The beach is cold today.
The sky is a blue-grey above him, interspersed with clouds, the sun nowhere to be found. The water is grey too, as though it’s absorbed the mood above it, a gloom that settles thickly across the scene, like fog sinking into weary bones.
Is purgatory a reflection of him, or is he a reflection of purgatory?
Steve sits on the cold, damp sand, his knees to his chest, his arms around them. He’s in a thick-knit, grey sweater and a woolen scarf that rustles against his chest. His hands are cold. It’s not enough.
He doesn’t particularly care.
It’s strange, the way he comes to expect him at the same time he’s surprised he’s returned.
Loki sits in the sand next to him, mirroring his position, long, thin arms around long, thin legs.
They say nothing for a very, very long time.
It’s absurd to make a friend of an enemy. It’s even stranger to make him in purgatory, that grey holding cell in between life and the afterlife.
Steve’s missed Loki. Perhaps that is the strangest thing of all.
“I’m sorry,” he says, eventually. “You were trying to help. I didn’t want to listen.”
Loki nods, but it’s distant, as though he’s half heard Steve and half heard something else. Steve doesn’t press. Loki’s an immortal God, kind of; if he wants to forgive Steve, he will, and if he wants to hold a grudge until his undying days, then that’s his right and there’s not much Steve can do about it.
It doesn’t seem as though he’s nursing animosity, though. Loki watches the sea, the way that Steve has been all day; as though the churning, blue-grey waters hold the answer to something he’s been searching for all this time.
Steve’s never thought to ask what that might be. In all of this time, he’s only ever watched Loki as something different than himself—a warning, or a cautionary tale. Steve thinks maybe he’s been wrong this entire time.
He watches Loki’s bright green eyes now and sees purgatory reflected in them and realizes, no. For all that they did and did not do in life, they are reflective of each other here, in death. And isn’t that the funniest thing?
“Does everyone go to Valhalla?” Steve asks.
Loki’s mouth flickers up at the corners.
“No, Captain,” he says. “Only some go to Valhalla. Those who are chosen for the Great Hall, and no other.”
The wind ruffles their hair, winding quietly between them.
“They go to hell, then?” Steve asks, with a frown. “Everyone else?”
Loki laughs, softly.
“There is not only Valhalla and Hel,” Loki says. “And there is not only death and the afterlife.”
Steve doesn’t understand.
“We are creatures bound by a lot of things,” Loki says. “I did not realize that, before, and maybe that was my own mistake.” He pauses, as though trying to find the proper words. “As...an Aesir—a Jotun—whatever I was, although I was greater than any Midgardian, my fate was just as much my own creation as yours was. Does that make sense?”
“Not really,” Steve admits.
Loki rolls his eyes, but Steve doesn’t take offense. Loki doesn’t seem to mean to insult and Steve doesn’t mean to take insult. It’s just the two of them here, in the afterlife, sitting side-by-side on a beach of Steve’s own making.
“I thought myself greater than your kind,” Loki says. “But here we are, in the same place, both because of our choices, Captain. Mine in life and yours after. So perhaps we were never as different as I thought.”
“Well, we’re a little different,” Steve says, lightly. “I never tried to take over a planet, myself.”
That makes Loki smile—actually smile. It changes his entire face, softens the lines by his eyes, the curves of his mouth.
“Death is more complicated than life,” Loki says. “In a sense, everyone makes their own Valhalla.”
Steve remembers what Loki had said to him, after he had woken up on the stone bridge.
“What about Natasha?” Steve had asked. “Natasha Romanoff?”
“The Widow,” Loki had said. He had shaken his head. “No, not her. It is not her time yet.”
“But she died,” Steve had frowned. “She gave up her life for the Soul Stone.”
“Perhaps she did,” Loki said then. “But this is not her destination. I don’t think death is her destination.”
Steve hadn’t really understood then, but he thinks maybe he understands now. The afterlife isn’t the same for everyone; it depends on all kinds of choices—their own, back in life, and their own, after death. Sometimes, the choice isn’t about what to do after death, it’s about whether death is where they need to be at all.
Steve’s chest aches, terribly. He hopes that he’s right.
He hopes that Natasha finds her way back home.
“What about you, Loki?” Steve asks, turning to look at his—friend. “What is your Valhalla?”
Loki doesn’t answer him.
At least, not for a very long time.
The sun is nearly set when he finally stirs. It’s only then, as he stretches, that Loki turns back to look at Steve.
“I don’t think creatures like me get Valhalla, Captain,” he says. “There are some choices, in life, you cannot overcome. The Norns aren’t that forgiving.”
“But if you could,” he says. “If you could choose a Valhalla for yourself?”
Loki tucks a long, dark curl behind his ear and stands.
“I would not choose a place,” Loki says. “I would choose a person.”
Loki offers Steve his hand and Steve takes it, standing back up.
Steve doesn’t ask who. He doesn’t think he needs to.
“What do you do if the person who is your Valhalla gains entrance to Valhalla himself?” Loki asks, not letting Steve’s hand go. “But you cannot follow?”
Steve takes only a moment to answer.
“Then you find him and you make a Valhalla for yourselves, together.”
That’s what Steve would do, anyway. Loki probably has other ideas.
“Is this yours then?” Loki asks, curiously. “What will happen if he does not find his way back to you?”
Steve lets Loki’s hand go. He’s had years to wonder this—two maybe, or four or five. It makes no real difference now, how long it’s been and how long it will become. For Steve, the answer won’t change.
“Then I’ll go find him,” he says. “Let the Norns try to stop me.”
Loki’s mouth curves up into a smile again.
“Now that is a battle I would like to see.”
* * *
He lives a life.
Isn’t that what Steve had wanted for him? A last kiss on the mouth, a cup of his hand against Bucky’s cheek, and I want you to have the life you’ve always deserved to have. A shove through the door, before Bucky could get in another word.
Bucky, with the door slammed in his face, before he could tell Steve to stop making fucking decisions for him, that goddamned, motherfucking, self-sacrificial asshole. Bucky hadn’t disagreed, necessarily, but that hadn’t been the point.
There was no reason that Steve should be stuck in purgatory, not after what he had done for humanity, and the world. There was no reason that goddamned punk should have spent his entire human life sacrificing everything he had and everything he was—keeping nothing for himself—to be given a lukewarm, grey space in between life and death.
Which meant that Steve had chosen it for himself.
Bucky’s not stupid. People don’t normally get second chances, especially when the love of their very long and very stupid life is technically dead.
Bucky would hate Steve for it, if he had the capability to do so.
Instead, he does what Steve asks. He lives a life.
It’s just, it’s not a very good one. It’s not even a very happy one.
Bucky lives in that bright, vibrant, living space and he wishes he was somewhere else, with someone else. It’s not the life that Steve had wanted for him, but then again, Steve hadn’t specified what kind and Bucky hadn’t asked.
Bucky lives years like this—in between worlds, sad, miserable, and alone.
He’s here, alive and well, and what he misses is a lighthouse by the sea.
He spends half of his time with the Avengers, when it suits him. Sam is older now too, seriously thinking of hanging up the shield, or passing it on to someone younger, someone with more idealism and less of a creaking back. The future, and saving it, has always been the domain of the young.
Bucky tells Sam that’s his right. Sam tells Bucky it’s his right too.
Bucky starts spending a lot less time with the Avengers and a lot more time in New Asgard.
The King of Asgard is a lot quieter than he used to be. He laughs a little less; he takes more time when he speaks. Bucky has spent years fighting next to Thor now. He can recognize in him the spirit of someone who had lost everything, and the spirit of the person who was left to fight for everything that remained.
Thor is sad, Bucky thinks.
He doesn’t say it to his friend; they don’t have that kind of a relationship and they might never grow that close. Steve was always better with the Avengers, anyway. Bucky had come in too many years too late, having tried to kill half of them with his bare hands, and acted as a half-assed replacement once Steve had gone.
He doesn’t kid himself that he could ever fill that role, but he and Thor have shared a beer or three over the years. They like to stand in one of the docked Asgardian ships—Bucky because it’s comforting for him, after all of these years, to be on a ship on water, and Thor because he can see the night sky more clearly above them.
Thor is older now too, his features a little craggier, his smile a little wiser. He wears an eyepatch over the eye his sister took from him and he’s greying around the temples.
The God of Thunder is nearly immortal, but life and loss ages even Norse myths before their time.
Bucky touches Thor’s shoulder and Thor turns to look at him in surprise. It takes only a moment for his worn, kind face to soften into pleasure.
“Bucky,” he says. “It has been some time.”
“A few months,” Bucky says. He takes his place next to Thor, leaning against the wooden handrail. “I’d say I’ve been busy, but I haven’t.”
“Time moves strangely,” Thor says, “when you are waiting for it to pass.”
Bucky feels that sentiment in the center of his chest. He wishes he had thought to bring a drink to his friend, but it had slipped his mind.
“What are you waiting for?” Bucky asks, nudging him slightly.
Thor smiles and it’s one of his sad ones—not quite reaching his single, blue eye.
“Oh I don’t know,” he says. “I’m always waiting for something. It seems I’ve been waiting since—”
He doesn’t finish his thought. He doesn’t need to, really. Bucky knows Thor’s story; his love and his loss. Thor had lost everything even before Bucky had, and there had been no lighthouses for him; no beacons calling him to the person or place he’s searching for.
Bucky’s not sure what Thor’s lighthouse is, and he’s not brave enough to ask. Anyway, sometimes people are allowed their secrets.
“Is it not enough?” Bucky asks, quietly. “Being king?”
Thor doesn’t smile this time so much as curve the corner of his mouth up in remembrance.
“I thought it would be, once,” he says. “But, to be honest, I was very young and very foolish.”
“Feels like I’ve been young and foolish my entire life,” Bucky says. Then he makes a face. “And old and foolish. What the fuck have I been doing for a hundred years, Thor?”
That makes his friend laugh—genuinely.
“If I could tell you, I would,” he says. “But I can barely count what I have been doing these past—what is it now?”
“Sixteen years,” Bucky says.
“Has it really been?” Thor says. “It should feel as the blink of an eye, but it feels as though I’ve aged centuries in that time.”
“Me too,” Bucky laughs. “I think you look better for it, though.”
Thor looks mildly surprised at that and touches a hand to his eyepatch.
“Really?” he says. “You think so?”
That makes Bucky grin—really.
“Yeah,” he says. “You look good for four thousand or whatever you are.”
Thor chuckles and runs a hand over his greying beard.
They’re quiet for some time—not uncomfortably so; just two friends who have shared sorrows, existing side-by-side. The ship rocks slightly with the current underneath.
The wind picks up when Thor speaks again.
“Bucky Barnes,” he says. “You have lived a long and hard life. For a human.”
Bucky looks at Thor curiously.
“You have suffered more than most and attempted to repent for it, much more than most.”
“Thor?” Bucky asks.
Thor shakes his head and his long, once-golden hair stirs in the breeze.
“Do you want peace?” Thor asks. “Or do you want to stay?”
The words don’t really make sense to Bucky. His eyebrows furrow and he looks at his friend, confused.
“You look tired,” Thor says, not unkindly. When he turns his face toward Bucky, his eye is blazing—bright in the darkness. “You have earned your rest.”
“You have earned your happiness, my friend,” Thor says.
Bucky drums his fingers on the wooden railing and Thor, quietly, covers it with his own, stopping him.
“The Norns do not give favors often,” he says, quietly. “But sometimes, a person has proven himself to be extraordinary. Sometimes, a story is too sad, even for them.”
“The Norns?” Bucky asks.
“The Fates,” Thor says. “The Three who spin the stories and fate lines we live. They do not give favors often, but I have been King in circumstances I should not have been and they hold a certain fondness for me.”
Bucky’s still not sure he understands, but his heart rate picks up.
“What kind of favor?” he asks, slowly.
Thor smiles and lets go of Bucky’s hand.
“Valhalla is where warriors go to rest,” he says. “It is a great and magnificent hall. Normally you would need to die in battle, or in pursuit of valor—some kind of terribly noble act. But I have traded my favor for you. You need not die, to go.”
Bucky’s breath catches in his chest. For a few minutes, he doesn’t know what to say. Then he unsticks his tongue from the roof of his mouth.
“Why?” he asks. “Why would you trade your favor for me?”
The wind stirs Thor’s hair, a smooth strand at the side of his face. Beside it, a dark braid, black braided into greying gold.
“Because I loved the Captain too,” Thor says, quietly. “And I do not like to see my friends sad.”
Bucky curls his fingers over the wood. He feels as though he has sea legs, as though the wooden deck under him might give away if he does not hold onto it, steadily. Valhalla—or paradise. He could go to the hall meant for warriors and kings.
Bucky closes his eyes, his chest hurting.
He shakes his head.
“I don’t want to go to Valhalla, Thor,” he says. He opens his eyes. “I want to go to a little place I know, in the middle.”
Thor doesn’t know—he couldn’t know, but the way his eye lights up, the way his expression softens—sadly, almost unbearably—Bucky thinks, he must have guessed.
“Very well, he says. “I will bargain for you.” A pause. “If you will do one thing for me. I have but one request.”
Bucky’s head is spinning; his throat tight, his chest constricting with feeling.
“What?” he asks.
Thor drums his fingers on the ship side, gazing up at the stars—at the heavens above them. He closes his eye and takes a breath.
“Tell my brother I miss him,” Thor says. He opens his eye. “Tell him I have not forgotten him.”
Bucky swallows. There’s nothing he can say. He nods.
“Tell him,” Thor says, quietly—so quiet his voice is nearly carried away on the wind. “To wait for me.”
Steve withdraws his hand from the blue flame. He shuts the iron cage quietly, the clasp clicking shut under his fingertips.
He takes a step back and turns to go back down, as he always does at night.
That’s when the gallery around him blazes to life, a bright, white illuminating every inch of the lantern room—a light so bright he has to shield his eyes from the glare.
His heart ticking quickly in his chest, Steve turns to look at the beacon.
It beams, wreathing the entire lighthouse in a dazzling, brilliant glow. It shines, as though calling out to the sea; as though it is guiding something home.
Steve takes in a sharp breath and looks out then, across the harbor, out onto the ink black ocean, under the ink black sky.
At first, he sees nothing at all.
A ship on the water, answering the lighthouse’s call.
He sloshes across the cold water.
His arms around Bucky, his hands in Bucky’s hair, on Bucky’s face, fingertips tracing him, memorizing him, digging into him—making sure he’s there, keeping him there.
“You came back,” Steve says, his voice wet, the breath knocked out of him.
Bucky, his arms around Steve, his face warm and wet against Steve’s neck, his breath hot and heaving against the cool skin there.
“You left a light on,” he says.
Fingertips curled into cloth, hands in damp, cold hair, sand up to their knees, Bucky wet from splashing through the water to get to him.
Steve’s hand on Bucky’s jaw, tilting his face up, so that the moon can catch on the planes he so long ago memorized. The light making features glow he hasn’t seen in years. That he thought he might never see again.
Steve kisses his nose, then up the line of it to his eyebrows. He presses kisses to Bucky’s eyelids and across his cheekbones, down his jaw, until Bucky’s metal fingers press against Steve’s own face to hold him still, Bucky’s mouth finding Steve’s, and finally—finally—finally—
—keeping him there.
Maybe this was always his Valhalla, Steve thinks—Bucky, warm and flush in his arms, his eyes lit up under the moon’s light, his mouth bitten and kiss-swollen, a happy—happy—smile on his face. Something there so soft, it’s almost like peace.
Bucky, tucking Steve’s long hair behind his ear.
Bucky saying, “I’m free, Steve.”
Bucky saying, “I’m here to stay.”
They build a life, the two of them, in Steve’s lighthouse, in Steve’s purgatory, in the middle of the afterlife, just the way Steve wanted—only this is better, because they do it together.
They build it with love and they build it with a lifetime’s worth of missed happiness.
Eventually, it doesn’t really feel like purgatory anymore.
Loki is waiting for them, on the kitchen counter. Steve has a flash, like memories on top of memories—decades of them; just him and Loki together, in this place.
“The Norns have been watching,” Loki says.
Bucky frowns, an arm around Steve’s waist and a hand on his chest—as though he can protect Steve from the Fates.
Steve would laugh, except he doesn’t know why the Norns would interfere now, after everything.
“This is mine,” Steve says to Loki, angrily. “I bargained for this. I earned this. They can’t just take it away.”
“The Norns are fickle,” Loki says, with a shrug. “They can do whatever they like.”
Steve’s fists curl of their own volition, as though he could change the Norns through sheer force or, at least, was willing to die trying. Well, die again. Anyway, if anyone was going to get into a brawl with the Great Architects of Fate, it would be Steve Rogers.
“Put your fists down, Captain,” Loki says and Steve’s frustrated to see how amused he looks. “It isn’t that kind of meddling.”
Steve stares at Loki suspiciously.
Loki smiles at him, all innocent, and hops off the kitchen counter.
“As it turns out,” he says. “I was wrong. The Norns do make exceptions, sometimes.”
“Exceptions,” Steve says, slowly. “For what?”
Loki straightens his bright green sweatshirt.
“Eternities-bound contracts, I would say,” he says.
Steve frowns. Next to him, Bucky stills.
“It would seem even they are taken by your story,” Loki says. “They have chosen to release you.”
“Release us?” Steve asks. “From what?”
Loki looks up then and then slowly, all around.
“Why, Captain,” he says and looks Steve in the eyes. “From here.”
“I have a message for you,” Bucky says to Loki, as the Trickster God turns to go.
Loki slows and then stills.
He takes a moment and then looks up, not at Bucky, but the ceiling. His smile is so sad, it’s almost breathtaking.
He turns that sharp, green gaze on Bucky.
“Don’t tell me,” he says. “I won’t earn salvation by knowing.”
Bucky watches him closely.
“It was his last request,” he says. “The only thing he asked from me.”
Loki shakes his head and tucks a curl behind his ear.
“I’ll wait for it to come to me,” he says.
“Salvation?” Steve asks.
Loki looks at Steve. Steve had spent years hating this creature—this God. Now he has spent years growing to care for him and, if not that, then, at least, understanding him.
He’ll miss him, Steve thinks. He will miss Loki Laufeyson.
“My Valhalla, Captain,” Loki says, with a smile.
This time, it’s less sad. It’s more like a promise.
“Is this it?” Bucky asks, eyes wide. Voice vibrating with excitement.
He stands on a golden stone bridge overlooking a rainbow river and looks up at a golden gate, with golden statues, and a golden city behind it.
“What do you think, Buck?” Steve asks. “Have we earned this?”
“Valhalla?” Bucky says, turning to Steve.
Steve shakes his head and smiles.
“God, if we haven’t, the Norns or whatever have a real shit sense of humor,” Bucky says, with a laugh.
There are no worry lines now—no tension between his shoulder blades or tick in his jaw.
Bucky looks young and excited and carefree. He looks happy. It’s the only thing Steve has ever truly asked for.
Steve presses a kiss to his temple.
“Quick,” he says. “Before they change their minds.”
Bucky’s smile turns soft around the edges. He leans up on his toes and presses a kiss to Steve’s mouth.
“We go together,” he says.
Steve smiles. It’s wide on his face; shining, bright.
Maybe he looks that way too. Young and excited and carefree. Maybe now, finally, they will both be allowed to be.
He offers Bucky his hand and Bucky slides his own flesh-and-blood one over it. Steve squeezes it.
The gates swing open.
They each take a breath, lace their fingers together, and both walk into Valhalla.
* * *
Lay down your sweet and weary head
Night is falling,
You've come to journey's end
Sleep now and dream
Of those who came before
They are calling
From across the distant shore
—Into the West (Annie Lennox)