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(i will) leave a light on

Chapter Text

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)

*

I.

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.

*

II.

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.

*

Steve, looking over the lighthouse railing toward the sea

Art: Steve looking out over the lighthouse railing toward the sea; Art by: Ash_Fortier

*

III.

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.

“Would that—work?”

Loki shrugs.

“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.

“Why not?”

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.

*

IV.

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.

Holy shit.

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 gasps.

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.”

*

Chapter Text

V.

“What is this place?” Bucky asks as he follows Steve up the stairs.

The lighthouse staircase echoes strangely with two sets of feet traversing up the length of it. He’s only used to hearing one. Steve doesn’t know how to feel, in truth. His head is spinning and his gut is strung tight, as though nerves are pulling at his ends.

He’s nervous, he realizes.

In a year’s worth of waiting, a year’s worth of anticipation, Steve had never considered that when he saw him again, he would just be...nervous.

It’s been a year and three lifetimes. When he had held Bucky in his arms, it had felt like something had finally slotted into place. Then Bucky had pulled back and asked him Where are we? and it had felt the opposite of that—like a fleeting memory or a truth buried beneath sand the moment he had unearthed it.

Steve didn’t have an answer for him—not one that would make sense. Not one he was allowed to give. Instead, he had stared at him and he had grown...nervous.

“A lighthouse,” Steve says, stating the obvious. Then, after a pause, “My lighthouse.”

“You live here?” Bucky asks, staring around, eyes wide. “Steve you—live in a lighthouse?”

They pass the first two floors and Steve stops at the living room and brings Bucky inside. He turns and gives him a wry smile.

“I live in a lighthouse.”

Bucky steps into the room, eyes still wide, and begins at one end of the room and continues to the other, touching everything and asking more questions than Steve has time to answer.

“You cut your hair,” Steve says, abruptly, interrupting him.

That makes Bucky stop. He’s at the window seat now, the same seat Loki had been lounging in just a week before. Bucky turns and when he does, Steve’s heart—it stops.

Bucky’s lit by the cool, slanted morning light, framed by the roiling sea at his back. The soft, short spikes of his hair, the curve of his nose and his cheekbones, the slate grey of his eyes, they glow in the light blue-grey cast against him—all of the things Steve had once committed to memory. He stands there and Steve thinks he could be a memory, or a hallucination.

He thinks, he’d give his own arm for either.

The reality, for once, is better.

“Yeah,” Bucky says and runs his flesh hand through his hair. “Do you hate it?”

Bucky’s always been self-conscious about his hair. Steve’s always liked it whatever way he styles it.

“It reminds me of—” Steve starts and stops. He gives Bucky a thin smile. “I like it.”

Bucky gives him a wry smile and lifts a hand to his hair. He runs his fingers through and pulls at the ends of it, makes the waves stand up in peaks.

“Not as long as it used to be,” he says, as though reading Steve’s mind. “Before.”

Steve had loved Bucky’s curls, growing up. They had been soft waves at first and then, with time, waves along the sides and perfect, round curls at the top, always one or two hanging down over his forehead when he let his hair grow a little longer. There was no time to take care of his hair during the war and Steve doubted that HYDRA had given him a gel allowance, so eventually it had changed. His long, straight hair Steve had also loved.

Maybe it isn’t the hair at all. Maybe that’s just a substitute; an easy marker for the person.

“Why did you cut it?” Steve asks, curiously.

“Mm,” Bucky says, quietly. “I needed a change. After—”

Steve feels it, even though Bucky doesn’t say anything more—a soft ripple against their tentative peace. A disturbance that Steve can either acknowledge, or—

“When the waters are rough,” he says, crossing over to the window, “you can see it from here. Every wave crashing against another. The tide sweeping against the shore. It’s—violent.”

Bucky turns to look at Steve and Steve feels his heart tick up slightly in his chest, the nerves pressing against his rib cage.

Patience, he tells himself. Be calm.

“—but beautiful,” Steve says, softly. “Some days I watch it for hours. I can’t seem to look away.”

Steve doesn’t want to see the look on Bucky’s face. He doesn’t know what to expect and that makes him afraid, because he has read Bucky like an open book his entire life. He doesn’t know what he’ll do if he turns around and sees someone else where his best friend used to be.

“Steve,” Bucky says softly.

“You only have a day,” Steve says, in answer. His shoulders tense, the lines of back straight, as rigid and unyielding as stone. “I’m sorry. That’s all they would give me.”

Bucky makes a soft noise. If it’s confusion or hurt, Steve doesn’t know.

“Where am I?” Bucky asks.

Steve shakes his head. His chest aches and he presses his palm there, as though he can hold it in—the truth or how he feels about it, he’s not certain. His thumb digs into his skin and he holds onto that spark of pain to ground him.

“There was a door,” Bucky says into the silence. “I opened it.”

Steve turns, but Bucky stops him—catches his wrist.

“I didn’t think I would ever see you again,” Bucky says. His voice, quiet and craggy, like water breaking on the foot of a cliff. Steve can feel it slide down his spine and he swallows, little spikes running down his throat.

“This was a mistake,” Steve says, suddenly sure. “It was selfish. I’m sorry, Buck, I just hoped—”

He doesn’t finish what he means to say, but it’s plain enough, at least in his head.

Bucky presses his face into Steve’s back, his forehead nestled against the middle of Steve’s shoulders, his nose digging into the muscle square in the center.

“Don’t apologize,” Bucky says. “I don’t want to hear you apologize.”

They stand still, the two of them, and inhale together.

“Only a day?” Bucky asks, after a minute.

“A day,” Steve says, his voice thick.

Slowly, tentatively, Bucky wraps his arms around Steve’s middle. Steve, trembling, leans back into his arms. They used to stand like this sometimes, when they were young and Steve couldn’t bear the unfairness of the world.

“Then let’s not waste it,” Bucky says.

Together, they exhale.

Steve turns, takes Bucky’s hand, and leads him out of the living room.

“Let me show you where I live,” he says.


It’s as though no time has passed at all, and maybe that’s the most dangerous thing of all.

Steve takes Bucky up the stairs of the lighthouse, stopping into each room and showing them to him, explaining their purpose—here’s the kitchen, where I cook—yes Buck, I can cook now—and here’s the living room again, with my lumpy couch and my library—I have a lot of time to read, these days—and here’s the control room, which I’ve painted yellow because it’s the only bright spot for miles.

Bucky stops in the control room-turned-paint-studio and presses a hand to Steve’s arm.

The feeling is much too much after a year of nothing at all and Steve takes a breath in, just to feel the sparks that skitter down his spine. Bucky must not notice, because his bright eyes are searching the room, scanning every corner, until he lets go and crosses all the way to the enormous window.

“What if there’s a ship?” he asks, curious. He leans his hands against the window and looks out again, his nose pressed to the glass pane, his eyes searching the sea. Then he laughs and turns. “You’re not that kinda Captain.”

Steve gives him an amused smile.

“Think that should be my second career?” he asks. “Lighthouse Captain.”

“I don’t think that’s what they’re called,” Bucky says. He seems to think about it, casting a line into his memory, until it hooks on something. “Lighthouse keeper, I think.”

“Steve Rogers, Lighthouse Keeper,” Steve says, softly.

“That sounds a lot lonelier,” Bucky says after a moment. He watches Steve closely.

“It sounds like I need a peg leg, a hat, and a few more scars down my face,” Steve laughs, to lighten the mood.

Bucky makes a fond noise and shakes his head.

“What are you gonna paint?” he asks, after a minute.

Steve hasn’t found a canvas yet, or any paints for that matter. But he had managed to construct an easel out of leftover planks of wood and stain it dark.

“I hadn’t decided yet,” Steve says. Then, jokingly, “You. Like I used to.”

The joke doesn’t land the way he wants it to, but that’s to be expected. The truth is never easy to make into something like a joke.

“You said I only have a day,” Bucky says, quietly.

His grey eyes search Steve’s face. Maybe it’s the morning sunlight or maybe it’s the ocean behind him, but they look blue today; the subtle, distant kind of blue Steve will spend the next year trying to recreate out of paint.

“Come on,” Steve says. “There are other rooms.”

He turns away, a sharp pain in his side.

Bucky says nothing, but Steve hears a soft little sigh before he follows him.


Steve shows him his small bedroom and Bucky makes fun of how the bed is unmade, how there’s a dresser, a rug, a chair, and nothing else.

“You’ve been a year, Steve!” Bucky says. “A ghost would haunt this place better.”

Steve runs a hand over the light scruff of his face and considers.

“Should I paint it?”

Bucky rolls his eyes.

“You should add some personal effects. A painting, a picture. Little trinkets. Remember all the little toy soldiers you used to collect?”

Steve grins.

“They were cheap and all Ma could buy me,” he says.

“Yeah right,” Bucky snorts and bumps his shoulder against Steve’s. “You just liked playing with dolls, Rogers, you can admit it.”

He liked building armies with them and, sometimes, making them kiss, he thinks surreptitiously.

“I bet I could make some,” Steve says, thoughtfully. “Whittle something out of wood, or metal. Think I can learn welding?”

“If you start making chain mail I swear to fucking god,” Bucky curses and that makes Steve laugh for the first time.

“No, you’re the only nerd in here, Buck.”

“No shit,” Bucky agrees. “The number of times I tried to get you to read something interesting.”

“I read interesting books!” Steve protests.

“Yeah, I’m sure the three other centenarians who checked six hundred fucking pages on war strategy out of the library would agree with you.” Bucky snickers.

Steve rolls his eyes. He did that one time.

“Ass. Anyway, I didn’t want to read your pulps myself,” he says with a faint smile, remembering. “If I’m gonna be honest—?”

“Oh sure, now you want to be honest,” Bucky says. “Go on.”

“I just wanted to hear you read them out loud to me,” Steve says. He colors a little and Bucky stares at him, his eyes widen and then narrow with a little eyeroll that Steve is hopelessly fond of.

“You filthy, rotten liar,” Bucky says. “I’d read to you until my throat got sore because I thought that was the only way you’d read something that wasn’t a fucking art history book.”

“Hey,” Steve protests again. “I like art.”

“You think I don’t fucking know that?” Bucky says, loudly. “How many years I lived with you and you think I don’t know Steve Rogers likes art?”

Steve presses a hand to his mouth, smothering his smile.

Bucky shakes his head in exasperation and makes a circuit around the room. He comes up short, just in front of Steve and tilts his head.

“You’re gonna learn to whittle and weld? What’re you gonna become, a woodsman?”

Steve shrugs.

“I guess that’s fitting, for your new career,” Bucky says, with a wry smile. “You got one of those sweaters—you know—”

Steve looks dubious and Bucky laughs brightly, leaning his forehead against Steve. Steve’s heart skips and then ratchets up, painfully. He hesitates and then pushes his fingers into Bucky’s soft, brown hair.

“Hmm.” Bucky makes a soft sound and Steve scritches at his head.

He makes the sound again and Steve has to physically swallow the ache in his throat.

“Want to see the top?” he asks, just to stop it, and Bucky tilts his head back, looking up at Steve. That doesn’t help. It catches Steve square in the chest and sharp in his lungs; it punctures the air out of them.

He only realizes then, how long he’s been waiting.

It’s stupid in how simple it is and difficult in how overwhelming. The realization makes it hard to breathe around, as does the way Bucky watches him—closely, cautiously—and nothing eases the ache in his chest, or the itch in his fingers to slide his hand down and cup Bucky’s face, to run them down the familiar slopes and ridges of him, to brush his thumb against his mouth and—

“Yeah,” Bucky says, softly. “Take me there.”

Steve’s fingers stay in his hair, reluctant to leave their perch, but Bucky shakes him off, as though it means nothing at all and Steve quickly checks himself.

“Follow me,” Steve says, and it’s a little less open than it was before.


The sun is high in the sky by the time they climb the stairs to the gallery. By some miracle, it’s warmer than it’s been in months and the sea is almost gentle now, the waves sliding over each other, spraying salt and foam into the air.

“Shit,” Bucky says as he finds a spot at the railing—Steve’s favorite spot. Steve gives it to him. He braces his hands against the metal and leans forward, closing his eyes and breathing in the sea air. “This is—”

“Twice a day, you can see the sun reflect into the water at such a weird angle that it looks like there’s three of them,” Steve says, stepping up next to Bucky.

Bucky looks across at the water and jerks at the sudden cawing wheeling through the air.

“That’s a fuckton of seagulls, Steve,” he says and Steve laughs at that. Bucky turns his head, grinning and Steve feels guilty for glancing at his mouth.

Luckily, Bucky doesn’t notice.

“They’re kind of assholes,” Steve says, instead.

He crosses his arms at his chest, his thin, grey sweater stretching at the seams. It’s funny, because the serum will never wear off, but Steve’s gotten softer around the edges since he’s been here. Not soft in the traditional sense—he still has a body made from the greatest scientific experiment known to humanity—but less hard, somehow, his shoulders and sides and stomach and the lines of his face softening just so, as though he’s clay being made to fit into the grey-white of his surroundings.

“You chase ‘em away, Rogers? Like you used to with the pigeons?”

Steve scowls.

“Pigeons are the fucking rats of the sky, Buck,” he says, waspishly, and that makes Bucky grin so hard that Steve reaches over and presses two fingers to his jaw.

There’s no real point to the movement and there’s nothing more to it. Sometimes, he just wants to touch Bucky and used to be, he could do that without any excuse. He makes more excuses now, but Bucky doesn’t seem to mind—or, at least, he doesn’t comment on it.

“You ever get tired of it, Steve?” Bucky asks, exhaling after a minute.

Steve clenches for a moment, nervous about what Bucky might mean.

“All this peace,” Bucky says, not waiting for Steve to answer. “After all of the death we saw—after all of the death we caused. Doesn’t feel right, somehow.”

“You don’t think we deserve this?” Steve asks, curiously.

“No, it’s not that,” Bucky says and stops. He smiles wryly at the scene in front of him. “Well, I definitely don’t at any rate, but that’s a whole other thing—”

“Bucky, you were brainwashed—” Steve starts, heatedly, but Bucky waves him off.

“Yeah, yeah, I get it, HYDRA took a laser to my brain and made it into scrambled eggs and everything I did was because of the whole—” he gestures vaguely, “—of it all. Still did it. Still have a long way to go to repent, bud.”

“Why do you gotta repent, but I don’t?” Steve asks. He sounds a little petulant.

Bucky raises an eyebrow.

“I think you know why,” he says and Steve huffs out a laugh. “What you did—”

“Forget it,” Steve says. “At the end of the world, anyone’s gonna do whatever they can to save it.”

“Yeah, but they didn’t, Stevie,” Bucky says, sadly. Almost angrily. Sometimes, with Bucky, they’re one and the same thing. “You did.”

Steve says nothing to that. Bucky hasn’t called him that in a long time. Steve had thought he had lost it, along with everything else. He doesn’t know what it means now, to hear it again. Maybe nothing.

Bucky sighs, warily.

“Where am I, Steve?”

Steve doesn’t answer this time either, so Bucky turns on his heels to face him.

“Stubborn jackass,” he says, his mouth pressed into a thin line.

It’s funny because like this, he looks just like his mother. He’s all George Barnes’s temper and his blue-grey eyes and his chin dimple, but when Bucky’s cross, he transforms into Winifred.

Well okay, maybe that’s not so funny.

Bucky crosses his arms. “Will I see you again?”

Steve looks at him—at his beautiful—achingly beautiful—haunted, sweet, guarded best friend. Bucky isn’t the person he used to know, but then, Steve isn’t the person Bucky used to know either. That’s what the world does to two people who have never timed it quite right; it takes them apart and puts them back together—never the same way, never quite right—and hopes for the best.

Is this our best, Bucky? Steve wants to ask, but that’s a mean question.

“I don’t know if I’ve earned this peace,” Steve says, instead. “But I think I’m learning to enjoy it.”

Bucky looks somehow sad and happy at that.

“Well, son of a bitch,” he says. “The boy’s finally learned a new trick.”

Steve makes a face, but Bucky doesn’t mean it with any kind of malice. He smiles as he says it, a crooked twist of his mouth, just at the corner. He stretches, reaches his flesh and metal arms above his head.

“You hungry?” Steve asks. “I can make us some sandwiches.”

“Can we bring them back up here?” Bucky asks. “And eat ‘em side by side. I like the water. I never get to see it close like this.”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “We can do that, Buck.”

They leave the gallery and go back down.


Steve makes them sandwiches and they do take them back up, eating them side by side at the railing, arms and shoulders pressed close.

Sometimes they talk and sometimes they don’t. They share laughs easily and stories even easier.

Bucky smiles and Steve is surprised at how easy it is to return it.

Turns out memories only hurt if you’re the only one to carry them. He keeps this in mind, although he’s not sure what good it’ll do him later.


When they finish their sandwiches and the sun is getting lower, they climb the stairs back down to the living room. They curl up on the couch next to each other, each with a glass of wine, and Bucky picks a book from the shelf to read aloud from.

At first, they sit on different ends of the couch, Bucky reading and drinking and Steve listening, watching him as closely as he can without getting caught.

It works for a while. Then, suddenly, Bucky says, “It’s getting kinda cold, isn’t it?”

Steve gets up and lights a fire and when he comes back to the couch, he sits next to Bucky. Bucky smiles at him and shifts so that his back is leaning against the arm of the sofa and his body is stretched out across it. Steve, somehow, makes it work. They’re two, large men on a lumpy couch, but Steve manages to lay down, his head on Bucky’s side, his hand resting on his stomach.

Bucky continues to read, but he puts his glass of wine down, eventually.

Steve drifts to sleep, with Bucky’s fingers in his hair and Bucky’s voice filling the lighthouse with a warmth it will miss the moment he’s gone.


Well, all times must come to an end.

“Steve,” Bucky says, waking him up.

Steve’s eyes open immediately and he regrets, instantly, that he had spent their last few hours together asleep. He can see it in Bucky’s eyes—in the expression written across his face.

Bucky’s hand is still in Steve’s hair when he says, “What happens if I stay?”

Steve takes in a deep, regretful breath and shakes his head.

“You can’t,” he says. “They’ll make you leave, even if you try to stay.”

Bucky gets that furrow between his brows—the same one he always gets when he’s upset, or hurt, or confused, or just plain pissed.

“That’s shitty, Steve,” he says. “This is shitty.”

“I know,” Steve says. His throat is full of pebbles. “I’m sorry, Buck.”

“We didn’t even talk about anything,” Bucky says. “I don’t even—what do I do, Steve? I just leave you here, go back, and pretend none of it happened? How do I come back? How do I find my way back to you? I can’t just leave you here.”

Steve closes his eyes briefly.

He wishes he had an answer—any answer—for Bucky. No. He wishes he had an answer that they wanted.

“Can you tell Sam I say hello?” Steve asks, quietly. “Tell him I miss him.”

“How the fuck’m I supposed to do that?” Bucky asks, irritated.

“Say you saw me in a dream,” Steve says.

Bucky snorts.

“This sucks,” he says, pressing his palms into his eyes. And then again, “Jesus Christ, this sucks. I was stuck in the middle of fuck knows where for five fucking years and then I come back and then you—and now. This sucks.”

The door glows brighter now, more and more urgent.

“Fuck,” Bucky says and clutches at his chest. “I can feel it here, like—a sharp pain. Like I can’t breathe.”

Steve sits up on the couch.

“You gotta go,” he says.

They stumble up.

Bucky looks at him and it’s so—hurt, so clearly devastated, that Steve nearly loses his mind at it. But he holds onto his last thread of sanity, because what Bucky needs is his friend, once again, to give him the second chances he keeps trying to squander.

“Steve,” Bucky says again, by the door.

“Thank you,” Steve says. He cups Bucky’s face this time and draws his hand away with some pain. “I’ve been looking forward to this day for...a very long time.”

Bucky’s eyes flutter open and he’s about to say something when Steve grasps the door handle. He opens the door of light and before Bucky can protest, before he can say anything else, Steve puts a hand on his chest and shoves him through.

The door handle disintegrates in Steve’s palms the moment he does—the entire door wreathed in a blinding light that Steve has to cover his eyes from. When he uncovers them again, there’s just the dark, empty doorway into his living room.

It doesn’t feel warm inside, like it did before.

It feels cold, a chill that immediately sinks into Steve’s skin, clawing into the very center of him, until he’s on his knees, grasping his middle, and gasping for air.

Four floors above him, in the lantern room, the small blue flame burns a blinding, terrible white. It pulses, for exactly three beats, illuminating the lighthouse and the beach to any ships that might be coming over the horizon.

There are no ships, of course. There never is.

After three pulses, the flame flickers back into a dull blue, dim for another year.

*

Chapter Text

VI.

The next eight years pass, sometimes quicker than he anticipated, sometimes as slow as he had assumed they would.

It’s funny, because he can’t measure time, but it helps mark time anyway, to have some kind of intangible, inscrutable movement forward.

What he learns he couldn’t really say, except that maybe—for the first time in his life—Steve Rogers has to practice patience. It’s broken into him, slowly, the way you have to break in a horse, but after that first year, all he does is wait—day after day, month after month—to the extent that such measurements can still exist, or have any meaning, in a place without time.

After a while—after all of that waiting—waiting becomes the only way to move him forward, the only thing that moves him toward the one day he spends all year waiting for. Waiting becomes the movement, in other words, and it would be funny, if he could muster a sense of humor about these things.

Anyway, that’s all to say that Steve waits. He holds his breath and makes his offering—twice a day, every day, for three hundred and sixty four days—and even then he’s not sure the day will come again.

Maybe all of this waiting is for nothing, after all.

That would be the funniest joke of all.

*

Year Two (of Eight).

It’s a much colder day than the first time, a year ago. Steve is wrapped in his favorite thick-knit sweater, with a wool scarf around his neck and a dark, navy blue parka that has a light brown fur-trimmed hood to attempt to protect him from the wind.

He’s on the beach, with a wooden skiff turned on its side and a variety of tools spread out at his feet. He’s kneeling by the underside, reinforcing a portion of it when the air around him pulls tight. One moment he takes in an easy breath and the next becomes more difficult, as though he’s attempting to breathe through an electrical storm, currents smarting along what little skin he has exposed.

Steve drops his tools and pulls back in alarm, clutching at his chest, when the air warms without warning. The charge scatters and leaves behind a smooth, protected pocket of a balmy, almost humid draft that feels like fingertips on his cheeks.

“You’ve moved on from whittling,” a familiar voice says behind him.

Steve takes in a breath. It’s unimpeded this time, warm and easy.

“I was thinking,” Steve says, quietly. “I could take up sailing.”

A pause and then, “That’s not a sailboat, Steve.”

Steve presses a hand to his mouth and then he feels movement, someone dropping to his knees beside him. Bucky’s flesh hand touches his shoulder and turns him toward him, touch gentle and movement firm.

“I spent a year thinking I had made this up,” Bucky says.

Steve knows he looks as wounded as he feels, because Bucky’s expression softens. He moves his hand, fingertips touching Steve’s jaw, and then moving up, cupping his cheek softly.

“You’re not a dream, are you?” Bucky asks. “Like I told Sam.”

Sam. Steve’s chest tightens at the memory—of his friend and of his one request.

“I’m not a dream, Buck,” Steve says.

Bucky doesn’t let go, his warm palm still against Steve’s chilled skin.

“What did I do for a year?” Bucky asks. “Was that real?”

“Yes,” Steve says.

Bucky watches him carefully—discerningly.

“Is this real?”

Steve doesn’t know how to answer that. Yes and no. It’s complicated. But that’s not a helpful answer and it’s satisfying even less.

“I’m real,” Steve says. And then, “You’re back.”

“I didn’t think I’d see you again,” Bucky says. There’s an expression in his grey eyes that Steve can’t quite read.

His hair is longer than it was a year ago, the lines of his face just a little more worn. He has stubble now too.

“Is that a new jacket?” Steve asks.

“Yeah, Steve,” Bucky replies. He doesn’t look impressed. “I got a new wardrobe in the last year. Want me to list it for you? Maybe you want me to tell you all of the meals I’ve eaten too? The number of times I’ve brushed my teeth?”

Steve’s smile is fond, despite Bucky’s tone.

“Yeah. But we only have the one day,” Steve says. “Talk fast.”

“You little shit,” Bucky says.

Steve grins and Bucky shakes his head. The breeze catches his hair, stirs a curl by his temple.

“It’s been a year,” he says after a moment, not taking his eyes off of Steve. “A whole year. For one day?”

“Someone once told me something,” Steve says. “Your world in the balance, and you bargain for one man?”

Bucky frowns at that, running a hand over his neck in frustration.

“The fuck’s that mean, Rogers?”

Steve smiles and shakes his head. It’s not worth the time they’d lose, to explain. Then he nods at the ship.

“Wanna help me finish her, Buck?”

“We’re going to spend our one day together fixing up a boat?” Bucky asks.

Steve shrugs.

“It gives us something to do,” he says. The wind picks up between them and he shivers, pulls his scarf closer against it. “And that way, when you leave, I have something to remember you by.”

Bucky watches Steve and then looks at the half-constructed skiff. He touches the bottom with his metal hand and then retreats.

“Until next time?” Bucky asks. A pause, and then, “Until next year?”

Steve doesn’t say anything. He picks up a hammer and hands it to Bucky.

“Once we patch up the bottom we can turn it over. The inside’s a mess, but I’d like to get a seat in there, if we can.”

“What’re you gonna call her?” Bucky asks, taking the hammer. “The U.S.S. Dumbass?”

Steve snorts and leans back on his thighs.

“I was thinking I’d call her The Brooklyn.”

Bucky sighs.

“You sentimental fool,” he says.

Steve’s mouth picks up at the corner.

“Yeah,” he says. “That same person said that too.”

He picks up his hammer and they crouch close, knees in the sand, shoulder-to-shoulder, and begin to patch up the old boat.

*

Bucky must have a hundred questions, but he asks none of them. Steve admires that about him, at the same time he feels guilty about it. It’s selfish, maybe, but he doesn’t want to offer any explanations. He isn’t willing to upset the peace between them, not when it exists so delicately and for so brief a period of time.

They kneel side by side in the sand, working steadily on the skiff, the wind cold but their spirits warm. They ebb and flow, natural, like the tide. Sometimes they’re quiet and other times they can’t stop laughing. Bucky leans against Steve and Steve is surprised to find how much leaner he’s become.

“Thought you were a solid slab of meat,” Steve says teasingly, as they take a break.

They’re both sweating by now, so Steve takes off his scarf and tosses it onto the sand. He could use a drink, but the kitchen is so far away and he’s currently sitting on his ass, legs stretched out in front of him, his shoulders nudging into Bucky’s own.

“You’re one to talk,” Bucky says. “I go away for one fucking war and you come find me looking like the side of a fucking mountain. Remember that, smartass?”

Steve laughs at that. It feels good—to just tilt his head back and laugh. He can’t laugh by himself and he finds he misses the act as much as the sound.

“Okay, in retrospect, that was kind of abrupt, huh?” Steve asks.

“I’ll say, you fucking nerd,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes. “You know, I’d already lost half my mind by that point, so I just thought I’d gone and lost the rest of it too. There I am, on a metal slab, like some kind of experimental appetizer to some fucked up seven course dinner, and the person I want the most shows up, but it’s not him, it’s someone else.”

“It wasn’t someone else,” Steve says, with a slight frown.

“Yeah, dipshit, but it wasn’t you,” Bucky says, turning his head to look at him. “Not the you I left behind.”

Steve thinks about that and draws his knees up.

“You ever regret it?” he asks. It’s a broad question. Vague, too.

Bucky raises an eyebrow.

“That I left you for five minutes and you went and immediately shoved yourself into a beta ray toaster oven?”

Steve snorts.

“It’s not really my place to regret it or not, pal,” Bucky says, with a shrug. “You did what you thought you had to do, even if it was something I could’ve killed you for otherwise.”

Steve frowns.

“Why—?” he starts to ask and Bucky rolls his eyes. He stretches back onto his hands.

“Steve, I didn’t want you in the war,” he says. “Hell, I didn’t want myself in the war, but I didn’t really have a choice. You did. You had a reason to stay home, to be safe, and all you wanted was to throw yourself into the middle of it, like some kind of small, angry grenade.”

“I had to,” Steve says, repeating what he had told Bucky a hundred times over while they were schlepping around the European theater. Only, it doesn’t sit the same anymore. “Or...I guess I thought I had to, then.”

That’s a distinction if he’s ever heard one.

“Do you regret it?” Bucky asks, then.

It’s not a fair question, all things considered. The war had ended because Steve had been stupid enough to throw himself into the middle of it. It had ended because he had a self sacrificial, hero complex the size of the island of Manhattan and if he hadn’t gotten himself jacked on supersoldier serum, then maybe no one would have taken a jet full of nuclear weapons and dunked it into the middle of the Atlantic fucking Ocean. Maybe someone else could have, but maybe they wouldn’t have. Maybe becoming a fucking superhuman icecube for the greater good was something that was quintessentially only Steve Rogers.

There’s no way of knowing.

Maybe Steve had asked him that question just so Bucky would ask him the same in return.

He exhales.

Maybe he’s been waiting a whole lifetime for someone to stop him, hand on his chest, and ask him if, given another chance, he would’ve done it all differently.

“It’s weird to look back on it now,” Steve says, slowly. “Think about all of the things that might’ve been different if I hadn’t. Maybe I didn’t go to war and I would’ve caught pneumonia and died at age twenty-seven, alone in my bed in my shitty one bedroom apartment. Maybe I didn’t go and you would’ve gotten captured anyway and I’d have been in my shitty, one bedroom apartment the day the letter came from your regiment. Dear Mr. Rogers, we’re sorry to inform you that while you were selling ad prints for a penny, your best friend in the whole world was getting himself captured by the Nazis, dying an honorable death for his country.

That makes Bucky snort. No, that makes Bucky laugh.

“You’re so fucking annoying, Steve,” he says, in between breaths of laughter. “An honorable death. For fuck’s sake. I was on a metal counter, getting tortured out of my mind, my limbs carved from my body. The fuck’s honorable about that?”

Steve scratches his face, with a faint smile curving up at the corners of his mouth.

“Okay, fine,” he says. “So I don’t go and you die a dishonorable, meat slab death. Or maybe I don’t go and you get turned into the Winter Soldier anyway and I die at the age of sixty, old and heartbroken and bitter, never knowing you were still out there, somewhere. I die never knowing what happened to my best friend, thinking he died in an ambush in ‘45.”

“You have a shit imagination, Rogers,” Bucky says, nudging his shoulder with his own. “Funny, because you’re the creative one between us. Why’s all of your revisionist histories so depressing?”

Steve makes a huffing noise and Bucky waves him off.

“Maybe I die and you end up with some dame you always had your eye on, one who finally realizes you’re hot shit, and then you die at the old age of ninety-seven, with a huge family, living the happiest life you ever could have. Yeah you think about your best friend from time to time, that guy you grew up with, and it’s a little bittersweet, but that doesn’t take away from the other stuff—all of the good stuff.”

That’s bullshit. Steve couldn’t say why, but he knows it’s bullshit.

“What good stuff is there without you, Buck?” he asks, softly. His chest twists dully, that sweet ache that’s always there, buried beneath a year’s worth of sand.

“Plenty, if you stopped being fatalistic for three goddamned fucking seconds,” Bucky says.

Steve rolls his eyes and lets out a sigh, a breath pulled deep from that part of his chest he can never quite tuck away. Try as he might to put it under lock and key, he always finds the lock broken and the chest opened back up.

“This is stupid,” Steve says.

“Yeah,” Bucky snorts. “You didn’t even answer the question. Do you regret it, Steve? The serum—being Cap—all of it.”

Steve thinks about it and it’s the same questions he’s had before—a pile of what ifs grown so high it’s like looking up from the shade of a mountain. He doesn’t know how life would have been different—for him, for Bucky, for the war—if he had said no, all of those years ago. And that’s difficult for him to reconcile, because in so many ways, him becoming Captain America had made everything so much worse, for all of the people he had ever loved.

But then he looks at Bucky next to him, the cold wind tousling the longer, brown strands of his hair, his cheeks glowing pink from the cold, and he thinks—maybe being Captain America had done more harm than good, but it had given him and Bucky a second chance. It had given them a third chance and a fourth one, and maybe nothing had come of any of those chances, but they had still gotten them.

It was worth it, to have been Cap—to have lost himself in and to Cap—just for this chance to have Bucky next to him again, the two of them battered and worse for the wear, but still alive and next to each other, in all the ways that it was important to be.

“No,” Steve says, finally. He exhales and he feels it—decades of doubt, and worry, and uncertainty—expelled from a part of him that had been rotting without his notice. “No, Buck, I don’t regret it at all.”

That makes Bucky smile and he leans against Steve in response, his side pressed into Steve’s own, his head tilted onto Steve’s shoulder.

“Good, asshole,” Bucky says. “I don’t regret it either.”

Steve hadn’t realized he had been waiting for absolution, but Bucky presses against him and he feels his shoulders grow lighter, a weight shifting away from him he’d never known he was carrying.

They sit there like that, for some time, closely pressed into one another, Bucky resting on Steve, and Steve drawing his arm around Bucky. In front of them, the cold ocean stirs restlessly and the harsh, bright sun peeks out from behind a cloud, nearly white against the gloomy, grey sky.


They don’t do much that day, but they do finish the skiff. Then they retreat inside to eat a belated lunch that also serves as dinner, and Steve makes them tea so that they can sit on the couch again.

They talk and they laugh and Steve falls asleep against Bucky again—a more peaceful and easier sleep than he has had in a year without him.

When he wakes back up, his legs are stiff, and Bucky’s gone.


Steve paints the side of his skiff and stands back.

Winter, it says, in curved, silver font.

There’s a small red star to the left of the word.

 

*

“What’s going to happen if you tilt over and drown?” a voice says, behind him.

Steve has the handle of an oar resting against either side of his thigh, the oars bobbing in the water as the skiff gently holds in the middle of the sea, moving only with the current as it buffets against the boat.

The water is calm, today, as is the sky above him—a light blue, with only a few clouds dotting the space in select places. The sun is hidden behind one of the clouds, but every few minutes or so it will emerge, bathing Steve in a bit of warmth, before another cloud slides over it.

Steve’s been out on the water for what must be hours now, rowing at random and resting when he gets tired. He has a thermos of soup and a container of sandwiches and one of those industrial sized water bottles that hold a gallon of water. There’s a hardcover book that’s pressed into his lap. He doesn’t want it to get wet.

“Can I drown here?” Steve asks, without turning around.

“Are you keeping a list?” Loki asks, amused. “First the rope, now the boat.”

“If I was looking for a way out, I could just walk into the ocean,” Steve says.

“You can swim, can’t you?” Loki says.

“Then that answers your first question, doesn’t it?” Steve says, annoyed.

Loki snorts and says nothing, waiting.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” Steve says, barely keeping the temper out of his voice. “But the boat is going this way. So if you’re going to stay, come around front.”

Steve hears something like an aggrieved sigh when there’s a shimmer in front of him and then suddenly, in his black leggings and green tunic, is the former God of Mischief.

“You’re testy today,” Loki says, with a grin.

“I wasn’t expecting company,” Steve grunts.

Loki stretches his legs out in front of him and then leans back, his hands braced against the sides of the boat.

“I thought you’d be happier,” he says. “All things considered.”

“You appearing on my boat?” Steve says, raising an eyebrow. “Without warning? On my day off?”

“Yes, so sorry for interrupting your busy schedule of solitude,” Loki drawls. He pulls his feet up and rests his elbows on his knees and then his chin on his palms. “Well?”

Steve gives him an annoyed look, but that doesn’t dissuade the Norse God any. Would’ve been nice if it had.

“You’re talking about Bucky,” Steve finally says.

“Yes, I’m talking about Bucky, what else do you have going on in your life out here in—” Loki gestures around, vaguely.

Steve snorts, but he supposes he has to give him that.

He leans over for his bottle of water to uncap it.

“Was it like you imagined?” Loki asks. “Was it what you had been waiting for?”

That’s a hard enough question to answer on his own, when it’s just him and a bottle of whiskey, sitting in the chair in his bedroom and looking out over the water. He’s never been one for vulnerability and even less for processing his feelings in front of another person, but there’s no place to run to in the middle of the sea and anyway he knows Loki has no qualms about continuing to harass him until he answers.

Sometimes the path of least resistance is also the easiest way to get the literal God of Mischief off your back.

“I can see the things he can’t,” Steve says, by way of answer.

Loki raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t interrupt, as though waiting for more. Despite his own intentions to say nothing more on the subject, Steve finds himself continuing.

“Like the way he holds all of his tension in between his shoulders...or the tired lines by his eyes and mouth.” Steve had spent the last two years memorizing two days of what Bucky’s been able to give him; tracing and retracing his colors and lines in his mind while he waits for another chance to see him and trace him all over again.

Maybe it’s not fair to Bucky, that Steve observes him so closely and holds that knowledge to himself, like a Pandora's box full of secrets that Bucky will never have access to. He would feel guilty, if he had any more secrets left to keep, but it’s just him and his lighthouse and a tinderbox full of memories.

“We’re not supposed to grow old, I think,” Steve says. “Even his off-brand serum keeps him in the same place, the same age, the same person, while everything changes around him.”

That makes Loki smile, which surprises Steve.

“We grow old very slowly,” the Trickster says. “Even your enhanced lifespan is nothing to me, to Thor.”

“How old are you?” Steve asks, curiously.

Loki tilts his head.

“Two thousand? Give or take,” he says. “It’s actually quite young, for our kind. I am very youthful.”

Surprising even him, Steve smiles.

“Your outsides do not match up with your insides,” Loki says. “Nothing is stagnant, Captain, not even you.”

Steve nods at that.

“He thinks he’s frozen in time, but he isn’t,” he says. “On the outside he looks—Jesus, just like he did when he fell from the train. A lifetime and a half ago, maybe more. Yeah I mean, he’s down an arm and up some world weariness and battle scars he didn’t have in ‘45, but he could be the exact same person, if you didn’t know to look better.”

“But you do,” Loki says.

“He’s tired,” Steve says, crossing his arms on top of his knees. “I can see it, even if he doesn’t.”

Loki says nothing for a few minutes and so they float in silence, on the water, in the middle of nowhere.

“That, Captain,” he says suddenly, breaking their precarious peace, “is the price of immortality.”

Steve looks at Loki then—really looks at him. He has only ever hated this God in front of him—for everything he’s stood for, for everything he’s done. Loki is a selfish, vain, cruel, ambitious, power-hungry creature who cares for nothing but himself. But then, Steve doesn’t know him, not really. He knows a moment of him—a brief, flickering, second—and what, in the midst of two thousand years, is one bad—if cruel, horrible, awful—second?

“Are you the same Loki I met then?” Steve asks. “In 2012?”

Loki, arms crossed, elbows on his knees, looks distant for a moment—a fleeting, green smudge of lifetimes of memories and sorrows that Steve can barely begin to understand.

“I am not even the same Loki you met last year,” Loki says. When he looks at Steve then, it’s with a sharp smile, no teeth, lips pressed together in a way that makes him appear both closed and open at the same time.

“I don’t know what I expected,” Steve says. He’s honest, because Loki’s honest, and honesty is the only currency they have here. “I guess I thought I could see him, once a year, and that would be enough.”

“Is it?” Loki asks. It’s not unkind. It’s not even prying. It just is.

This time, it’s Steve who looks out at the water around them—blue, blue, blue as far as the eyes can see.

“I’ll let you know,” he says, finally.

He turns back and shares a look with Loki. It isn’t peace; it isn’t even a truce.

It is, perhaps, understanding.

Loki’s green eyes shine bright, two pinpricks in the center of him, and then he dissipates, like a fading dream, leaving just Steve and his skiff and the ocean around them.

 

*

Year Three (of Eight).

This time, Steve is waiting for him. He doesn’t know the day and he doesn’t know the time, really, but he can feel it that morning, when he feeds the flame and walks back down to the beach. It’s a pull in his gut, or the weight in his bones. There’s something different about the feel of the air, a slight burn in the back of his throat that isn’t usually there.

He makes Earl Grey with a splash of milk and two teaspoons of honey.

“Just the way you like it,” Steve says, turning around with the hot mug in between his hands when he feels the warm pocket of air envelope him.

“Jesus fuck, there was some lizard demon after me,” Bucky rasps out.

Steve does a quick scan of him and but for the flush on his cheeks, the sweat lining his brow, and a little bit of a bloodied jaw, he looks more or less fine.

“What were you doing chasing a lizard demon at—” Steve glances outside the window. “Six? Seven in the morning?”

“Wasn’t seven in the morning where I was,” Bucky says. “When I was. Also I just said they were chasing me.”

“I’m sure they had their reason,” Steve says, amused.

“Yeah, I was trying to blast the fuckers with this laser rifle—ah motherfuck,” Bucky curses, suddenly clasping at his body. “Tony’s going to kill me. Or try to. Again.”

“Can you take this? I need to make my own,” Steve says.

“Thanks,” Bucky says, taking the mug from him. Their fingers brush in the transfer and Steve is surprised to find how warm the metal fingers are.

“Lotta discharge from the rifle?” he asks.

“Yeah, something uhh—feedback or nuclear core or something,” Bucky says, taking a sip. “I tried to ask Stark, but you know once you get him started on one subject, he’ll tell you about ten others and you’ll never learn about the first thing you asked.”

Steve smiles—grins, really.

“It’s weird,” he says. “I kinda miss him.”

“You two were so fucking weird,” Bucky says. “Not that I saw other than the—you know. One time. But he told me. Did you two ever stop fighting?”

Steve laughs and turns to start making his own cup of tea.

“I don’t think so,” Steve says. “I think I half hated him for not being Howard and half wanted to impress him. I can’t make heads or tails of it now, but you know. I guess it doesn’t matter.”

“Revisionism is a hell of a drug,” Bucky says. “He only says good things about you now.”

Steve raises an eyebrow, not that Bucky can see.

Well maybe he can intuit it, because he shuffles closer and says, “Well, he still takes the shit out on you about your khakis and good boy haircut.”

“When I’m not even there to defend myself!” Steve exclaims. He puts the tea bag in and lets it steep, before turning to face Bucky.

“Don’t worry, khakis are indefensible,” Bucky says.

Steve and Bucky stare at one another for a full minute. The silence acts as conversation enough for them, when their eyes are taking each other in—studying the minute details of all of the changes that have happened in one year. Steve can see the tell-tale signs of change—the lines around Bucky’s eyes, the way his expression is a little cloudier and his shoulders a little more stooped. Bucky’s still as beautiful as the first fucking day that Steve laid eyes on him, but he’s older now, in all of the ways that Steve is. Their bones don’t ache in the traditional sense, but they do in a more internal, visceral sense and that, Steve feels too.

“You’re growing out your hair,” Bucky says, with a smile.

Steve’s hair is well past his ears now, nearly to his shoulders. He’s stopped cutting it in the past few months, thinking he likes the freedom of just having it there, long, with slight waves at the bottom.

“I look like you,” Steve says, grinning. “Well, before. You’re still keeping yours neat.”

“Kinda want to braid flowers into yours,” Bucky says, staring at him. “That’s a weird as shit thing to say, but I had to let you know. That was my first thought.”

Steve laughs, covering his face with a hand. He scrubs it down, over his beard, and when he re-emerges, Bucky’s smiling broadly. For a moment, the years seem to fall away from his shoulders.

“Well if I’d known that, I would’ve asked you to bring some flowers,” he says. “All I can offer you is sand and washed up shells.”

“Okay, Ariel,” Bucky grins. He takes another sip of his tea.

“Should we clean up your face?” Steve asks, nodding at him. “How’d you mangle it all up anyhow?”

“Fucking lizard demons, Steven!” Bucky says, loudly. “They stood like fucking humans, six foot fucking tall lizards on their hind legs, and had purple eyes and these longass razor-sharp claws that—get this!—shoot lasers!”

“Their claws shoot lasers?” Steve asks, blinking.

“Motherfucking, I am saying!” Bucky grumbles. He drinks his tea angrily.

“Someone has been spending time with Sam,” Steve says, fondly. “You sound just like him.”

He turns and adds a splash of milk into his tea and then a slice of lemon.

“Yeah, that punk,” Bucky grumbles some more. “He’s almost as much of a reckless shithead as you, you know that?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, still fond. “I miss him.”

“Of course you do,” Bucky says. “Of course you found him and like, immediately imprinted onto his dumbshit ass. Of course I get paired with the two most irritating humans in all of human history.”

“Aww, Buck,” Steve says and turns around with his tea. “I’m glad to hear you’re having fun.”

“God, I can’t stand you,” Bucky says. “Or him. Can we go up to the gallery? I’ve been in a dungeon for like a week, I need sunlight and probably a bath. Sorry for stinking up your home.”

“I can draw you a bath, after,” Steve says. He nods out of the kitchen to have Bucky follow him. “Remind me again why you’ve been in dungeons?”

“Contrary to popular belief, Steven,” Bucky says, following him out and up the stairs. “Fucking lizard demons don’t thrive in the sunlight, but critter around underground like some kinda mutant mole people sociopaths.”

“You really sound like you have a bridge to burn against these guys,” Steve says, lightly. “Surely it can’t be their fault that they’re the way they are. No one wakes up one day and says, wish I was a lizard demon allergic to sunlight.”

“Pardon me if I don’t take such an optimistic view of them,” Bucky says. “Three of them ambushed me and it took Wilson and Wanda and fucking Scott Lang to get them off of me.”

“Scott Lang’s still an Avenger?” Steve asks, mildly. “Hey, good for him.”

“He’s a pain in the ass is what he is,” Bucky grumbles.

They get out onto the gallery and Bucky takes a deep, happy breath of the fresh, sea salt air. After a moment, some of the pent up, tight tension in his shoulders seem to melt away.

“But he’s funny,” Bucky says, continuing his earlier train of thought. “Just a happy kinda guy. I like him.”

“Me too,” Steve smiles.

“You got any whales out here?” Bucky asks, scooting past Steve to the other side of the gallery. “Gosh, but I’d kill to see some whales.”

“A couple,” Steve says. “I’ve seen them from afar. At least I think they’re whales. Guess I can’t be sure.”

Bucky hums at that. He leans against the railing and drinks his tea and after a moment of watching his back—memorizing the lines of it—Steve joins him.

They’re quiet for a while. It’s not a terrible thing and it’s not uncomfortable either. It just...is. Just, like them. They just are.

The fresh air washes away much of Bucky’s stench, but Steve can still smell him, a little ripe, when the breeze dies down. He smells like sweat and dirt, the tangy smell of blood, and something underneath that is so unbearably Bucky that Steve swims under the weight of it—this knowledge—of knowing and remembering Bucky, even while he’s there next to him.

“I was waiting for it this time,” Bucky says, softly.

“Hmm?”

“The door,” Bucky says. He watches some seagulls circle the sky. “I’ve been waiting for—maybe months, I don’t know. I knew it would come this time. I hoped it would. So I waited, every day, opening every door I could find, hoping it would be the right one.”

“Buck,” Steve murmurs and Bucky shakes his head.

“I know, you don’t gotta say it,” he says. “It’s a waste of time. It happens when it happens and I can’t change that—make it any more than it is. But I...wanted you to know.”

Steve looks at him and after a moment, Bucky looks back.

“I was waiting for it, this time,” Bucky says. “Same as you.”

Steve holds his breath, holds Bucky’s gaze, holds—something, deep inside, that tight, gaping, chasm of pure ache. Longing. He wants to bury his face in Bucky’s neck, in that sweaty, dirt-streaked spot of skin. He doesn’t, but God he fucking wants to.

“I was waiting for you,” Bucky says, softly. “So don’t you dare think you’re the only one waiting for someone else.”

Steve gives a low laugh, ignoring the pang in his gut and the voice at the back of his mind saying—selfish. You’re being fucking selfish.

“Finish your tea,” he says. “And then you can take a bath.”

Bucky rolls his eyes, but takes another sip.

Steve stands close to him—too close—and Bucky tells him all about the lizard demons. Steve stifles one too many laughs and—nosing at Bucky’s shoulder—thinks okay, maybe Bucky’s grudge isn’t completely out of hand.


Anyway, Steve doesn’t forget.

Don’t you dare think you’re the only one waiting for someone else.

He thinks about it long after Bucky’s left again.

He thinks about it every day for the next year.

*

Chapter Text

Year Four.

The years slowly, interminably, tick forward. They remain the same, while rapidly changing too, from moment to moment, something holding still while simultaneously being torn apart and also rebuilt in the same breath.

The next time Steve sees Bucky, his hair is just a little longer and his metal arm has changed.

“A little goth, isn’t it?” Steve asks with a grin.

“I was in a mood, I guess,” Bucky says and raises his arm. He flexes his fingers and Steve sees flashes of rose gold in between plates of pure black. “Shuri said the same thing.”

“She make it for you?” Steve asks. He holds out a hand and Bucky rests his metal hand against it, palm up.

“Yeah, she has all of my stats and prototypes and all that,” Bucky says. “She’s gotten just as bad as Stark. Every time I gotta get a new one, she wants to add some new feature. I tell her every time, just make me an arm that can feel, kid. I already feel like a cyborg half the time and that was fun once, but these days I just want to be a little boring.”

“You’re never boring, Buck,” Steve says. He feels the weight of Bucky’s metal hand rest on his palm, watches the plates shift, minutely. “You can feel?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, quietly. “For a few years now.”

Steve looks up at him, questioningly, and Bucky nods his assent. He takes his index finger and runs a line from Bucky’s wrist to the tip of his middle finger.

The metal palm feels cool to the touch under Steve’s finger, smooth, with the little grooves between plates like soft notches against his fingertip. He looks up at Bucky and sees that Bucky is watching him carefully—closely.

Steve swallows the tightness in his chest and traces back up—to Bucky’s wrist and then around the edges of his palm. He traces the curves of it and to the tip of each finger, as though he’s drawing an outline of Bucky’s hand.

Bucky’s breathing, steady at first, grows shallower and shallower and when Steve stops at his pulse point, he can hear Bucky’s breath catch and feel his heartbeat spike at his wrist.

That’s how Steve knows that Bucky can feel him.

Steve holds onto his wrist longer than he means to, honest. But he can feel Bucky’s pulse against his finger and he spends a minute memorizing that too—the steady-quick-jumping spike of his best friend’s heart beating, the sheer life of it. How real it feels against Steve’s fingertip. How it proves to him that Bucky is real.

When he finally lets go, Bucky takes a quick, deep breath. Steve doesn’t look at him, but his own cheeks warm, his own heart tapping in response—that same beat in return, as though by cataloguing it, Steve has also brought Bucky’s heartbeat into himself, a rhythm to parallel.

“Can we go swimming?” Bucky asks, breaking the tension. “I haven’t gone swimming in so long.”

Steve curls his fingers into his palm.

“Sure,” he says. “Let’s go swimming.”


They strip out of most of their clothes—Steve out of his soft, checkered sweater and his worn, dark jeans and Bucky out of his denim jacket with forest-green henley and underarmour and jeans—until they’re both down to their boxers, just wildly looking at one another and trying not to laugh.

“You still look like that, huh?” Bucky grins, gesturing at Steve’s entire body and Steve looks down at the whole length of him and laughs.

“I was thinking I’ve gone kinda soft around the edges, actually,” he says.

“If that’s soft, what are the rest of us? Fucking cotton-stuffed pillows? Play dough. The Pillsbury dough boy!”

“Shut up, you literally look—” Steve starts and then stops. He sucks in a breath as the words get scrambled in his brain because he wants to say something fun and offhand, but all he can think of are words that will get him in trouble.

Bucky gives him a twisted, half-smile. It doesn’t reach his eyes.

“Race you, punk!”

He starts running toward the water before Steve gets a chance to blink and then Steve yells and chases after him.

The two of them dive into the water—bracing, but warm enough—and when they re-emerge, they’re spluttering, their hair drenched. Water streams into their eyes and they can barely see, but they’re also laughing so hard that some water gets into their lungs as well.


They play in the water for what feels like hours and it reminds Steve—happily—of their childhood together; of going down to Brighton Beach, just off Coney Island, or taking a train to the far Rockaways if they had a whole day to themselves and Bucky’s parents were up for it. Steve had always gotten sunburnt almost impossibly fast, while Bucky slowly grew tanner and tanner under the sun, and by the end of the day, when they’d stretch out on the beach towels next to each other, Bucky would be a golden brown—a dazzling golden brown boy with bright blue eyes and wet curls—and Steve would be violently pink and on the verge of sun poisoning. They would share a Coke between them and each have a hot dog and, Steve remembers, more than once, they had drifted off together, happily curled around one another, lazy and spent, under the warm, afternoon sun.


They swim some and float on their backs when they get tired of that and when that also becomes boring, they chase each other around in the water, one of them pulling the other under and the other dunking the first in retaliation.

They laugh until their lungs ache for breath.

It’s the most fun Steve has had in years—in decades, maybe.

By the time they emerge from the ocean, they should be shivering and they should be wrinkled like prunes, but bless the goddamned supersoldier serum, they’re not.

They collapse on the sand next to one another, nevermind that there’s no towel anywhere. Steve can feel the sand stick to every inch of the back of his thighs and his back and it definitely gets into his hair and sure that’ll be a pain in the ass to rinse out later, but that’s a problem for future Steve.

Current Steve is giddily, almost deliriously happy. His heart is racing and his adrenaline is spiking and the sun is hot and warm and high above them and he thinks, if he lays here a second longer, just like this, just in this state, with Bucky panting and laughing next to him, he might float away on the high of it all.

“Almost a fucking shame we grew up in the city where the closest body of water was the Hudson.”

“It was a little cleaner back then,” Steve says, grinning. “We’d still have grown an extra limb, but maybe like a leg or an arm or a single tentacle.”

“Jesus, yeah,” Bucky puffs out a laugh. “Extra arm’s not so bad. You accidentally get shoved in today and you’re gonna come out with a whole extra set of limbs and at least two more heads.”

“Gotta say one is more than enough,” Steve says. “Can you imagine having to consult with multiple?”

“I can imagine trying to argue with three of your heads and I have a fucking migraine from it,” Bucky says. “One is more than fucking enough.”

Steve laughs warmly.

He turns onto his side.

“Don’t do that,” Bucky complains.

“Do what?”

“Stare at me,” Bucky says, still on his back. He flops an arm out to his side, his hand searching for Steve’s face. His flesh hand finds it and he presses down, squishing Steve’s eyes and his nose and his mouth.

“You’re covered in sand!” Steve protests and gets some sand in his mouth for his effort.

“Steve. Stevie,” Bucky says, still patting his face. “Shh. It’s so warm. Let’s take a nap.”

“We’re soaking wet, Buck,” Steve says.

“So what?” Bucky asks. “Not like we can catch a cold. So who cares? Let’s nap. Nap with me, Steven!”

Steve puffs out a breath against Bucky’s hand before relenting.

“Fine,” he says. “Fine. Get on your side.”

“I wanna be little spoon this time!” Bucky whines and Steve rolls his eyes.

“Yeah, I fucking know, dumbass. Roll on your side.”

Bucky complies and Steve scoots in closer. Bucky’s back is covered in sand, as is the back of his neck, and the whole of his hair. Steve doesn’t even brush it off, just grins as he throws an arm around his middle.

Bucky scoots back into him and pulls Steve’s arm more tightly around him.

“Mmm,” Bucky says, sleepily. “Much better.”

Steve puffs out a little laugh, which tickles the back of Bucky’s neck. Bucky squirms a little, but then Steve gets him gripped under his arm and he’s delighted to find that for the first time in their lives, he’s more than large enough to keep Bucky to him—to hold Bucky and trap him, the way that Bucky used to do to him.

It’s a role reversal of the best kind because Bucky is warm and flushed and Steve can smell the ocean on him—the salt water against his skin, the brine of the sea, the hot smell of sand.

Steve sticks his nose in the back of Bucky’s neck and Bucky mumbles, but he’s already halfway to sleep.

Steve rests his forehead against the spot in between Bucky’s shoulders. He feels warm and sluggish, hot and lazy.

He falls asleep quickly, the sun dry and hot on their damp skin, feeling something dangerously close to happy.


It’s hard to fall asleep with someone in your arms and wake up to find them gone.

Steve panics for a moment, that sleepy content feeling immediately dissipating for a sharp stab of anxiety that he can’t keep off his face.

He scrambles up to his knees, already grieving at having missed their goodbye, before he sees that Bucky’s still there. He’s sitting on the sand, a few feet away, his knees draw up, and his arms around them.

He’s watching the water with an expression so full of regret that Steve can’t help but think he put it there.

“Buck?” Steve asks, quietly.

He sits down next to him, but Bucky doesn’t move. He doesn’t even acknowledge that he’s heard Steve.

“Bucky?” Steve asks again and this time, gently—very very gently—touches his flesh shoulder.

“How do you do it?” Bucky asks.

“Do what?”

“Wait,” Bucky says, softly. “How do you wait all year for a single day? I have...other things, over there. But you—”

Steve swallows, thickly. He doesn’t know how to answer that.

“I don’t know,” Steve admits. “The only other option is to...not wait.”

“Have you considered it?” Bucky asks. “Not waiting.”

“No,” Steve says. He remembers Loki’s words to him, his voice sharp and clear in his head. This is what you asked for.

“I wait all year,” Bucky says. “Everything else feels...fake. Not real. It’s like a holding pattern I can’t break out of. I wait and I do some things in the middle and when those things are done, I’m still waiting. I don’t know even know if I’m real anymore. Is that stupid?”

Steve feels then, acutely, how selfish he’s been. To him, here, waiting means nothing. Waiting is as real an activity as anything else he does. Some days it drags for eternities and others, it’s the blink of an eye.

But Steve doesn’t have anything else to do here. He doesn’t have anyone else.

It’s not the same for Bucky.

“I’m sorry,” Steve says. “This is all my fault.”

“Shut up, Steve,” Bucky says. “I didn’t say it to make you feel bad. I just—” He runs a hand through his now drying, sand-logged waves. “This is all I look forward to and I feel bad. There are all of these people out there, waiting for me, counting on me, and all I can think is, will the door be there today? Do I get to see him today?”

Steve’s chest hurts. He’s filled with an inexorable amount of guilt.

“I see you one day and then I have to wait a whole year to see you again,” Bucky says, softly. “It’s not fair.”

“I know, Buck,” Steve says. “I know.”

Steve wants to be able to reassure him—he wants to say that this, their time here—the slow way they are clawing back everything that was taken from them, there, that they lost—is worth it. To Steve, it is worth it. A minute for a minute, a day for a day. But he doesn’t get to make that judgment call for Bucky. He shouldn’t. Even though he already has. Even though he keeps making it for him.

“What kind of a way to live is that, Steve?” Bucky says.

He doesn’t say it out of spite. There’s no hint of blame, because, Steve knows, Bucky would never blame him, not for this.

That doesn’t mean Steve can’t blame himself.

“I don’t know,” Steve says quietly. The words catch in his throat, like marbles. Then, “It’s not.”

Bucky makes a distant sort of noise.

A day for a day and a minute for a minute, Steve thinks again. Is it enough? Steve hears Loki in his head and the truth is he only knows his own answer. He’s never asked Bucky for his.

The tide comes in, a rush of water that crawls up the sand and washes over their toes. They’re quiet.

“Can you hold me?” Bucky asks, softly. “Just once.”

As though Bucky has ever had to ask. As though Bucky ever has asked.

“Of course,” Steve says.

He puts an arm around Bucky’s broad, sandy shoulders, and pulls him close. They rearrange themselves until Bucky is in the space between his legs, Steve behind him, his arms around Bucky’s shoulders. Bucky leans back into him and Steve rests his chin against Bucky’s metal shoulder. It isn’t as uncomfortable as he thought it would be.


Steve holds him for what feels like minutes, but could well have been hours.

The light ebbs away and they still sit there together, against one another, long after the sky has darkened. The stars come out slowly, flickering into life one by one, until they fill the expanse of space above them.

“Which one are you?” Steve asks softly, looking up.

“None of them,” Bucky answers after a moment, and it is the saddest response Steve has ever heard.


“This has been a perfect day,” Bucky eventually says. “Thank you.”

They’re all perfect days, with you, Steve thinks.

“I’m glad,” he says, instead.


Later, Steve will wish he had kissed him. He will wish he had held Bucky’s face in between the palm of his hands and thumbed away the sand stuck to his cheekbones. He will wish he had leaned in close, touched their foreheads together, and brushed his mouth against Bucky’s, had breathed him in and breathed him out.

He will wish he had told him, before he left, that he loved him.

He doesn’t, though.

Because Steve has been selfish for entire lifetimes and in this one, he wants to try something unselfish.

So he lets Bucky go.

He regrets it immediately.

*

Year Five.

He waits all year for a day he knows won’t come.

It hurts more than he expects, which is surprising because he knows to expect it. He prepares for i; steels himself against its expectations, but it makes no difference, in the end.

The day comes and goes and Steve is left by himself, just him in his lighthouse—no doors and certainly no visitors.

He knows this is what’s right, of course. He knows that this was Bucky’s choice—one that only he could make for himself.

Steve doesn’t begrudge Bucky his decision to stay. He loves him for it even more.

It doesn’t make it hurt any less, though, or keep him from being any less devastated.

*

Year Six.

“I had a thought.”

Steve is building a boardwalk. Well, it’s less of a boardwalk than a winding wooden path from the lighthouse to the water, but the goal is to eventually build it out and put up railings and—

Steve is building a boardwalk.

He leans back on his thighs and swipes a hand across his forehead and grunts.

“How long do you think a person can go without speaking before he forgets how to talk?” Loki asks. He’s squatting on the boardwalk path that Steve’s already created—some fifteen feet of wooden planks from the door of the lighthouse.

“Do you want to test it out and get back to me?” Steve says.

“Mean,” Loki says, sticking out his tongue. “How long has it been? Have the seagulls begun talking back to you yet?”

“Not yet,” Steve says. He’s kneeling on the side, sand pressed against his legs, so Loki technically has the advantage. He looks up at him.

“I can change that, you know,” Loki says, casually. “If you’d like.”

Steve levels him with a look.

“I’m fine,” he says. “I’m busy.”

“I see that,” Loki says and gestures at the path of wooden planks. “A project to while away the time?”

Steve shrugs and grabs the next piece of wood.

“A little home renovation.”

Loki sits down properly on the boardwalk so far, legs crossed under him.

“Will that help?”

Steve frowns and tries to smooth the sand under the spot where he wants the next bit to go.

“Help what, Loki?”

“Your—” Loki seems as though he’s going to say one thing, but he changes his mind. “—boredom. It’s been—well, do you know how long you’ve been here?”

Steve does and he doesn’t. Time passes like sand through a pretty peculiar hourglass here and without some sort of a marker, he could not have told Loki one way or another. But a time marker is the only thing Steve does have here. He hangs the moon with it.

He has been here six years, eight months, and twenty two days. He has been waiting one year, eight months, and twenty two days.

“It’s good to have a project,” Steve says. He puts the wood down and reaches for his water bottle. “What do you think?”

Loki seems surprised at that—to be asked.

“What is its purpose?”

Steve chugs a good bit of his water—he was thirstier than he realized—and wipes his mouth on the back of his sandy, dirty hand.

“To take me closer to the water. With less sand. You’ve never seen a boardwalk before?”

Loki ignores that.

“And then what? What will you do that close to the water?”

Steve shrugs.

“Build a railing, I guess. Maybe a dock that juts out. I haven’t decided, really.”

“You have certainly gained some different skills since last I visited,” Loki says.

Steve shrugs again.

“I’ve had time,” he says. “And you haven’t visited in a while.”

Loki considers that thoughtfully. He drums his fingers on top of his knees.

“He didn’t come this time,” he says.

Steve shakes his head and puts his water bottle down.

“No,” he says.

“Was it a mistake?” Loki asks, curiously.

Steve wipes his hands on his thighs.

“No.”

“Did the door not open?” Loki’s head is tilted just so, only Steve doesn’t know if he’s being an annoying piece of shit or if he just doesn’t know. Steve finds that he doesn’t care. Honestly, he doesn’t even mind.

“He didn’t want to come, Loki,” Steve says. “So he didn’t.”

For once, Loki has nothing to say. He watches Steve quietly, a small frown on his lips.

“Did you fight?” he asks.

“No,” Steve says. He grabs the plank again and this time fits it in place better.

“Did you tell him—”

“No, Loki,” Steve says and this time it’s with an edge. “I didn’t tell him anything. I didn’t ask him anything.”

“Maybe you should have,” Loki offers. “If he knew, then maybe he would have come.”

“Maybe,” Steve says. “And maybe he would have felt forced to see me. I’m not gonna do that to him. All I can do is leave that door open and hope that he wants to take it. And if he doesn’t, that’s his right.”

Loki tilts his head again, this time resting it in his hand as he rests his elbows on his knees. Sometimes, when he sits like this, Steve forgets that he’s a two thousand year old mythical Norse God and not just some dumbass kid, bored, and looking to stir shit.

Steve gets to work in silence for some time longer and he gets lost in it—fitting planks, driving nails into them, reinforcing them, going slowly, inch-by-inch, as he continues adding to his path.

Eventually, he has to stop to take a break and it’s only then that he looks up to find Loki handing him his water bottle.

“Thanks,” Steve says, surprised. But also grateful. He unscrews the cap to suck down the rest of the water.

“You’re sad, Captain,” Loki says. It isn’t a question.

Steve doesn’t know why he says it. Loki is nothing to him and he owes him nothing in return. But he is the only person other than Bucky he has seen in six years. He is the only person Steve knows who is stuck here, in this place, with him.

So when he says, “Yeah,” it surprises both him and Loki.

It’s almost as surprising as Loki looking at him—not with pity, but with empathy—and saying, “I’m sorry.”

Loki doesn’t say anything else, doesn’t say me too, but some things don’t need to be said out loud for other people to know it’s true.


It doesn’t solve anything, of course, but it helps, somehow.

Loki spends the rest of the day with him, sitting on the boardwalk and offering needless commentary that Steve neither asked for nor really wanted.

Surprisingly, it’s not a terrible day.

Surprisingly, Steve doesn’t mind it.

*

One year, eleven months, and thirty one days later, Steve stands in the lantern gallery. It’s that time between the dead of night and the hour before dawn, when the world feels unsure of itself, an impermanence to the blanket of darkness that you know will soon fade to something a little brighter, a little different.

He has his jacket wrapped close around him, a scarf to protect his neck from the wind, and a little red-knit cap with one of those fuzzy balls at the end that he had spent the better part of two months attempting to crochet. The end result is warm enough, although visibly notched with mistakes that he’s learned not to take to heart. He’s learning, in this life, to accept his mistakes and forgive himself for them. Even when those mistakes make him look ridiculous. That, Steve thinks, is what they call character growth.

It’s later than he usually gives his offering.

He feels some guilt, but in truth, he’s tired. He had woken up that evening with an ache in his bones to match the one in his chest. It had pulsed, blood-deep, an exhaustion he had thought he had forgotten. Steve had looked up at the stone ceiling of his stone room in his stone lighthouse and he had thought—can I survive another year of disappointment?

He didn’t have an answer. Neither did the lighthouse.


It hadn’t been a fleeting thought. He had given himself that, at least—the space to wonder. The freedom to have a choice. If Bucky gets to make his, then Steve also gets one, doesn’t he? Maybe this is a different kind of freedom—Bucky staying where he is and Steve not offering to bring him back. After a lifetime together, maybe the true paradise is the ability to let one another go.

It had been a comforting thought for all of one cup of tea.

Then the ache had set in again.

Steve knew it was just the loneliness talking, the unbearable melancholy of loving someone who kept slipping through his outstretched fingers. In truth, he had never really had a choice.

If Bucky was out there, somewhere, in some time, Steve would keep the door open. Bucky might never come through it again, but that would be his choice to make. It wouldn’t be because Steve had turned off the light.

Steve would always feed the flame.

He would always leave a light on.


He curls his fingers into the warm, blue fire and it dances around him, licking up his palm and down toward his wrist, wrapping down the length of it and then relenting, eating its way back up to his fingertips.

Steve exhales, feeling a heat at the base of his spine—a tingle spark up and down his arms.

The flame retreats back to the cage and, without warning, flares a blinding, dazzling white.

Steve withdraws his hand quickly to shield his eyes from the pulsing beacon.

“What’s wrong with you?” he mutters to the lantern, as though it will answer.

“Maybe it’s happy to see you,” a voice says from behind him.

Steve sucks in a breath, his whole body stilling. He doesn’t turn until he feels hands on his shoulders and he’s gently forced around.

Steve thinks he should look different. There should be something remarkable about him now, an indication that he had left, and that he had now come back. There should be some sign—some marker—that Steve hadn’t seen him in two years; that although they had gone over seventy before, somehow this had felt longer, had been almost more unbearable.

But Steve looks him over and Bucky looks the same as he did before; maybe a little greyer near the temples, maybe a little leaner and harder around the edges, but still largely the same—the same eyes and the same eyebrows, the same smooth slope of his nose and slight indent in his chin and cautious curve of his lips. For all the time lost between them, Bucky is, as ever, the exact same.

Steve thinks he should be angry at him, for leaving him.

Maybe he should be angry at him, for coming back.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky says, quietly. “You must hate me.”

It hits Steve firmly in the chest. It starts as a gasp—a sharp, wet inhale. Then he has his arms around Bucky, crossing the space between them before he knows he’s done so.

“Buck,” Steve says, gasping into the skin between Bucky’s shoulder and neck.

“Steve,” Bucky says and he doesn’t hesitate either, wrapping both of his arms back around Steve, not a moment wasted in between Steve pulling him against him and Bucky burying his face in Steve’s chest. “I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry, Steve. I let it close on purpose and I spent all year regretting it. I thought it’s what I needed to do, but—god, I was stupid. I just spent all fucking year missing you. I’m such a fuck up. I fucked up. I’m so sorr—”

Steve barely hears him. In all honesty, he barely listens to him, he’s so shocked—so stunned, to be able to see him again, to have him here, in his arms, again.

“Buck,” Steve rasps out again. His head is buzzing. His skin is sparking. He feels it everywhere—this larger-than-life, out-of-body sensation, like he’s 24 again, being shot up with the serum for the first time. “You came back.”

Bucky pulls away, just enough to look Steve in the face. He raises his metal hand and touches the fingertips to Steve’s jaw, running them through his beard. He stops at Steve’s mouth, presses his middle finger and index finger to his lips, and stays them there. Steve feels the warmth on his mouth and keeps it shut, just to keep Bucky’s fingers on him.

“You’re still waiting for me,” Bucky says. “After what I did to you.”

Steve just watches him, his eyes shining with emotion.

“I knew it was a mistake, the second I fucking made it,” Bucky says. He presses his fingers against Steve’s mouth more firmly, as though to keep him from speaking; as though to capture his answer and keep it there. “But it was too late to change my mind. I thought it’d be easier—if I stayed away. I thought that’s what I needed—to be there, to be fully present. I thought it would make it better. And d’you know what?”

Steve shakes his head and Bucky laughs, a sad, mournful thing.

“God, it didn’t. It made it worse. It was fucking awful. What the fuck was I thinking?” Bucky asks. He doesn’t let go, doesn’t shift his gaze. “What’m I doing without you, Rogers? How did I think I could bear that?”

Steve makes a little noise and Bucky releases his mouth.

Steve opens his mouth to say something—to say it’s okay or to tell him he was right or maybe just to tell him he missed him too—but he doesn’t get the chance. Steve opens his mouth and Bucky’s fingers curve around his cheek and pull him forward to kiss him.

Steve’s thoughts scatter as Bucky’s metal fingers press into his jaw, keeping him there, firmly in place, like an iron grip that’s welded onto him. Bucky’s mouth is as warm as Steve’s is cool, and when Bucky parts his lips, Steve makes a small noise before deepening the kiss, instinctively, surprisingly needy and borderline desperate, his hands scrabbling to grip Bucky’s back and drag him forward, closer, to close the four inches of height that the serum put between them.

Bucky releases Steve’s face and wraps his arms around Steve’s shoulders and Steve walks him backwards until Bucky’s back hits the railing, Bucky making a little noise that Steve inhales, and he keeps Bucky there in his own iron-welded grip, his pulse thundering just below his collarbone as electric shocks run up and down his spine.

Bucky opens his mouth further for him without any effort at all and Steve drinks him in, their lips moving together—against each other—with each other—until they’re bitten red, swollen sweetly, both of them panting into each other’s mouths, and Bucky making noises that Steve can’t seem to stop drawing from him.

“About time,” Steve says, in the brief scattering of seconds they pull apart to catch their breaths.

“Jesus fuck,” Bucky rasps out, which is more than glowing review enough for Steve.

Steve presses a scratchy kiss to the space under Bucky’s lips and then to his Cupid’s bow and Bucky, in return, tugs Steve’s sweater up just enough to get his hot hands on the warm skin of Steve’s stomach.

“Jesus fuck,” Bucky says again, with feeling, and Steve sucks in a breath at the same time he colors.

Bucky, flushed and nearly glowing, laughs at that, his eyes crinkling at the corners as he does, and Steve can’t help but to lean forward again, just pull him back in and kiss him on his pink, kiss-stained mouth. He feels drunk on this—on Bucky, on his mouth and his warmth and the clean smell of his skin—and that’s just fine, because Steve hasn’t been able to get drunk in like ninety fucking years and if this is what it takes to get his heart racing and his skin buzzing and his head spinning, well, he’s more than willing to give up the rest.

The rest doesn’t matter much at all.

Bucky rakes his fingers up the stretch of Steve’s stomach and Steve’s stomach jolts in response and when Bucky looks back up at him, it’s with bright eyes and a sharp hunger that Steve leans forward to kiss off the tip of his tongue.


The thing is, Steve misses the opportunity to tell Bucky he loves him in three lifetimes, so he doesn’t waste his fourth. He leads Bucky away from the gallery, down the stairs from the top of the lighthouse to his bedroom, and kisses him there again—once against the bedroom door, and then in the middle of the room, Bucky’s body pulled close against him, and then again at the foot of his bed, before pushing him down onto it.

Bucky looks up at him from the middle of the mattress, propped up by his elbows behind him, and he’s grinning widely—something so expectant and carefree that Steve feels the years fall away from them both, the two of them one hundred-and-twenty-whatever going on nineteen fucking years old, sharing a one bedroom shithole of an apartment in Red Hook that never warmed up in the winter and never cooled down in the summer.

They were too fucking stupid—or scared—or ignorant—to do it then, but they have no qualms about it now. Steve crawls over him, pressing a hand to Bucky’s chest and kissing him on his mouth again, drawing out those same sounds that he will spend the rest of the year playing over and over again in his head.

They kiss again until they’re breathless, until their mouths are red and sore and their quick breathing picks up a desperate edge. Bucky scrabbles to shove Steve’s scarf and jacket off of him and Steve shoves the bottom of Bucky’s henley up under his armpits and gets distracted by the stretch of bare skin meant for him. He runs a hand down the length of it just to hear Bucky’s breath hitch and then he takes more time, traces the slopes and scars of Bucky’s stomach and the ridges of his ribs with his rough, lighthouse keeper’s palms.

Bucky sucks a breath in woozily and Steve leans down to fit his mouth around a perfectly round nipple and when he runs his tongue over it, Bucky arches up into him with a sound that he only barely covers with his forearm. Steve likes that very much, so he does it again and then again, until Bucky’s nipple is stiff and then Steve moves on to the other, while Bucky’s digging his fingers into Steve’s hair, grasping at it tightly and pulling each time Steve’s tongue brushes his skin, and it sparks a pleasurable sort of pain at the base of Steve’s skull that he can’t ignore.

Their breathing is already too erratic, chests close to heaving. The air around them is warm, the room suddenly hot.

Steve moves off of Bucky only when Bucky shoves him off and onto his side, and then Bucky rolls them over, so he can straddle Steve’s hips instead.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Rogers,” Bucky says. He’s flushed bright and his eyes are just the right side of glazed when he leans down to kiss the breath right out of Steve again, before starting to more aggressively shove his clothes off of him.

Bucky unzips Steve’s pants and Steve lifts his hips to help Bucky’s attempt to get them off. Bucky does it easily enough, shoving all of Steve’s clothes off the bed like they’ve personally offended him, before helping himself out of his own. He shoves his henley and undershirt up and over his head and unbuckles, unzips, and casts his own jeans onto the pile of clothes now concentrated on one side of the floor.

When he climbs back on the bed, Steve’s on his knees in nothing but his boxers, and he grasps Bucky by the side and pulls him forward once more, pulling him flush against him, and the two of them find each other’s mouths again, hot, wet, and waiting.


Steve hasn’t slept with anyone in a long time. He supposes even if he had, it wouldn’t have mattered. There’s nothing controlled about this and nothing to compare it to, except, maybe, the images in his head or the cast of daydreams, which frankly hadn’t had the imagination to capture how Bucky’s skin flushed pink under attention or the pleased, little noises he made when Steve abused the inside of his thigh with scratchy kisses or the way his mouth fell open when Steve stroked him into hardness and then helped open him up or how he scrabbled for purchase, his fingers—both flesh and metal—digging into Steve’s sides, as though trying to leave his own bruises as Steve pressed his forehead to Bucky’s sternum and tried to keep breathing as he pushed inside.

He couldn’t have known that Bucky would be all gasps and soft moans and that the most sensitive part of him wouldn’t be his length or anything deep inside, but the scars that rope up his sides, the patched skin that shimmers with sweat at the juncture between his metal shoulder and his flesh torso. Steve mouths against them sometimes, just to control his breathing—just to keep his pulse from accelerating—but it doesn’t work, because as soon as he touches a scar, he hears Bucky fail to hold back a gasp and as soon as he gasps, Steve’s pulse ratchets back up.

Bucky doesn’t talk very much and that, too, is surprising, although maybe he’s just as in shock as Steve is, just as deeply held in the moment, head stuffed full of cotton and mouth full of sparks that he can either swallow or press back onto skin.

The one time Bucky does talk, it’s to say, “Jesus, Steve,” and “Move, Rogers,” and Steve both laughs and pants lightly at that and there’s no way to have imagined this either—that Bucky’s eyes will close the faster Steve moves and that he will look like the perfect encapsulation of every sunset and every dawn and every evening that Steve has ever painted.

Bucky’s mouth is flushed, puffed pink, and Steve finds himself drawn back there again and again, as though it’s his central point, some kind of centrifugal core that Steve can’t stand to be too far from. He kisses him and gets a hand behind Bucky’s back, helps lift him just enough to correct the angle and then Steve continues the push and the pull, his other hand on Bucky, stroking him through it too, the two of them matching, in this, and in every way—two perfect, parallel motions.

Their breathing quickens, Steve drawing part of the way out and pushing all the way back in, his rhythm growing faster and slowing, both relentless and designed to draw Bucky out of his mind, and Bucky, for his part, biting back some well-chosen curses at it being too fucking slow and not fucking slow enough and too fucking much at the same time it’s not even fucking close to being enough and it doesn’t take too long for Steve to find the angle that makes Bucky’s eyes roll toward the back of his head.

Bucky spills first and Steve strokes him through it, murmuring nonsense while kissing his flesh shoulder through the aftershocks. Steve follows not long after, with a shuddered breath and Bucky absentmindedly patting his lower back. They stay perfectly still after, both panting quietly, skin sweat-slick and limbs pleasantly loose. Steve lets out a low, tired laugh and pulls out, collapsing on his side.

When he’s finally caught his breath, it’s sweaty and it’s hot and Bucky opens his eyes and smiles.

That, Steve definitely could never have imagined. Or, at least, he could not have imagined quite how—the breadth of it, or the brightness, the undeniable happiness.

Steve rolls onto his stomach, his face still turned toward Bucky, and reaches forward, to trace his fingertips along Bucky’s face, from the tip of his forehead, over the curve of his nose, down down down, to the slight dip in his chin.

This time, Steve presses his index finger and middle finger to Bucky’s mouth.

This time, Bucky grins and sucks them in.


When the door appears this time, they have spent their time well, finding uses for their supersoldier serums that they had not considered before.

Bucky stands before the shining doorway and leans up—those scant four inches—and presses a kiss to Steve’s mouth.

Steve’s eyes flutter open after, his skin buzzing, his head fizzing.

“I’ll be back,” Bucky promises. “This time, I won’t keep you guessing.”

*

Chapter Text

Year Seven.

Steve finishes the entire length of the boardwalk over the following year, leading from the front door of the lighthouse all the way down the slight hill and onto the beach, just up against the water. He builds it out just like a real boardwalk, raised enough above the water that he can pace over it and lean against the railing when he’s feeling particularly introspective or when he’s looking up at the night sky and trying to trace the stars to find which one might be Bucky.

He has other projects in his mind as an extension of this—chairs and tables for him to build to set near the water or maybe a shed to nestle against the lighthouse, or both. He wonders how long it would take him to create an entire pier, all to himself, and then he realizes he has nothing but time, so he spends a few months in his painting studio, not painting, but designing.

Adversely, he drags his canvas and easel and bag of paints down from the studio and onto the boardwalk, setting it on the stretch of planks along the beach, so that when the weather is good or he’s feeling restless, he can stand there, behind the easel, nearly on top of the ocean, and paint the first thing that comes to mind.

It’s no surprise to him that the eyes and the nose and the mouth that emerge on the whites of his canvas are specific ones, familiar ones—ones he’s been retracing in the back of his mind obsessively, for the past nine months.

He paints a series like this, without meaning to, and each is a little different—his eyes a slate grey in one and a sky blue in another, his mouth curved up in a smile sometimes and other times puckered or downturned at the corners, with an indentation between his brows, where his worry lives.

Sometimes Steve paints Bucky the way he remembers him in his bed, naked and worn out, a pink flush crawling up his neck, and his messy brown curls spread across Steve’s white pillowcase. Other times, Steve paints Bucky the way he remembers him from before—before the ice, before the war—when Steve would spend hours staring at this person, his favorite person, without quite catching why. In these paintings, Bucky is young and he is innocent and sometimes Steve ruins his own painting by reaching forward to touch Bucky’s small, pink mouth, and smudging the oil paint into the canvas.

Loki visits him not once, but twice, and finds Steve with his flannel sleeves rolled up to his elbows, paint drying on the tips of his fingers and on his wrist and in small smudges along his arms.

Loki does not tease Steve about his subject, surprisingly, although Steve wouldn’t have minded even if he had. He paints Bucky—every inch of him—and if there is nothing to hide on the canvas, he has nothing to hide from the God of Mischief either.

“I take it he returned,” Loki says, the first time he appears over Steve’s shoulder. “Otherwise you are drawing pornography for no reason.”

“This isn’t—” Steve says, flushing a little. Okay, he’s a little embarrassed the first time, but only because it’s been a long time since he’s put his feelings to canvas and certainly he had never taken such an interest in the bare human form before.

“Yes, yes, it’s all very tasteful,” Loki says, waving away Steve’s momentary embarrassment. “You can paint all of this from nothing but memory?”

Steve rolls a shoulder and takes a step back to examine his latest work—Bucky is being swallowed by Steve’s white sheets. He’s propped up on his forearms, and he’s looking at Steve over his shoulder, his hair sex-mussed, and a smile on his bitten-red lips.

“It’s a good memory,” Steve says, with a smile.

“I’ll bet,” Loki grins.

Steve’s smile turns a little self-satisfied along the edges and then he tries to shield his eyes from the mid-afternoon sun and smudges himself with a streak of paint across his forehead for his efforts.

“Captain, you are a mess,” Loki says and begins to laugh.

Well, why not?

Stranger things have happened to Steve than standing on a boardwalk by the water, built by his own hands, laughing with a Norse God who had once tried to kill him, over a nude painting of his best friend turned one time lover.

Not a whole lot stranger, mind. But some stranger.

Loki sits, cross-legged, on the wooden planks and watches Steve paint for the rest of the afternoon all the while talking incessantly.

It’s strange, but it’s one of the most enjoyable days Steve has had in a while.

*

“Bucky,” Steve says breathlessly, although he’s not complaining.

He’s pressed against the side of the lighthouse, just by the front door, Bucky’s tongue exploring all of the spaces in Steve’s mouth he hasn’t gotten the chance to familiarize himself with in a year. Bucky has both hands pressed hard against Steve’s chest, has Steve pinned against stone while he kisses him until Steve sees stars.

It hadn’t been so much of a greeting as it had been an attack.

“Been thinking—about this—” Bucky mutters, pressing kiss after hungry kiss to Steve’s mouth, “—all—fucking—year.”

Steve flushes, his heart beating erratically—racing, really—in his chest, but he has his hand in Bucky’s longer hair and he’s tugging on it so that he can force Bucky’s head back and work his way down Bucky’s stubbly jaw to his throat in order to suck on his clavicle.

He gets there and Bucky lets out a breathy little moan that has Steve really dig in, all tongue and teeth and when he’s done with his work, there’s a purple splotch bruising into Bucky’s skin.

“Good, good work,” Bucky breathes out and Steve laughs, pressing another, more gentle kiss to the side of his throat. Bucky’s metal hand haphazardly goes to Steve’s hair and he pats his head. “Big fan. I’m a big fan.”

Steve laughs, a rumble that must sink through Bucky’s skin, because he shivers in response.

Steve pulls back and leans in for another, proper kiss.

“Missed you,” Steve says.

“Missed you too, punk,” Bucky says and greedily kisses him back.

They make out for a little while, like two desperate, horny teenagers.

They haven’t been that in like a century and Steve is way too physically large to act like it, but that doesn’t stop them from eventually emerging with flushed faces and bright eyes, shirts untucked and pants unzipped, gross wet spots near the front that the two of them laugh about once they’ve caught their breaths.

“Come on,” Steve says, running a rough hand down the back of Bucky’s neck. “Let’s go do laundry.”


Steve lends Bucky sweatpants and his favorite oversized sweater and Bucky takes the opportunity to put his hair up into a messy bun at the top of his head and he looks so cozy and happy here that Steve—his heart growing ten times larger in his chest—can’t help but dump all of their dirty clothes on the floor for a minute and scoop him up in his arms.

“Steve,” Bucky says, laughing and kissing him back. “We have laundry—chores—we have—”

Steve keeps punctuating Bucky’s words with kisses and eventually Bucky gives in, wrapping his legs around Steve’s waist and his arms around Steve’s shoulders and Steve holds Bucky up by propping him against the nearest wall.

“Those can wait a little while,” Steve says, kissing down the line of Bucky’s jaw. “First I gotta show you how much I missed you.”

“How much?” Bucky asks, grinning. “How much’d you miss me?”

Steve grins and pulls back from where he’s done great work turning Bucky’s skin a pleasant pink. He’s going to give Bucky a beard burn, he’s decided. He’s going to use his beard to the full extent that he can, for himself and for Bucky, who can’t seem to stop running his fingers through it.

“Take your pants off and you’ll find out, pal,” Steve says, his grin turning into something wicked, and Bucky barely has a chance to reply before Steve’s carrying him back to the bed.

He dumps Bucky into the middle and Bucky bounces a little and looks excited as Steve retrieves the proper accoutrements from the bedside table.

“Sex, then chores?”

Steve laughs and tosses the lube and condom onto the bed.

“Yup,” he says and throws himself onto the bed after them.

He presses a hand to the sliver of Bucky’s stomach that’s been exposed in a strip under the sweater, which is ridden up. He hooks a finger into his sweatpants and tugs.

“Sex, then chores,” Steve says, grinning.

“That’s the title of your memoir,” Bucky grins back.

Steve tugs his sweatpants all the way down.


It feels like they fit an entire life into the span of that one day. Steve supposes they don’t really have much of a choice and it would make it incomprehensibly sad, if he let himself stop to think about it.

He doesn’t.

He and Bucky do laundry together—in buckets of water and soap, no washing machine here—laughing and jostling one another, splashing each other with soap suds and bubbles as they scrub their clothes and hang them up to dry on the clothing line Steve’s hung in the service room for that purpose.

They follow each other into the kitchen and clear the kitchen island before pulling different dried ingredients out of the pantry. Steve retrieves his sourdough starter and they stand side-by-side, mixing flour and salt and water and kneading the dough, up to their elbows in flour, chattering to fill the silence, until the dough is soft and sticky and Bucky grumbles at all of the pieces sticking in between his plates.

Steve laughs and flicks flour onto him and Bucky tries to swipe at his nose, only to smear sourdough across the length of it.

“You’re such a fucking punk!” Bucky exclaims and he’s grumbling so much and looks so ridiculous with flour on his face and dough on his nose that Steve kisses him on the mouth for the effort.

They scoop the prepared dough into a bowl and cover it with a towel.

Bucky doesn’t let them clean up before he’s dragging Steve closer to him and Steve lifts him onto the flour-covered island so that Bucky can hook his legs around Steve’s waist. Steve keeps his hands at Bucky’s hips and they don’t do much more than kiss, but they do kiss for some time.

They emerge only when it’s clear that their mouths are getting sore and they need air. Bucky, pink and grinning, says, “I’m hungry. What’s a guy gotta do to get food around here?”

They clean up together, although there’s no rescuing Bucky’s (Steve’s) sweatpants from the flour and specks of dough—not that Steve doesn’t try, patting his ass down, thoroughly, as he does—and then scour Steve’s kitchen for things to make sandwiches with.

“Where do you go grocery shopping anyhow?” Bucky asks, setting out deli meat and cheese and mustard on the counter.

Steve gets fresh bread that he made a few days ago, his bread knife, and a washed tomato.

“I don’t,” he says. He starts slicing the bread and putting them on the plates. “They just kind of appear when I run low.”

“What the fuck, Steve?” Bucky blinks, looking at him. “Do you live in some kinda magical smart lighthouse? Does it also grant wishes?”

The corner of Steve’s mouth ticks up and he starts slicing the tomato.

“Yeah, Buck,” he says. “It does, doesn’t it?”

Bucky realizes what he’s said then and turns a little pink, grumbling as he spreads mustard on the bread and then starts layering the sandwiches with the sliced turkey and provolone cheese.

“How do I get me one of these?” Bucky asks.

Steve snorts softly and adds the tomato to the sandwiches. He leans over and presses a kiss to Bucky’s temple.

“It’s a whole long process,” he says. “Just the one will do for now.”

Bucky looks dubious at that and puts the slice of bread on top of each sandwich and then cuts them in half vertically.

“Chips?” Steve asks.

“Did you make them too, Martha Stewart?” Bucky asks. He grabs both plates of food and nods.

“Who?”

“I don’t understand, Steve. You lived there longer than I did.”

Steve grins and grabs two bags of salt and vinegar chips.

“I have a very specific set of pop culture knowledge,” he says. “You can thank Sam for that.”

“Fucking Wilson,” Bucky says, glaring as though Sam’s there to see.

Steve also grabs napkins and a bottle of wine for them to share. It can always be five o’ clock when you live by yourself in a magical lighthouse in the middle of nowhere.

He follows Bucky up the stairs to the gallery and they sit on the floor of it, near one side of the railing, so they can watch the water while eating.

The sandwiches and chips are good and the wine cold as they pass the bottle back and forth, drinking from it slowly until more than half of it has disappeared. They push the plates to the side and Bucky draws his legs up and leans his entire body on Steve.

Steve remembers a different time, when he was three times smaller and they would sit on top of a ratty old fire escape, Steve wracked with cold and Bucky trying to rub warmth into his shoulders. It’s both surreal and nice for it to be the other way around now, Steve wrapping Bucky easily in the breadth of his arm, Bucky’s head nestled against Steve’s collarbone.

“Took us a good fucking long time,” Bucky says, quietly.

“Yeah,” Steve says.

“Were we just idiots or was it something else?” Bucky asks.

Steve wonders. He feels the warmth of Bucky against him and that heats him up, the core of him thawing after what has felt like a hundred more years of being stuck inside ice.

“Maybe a little of both,” Steve says. “There was that whole war and then you falling off a train. Me getting stuck inside ice—”

“You didn’t get stuck inside ice, Rogers, you flew a fucking quinjet full of bombs into the middle of the fucking Arctic circle,” Bucky says, waspishly, which makes Steve laugh.

“—then there was the whole HYDRA thing and becoming a fugitive. We got like a week in Wakanda where I thought you looked really fucking cute with flowers in your hair and then this giant purple motherfucker showed up with an overpowered glove and a grudge to burn.”

“You sound like me,” Bucky says, delighted. “Anyway, it wasn’t really a grudge. More like some fucked up politics and no one ever thought to stop him and tell him he’d read a little too much Ayn Rand—”

“Who?” Steve asks and Bucky jabs him in the side. He laughs, “Okay, fine, even I’ve heard of that lady.”

Bucky sighs and pats Steve’s stomach.

“Just a nice, calm, uneventful life and two idiots who couldn’t get their heads out of their asses fast enough to do anything about anything.”

Steve smiles and presses a kiss to the crown of Bucky’s head.

“That’s some nice revisionism,” he says.

“Well it’s not all wrong anyway,” Bucky says.

Steve chuckles and stretches his legs.

“Yeah,” he says. “You’re probably right. What a buncha morons.”

That seems to satisfy Bucky, who falls quiet. Steve lets the silence stay, uninterrupted, finding as much peace in their shared comfort as in their conversation. He thinks, it’s always been this way, their shared life and their shared quiet; each as necessary to the heart of them as the other.

They stay out there for some time, until the sun starts dipping lower and then Bucky shivers and stands up and offers Steve his hand.

“Let’s take a shower,” Bucky says and Steve feels the broad, easy smile across his face.

He takes his hand and gets to his feet.


They spend a small life together that day. It’s an idea of what they could have and a reminder of what they don’t.

Their kiss goodbye is sweet, but it’s not long before it starts to feel a little sad.

*

Year Eight.

He’s greying around the temples. It’s anything but undignified—the opposite, really. Bucky’s hair is cut a little shorter again, shorn closely on the sides and a little looser in the back and on top. There’s no discernible curl pattern now, just some waves and, at the temples, a speckle of salt among the pepper.

They’re in bed, leaning against the headboard, the sheets spooled to their bare waists. Bucky’s leaning against Steve and working on a crossword puzzle that he’s brought back with him. Steve misses crossword puzzles—he’d forgotten all about them, so he had never thought to ask. They would be a nice addition to his morning coffee and toast.

That’s a tangential thought.

He strokes the back of Bucky’s neck, fingers working their way through his hair, toward the grey.

“Four letter word,” Bucky says. “Operatic solo or diva’s song…?”

Steve isn’t really listening. He presses a thumb to the shell of Bucky’s ear, traces it, and then brushes his nails against his temple.

“I don’t know shit about the opera,” Bucky says, with a frown. “Didn’t you have—that phase once?”

Steve did. It had been a short-lived phase because they hadn’t had the money to buy tickets, but he’d heard a bit of one on the radio once and he’d become obsessed, briefly, with the idea of it. Maybe the going to the opera as much as the opera itself, really.

He focuses on those greys. The serum is supposed to stop aging—well, as far as he knows. It’s supposed to at least pause it, freeze the whole action in place. But here Bucky is, with grey at his temples and the fine lines of crows feet by the corners of his eyes.

“Steve?” Bucky asks.

“Aria,” Steve says, digging the word out of the back of his mind.

Bucky looks down at his crossword.

“Oh fuck yeah,” he says and scribbles it in. He grins up at Steve after. “Thanks.”

He must notice something’s wrong, because his smile dims.

“Hey,” he says. “What’s wrong?”

Steve traces from Bucky’s temple down to his jaw, dragging his thumb down the path of it and then around back and down the bare line of his spine.

He can feel the ridges of Bucky’s back under the pad of his thumb, the little dips in his spine, the skin hot to the touch.

“Steve?” Bucky murmurs. “What’s wrong?”

“What do you tell them?” Steve asks.

“Tell who?”

“The rest,” Steve says. Then he realizes it’s been a while since he’s even asked about them. “The Avengers. Are they still—are you—?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “Some. I mostly go along with Wilson, he runs the show.”

“Sam,” Steve says, with a smile. “What do you tell him? When you come here?”

Bucky’s expression flickers.

“Nothing, Steve,” he says. “It’s a day. If they need me and they can’t find me, I find some excuse. Usually I don’t need to. It’s been, what—”

“Six days,” Steve says. “Six days in seven years.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “Six days in seven years. Not hard to just...come here and then go back.”

“I guess,” Steve says. He rubs his thumb against a spot in the middle of Bucky’s back absently.

“Something’s eating you,” Bucky says, nudging Steve’s knee with his own. “What’s going on?”

Steve’s not sure how to describe what he’s feeling without veering closely into some unwelcome form of patronization. It’s not that he doesn’t trust Bucky to protect himself or to make his own decisions. He guesses he just doesn’t trust Bucky to realize Steve is being selfish, because he’s never been very good at recognizing that.

When Bucky looks at him, he sees Steve, unchanged and unbent, but Steve sees the grey in Bucky’s hair and the lines around his eyes and he wonders how it’s escaped him all this time—the magnitude of what he’s asking of Bucky. He doesn’t remember being this selfish before, but then, he thinks, maybe he’s only now realized everything he has to lose.

The truth is that Bucky is growing older every day and Steve isn’t. Every year he asks Bucky to come back to him is another year that Bucky has to put his entire life on hold and pretend he’s doing something else.

“Do you,” Steve says, awkwardly and Bucky immediately raises an eyebrow. “Go on dates?”

Bucky’s eyebrows nearly disappear into his hairline.

“Excuse me?”

“I don’t mean it like—” Steve starts and stops. “You should be. Going on them.”

Excuse me?” Bucky’s voice hardens further.

“I’m not trying to be jealous,” Steve says. “Or check on you.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Steve?”

“Jesus Christ,” Steve says with an exhale and runs his hands down his face. “This all sounds better in my head.”

“I fucking doubt that,” Bucky says. “What are you trying to do?”

“What?”

“You're trying to do something dumbshit, I can feel it,” Bucky says, adjusting under the sheet. “I just can’t figure out what.”

“Tell me you’ve gone on dates,” Steve says. “Tell me you’ve—you have friends and a life and that you’re getting back everything HYDRA took from you. Tell me you have everything you’ve ever wanted.”

Bucky gives Steve a look—like the kind he used to give him when they were kids and Steve had gone and done something stupid, like scraped up his knees trying to shove a kid three times his size or tried to sneak out the fire escape when he had a raging fever just because he couldn’t bear to be in bed anymore. It’s a look—not of contempt—but of pure frustration and disdain, and okay, maybe a little contempt.

“Rogers, I am a formerly brainwashed ex-assassin who took out one of the country’s most popular young presidents and whose day job is to help his dumbass best friend chase fourth dimension aliens in and out of canals to keep them from taking out whole cities or starting some kinda underground alien drug ring. I do not have time for dates and I do not have time for friends and everything I’ve ever wanted is stranded behind some dumbfuck magical door that I can only take once a fucking year to come visit.”

Steve stares at him.

“Whatever you’re trying to do, stop it,” Bucky says. He tugs Steve’s hand down and laces their fingers together, flesh on flesh. “Can’t you just let us be happy?”

“Are you?” Steve askes, quietly. “Happy?”

“I’m doing a crossword puzzle in bed with this idiot I’ve had eyes for since I was a kid,” Bucky says, softly. “It’s not perfect, but it’s enough for me. I’m happy.”

Steve doesn’t believe him. He knows that’s patronizing too, but he can’t help but think of it from all of the ways Bucky won’t—the things he’s giving up for Steve, the things he’s stopping for him. The stories he’s missing, the memories he refuses to create. Bucky could have happiness three hundred and sixty four days a year, but he chooses only the one.

Steve loves him more than entire worlds could hold and that’s why he can’t bear to see Bucky sacrifice his life; even if it’s for him; even if it’s done willingly.

“I’m happy,” Steve says, “if you’re happy.”

“Take me at my word, Rogers,” Bucky says and presses open mouthed kisses to Steve’s rough knuckles. He turns Steve’s hand over and presses a kiss to his palm. “Instead of whatever’s going on in that pretty, overworked head of yours.”

Steve watches him closely.

He promises to try.

He’s usually better at keeping promises.

*

“It can’t last,” Loki says to him.

Steve, sitting with his legs dangling over the boardwalk into the water, his trousers rolled up to his knees, stiffens immediately.

“Be reasonable,” the God of Mischief says. He settles down next to Steve, two feet away, although Steve did not invite him and, frankly, is not in the proper mood or headspace to deal with him.

“I don’t remember asking for your advice, Loki,” Steve says.

“Now you really do sound like my brother,” Loki says, with a smile.

Steve doesn’t return it. He has his checkered shirt rolled up to his elbows as well, his hands curled into fists that he’s leaning back on.

It’s been two weeks since the door closed and he hasn’t been able to shake this feeling of unrest, a deep discomfort that he’s neither been able to ignore nor identify. It’s like he’s carrying around a little knot in his chest that he wants to unspool, but can’t figure out how. Maybe he doesn’t want to unspool it. He doesn’t know.

“Every year you are here and he is there is a year between you,” Loki says. “You know it. You are human, but you are beyond time now. I can see it in you.”

“See what?” Steve says, tersely.

“Understanding,” Loki replies.

Steve doesn’t know how to take that. He doesn’t even know what it fucking means. He’s tired of his thoughts, tired of his circumstances, tired of being here, by himself, waiting for one person, one day a year, with only himself for company and sometimes—when it suits him—the one person in the entire world he did not ask for.

He feels the frustration rising in him, a roiling, angry, bitter thing, hot in his gut and spiking upwards.

“This is temporary,” Loki says, gently. “He is growing older, even if it is slowly. You are like a God now, you are—”

“I’m not a God!” Steve growls out, slamming his fist against the wood. He leans forward onto his knees and lets out a half-yell in strangled, unbridled frustration. “I’m not a God, Loki. I’m not immortal, I’m not whatever you are. This isn’t my place. I’m supposed to grow old. I’m not supposed to sit here like—a fucking marble stone—while everyone else—while he ages without me.”

Loki watches him with cool, expressionless eyes, and that pisses Steve off more. He pushes himself to his feet in anger.

“This is what you wanted, Captain,” Loki says. He looks up at him. “This is what you asked for.”

“I know what I fucking asked for, Loki,” Steve snaps. He presses his palms against his eyes, breathing in and out harshly, his chest an angry, roiling mess, his head even fuzzier.

“What did you expect?” Loki asks, gently. “You must have known. You could not have thought—”

“What do you know?” Steve grinds out. “You come in here once a year just to stare at me, to laugh and you know what? Whatever, I’ll give that to you. You’re stuck here just like I am, just as sad, just as pathetic. Maybe I don’t have anything, maybe I don’t get to keep this—but you don’t either, Loki. At least I have something. What do you have? You don’t have a single fucking thing. So don’t you sit there and judge me. Don’t you—”

Steve stops, mid-sentence.

It’s not often that he realizes, half-way through fucking up, that he’s fucking up, but even Steve Rogers has the ability to realize when he’s gone too far.

He remembers thinking, one day, years ago, that sitting there, with his arms around his knees, Loki could be any other person—someone young, someone who had lost something; or someone who still had everything to lose. Steve forgets that, sometimes, that Loki—for all of his sins and flaws—is a person too.

It’s not easy to read expressions on the God of Mischief’s face; he hides them too well, after all. But he isn’t able to hide this, not from Steve—the flash of hurt that crosses his features, the way his bright green eyes dim with it.

“I was only trying to help,” Loki says, quietly. He doesn’t look at Steve when he gets to his feet.

“Loki,” Steve says, quietly. “I’m sorr—”

“Perhaps you’re right, Captain,” Loki says.

He looks out onto the water and like this, with the sun catching in his dark hair, the curves and lines of his face thrown into sharp relief, his body hidden under a bright green sweatshirt that’s two sizes too big for him—Loki doesn’t look like a stranger anymore. He looks to Steve like the only other person who has also lost everything.

“What?”

Loki shakes his head and when he tilts his head toward Steve, it’s like looking into a mirror.

“I have nothing,” Loki says. “So how could I know what it’s like to be stuck here, frustrated and searching for salvation?”

Steve’s throat runs dry.

“Loki—” he tries again, but he doesn’t get to finish.

“Be careful,” Loki says, with a sharp smile. “What will hurt you will leave neither of you unscathed.”

Then he disappears right before Steve’s eyes.

*

Chapter Text

Year Nine.

The year passes like wet sand getting caught in an hourglass. The movement isn’t smooth, nor is it painless. Some days feel like years and others feel like lifetimes. Steve’s skin itches, his eyes ache. His chest feels time-logged. Waiting used to feel like movement between two spaces in time and now it feels worse than that. Now it just feels like waiting.

He’s becoming more and more impatient and he thinks—he can’t prove Loki right.

He ruins painting after painting and thinks—maybe he already has.


It’s wrong from the start.

Bucky emerges from the door, tired and worn down. He has a busted lip and a gash across the back of his jaw that’s a hair on the side of too bloody. His eyes are tired grey smudges and his hair—speckled with more grey now—is sweaty, almost matted.

“Fuck,” he rasps and Steve catches him as he lurches forward.

“Bucky, what—”

“Middle of a firefight,” Bucky mutters. “Shit, I left them. I didn’t—I shouldn’t have. But we only get the one day. I hope they’re okay. Shit. Fuck.

Steve tries to soothe him, to pat him down to check for injury, but Bucky growls and shakes him off.

“I’m fine, Steve,” he says, the frustration clear. “I hope they—I was watching Sam’s right and—”

“I’m sure they’re okay,” Steve says, helping prop Bucky upright. “They’re good at watching each other’s backs, they’ll—”

“Wonder where I went,” Bucky says, a little bitter. “Why I abandoned them.”

The guilt makes Steve’s stomach twist, but he doesn’t spend the time lingering.

“Buck, you’re bleeding, we have to—”

“I said I’m fine!” Bucky snaps and shoves Steve off.

Steve freezes, immediately putting his palms up, his heart ticking in his ears rapidly. It’s all muscle memory, the shift of Winter Soldier metal plates and something in the back of Steve’s mind going don’t shoot, it’s him, that’s Bucky.

It lasts only a second before Bucky understands the posture, the look on Steve’s face.

Then his own shoulders go down and he releases a breath, a slow, guilty exhale.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I—don’t look at me like that. I shouldn’t have snapped.”

It takes a few seconds for Steve to let his guard back down, but he does, because Bucky runs a hand through his sweaty, matted hair and winces.

“It’s okay,” Steve says. “Do you—want to get cleaned up?”

Bucky’s expression is tight, the line of his mouth thin with guilt, but eventually he nods.

“Yeah,” he says. And then softer, “Thanks.”


Steve waits for Bucky to emerge from the shower. He busies himself in the meantime, gathering all of Bucky’s filthy clothes in one corner and setting out a set of clean sweatpants and a shirt on top of the bed. Then he goes down to the kitchen to make Bucky a chicken wrap and comes back up with a plate of three of them, a day-old chocolate chip cookie, and a bottle of cold water.

He sets them all on the table in his room and sits in the chair, frown pressed to his face. He spends the rest of the time fidgeting, waiting, and when Bucky emerges, towel drying his hair, Steve has so much tension held in his body that his back is aching with it.

“Hey,” Bucky says, softly. His voice is much lighter and his tone too.

“Hey,” Steve says, looking up at him.

Bucky tosses the towel onto the bed and quickly puts on the sweatpants and Steve’s t-shirt. Then he crosses the room to Steve and without asking, straddles him on the chair and sinks onto his lap.

Steve’s hand automatically goes to his lower back and Bucky wraps his arms around Steve’s shoulders.

“Hey,” Bucky says again.

“Feeling better?” Steve murmurs. He rubs his thumb in a soothing circle against a rigid knot of muscle he can feel under his hand.

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “I’m sorry, again.”

“That’s okay,” Steve says.

Bucky sighs and he looks so weary that it makes Steve’s chest hurt.

“The timing was just—bad,” he says. “In the middle of everything. I had to choose one or the other and it was...harder than I thought it would be.”

Steve says nothing.

“Not because of you,” Bucky says, as though reading his mind. “You know I wouldn’t miss the chance to see you. But I felt bad leaving them out to dry, you know? Sam might be expecting me and I won’t be there. I’ll have to deal with it when I go back tomorrow.”

Steve really does feel guilty about that. He swallows.

“He’ll be fine,” Steve reassures Bucky, trying to reassure himself as well. “Sam knows how to handle himself. And he has the others—”

Again, Steve is aware that he doesn’t know who the others are anymore. It’s been ten years. There’s no way that Tony is still an Avenger and he doubts Clint or Nat are on the team either, at least not in an active role.

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “Parker and Khan and Chavez—they’re new kids—well, shit. Guess they’re not that new or kids anymore. They’re good though. You can count on them.”

“See?” Steve says, trying to smile. It doesn’t really reach his eyes.

Bucky nods, but he doesn’t look that convinced either.

The moment is tighter than it normally is between them—not outwardly bad, per se, just a little tense, the energy a little anxious.

“I missed you,” Steve says.

Bucky’s expression doesn’t lighten, but he does try to smile.

“Missed you too,” he says.

“You gonna kiss me?” Steve doesn’t want to sound desperate or needy, but he can’t deny he feels it a little.

“Of course I’m gonna kiss you, punk,” Bucky says and leans forward to do that.

It’s a chaste kiss, because Bucky is obviously tired, but Steve doesn’t mind. If it’s a choice between dragging their mouths together and not, Steve will choose the former any day. He kisses Bucky a little firmly and then, when that seems to help Bucky’s shoulders come down a little, he does it again.

“You been stressed?” Steve asks when Bucky sighs and tilts his face onto Steve’s shoulder. Steve roves a large hand up and down Bucky’s back.

“Yeah,” he says. “Everything’s been...a lot.”

“Wanna talk about it?” Steve offers.

“No offense Steve, but it wouldn’t really make sense to you,” Bucky murmurs. “All of it...out there. While you’re in here. I’m a little too tired to do all of that backstory work.”

It’s hard not to take offense to that, but Steve gets it. It makes him feel lonely and forgotten, but he gets it. Bucky has years of a life back home and Steve doesn’t know anything about what it’s like or what’s happened so far. He only knows what glimpses he’s gotten and the handful of days they’ve clawed back together.

“Okay,” Steve says quietly. “We don’t have to talk.”

He wants Bucky to disagree—to interject or say no, but he doesn’t. Instead, he’s content to just hold onto Steve, the two of them existing in silence, and Steve has to admit, he can’t blame Bucky for wanting that.

That’s the home he’s made for the two of them for the past nine years, after all.


They’re quieter than they normally are and it’s difficult for Steve not to take it personally; to not notice the way that Bucky’s laughs aren’t as easily forthcoming or see that his smiles aren’t reaching his eyes or that when he leans against the kitchen counter or the gallery railing or the railing out on the boardwalk, he’s hunched over a little.

“You’re hurt,” Steve says.

They’re standing on the boardwalk by the water, Bucky’s fingers curled over the wooden bar, his flesh knuckles white with how tightly he’s gripping it.

“I’m fine,” Bucky says.

Steve can recognize the stubborn set of his jaw, the way his eyebrows knit together in an attempt to offset the truth. Bucky’s only a little better at hiding his pain than Steve was and not nearly as stubborn.

“Was it this mission?” Steve asks.

“I said I’m fine,” Bucky grits out.

“You’re holding your weight on your left side,” Steve says.

Bucky’s mouth presses into the thinnest of lines.

“Even though that’s not your dominant side,” Steve continues. “Your posture is rigid, as though it would hurt you to give an inch. Your jaw is square, your eyebrows are drawn, and your fingers are trembling. You’re hurt.”

Bucky lets out a grunt of frustration—maybe of irritation.

“Is it bad?” Steve asks.

“Leave it alone, Steve,” Bucky says.

“Why won’t you tell me?” Steve says. He tries to keep his voice level, drain the emotion out of it so that he’s neutral; his Captain’s voice, foreign with disuse as it is.

But the truth is that Steve isn’t neutral and he hasn’t been a Captain for years. He doesn’t know how to be that hard, stern person anymore and maybe that’s a sign of growth, but it betrays him now.

He knows he sounds hurt, because Bucky looks both tired and hurt himself.

“What do you want me to say, Steve?” Bucky says. “Do you want me to tell you that I got hurt during a mission that went belly up the second the quinjet landed? Maybe I should tell you how the kill shot was mine and I made the wrong calculation and everything went to shit because of it.”

“Bucky—” Steve starts, but Bucky shakes his head.

“It was an easy mission, an in-and-out extraction and it turns out Steve that the world can go to fucking hell and back, but a brainwashed cockroach doesn’t stay dead because there we are, boots on the ground and someone says some words in Russian to me and they don’t make me snap, but they stop me in my fucking tracks.”

His eyes are flashing now, his voice rising.

“So I lose all my bearing, my entire fucking mind, and everything fucks up, Sam gets shot clean through the shoulder and someone bombs the jet’s engine and not only do we lose the exraction, but we lose an entire fucking fishing village and the worst part is—” Bucky’s voice cracks, something like sorrow and fury mottling his tone, making the vowels stick together. “—I saw him die, right before my fucking eyes.”

“Who?” Steve asks, his ears ringing.

Bucky runs a trembling hand through his hair, then scrubs it down over his face.

When he looks at Steve, his eyes have dimmed, his entire expression horribly tired.

“Barton,” he says.

Steve’s heart thuds in his chest—a twist so awful he has to grip the railing beside him.

“Clint?” he says, faintly. “Clint is—?”

“He wasn’t supposed to be on mission,” Bucky says, bitterly. “He’s retired—was retired. He was just doing some desk work and we said hey, we’re short-staffed and you’re bored, come with us.”

“Bucky,” Steve says, his own voice nearly strangled. “When—”

“Six months ago,” Bucky says, quietly.

Steve doesn’t know what to say, really. He’s been waiting for Bucky for one year—twelve months, three hundred and sixty five days—and while one day bleeds into another for him here, that’s not the same for Bucky back there, back in the place he always leaves behind.

“You’ve been holding onto this for six months,” Steve says.

“There’s no email here, Steve,” Bucky says, looking down at his knuckles. “There’s no cell phone reception. There is a single door, one way, on one single day every year. I can’t come to you with everything that happens every single day to me.”

“Buck.” The sound is soft, a puff like a gut punch that’s robbed him of his breath and sound.

“I want to,” Bucky says, sadly. “Don’t you think I want to tell you everything that happens? Do you think I want to have two lives? One with you, one without you—that’s never what we’ve done, Rogers. That’s never what we’ve had to do.”

Steve swallows thickly. He braces himself against the railing.

Between them, the wind picks up, a sad little whistle that presses against Steve’s ears.

“I love you,” Bucky says, quietly. “I’ve always loved you, you know? Since we were kids. Maybe it wasn’t always like this, but it was always some kind of love. This big, incomprehensible, feeling thing. I never had a good way to put it. It was like—if I thought about it, it would erase the edges of me, where I ended and you began.”

Steve doesn’t say anything. He doesn't know that he can.

“I hated you sometimes, because of it,” Bucky admits. He watches the water and shakes his head, ruefully. “No, that’s a lie. I’ve never hated you. Never. Not once. Not even when they told me to.”

If Steve pressed his palm to his heart now, he thinks he could feel the ache of his chest, burning, pricking the rough skin of his hand.

He tilts his head back and closes his eyes.

Bucky’s quiet for a minute, although it feels like longer. It feels like the space between them is broadening, filled with a thousand stars, burning bright and fast, hot, suffocating flames licking the air between them, or a thick, intractable silence, like dropping a pin into the middle of a black hole and hoping to hear an answer.

Steve feels fingers in his hair.

His eyes flutter open and Bucky is tracing the shape of his face. Bucky’s eyes are the blue of the sea, the grey of a cloud-streaked day. His eyes are sad.

His expression is terrible.

“You died, Steve,” Bucky says, voice like gravel.

The words catch Steve in the gut, like a hook to the chest.

“You took the gauntlet and you saved the world and you died,” Bucky says. “But I didn’t.”

Bucky presses his palm against Steve’s cheek, like an offering that Steve knows he can’t give.

“So what do you want me to do?” Bucky asks softly—nearly begs. “Tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it.”

Steve thinks about what he could ask of Bucky now—what more he could force of this person he has given his afterlife to; this person he has traded away paradise for.

Steve thinks he must be the most selfish creature in the world, but then he had already known that, hadn’t he?

What else could have made him bind Bucky to him, in the cruel, heartbreaking, and desolate way he had?

*

VII.

He wakes up to the sound of birds.

His consciousness flickers into existence first, then the feel of stones against his back, then the sound of warbling water somewhere in the distance—no, somewhere close by.

Steve licks his dry lips, tasting the sharp copper of blood and the bitter, unpleasant taste of sweat, of dirt. Something that is unmistakably grime.

He uses one hand and pushes himself into a sitting position with some effort. He feels awful all over—his bones creaking, his muscles so sore it’s like someone had taken a cudgel to them. His eyes ache and his head aches and the moment he sits up, the rest of him aches too—pain under and above his skin flaring to life.

“Christ,” he mutters.

“No,” a voice says. “Not quite.”


Steve looks up. It’s only then that he notices his surroundings—the stone bridge under him, the golden gate in front of him, and behind it, three statues of white stone and behind them, what looks like a city of white and gold. Everything has the strangest quality to it, as though they’re a product of a dream, or a mirage, real to look at and false to touch.

Steve’s head throbs.

No, that isn’t it. It isn’t how large everything is or how surreal it appears; it’s that the bridge, the gate, the statues, the city all glow. They have the faintest of sheens on them, like light bouncing off of metal or a rainbow refracted through glass.

He notices all of these things first.

Then he notices the guardian in front of the gate.

Well, no. Not guardian, really.

He’s leaning against the gate, arms crossed, and sure he has a lofty expression on his face and sure, he seems as though he has something to say, but no one could ever consider him a guardian of anything, Loki Laufeyson.

“I thought you were dead,” Steve says—the first thought to come to his pounding, awful head.

He’s tired and he’s aching and he’s confused.

He looks around him and this isn’t a battlefield. This isn’t the end of the world or the fight for humanity that he had left.

“Welcome, Captain Rogers,” Loki says, his mouth quirked up at the corner. “To Valhalla.”

“Valhalla,” Steve croaks. His throat is so dry. “The Norse legend.”

“Legend,” Loki says, shrugging. “Paradise. The semantics of it are just—” he gestures vaguely.

“Why am I here?” Steve asks.

“Because you did something very stupid, Captain,” Loki says. He watches him with his bright green eyes, his expression both disinterested and interested, like a cat that cannot decide if something is prey. “And Valhalla honors those who do stupid things, so long as there is a noble reason for it.”

Steve frowns. He tries to push himself to his feet. He does it with some effort and when he finally stands, he has to hold onto the side of the stone bridge to steady himself.

“I don’t understand,” he says.

“You really are as stupid as you look,” Loki says. He rolls his eyes and unfolds his position against the wall. “Only those who die a warrior’s noble death gain entrance to the noble halls. Does that make it clearer?”

It does and it doesn’t. Steve touches his head, the spot at his temple where his headache is throbbing.

“A warrior’s death,” Steve says, slowly.

It takes him a minute.

Then again, he’s had an eventful few hours.

“Do you remember now?” Loki asks, watching him. His smile returns. “I did say you did something stupid.”

Steve shakes his head, then he looks past Loki, at the gates into Valhalla.

“If I’m dead,” Steve says slowly. “And I’m at the gate to a warrior’s paradise, I only have one question.”

Loki raises an eyebrow.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

Loki’s expression changes, quick as a whip. He throws his head back and laughs.

“I’ll ask you a riddle,” Loki says. He lifts himself up onto the stone parapet. “What do you do with someone who is not terrible enough to go to Hel, but not good enough to be given entrance to heaven either?”

Steve watches him.

“No,” Loki amends. “What do you do with someone who has committed sins so egregious Hel itself would be too kind, but who died a glorious, noble, warrior’s death?”

Loki swings his legs, his grin widening, like the Cheshire Cat.

“Trick question, Captain,” he says. Loki’s green eyes glow brighter, almost eerily. “There is no answer. So you make him some intermediary gatekeeper for the rest of eternity. Or at least, until he’s earned his salvation. If that’s possible.”

Steve shakes his head, trying to process.

“I don’t think it’s possible myself,” Loki says with a grin and a shrug. “But it keeps me out of the Norns’ hair long enough for them to decide what to do with me. I suspect they’ll get back to me in a few millennia, having forgotten they put me here at all.”


The Norns, or God, or whoever put Steve here must get tired of him looking as though he’s been scraped off a battlefield, because he hears a brief ringing in his ears and then his limbs start to glow too.

“Oh, yes,” Loki says, observing this. “About time. Full offense Captain, but you stink.”

A warmth washes over him and Steve looks down to see he’s been wiped clear of the grime of battle. The blood, the sweat, the stink of it all is washed away and where his torn, bloodied Captain’s uniform had been, they’ve seen to replace it with a light tunic and equally light, airy trousers.

“What next?” Steve asks, staring at his clean, pale hands.

“Well you’re here, aren’t you?” Loki says, tilting his head. “You can go through those doors, gain entrance to the hall of the Gods and Warriors, those who are just as righteous and insufferable and noble as you.”

He doesn’t know why he asks.

“What is Valhalla?” Steve says, looking at Loki. “What is a warrior’s paradise?”

Loki looks a little peeved at that and Steve remembers, belatedly, that the doors will not open for him.

“Oh I imagine the usual sort of things,” Loki drawls. “An endless table of feast, mead, ale, merriment. Women if you’d like, or men if that’s your preference. Gardens and waterfalls and music and virgins etcetera etcetera. It will be the best time of your life and it will never end.”

Steve presses a hand against the cool, golden stone of the parapet.

“And who is there? In Valhalla?”

“All sorts of Gods and Goddesses. Odin, probably. He sort of just disintegrated in front of me and Thor at the most inopportune time, but I’m certain that old man will have forced his way in, somehow. Frigga, my mother. She did die a warrior’s death. The Valkyrie who died defending Asgard from Hela—my Hel-blasted sister. A few mortals you might have heard of. Alexander the Great. Martin Luther King Jr. Oh, William Shakespeare, that’s a fun one.”

“Shakespeare?” Steve blinks.

“The Norns seem to rather enjoy his tales,” Loki says with a shrug.

“What about—” Steve says, throat tight. He looks at Loki urgently. “Natasha. Natasha Romanoff?”

Loki looks thoughtful at that.

“The Widow,” he says. He’s quiet for a moment, looking almost as though he’s feeling the air for her. Then he shakes his head. “No, not her. It is not her time yet.”

“But she died.” Steve frowns. “She gave up her life for the Soul Stone.”

“Perhaps she did,” Loki says. “But this is not her destination. I don’t think death is her destination.”

Steve’s not sure what that means. He curls his fingers on top of the stone.

He should be happier, he thinks. He had taken the gauntlet, at the end. He had looked Thanos in the eyes, said something to the effect of bite me, motherfucker and snapped his fingers.

If his death was considered a noble one—a great one—one to allow him into the halls of Valhalla, where only the most worthy are given a chance, then he should be thrilled.

He should not be thinking about all of the people he had left behind.

He should not be thinking about one person, kneeling next to his charred, dying body, holding his side and his hand, looking into his eyes and saying Not yet, you bastard. You can’t leave me yet.

Steve has paradise in front of him—everything a human could ever want or wish for—and he can’t seem to take the last step in.


“Or,” Loki says.

Steve looks up at him.

“There is another option.”


“You’ve earned this, Captain,” Loki says, jumping off the parapet. He turns, looking over the bridge and after a moment, Steve joins him.

Under the stone bridge, there is a river made of all of the colors of the rainbow, rushing quickly past, glowing the same as a rainbow would in the sky.

“But there is another choice.”

Steve takes a breath. It’s meant to fortify him and it does. He doesn’t think it can fill the hollow place in his chest where pride should be, but it helps steady him anyway.

“What choice, Loki?” he asks.

Loki smiles and turns his body to look at Steve better.

“Have you heard of purgatory?”

*

Steve blows on his tea, the scent of Earl Grey and lemon filling the space around him. He has a crocheted blanket covering his chest, a book sitting on the couch next to him. Sometimes, in all lives, all you can do is hold still—and hope the best will still come to you.

He raises his knees until it’s up to his chest and rests the teacup on top.

*

“Are you sure?” Loki asks him. There is nothing but honesty in the lines of his face now. His green eyes hold only the question—no tricks, no mischief.

Steve looks at the beautiful, gleaming, magnificent gated city behind Loki and thinks—this is an ending he’s earned. He has spent his entire life trying to do the right thing; to prove himself; to right wrongs and make amends. Steve Rogers has spent his entire lifetime splitting his knuckles and breaking his ribs just to help save humanity.

And he had, in the end.

So no matter what he thinks of himself, he has earned this—paradise.

“I’m sure,” Steve says.

“Once a year, the door will open,” Loki says. “And he will be able to come through. Only one day a year, Captain. For as long as he lives. You will not be able to get any more time, no matter how you beg.”

Steve nods.

“Your world in the balance, and you bargain for one man?” Loki asks.

Steve knows it’s selfish. He doesn’t know how much, yet, but he knows it is selfish.

“It’s not just a man,” he says. “It’s Bucky.”

Maybe Loki won’t understand. Maybe Steve himself doesn’t understand, really.

But he doesn’t regret it. He will never live to regret it.

For Bucky, he turns his back on paradise.

For Bucky, Steve creates his own purgatory.

*

Steve loses count, eventually. He thinks it’s been years.

Three, maybe. Or four, or five.

He still feeds the flame every morning, and he still feeds it every evening. It isn’t hope so much as it is habit.

Purgatory is lonely without Bucky, but it isn’t so bad when remembering the days they had gotten together, few and scattered though they had been. He had traded heaven for those days and to him, they had been worth it.

He finds his peace in this.


Steve blows on his tea and takes a sip.

He waits.

*

VIII.

Year Ten.

He’s one-hundred-and-sixteen going on an age that they’ll never be able to calculate, but that has some grey in his beard and grey streaks near his temple. The Bucky Steve used to know would never have let the greys show, but, admittedly, that Bucky was entire lifetimes ago.

This Bucky doesn’t seem to care that he has fine lines around his eyes or that he looks visibly older than he had when he had first appeared to Steve, ten years ago. It’s nothing incredibly drastic—just a touch of wisdom here, a hint of dignity there.

Bucky looks great, truth be told, but he has always looked great and—Steve suspects—he will always look great, long after this is over.

“You haven’t aged a day,” Bucky says, palm against Steve’s rough face. “You know that? Since I started coming to you.”

Steve covers Bucky’s hand with his own.

“I’m dead, Buck,” he says. “I don’t think I get to age anymore.”

“Lucky asshole,” Bucky says, smiling.

It doesn’t reach his eyes, but it’s not out of any resentment or bitterness, really. There’s an ephemeral quality to how he watches Steve, as though his touches, though grounding, are fleeting, or as though he knows, perhaps subconsciously, that anything he might say to Steve might be the last for a while.

“What do you want to do today?” Steve asks, watching him—memorizing him.

Bucky leans up, leans close, and kisses Steve.

“Take me to bed,” Bucky says. “And keep me there.”


They have had nine days in ten years to themselves. It feels at once as though they have lived a whole lifetime together and as though they have barely gotten the chance to love one another the way they have always deserved to be loved.

Steve tugs Bucky’s shirt up and over his head and Bucky unbuttons the front of Steve’s flannel, leaving it open to run a hand down Steve’s bare chest. He traces the familiar slopes and fibers of him before leaning up and kissing him, slowly at first, and then a little more urgently, his mouth open and hot against Steve’s. Bucky makes soft sounds that turn desperate and a little needy until Steve has a large hand around the back of his neck and uses pressure to hold him there, the other hand to Bucky’s cheek, trying to kiss some calm back into him.

It works just long enough for Bucky to unwork Steve’s buckle and then his button and zipper and shove his pants down. Steve steps out of them and walks back, Bucky’s mouth firmly attached to his, his fingers already closing over Steve’s hardening length, until the back of his legs hit the bed and he sits down heavily.

Bucky doesn’t bother getting out of his own clothes, just straddles Steve on the bed, holding onto his shoulders and kissing him desperately, almost furiously, until Steve’s breath starts coming up short and then Bucky trails kisses down his cheek instead, across the line of his jaw, to the hollow under his ear.

Steve’s skin is heated, his body already flushed. His heart is pounding so loudly, his blood thrumming under his skin, that he thinks Bucky must be able to hear it. He must be able to hear it when he nips at Steve’s pulse point, or taste it when he drags his tongue across the dip of Steve’s chest.

He drags his fingers down the span of Steve’s stomach and dips them back under the elastic of Steve’s boxers. Steve inhales sharply as he arches up into Bucky’s closing fist and Bucky bites down on his neck as he gets a grip on Steve.

Bucky takes his time taking Steve apart, his pace quick when he wants to be brutal and slow when he wants to drive Steve out of his mind. It works, remarkably well. He keeps Steve on the edge, alternating between the two rhythms, his rough palm stroking, working him over while he uses his metal hand to hold Steve down in place and kiss him, hungrily—almost angrily—leaving bruising kisses and taking them as well.

It’s too much too fast and not enough to keep Steve through all of his lifetimes.

Bucky twists his wrist and Steve comes with a breathless little cry that Bucky swallows, and as he takes in deep breaths, his body drumming with endorphins, his blood singing, Bucky dips back down to lick the salt off his skin.


They do very little else that day.

That’s okay.

If he had to spend one last day with the love of his life, he thinks this is what he would have chosen for them as well—taking one another apart and putting each other back together again.

They use the bed, and they use the chair, and they use the place against the window as well. Steve takes Bucky into his mouth in the shower and Bucky returns the favor against the bedroom door.

They take a few minutes to eat, at some point, and allow their supersoldier stamina to replenish their bodies.

Then they return—rolling, stroking, exploring, fingertips pressing into dips in between muscles, and mouths on every inch of skin they can find.

There’s some levity too, of course. They cannot, the two of them, spend a day together without there being some laughter. Then it wouldn’t be them at all.


They nap briefly, nestled together among the ruined sheets, spent, while the sky darkens; afternoon moving to dusk to evening.

They wake up, dress, and pad up the stairs to the lantern room.

The blue flame flickers dully, in its cage.

Steve stands at the rail and Bucky stands behind him, arms wrapped around his waist, his chin resting on Steve’s shoulder.

They lean against each other and watch the rustling movement of the dark water.


“Will you tell me now?” Bucky asks, softly. “What this place is?”

Steve doesn’t want to. In truth, he doesn’t know if he can.

It’s easier for Bucky to think that this is magic; that what they have is impossible and beautiful and unable to be broken. It is easier for him to think that they are magic.

But the truth is that they aren’t and this haven that Steve has carved for the two of them has always had an end date.

Their love, like their lives, was always meant to be fleeting.

Steve just wishes—well, that’s for another Steve, he thinks. Another life.

In this one, he had been given a choice, and he had taken the one that he had longed for.

Steve thinks he will never forget it, even so.

He turns around in Bucky’s arms, the railing to his back.

“Purgatory, Buck,” he says. “It’s purgatory.”


The truth is that Steve Rogers died on the battlefield that day, with a gauntlet on his hand, sacrificing himself the way he always had—for home, for country, for humanity.

He had taken that fucker Thanos with him and that, he will never regret.

The look on Bucky’s face as he realizes this—that this was only temporary, a bargained-for afterlife stop gap—well, that he maybe will.


“I love you,” Steve says. “I don’t want you to ever doubt how much.”

Bucky looks at him, the wind in his hair. Quiet. Fists curled. Aching.

“I want you to have the life you’ve always deserved to have,” Steve says. He touches Bucky’s jaw. “I hope you will have the life you’ve always deserved to have.”

Steve kisses Bucky on the mouth.

He closes the door behind him.

*

Chapter Text

IX.

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.”

Steve nods.

“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.”

* * *

X.

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.

Purgatory.

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.”

Bucky frowns.

“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.”

*

XI.

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.


And then.


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.

“Happiness.”

“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)