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The Loner and the Lighthouseman

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He's been trawling the Grand Banks for nearly two months now, hauling in his catches overhand by night, out in the dory setting his lines by day. He knows the ship's log by heart, could tell you to the minute when he set out from the Cape, when he hit storms off the southern coast of Newfoundland, when he lost thirty fathoms of rigging overboard in a nor'easter he hadn't seen coming. That's not how he marks the time, though, despite his meticulous record-keeping; no, Phil Coulson counts the days he's been out on the water by the salt crust on his eyebrows, the callouses on his knuckles, the lay of the Triskelion on the water and the way she pitches in a lifter of an evening. He can tell just by the feel of the deck how good his catches have been, and he's a reliable man, so the catches are a calendar to him as much as the progress of the stars and the passage of the tea clippers to south.

He's rounding the reefs at St. Pierre and Miquelon when the mood strikes him and he reaches for his little-used radio. Phil's not a man who needs much contact on the water, preferring to stay well out of reach of the others in the regular Banks fleet, but every so often even he wants to hear the voice of another human being.

"Lamp," he says, "this is Triskelion. What's the weather like ashore?"

"Hullo, loner," comes a lazy drawl. "Got the wind up us here. Strong gale, maybe. Can't you feel it?"

"Too far out. Not much here. Calm night."

"How's the fishing?"

"Running pretty well. 'course, that's without the entire fleet on my back chasing them. Heard from any of the others?"

"Pretty lonely out here," comes the voice. "How long you got?"

"Maybe a month or two. Aiming to be first off the water. Haven't failed yet, and I've been fishing the Banks twenty years now."

A noise of recognition sounds over the radio. "Well, if that isn't Phil Coulson, I'll be damned. Got a reputation for yourself, loner."

"Do I want to know?"

"More fun if you don't."

"If you know my name," Phil says reasonably, "I should have yours."

He can hear the grin in the voice as it says, "Just call me Hawkeye, loner. Lighthouse man sees everything."

"And has no one to tell," Phil finishes.

"Got the boats," says Hawkeye. "Don't need anyone else. G'night, loner."

"Good night, Hawkeye."

It's another week before he passes by the islands again, and the weather's turned while he's been farther out. Now the wind's high, the seas grey and angry beneath his hull, and the wind cuts as keenly through his mackintosh as his keel cuts the roiling ocean.

His radio crackles in the cabin, but it's nearly ten minutes before he's safe to drop the tiller and respond.

"You called, lamp?"

"Dangerous out there tonight, loner."

He sits back down in the stern of the Triskelion, tucking the radio between his shoulder and his chin under his sou'wester so that he can grab the tiller with one hand and a cold pork pie with the other. His lights are blazing – not that it matters; he's the only cutter in this section of the charts – and he's sure he can be seen from the lighthouse despite the darkness and the weather.

"Under control, Hawkeye. Anything I should know?"

"Not going to let up for a few days yet. Batten down the hatches, Triskelion, it's a rough one."

"I hear you."

"How you doing for supplies?"

"We're fine."

"How you doing for doing?"

"What does that mean?"

"Not easy out there on your own, loner. Just making sure."

"Everything's under control, Hawkeye, but thanks for asking."

He sits out the storm fairly well and even manages to get a few lines into the water, though the dory is out of the question with these waves. There's a lot of hardtack for his meals, because it's a question of either keeping the Triskelion on course or taking the time to eat properly, and Phil's got his priorities well in hand. He could steer her back, of course, if he ended up somewhere he didn't want to be, but that's not how Phil Coulson operates. Hot meals can wait.

When the weather clears, there's sun off the coast of Nova Scotia for a good long while, and Phil trawls up and down until the first few boats from the fleet join him. There's a mail run from one of the smaller ships because she left shore later than most, and there's a little trading between them as well. A dory from the Howling Commando brings by a packet of paper-wrapped coffee beans, gourmet ones, the kind Phil only ever lets himself buy when he's ashore, and Phil swaps them for a box of cigars (he doesn't smoke, but he knows by now the kind of currency that works aboard a fishing boat) and news from Labrador. Then he leaves, because he doesn't fish where the rest of the fleet works, and although he intends to aim for Cape Breton, he finds himself setting course for St. Pierre instead.

"Long time, no see, loner," comes over the radio almost before Phil even thinks he's in range of the lighthouse. Then again, his nickname might not be Hawkeye for nothing.

"Good fishing in the shallow water," he explains. "Couldn't lose the opportunity."

"I get it," says the familiar voice. It's almost comforting to hear it again, which is odd, but on the other hand, he hasn't exchanged even this much conversation with anyone since he left the harbour a quarter of a year ago. Dangerous, this human contact thing.

He doesn't notice the silence until the staticky drawl comes back to say, "Gonna stick around a bit this time?"

Phil considers. The cod are running pretty well here; better elsewhere (he's got instincts for currents and he knows a little spot up in the hollows of the Rock), but pretty good here as well. And he's gotten ahead of schedule thanks to the Nova Scotia interlude; his salt's settled and he doesn't think it'll take much longer now. He's seen how the rest of the fleet are doing, too, and he's got a good head start. First off the water again, he thinks, that's right.

They used to say he'd never make it on his own. A fishing boat needs a crew, they said; a cook, a doryman, enough hands to draw the nets and lay the lines and man the sails and all the hundred tiny jobs a boat like the Triskelion requires. They don't know Phil Coulson, though; they don't know the legendary determination, the square-jawed strength and steady hands that run his boat and spend their nights filleting enough of his catch to feed himself. He doesn't believe in gill nets or draggers or high-tech fish finders. He just sets to and gets the job done, and it works. It always works.

Phil doesn't need to go up to the Rock. He'll be fine here.

"Yes," he says into the radio. "I think I will."

He does. He works the deeper water every morning, picking up the last of the night's runs, then comes in closer to shore in the evenings. Close enough, anyway, that he's within radio range of the lighthouse point, and every night as he sets his lines, he has the radio clipped to his mac, waiting for the crackle and the hiss and the nightly, "Good day's catch, loner?" he's grown accustomed to hearing.

When all his lines are set and he's supposed to be sleeping, he settles into the tiny bunk that folds down from the cabin wall, strips off his heavy cable-knit sweater and his old rubber deck boots, and pulls the rough, red flannel blanket around himself. He knows he ought to rest, knows he'll be up before the sun in the morning, but he stays up anyway, and talks over the radio until the faceless lighthouse operator on the other end is yawning through his words.

"Good night, Hawkeye," he says, and smiles when he hears, "G'night, Triskelion."

It's a good thing he carries spare batteries.

After three weeks of this, he's laden down to where the load line's lost under the waves. It's a long night and he's up late, packing and salting down the rest of the catch, until he finally slides in the last fish, the last of his salt, and douses it with water.

"You there, lamp?" he asks, and doesn't expect an answer because it's well past midnight by this time. The pauses in their conversation have grown longer and longer, and Phil assumes his lighthouse operator will have gone to bed.

"'m here," comes the mumbled response, and Phil's heart skips a beat.

"All our salt's wetted," he tells him.

"Mmm – wait, what?" Hawkeye's awake now, or at least a little more than he was a minute ago. "Already?"

"Just finished," Phil says, a smile in his voice. "Heading for land tomorrow. Strike in at the Cape, tally the load, then take a vacation."

"Vacation, huh?"

"Think I've earned it. I'm guessing I have three weeks on the next boat from the fleet. Good prices with that kind of head start."

"Better get going, then."

"Tomorrow," Phil repeats. "Get some sleep first. You, too. Good night, Hawkeye," and he wants to say more, because he'll be two hundred nautical miles to the southwest by this time next day, and he's already missing the easy companionship he's forged with the lighthouse man over a few scattered radio waves and some late-night conversations up on deck. He has no idea what to say, though, so he just leaves it at that.

"G'luck, loner," says the voice over the radio, and it sounds almost like he's saying something else, not just good luck, but good night as well, or maybe goodbye.

Phil puts down the radio, curls up in his bunk, and tries not to think about the comfortable bed he'll have tomorrow and the wide emptiness of the busy days ahead. The nickname 'loner' has never seemed quite so accurate.

Showers are glorious things. Every time he comes back into harbour after months out on the Banks, Phil feels like he'll never leave the bathroom again; he rediscovers his eyebrows under the heavy crust of North Atlantic salt, remembers what it's like to use soap that he doesn't also use to scour his laundry and clean the Triskelion's brass fittings. The water runs cold after about half an hour, but he doesn't care, he stays under it anyway because it's fresh and clean and he'll soak it up until he can't stand it anymore. It's the best part of coming back to shore ('coming home,' the other fishermen say, but Phil doesn't feel that way; to him, 'home' is the long and lonely nights in a Grand Banks fog, and land is just what happens in between). And so he showers every morning and then again every evening; during the days, he supervises the tallying of his catch, recording tiny, accurate numbers on a notepad and checking them again and again until the last of it is weighed out and sold.

Then, he spends a week on the Triskelion. He scours the hold, removing every last trace of the fishing load he's just sold off. He scrapes the hull, because the barnacles were heavy this year. He re-paints; he replaces the rigging on the sails; he polishes the fittings and re-planes his keel. And when he's finished, she shines in the sunlight again, the way he's used to seeing her, and he's been off the water for over two weeks.

Stopping in harbour is necessary, but he doesn't like it much. It's time, he decides, for that vacation he's been promising himself. Time for a sailing trip.

He's got a chart in his cabin, tucked into the drawer underneath the compass in its gimbals. He doesn't really need it, because he's had the route memorized for years, but it's still comforting to look at. Five years ago now, he plotted a course for the Caribbean, estimating two months to get there, take it slowly, and come back at his leisure, and this year – this year he and the Triskelion are finally going.

He casts off early the next morning, while the fog's still settled in heavy, and his heart lifts as the sun burns off the mist and rises in the sky. His old boat's pretty faithful and he loves her, but her top speed's not much more than five knots, so he's prepared for a long trip alone before he comes within hailing distance of land again.

It's maybe mid-afternoon when he notices he's going in the wrong direction, but he doesn't turn around.

A night at anchor, proper rest for once, because it's a vacation, and he's off again in the morning, logging his start time and the wind and the weather and the seas, writing the numbers in more carefully than ever despite the fact that this is for his pleasure alone. Maybe he wants to look back in the log and remember this voyage; maybe he wants a record of what he's doing right now. Maybe there's going to be a time, ten years from now or longer, when he's out on the Banks at night in the fog and the chill and he'll use these featureless numbers to warm his heart.

By twilight, he's in radio range, heart pounding, the silence of the ocean too large to hold within him right now.

He doesn't realize how long he's been holding his breath until the radio squeaks and hisses a static burst, and then, "How's the sailing, loner?"

Phil says, "It's been good."

"Yeah?"

"But I think," he says, "I'm about ready to come ashore."

"I got a pilot light," says his lighthouse operator. "Been lit ever since you left. C'mon in."