It's dark, so dark at first, flashes from dying neon lights refracting through their tiny bathysphere window. Each flash makes their motley group huddle closer in on themselves, to the back of the bathysphere, crowding around the shaky man chanting in their midst.
Once, Steve might have never imagined himself capable of cowering away from potential danger, not with the immensely strange life he's led, the risks he's taken, and especially not with people to protect around him. Stuck in this little rattling bucket of bolts after months of hell, depending on one trembling man's currently unstable magic to power it to the surface and not just faint and leave them all trapped underwater, left in a watery tomb (again), has him using as much of his wasted frame as possible to push everyone back behind him. It's the only way left he has to protect them.
Little hands, clutching his pant legs. A firmer touch on his shoulder, demanding attention.
Stern blue eyes, partially covered by long lanky hair, scold him.
"Bucky," he argues back.
A snort from the last unoccupied adult in their restricted space informs him of the other man's opinion, thanks ever so much Jack. Still, Steve eases up on the herding–
–and shoves everyone back when the bathysphere lurches violently. Little hands clutch harder at him, at the adults around him, anything, and he reaches down to pat the closest tiny head reassuringly.
The chanting stops abruptly, followed by a soft thump.
"Stephen," Steve starts.
"Caught him," Jack assures.
"I'll carry him," Bucky volunteers, and swings Stephen up in a fireman's carry.
Steve checks over their group one last time, then disengages the bathysphere lock. He pushes the door open.
Bright. So bright, is his first thought. It feels like years since he's last seen it, like decades buried deep in Arctic ice, like long stretches of cryogenic preservation locked in a frozen tube. Brilliance striking the watery expanse around them, creating an endless, glittering landscape, blinding after who knows how long living in muted underwater shades and dying neon lights.
"What is that?" a young, impossibly young, voice asks.
He's almost shaking, relief and disbelieving joy making him weak. Beside him, Bucky doesn't even try to hide it, looking up with wide, almost fearful eyes. Steve wraps an arm around him and tries to ground them both. He's giddy with it. Out, they're out, they're out in this brightness, in the–
"Sunlight," Jack explains hoarsely to the girls surrounding him, "This is sunlight, above the surface."
Two years after the Avengers defeat the Chitauri and save New York, Shield falls, by the hands of Captain America, Black Widow, Falcon and a host of other unnamed heroes brave enough to turn against their own organisation in an attempt to exorcise the Hydra cancer within.
A year after that, Steve Rogers, still lying low after the whole Shield-Hydra debacle, learns about the Winter Soldier.
Six months later, Steve Rogers vanishes. His last movements can be tracked easily; Tony Stark himself saw the blonde man off on one of his private jets. In a severe twist of irony, the jet goes down in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, despite the fact it should have been impossible. Several parties scour the Atlantic for him, to no avail.
A few months after, a search party running more on hope for finding a corpse rather than a living super-soldier picks up a strange signal. Upon following the signal, they find a lighthouse, and a very strange, rag-tag group of individuals, children and adults both, one of them unconscious. They are filthy, starved and they keep a lookout with hunted eyes.
The search party does not recognise the tall, blonde, emaciated man among them as Captain America until he croaks his name and a request to contact Tony Stark.
It all starts from a plane, crashing into the Arctic. A man's ambition to create his version of utopia. Two Brooklyn boys marching to war. A man's greed for market monopoly. A million different factors.
Who knows where it starts from? Is there a start? A culmination of events?
No one will ever know.
These are not questions Steve Rogers concerns himself with. He is never asked these questions, and should he be asked, he would reply that they are questions for a philosopher, not for him. He would rather do than ponder.
Regardless, Steve, like anyone else, has his own definition of starts. He separates his life into segments, and they sometimes overlap.
There is the normal separations, of course, between childhood and adulthood. There is before his mother died, and after his mother died. There is before the war (WWII, as he must now specify), during the war, and after (long long after) the war. There is before Project Rebirth, and after. There is before his nose dive into the Arctic, and after.
The one that most concerns him right now, staring at a file titled Project Winter Soldier, is his time with Bucky, and this time after Bucky.
(If there was ever a time before Bucky, Steve does not remember it.)
It is Natasha who brings him this information, a year after they prevent Project Insight from fully launching. She brings him files, she brings him photo analysis, facial recognition scans. She brings him the comparison report between the Winter Soldier's frosted image, and newsreel stills of James Buchanan Barnes, with an unconcerned positive match stamped at the bottom.
The Winter Soldier, whose final mission should have been to ensure the success of Project Insight, even fifty years before a launch date was set for Project Insight, even before Project Insight had been fully planned. The Winter Soldier, a ghost story among assassins and others working in the same shadows during the 1950s, who would have risen to become the greatest asset of the KGB and then Hydra had he not mysteriously vanished after that decade.
The Winter Soldier. James Buchanan Barnes.
Listed Unrecoverable Asset. Listed KIA.
Steve–Steve does not take any of this well. At all.
The hidden remnants of Shield, directed by Phil Coulson (surprise, he's alive, and no one is surprised anymore), wage war on Hydra. Steve rampages on Hydra.
Natasha supplies information for his missions between and during her own missions. Tempers Steve's rage with her own ruthless pragmatism. Sam watches Steve's back and acts as his eyes in the sky and his back-up. Together, the two manage Steve's raging inferno and makes sure he goes out on missions, not suicide runs.
On good days, Steve doesn't know how to even start showing his thanks, besides spending time with them, with all the Avengers (Sam included) with an at least half-convincing smile, pretending he is moving on with his life, pretending he even has a life outside of missions.
On bad days, Steve doesn't know why they bother, and that they bother at all is probably the only reason he is still alive, because he's not sure he cares about that himself.
On the rare really bad days, of which Steve had many following his first few weeks out of ice, Steve wonders when he will wake up. They say pain lets the dreamer wake up, and a mission will surely confirm it for him. He is not given missions on really bad days, Sam and Natasha make sure of it.
Steve can't tell which days he leans to more. He is too busy to keep track.
As months pass his missions start to slow down. He doubts it is because Hydra is almost exterminated. Cut off one head, two will grow back, he knows this very well. Most likely Hydra has buried itself deep underground, to try and recoup. There's been enough time for at least a few cells to escape and thoroughly cover their tracks.
He'll find them. Eventually.
In the meantime, he finds himself at a loss as to how to fill up his time. His friends try to help him, God he's so grateful for them, but they have their own lives and their own missions. It's a bad idea to leave him alone with his thoughts; he has to find something to do, something to keep him busy that is not missions, or, or else–
He goes back over the Winter Soldier–Bucky's–files. It's not work, he tells himself. This is closure. To mourn Bucky's actual death. Regrets and anger and self-loathing and that awful, choking sensation, as if he'll never breathe right again, even worse than before the serum, lost a lung and a hand and a heart–
One last time. To truly put Bucky's memory to rest. To try at least. Stand up, gasp, and walk forward minus his missing parts. (Again.)
He owes Bucky that, doesn't he? For Bucky walking forward, no identity and no memories and no autonomy, only torture and freezing cold. He can't imagine anything worse for Bucky, and now he's living his imagination's limit for hell.
And Steve decides, to do that, he should do what he could not before; he should visit the place where Bucky died. The actual one, not the assumed one in the Alps.
He finds the coordinates amongst the information Natasha passed to him, and goes to ask a personal favour from Tony.
Tony makes only one irreverent comment, aimed more at Steve's supposed fondness for ocean baths than anywhere truly sensitive. Surprise surprise, Tony can (once in a blue moon) actually be tactful.
It's a strange set of coincidences that occur.
Coincidence Number One: that Steve would visit the last known location of the Winter Soldier, of Bucky Barnes.
Hydra reports state that the Winter Soldier was sent on a retrieval mission in 1958.
Only surviving test subject of Project Lifecycle, Beta-7, had been stolen by an unknown party. Unknown party tracked to coordinates set in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, an island or hidden underwater base suspected. Winter Soldier in close pursuit, confirmed lighthouse base, no external security to be seen. Infiltrated base, only to find security measures engaging to keep intruders in, rather than intruders out. Pursued target to lower levels of lighthouse–here communications short out.
Unable to re-establish contact with Winter Soldier. Unable to enter lighthouse; unknown security measures in place. Lighthouse constructed from virtually indestructible, unidentifiable materials; unable to use physical force to reclaim lost assets.
Hydra stamps the files of the Winter Soldier and Project Lifecycle Subject Beta-7 as Unrecoverable Assets.
Coincidence Number Two: that the Winter Soldier goes missing at a strange, seemingly abandoned lighthouse, along with Subject Beta-7.
Steve knows how to pilot a jet. Perks of being friends with at least three people who know how to. It doesn't stop his friends assigning him a pilot; don't want him taking another ice bath, they smirk.
Funnily enough, Steve likes the fact they can joke about that. He doesn't need kid gloves. He squashes his annoyance at them assigning him a babysitter, because with Steve's knowledge, that is really all the pilot is there for. Natasha can't be there, she's somewhere is Eastern Europe. Sam's taking the break between missions to visit his nieces and nephews, and though he'd offered to come with Steve, Steve had declined. Sam hadn't pressed; he understood too well, he still privately visits Riley's grave. Clint, Bruce, Tony and Thor are all caught up in their own problems right now, Steve doesn't want to ask when they are so stressed.
But really, a babysitter? If Steve didn't love his friends so much...
One of the jet's sensors pings; it's detected human life right at the coordinates Steve is heading for. The pilot hesitates, then brings up a real-time image of their coordinates and zoom in (again, the perks of knowing a genius, especially one who likes to build things).
There is an ornate looking lighthouse set on a rock, a stairwell beside it leading up to its front doors. A dark-haired man wearing–is that a cape?–stands on the stairs, arms upraised.
His hands are glowing.
"Go up!" Steve commands, but it's too late.
There is a flash of white light, exploding in a wide radius around the man, across and above and below, and a literal rip appears in the sky. The ocean water parts in a semi-spherical hollow, and the jet rocks violently, caught at the edges of the blasted energy. The jet lurches, then lists and hurtles violently towards the hollowed ocean.
"Oh shi–" the pilot swears.
Steve, out of mission uniform and in civilian clothes, grabs the only weapon he bothered to take on this farewell–his shield–and slings it over his back. He grabs the pilot with both hands and jumps out of the jet.
It's just Steve's luck that at the altitude and angle they jump out at, the direction they hurdle is towards the rip in the sky.
Coincidence Number Three: that Steve falls through the rip in the sky.
They plunge straight into the ocean.
The water stings as it clogs his nose, fills up his lungs. Debris zooms past him, metal shards and purses and Steve tries hard not to panic, tries not to remember driving the Valkyrie straight into the Arctic and the cold ice–
The pilot is panicking.
Steve tightens his grip, and kicks them upwards, towards the light.
They breach the surface, gasping. Steve ducks them both down several times to avoid flying chunks of sparking metal, then pops back up to have a proper look around.
It's chaos. Debris floating in the water everywhere, broken metal, purses, bags, bodies floating face down and still, or face up and gored, or some severe combination thereof. Close by, the wings and half the body of an airplane are visible, burning eerie orange against the night sky.
Steve can't make sense of it. Where did these people, this airplane, come from? What happened? It was still afternoon when he and the pilot jumped, how did they lose time?
Prioritise. There. A lighthouse in the distance, just visible by its tall structure. Dark, likely unused, but at least a place to go. He indicates this to the pilot, who nods and breaks away from him, treading water. They swim towards it, checking bodies along the way. Sadly, none of them are alive. They leave the poor souls behind, too undermanned to attempt recovering them.
Closer to the stairs, Steve realises there is a man standing on the stairs, the exact same man that caused the explosion of light and the rip. Steve is wary, but there is no other option; he swims ahead and ascends the stairs, shield at the ready. The man holds his hands out peacefully.
"My apologies," the man says, "I did not realise you were so close. I would have been more cautious otherwise."
No, it really isn't, but the man doesn't seem malicious. Then again, none of the Strike team had, until they'd shown themselves to be Hydra.
"–But what did you do? There was a rip in the sky, and now we're here."
The pilot is not impressed with the man, judging by his up and down glance of the man's cape, his eye-catching, high-collared uniform (too outlandish even for this current time to be normal, or at least Steve is mostly sure).
"I was...investigating a problem. That involved more...supernatural methods."
The man introduces himself as Dr Stephen Strange.
Coincidence Number Four: that the man outside the lighthouse is Dr Stephen Strange, Sorcerer Supreme.
Steve suddenly remembers reading about the man once, going through a few files on those Shield deemed 'extraordinary individuals.' Dr Strange could reportedly wield magic, and knew several different forms of martial arts. He popped up all over the world defending against supernatural threats. (Apparently, aliens weren't supernatural.)
Well, that explains the billowing uniform.
"What problems?" Steve asks, and is treated to a Tony-esque lecture in which he understands very little of the complicated techno-babble, or in this case, magic-babble, being said.
Steve sums it down to the basics; Dr Strange got some very strange readings at this lighthouse, and decided to investigate. He could sense powerful wards, whatever they are, deteriorating around the lighthouse, and wanted to know what they were guarding, and why they were deteriorating. His method of investigation apparently involved opening a temporary rip in time to view the event that possibly caused it, but his time-ripping spell reacted badly to the wards (amateur mistake, Steve, can basically read from Dr Strange's annoyed expression) and pulled him, and anybody else within a certain range, through.
Steve has learnt to swallow the absolutely unbelievable since he first volunteered for Project Rebirth. It's like the world keeps tossing him crazier and crazier things to swallow. Norse gods, aliens, magic, and now time-travelling via magic. He resists the urge to pinch himself; the pilot, who introduced himself as Mitch, doesn't bother resisting.
"What year are we in now?" he asks instead, and braces himself.
"1961," Dr Strange replies.
Steve–Steve doesn't know how to feel about that. At all.
The sound of splashing distracts him. He turns around and glimpses a man, panting and a little blue in the face, trying to climb the slippery stairs. His limbs are too shaky from exertion to move properly, so Steve hurries down and helps the man up.
"Thanks," the stranger huffs, then straightens himself and looks back at the burning plane wreckage. "Jesus Christ, what the hell..."
Eventually the man pulls himself away from the sorry sight, and introduces himself as Jack. He had ended up a fair distance away from the wreckage, and only saw the lighthouse because it was illuminated by the burning plane. Steve, Mitch and Dr Strange are quick to realise Jack is actually from 1961, a survivor of the original plane that crashed rather than from any bizarre mishaps in time-travelling. They are not about to try explaining this to a civilian, let alone one from 1961.
(Bizarre magic mishaps in time-travelling. This is Steve's life, apparently.)
And Coincidence Number Five: that Steve, in time-travelling, happened to meet Jack, the only survivor of a plane crashed that occurred in exactly the same place Steve's did, only sixty years before.
Five strange coincidences.
It is not the absolute start of things. Who knows what that is.
It is a start though. This start begins with five coincidences.
They can't just stay on the stairs. Steve and Mitch have their own forms of communications technology, but they are all useless when they're stuck half a century before they were made and connected to networks. A discreet shake of the head from Dr Strange indicates he too, has no way to communicate, not in their current situation. Jack has nothing in his pockets, aside from a wallet with a photo and some cash. It's silently agreed on that they have to check the lighthouse. Not promising, since it's dark and presumably abandoned, but at least a possibility.
Turns out, the lighthouse is dark not because it's been abandoned, but because it is not a lighthouse at all.
Lights flare on one by one as they venture deeper into the building. Despite its height, there is no way forward but down. The interior design is almost ornate, gilded in curling brass in places. A statue rises from the centre of the lighthouse, a man in a suit holding a red banner.
No gods or kings. Only man.
The descending set of stairs leads to only one large lower level. Sitting placidly in a pool of water is a large metal pod, its one large window swung open like a door.
"What–what is this?" Jack asks, staring quizzically at the odd shape.
Steve frowns, circling around it. It's vaguely familiar, the appearance. Where has he seen it? It's too crude to be something Tony worked on, maybe from far before? He'd read a few science magazines before the war, Bucky borrowing it from someone else and peering, fascinated, at the pages with Steve. Bucky had loved science, Steve remembers with a pang.
"A bathysphere," Dr Strange identified, "used to conduct deep-sea dives during the 1930s."
And yes, Steve remembers vaguely now, looking at black and white photos of them. Bucky had wondered if it was bigger on the inside, because it sure didn't look so big in the photos.
Peering inside this one, Steve guesses Bucky was sort of right. There is more hollow space inside than you could see from outside. A bench rings around most of the circumference, thin pipes occasionally climbing over the rounded wall. A large lever sits at the back of it, set on the location 'Lighthouse'. There is only one other location carved onto the lever's panel.
"Rapture," Mitch reads. He looks at them and shrugs. "We could try it. Didn't see anything to send a distress signal with, did any of you?"
None of them had. And unless they are willing to just wait around on this rock in the middle of the Atlantic, no way to broadcast a signal, they will have to take that chance.
Steve is not looking forward to explaining this to his friends. Super-soldier and all but a goddamn reckless idiot, they'll call him, and maybe the first and second time, he just won't mind. Not after getting off this rock.
"Alright," Steve agrees, "let's go explore then."
Jack pulls the lever, and the bathysphere door seals shut. They sink downwards into the water.
I am Andrew Ryan, and I'm here to ask you a question. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? 'No!' says the man in Washington, 'It belongs to the poor.' 'No!' says the man in the Vatican, 'It belongs to God.' 'No!' says the man in Moscow, 'It belongs to everyone.'
I rejected those answers; instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose... Rapture.