hand over his scruff and shakes his head. He’s too much in his head this morning.
Steve tilts his head, considers cutting his hair or shaving his five o’clock shadow and decides, as he has the past few days, that he’s too lazy for it. It doesn’t matter, anyway. It’s not as though anyone will see.
He does his ablutions instead, changes into jeans and a soft, white, fisherman’s sweater and plods down three floors to the kitchen.
He’s not as hungry as he used to be, which is funny because all he has time for now is eating. Eating and wandering, eating and waiting, eating and hanging off of ceilings and out of windows, trying to repair a lighthouse that is somehow never in need of repairs and always on the verge of falling apart.
Anyway, this morning all he really wants is toast and tea and no one is there to tell him that’s not a proper meal, so he does as he wants.
He takes his plate of toast and hot cup of Earl Grey up the four flights of stairs to the gallery. He pushes the door open and stands at his favorite spot against the railing.
He eats his toast slowly and drinks his tea and thinks—it’s not so bad up here when it’s just a balcony looking out onto the sea and not the place he hangs his hopes and his very last, flickering dream.
Steve’s days don’t differ that much from one to the next, but he doesn’t mind it so much. He’s spent so much of his life fighting—scraped knuckles and split lips, that sharp, violent spike of adrenaline under his skin, and a closely held fury simmering in his blood—and running that he finds the monotony surprisingly soothing. He would not have thought it could suit him—stillness—but he takes to it like a fish in water, exhaling easier in the mornings and running his tongue over his lips in the evening, tasting the salt of his mouth and feeling the slow tick of his heart beat in his chest.
It had taken him his entire life and unimaginable pain to find one sliver of peace. He thinks this is as close to it as he has ever come. He doesn’t feel like fighting anymore, anyway. More often than that, he watches the rain drum against the window panes of the lighthouse and drinks his tea, or his coffee, or a finger of whiskey, and curls up on his worn, lumpy couch with a book.
Boring, someone had called it once.
But he had been Captain America longer than he had ever been Steve Rogers.
He’s okay with being boring, now.
It was a luxury to be boring—a privilege. It was never a choice he had been allowed before, so he’s grateful to be able to take it now—to be boring—even if it doesn’t mean much anymore.
Today, he finishes his toast and his tea and takes the stairs back down to put his dishes away in the sink. He goes back to his room, changes into joggers, a t-shirt, and his running jacket, and takes the stairs back down and outside.
He doesn’t need music when he has the sea. The ocean is to his left, whispering to him when it’s quiet and garbling loudly to him when it’s in high spirits.
He starts at the bottom of the hill and begins his circuit.
He doesn’t stop running until he runs out of breath and there’s a pain shooting up and down his sides that he can no longer ignore.
He takes a shower and changes again—this time into ratty old jeans and a torn up t-shirt. Over the last two weeks—he thinks it’s been two weeks—he’s repaired two broken windows, patched up a leak in the kitchen and a leak in his bedroom, cleared out a useless control room—there are no ships out here—and began re-imagining different purposes for it, and re-organized the service room. He had found rusted tools there, some spare parts that hadn’t been used in so long they had oxidized, and other parts that were in just enough shape for him to repair when he had spare time. He threw out some of the junk and kept a pile of salvageable pieces. He’s mostly happy with the results now.
He spends three nights deciding what he’ll do with the control room before deciding he should turn it into a painting studio. There’s nothing else to do around here and he hasn’t painted in so long he might not even know how to hold a paintbrush anymore, but the living room already has a library and there’s another spare floor for a guest bedroom, so a paint studio is as good a venture as any.
Ironically, he has to paint the paint studio first. That’s why he needs the ratty jeans and torn up t-shirt.
It takes him most of the afternoon to cover the fading, depressing grey the previous occupant had decided on for the walls. He chooses a soft, buttery yellow instead. It’s not usual for a lighthouse and maybe a light blue or a white would have been a more neutral pick, but the control room faces the water and when the afternoon sun sets, the entire room is highlighted in the bright, vibrant colors of the setting sun—oranges and peaches and soft pinks and yellows that make everything glow.
He thinks if anything will inspire him to paint, it will be this.
And if not, well, at least it will be marginally less depressing than before.
By the time twilight is settling around him, the room is fully painted and he kind of is too. He looks down at himself and sees paint splashed across his white shirt, staining his wrists and fingers and upper arm. He’s almost certain he’s got yellow on his face.
He laughs to himself, in the empty room, thinking: Bucky always yelled at me for this. Some things never change.
The thought delights him, warms him really—not just because it’s Bucky, but because he delights in finding those pieces of himself he thought he had lost to a world before ice.
He peels dried paint off of his hand and caps the paint bucket and takes the tray of paint and paintbrush to the spare bathroom sink, two floors below. He soaks the paintbrush and tray and goes back up the stairs to his room to strip out of his filthy clothes.
He takes a hot shower and scrubs paint out of his skin.
He changes into soft sleep clothes and climbs into bed, to get a few hours of sleep before night fully falls. In a few hours, he will have dinner, and then descend down all of the stairs to the ground floor so that he can begin his climb back up again.
He can’t start halfway up the lighthouse and have it count. It’s not a strict rule, but it’s one he’s made for himself and, at the end of the day, what the flame wants are his intentions. Without that fortitude, it will not feed, it will not stay lit, and it will not be a beacon, leading the one he wants to shore.
Okay, so maybe he’s going a little batty, all alone in the lighthouse all this time, with no one for company except the occasional seagull he catches perching in the gallery and along the windowsills of his home.
That’s not to say he isn’t right. Anyway, he’s not willing to risk it otherwise.
He’s been here, waiting, for a year.
He’ll wait longer, if he has to, but the beach is cold and Steve is lonely.
Art: Steve looking out over the lighthouse railing toward the sea; Art by: Ash_Fortier
Steve walks into the kitchen just after what appears to be noon—judging by the sun, anyway—there are no clocks here, he didn’t think they would be necessary—and contemplates making lunch, when he tenses.
He’s at the sink, fingers on the tap to fill a glass of water when the short hairs at the back of his neck stand on edge. He swallows the way his chest tightens with unfamiliarity, the way his senses heighten with perceived danger.
He takes a breath and turns. There’s no real danger here.
Nothing any more than—
“You’re not going to—you know, are you?” Loki asks.
Steve’s mouth presses into a thin line and he leans against the sink.
Loki, propped up on the kitchen island, has his fingers curled over the edges and is swinging his legs back and forth. His sharp, green eyes glow in the daylight, the slant of his mouth doing nothing to hide how amused he is.
Steve glances to the right of him, where he’d left a length of rope on the counter. He frowns.
“I can’t say it would be pleasant,” he says. “I couldn’t promise where you’d end up.”
“You can barely promise—” Steve starts and then stops. He sighs and takes a mouth full of water.
Loki looks at him in increased amusement and then hops off the counter.
“Do you have anything edible in the fridge?”
“Why are you eating my food?” Steve asks, annoyed. “Don’t you have your own?”
“If I wanted to eat my own food, I wouldn’t be here eating your own food, Captain,” Loki says. He leans out of the fridge, where he’s currently rummaging, and salutes Steve, two fingers to his forehead. “I know you don’t have much going on, but do try to use your brain.”
“You’re insufferable,” Steve mutters and finishes his water. He puts the glass back in the sink. “There’s a family of seagulls that’s got itself stuck in one of the window nooks. I was going to try and help.”
Loki emerges from the fridge with a half-eaten pie and a jug of milk.
“Hey, I made that,” Steve says in irritation. He had found a pile of cookbooks in one of the shelves in the library one day and had been working his way through all of the recipes—the good, the bad, and the inedible.
Loki’s lucky he had come to pilfer the day after Steve had made a lemon meringue pie and hadn’t come for the spam meatloaf he’d had to make the week before.
“Well yes,” Loki says as he lifts himself onto the counter again. He sits with the entire half a pie in his lap and a fork that he’s magicked to himself from somewhere. “Unless there’s a bakery in the middle of the sea that I’ve somehow missed.”
Steve watches in annoyance as Loki digs in. In truth, he doesn’t mind it as much as he might otherwise. He hasn’t seen another human in nearly a year, so the dead God of Mischief would have to do.
“You know,” Steve says and crosses his arms at his chest. “I remember you being a lot more—”
“Handsome?” Loki says. He swallows some pie. “The afterlife has been great for skincare and terrible for haircare. I can’t find a single vial of argan oil anywhere.”
“—bloodthirsty,” Steve says, staring. “Remember when you murdered multiple humans and tried to subjugate an entire planet?”
Loki shrugs and takes another large bite of pie.
“You try to shake off an Infinity Stone,” Loki says. “I assure you it is not as easy as it looks.”
Steve’s mouth thins so much it nearly disappears. His eyebrows fly into his hairline and Loki pauses.
He sighs and swallows.
“You know what I mean,” he says. He puts down the fork and reaches for the milk. “Anyway, there were factors at play that you couldn’t quite understand. Mind control, torture, daddy issues, sibling rivalry, finding out I was adopted, dysfunctional family dynamics, etcetera etcetera.”
“People have messed up families,” Steve says, unrelenting. “They don’t usually try to take over an entire planet.”
Loki sighs and looks at his glass of milk.
“Milk, really? Every time I think you cannot possibly get more boring—” he stops mid-sentence at the glare that Steve gives him. He mutters something and the glass of milk turns into a glass of wine. “Much better.”
“Loki,” Steve says.
“What do you want me to say, Captain?” Loki asks. “I’m sorry? That doesn’t change anything I’ve done and you don’t care about my apology anyway.”
“It wouldn’t hurt,” Steve says.
“It wouldn’t change anything,” Loki snaps. He drains half of his wine in one go. “Anyway, what about the rest?”
Steve watches him with a sense of surreality that he can’t quite shake. Loki Odinson—God of Mischief, the Trickster God—in his kitchen in black leggings and a long, gold, green, and black leather jacket over what appeared to be a soft, hand-spun black tunic. The fact that Loki was supposed to be dead—was dead—didn’t escape him, but more concerning was that Steve was more irate at him than anything else. Here, at this place beyond the edge of the world, he didn’t have the energy left to hate anyone—not even Loki.
Briefly, he wonders if this is how Thor had always felt about his brother. There is something harmless about him, as he’s sitting on the counter and eagerly eating day old lemon meringue pie. How complicated, to be capable of mass murder and look so delighted by dessert.
“What rest?” Steve asks, after a minute.
Loki looks up at him, a single green eye visible over his wine glass.
“My death, Captain,” Loki says. “My dying for my brother, for everyone else. I suppose that does not matter, in your grand scheme of things?”
Steve runs a hand over his scraggly beard.
“I guess that’s not my decision to make,” he says.
“No it isn’t,” Loki replies, smug and somewhat pleased. “Anyway, you don’t have much of a choice. I can’t even transform into someone you’d like to see instead.”
Loki looks a little mean when he says that—a glint in his eye that is pure mischief and maybe a little malice.
Steve looks away from him.
That deflates Loki just enough to bring him back to the reality of their situation. His shoulders slump and he drains the rest of the wine.
“My punishment,” he says. “Among other things.”
Steve hums, nodding. He grabs the rope.
“Well, are you going to be helpful since you’re here harassing me and eating my pie anyway?”
Loki makes a face of pure revulsion.
“Captain, I am a prince of Asgard. And King of Jotunheim. In a way.”
“Loki, you are dead,” Steve says. “You are no more prince or king than I am.”
“That is mean,” Loki points out. He puts the empty pie tin and empty wine glass on the counter and slips off the kitchen island. “If I wanted to do manual labor, I would have earned my redemption another way.”
“Your redemption is eating all of my food and dropping by to irritate me once every six months?”
Loki shoots him a sharp grin.
“The Norns have always had a poor sense of humor,” he says. He stretches then, reaches up on his toes, his arms above his head, and then lets it all back down. “I came to check on you, for my own fun.”
“You call me boring every time you visit,” Steve says.
“Well, you are boring,” Loki says, head tilted.
Steve stares at him, expressionless.
“I don’t have many options, in the afterlife,” Loki explains. “Anyway, it’s fun to watch you pine away.”
That makes something in Steve’s chest tighten. His expression goes tighter as well, his back suddenly pin straight, his jaw ticking.
“Loki,” he says and it has the hint of danger this time.
“Hm?” Loki asks and turns on his heels. He walks out of the kitchen.
Aggravated, Steve grabs the rope and follows him out and down a flight of stairs to the living room.
“Loki,” Steve says. “When—”
“Shh,” Loki says, turning.
There, framed by the light filtering in through the window, the sunlight making his long, dark hair glow, Loki looks beautiful. He seems otherworldly, untouchable in a way that is almost unfathomable. It’s rare instances like this that Steve remembers—who he is and who Loki is, how they are not made equal, and no matter how powerless Loki appears, he is never as powerless as he seems.
“Be patient, Captain,” Loki says.
“I’m not good at being patient,” Steve says, folding his large arms against his chest. In his head, he thinks, I’ve done nothing but wait. “You promised.”
Loki doesn’t answer him for a moment, perusing the books in the library instead. After a few minutes of Steve growing more agitated and Loki still saying nothing, he finds a book that he seems to like and retrieves it from the shelf.
He plods over to the window seat and sits himself down on it, stretching out lengthwise and then folding his legs up at the knees. He rests the book on top.
“This is what you asked for,” Loki says, softly. “Remember?”
Steve’s chest aches and he looks away. He remembers. He does nothing but spend all day remembering.
“Patience is a virtue, I hear,” Loki says, after a minute. He leans his head back against the wall and snickers. “I find virtues to be irritating, but you seem to be made of nothing but them, along with a degree of self righteousness that is unbearable and borderline criminal and, honestly, I would have sent you to—”
“I have no idea how Thor put up with you,” Steve says loudly. “You are insufferable.”
That makes Loki’s face light up with delight. He tips his head back and laughs, loudly. He laughs for a minute straight, in fact, while Steve rankles, growing more and more irritable until he turns on his heels to walk out of the room.
“Oh, I see why my brother likes you now,” Loki says, gasping to catch his breath. “It is all making a lot more sense to me.”
Steve huffs, grasping the rope more tightly, and climbs to the service room, which is where he needs to be in order to rappel down the side of the lighthouse to the family of seagulls.
It takes him a few hours, but he manages to free the birds.
By the time he comes back inside, Loki has disappeared. The book he was reading is left on the window seat, along with a note on top.
Be patient, it reads. He will come.
He wakes with a gasp and a sense of disorientation so acute that the sky spins above him and—
Wait, the sky?
The last thing Bucky remembers is kneeling on his bed in a shitty motel room that he and Sam had rented, a suitcase of guns and ammunition spread across the top. He had been reaching for a glock when he doubled over in pain. It hit his stomach first and then his head, a pain so sharp it felt like someone was drilling a hole in the back of it.
He had stumbled off the bed with a pained gasp and toward the bathroom door, colors too bright, sounds too loud, a hot feeling shooting down his spine as though someone was separating the bones from his nerves.
He had grasped the door handle with his flesh hand and his hand had gone through it entirely. When Bucky had blinked, the entire door had been wreathed in light, light pulsing from the slits in the doorframe. He had covered his eyes with his metal arm, gasping in pain, and—
And now he stares up at the sky.
He heaves himself up on his metal elbow and finds that it sinks into—sand.
Head aching, confused and wary, Bucky twists to get a good look at where he is.
There’s sand all around him and the breaking of waves on the shore and a lighthouse several hundred paces to the right.
A few feet away, there’s a man sitting in the sand, his chin tucked on top of his knees, staring out into the ocean. He’s large and he’s blond and if Bucky didn’t know any better, he’d say he looks like St—
Bucky takes in a breath quickly—too quickly. It’s sharp and it’s harsh and it nearly hurts his stomach to do.
He’s to his feet before he can think twice.
“Steve,” Bucky says, sinking to his knees next to him. His arms go around Steve’s wide, firm— real—solid, real, familiar—real—shoulders.
Holy shit, he thinks.
Bucky buries his face into Steve’s neck.
“Steve,” he says again, and cries.
There’s a slow, grinding moment, when none of this feels real—when he thinks, maybe he’s mistaken—then, a voice into his hair, slow and gravelly—as though it’s forgotten how to speak—or, as though, full of wonder—as though he could not have imagined speaking at all.
“Bucky,” Steve says.
He wraps his arms around Bucky and pulls him close, the two of them holding tightly onto one another, noses in necks, chest to chest, tight—tight—tight.
“Buck,” Steve says. Then, voice low, voice wet, “I’ve been waiting so long.”