When Sam wakes up, they're still driving.
He blinks awake slowly, disoriented—the smell of dust motes gently burning in the car heater, undertones of grease and bitter coffee, the burnt-orange flash of street lights outside the window—and Barnes clears his throat, glances over.
“We're a few miles out of city limits. Coffee's probably still hot, if you want it.”
“Yeah,” Sam says, “okay,” and drags himself up out of the vestiges of sleep, reaches for the paper cup. It's scalding on his tongue, black and bitter-burnt the way gas station coffee always is, and Sam makes a face, swallows another mouthful. “Fuck, that's terrible. Ugh. You want me to drive for a while? Get some sleep?”
“In a bit,” Barnes says. “I'm good for now.”
“Yeah, sure,” Sam agrees. Swirls coffee in his mouth, swallows, crumples the empty cup. Squints at the road ahead, lit up by headlights, and fiddles with the radio button until he finds some station playing slightly crackly old blues. Bucky doesn’t say anything, just shifts his hand on the steering wheel, and Sam kicks his feet up onto the dash, tries to get comfortable.
“I heard this guy play,” Bucky says after a while. “In Carnegie.”
“You heard Robert Johnson play,” Sam says, kind of disbelieving, and Bucky nods, chews his lip, taps his finger against the steering wheel in time with the music.
“He wasn’t there—I think he mighta died, or something—but they played his records from the stage. Some big concert, a mixed audience, it was kind of wild at the time. I went ‘cause Steve did drawings sometimes for The New Masses, dragged me along. That’s a magazine, right. This Communist thing, American Marxists. They sponsored it, the thing at Carnegie. It was a good time.”
“See, how can you remember shit like that and forget your own damn name,” Sam says, easy, and Bucky grins, whistles through his teeth for a few bars. “Wait, Steve drew pictures for a Communist magazine? How the fuck did that guy ever get to be Captain America, I swear to god.”
“He used a fake name,” Bucky says. “I’ll buy breakfast tomorrow if you can guess what it was.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Sam groans. “It was something fucking terrible, wasn’t it. Or super fucking obvious. Grant Stevens, something like that.”
“You got it, sweetheart.”
“God. The fake name of a man who thinks baseball caps and aviators make him invisible. What a goddamn idiot.”
“Can't say you're wrong,” Bucky shrugs.
“But you are buying breakfast tomorrow, huh,” Sam says, deadpan, and Bucky grins briefly at him, just the flash of white teeth before he concentrates on the road again, the half-circle of highway illuminated by their headlights.
“Ugh,” Sam says, fifteen minutes or three hours later; feels like time’s ceased to have any meaning, here on these back roads. “I'm beat. That nap only made things worse.”
“We can pull over and put the back seat down,” Bucky suggests, and Sam makes a face.
“Come on, man, we've been driving for eighteen hours,” he says, dragging his palm over his face and stifling a yawn. “I gotta sleep somewhere I can actually get horizontal before my fucking back gives out on me. We'll find a cheap motel, it doesn't have to break the bank.”
“Fine,” Bucky says. “Yeah, sure, we find a place, I’ll pull in. You know anything along this stretch of road ain’t gonna be five-star accommodation though, right?”
“I’ll lower my standards,” Sam says, dry. “Anyway, you do realize I haven’t exactly been living it up in resorts. Crappy motels is about what I’m used to these days.”
He regrets it as soon as they find a motel; it’s levels worse, the kind of seedy he and Steve would usually drive straight past, and he takes a moment to feel kind of mad about this goddamn backwater mission.
“This is a shithole,” he says. Takes in the battered veneer TV stand, the nicotine-stained walls and questionably clean bedlinen. “I feel like we’re gonna catch bedbugs.”
“Hey, I ain't arguing,” Bucky shrugs. “There's always the back of the car.”
“That's worse,” Sam decides. Looks at the bed, too narrow for the both of them, and opens his mouth to say something like so, you wanna flip a coin for it?
“You take it,” Bucky says, pre-empting him, “I don't mind the floor, so long’s I got a pillow and a blanket,” and Sam is too tired to argue, just falls down fully-clothed into the crappy motel bed. He's asleep before he can even turn the light out.
In the light of morning, the room isn’t much better, but Sam takes a quick shower anyway, puts back on the shirt he was wearing the day before.
“We planned this shit terribly,” he says, “can you believe I forgot a go-bag? I always have one in the trunk, what the fuck.”
“Yeah, it ain’t great,” Bucky agrees. “They got a diner across the road though, you want to get breakfast before we get going again?”
“Sure. How bad can it be, anyway.”
It’s not that bad, actually; the tables are a little sticky, the menus plastic-laminated and dog-eared, but the coffee’s hot and strong and the waitress offers Sam a top-up without him having to ask, so that’s something.
“You know, this might be a shithole and all, but these are some good banana pancakes,” Bucky says, conversational. “You want a bite, sweetheart?”
“I’m good,” Sam says. Sips his coffee, pokes his omelette with his fork. “Some of us have gotta maintain a physique, man.”
“You don’t look like you’re having any trouble on that front,” Bucky murmurs, looking Sam up and down, the corner of his mouth curling. Sam kicks his shin under the table.
“Quit pretending to check me out and focus on the mission.”
“Who says I’m pretending,” Bucky mutters, but he drops his gaze, shoves another forkful of pancakes in his mouth. “You hear from Steve yet?”
“Nope. Not a big deal, though, he told us to meet him at the rendezvous point in a week. Said he might be out of radio signal while he and Nat get clear at their end. I figure it’s only a problem if we show up and he doesn’t, right?”
“You’re the boss on this one,” Bucky shrugs. “We'll catch up with him at the rendezvous, I guess.” He says it through his mouthful, garbled, and it should be gross, it is gross, but all Sam can focus on is the smudge of syrup on his lower lip.
“Okay, gimme a bite,” Sam says, caving, and Bucky smirks. Loads up his fork with pancakes, swirls it through the mess of syrup and melted butter pooling on the plate, and holds it out to Sam. “Oh, hell no. You think I’m eating off your fork?”
“I think you want some pancakes,” Bucky says mildly. “You don’t want it? I’ll eat it.”
“Nuh uh,” Sam says. Grabs Bucky’s wrist, tugs his hand closer so he can guide the pancakes into his mouth. Bucky watches as he does it, and Sam flushes hot, feels Bucky’s pulse trip under his fingertips where Sam’s still got him by the wrist. “Yeah,” he says, letting go of Bucky’s hand, chewing and swallowing. “You’re right, they are good.”
“You—” Bucky reaches across the table, touches the pad of his thumb to the corner of Sam’s mouth. “You had a bit of syrup,” he explains. Licks his thumb, goes back to his pancakes.
They get back on the road after breakfast, drive all day on a stretch of road that never seems to get anywhere except further into scrubby almost-desert that doesn’t even have the good graces to turn into a real desert. There’s no traffic, barely any signs of life. No cell reception, not that it’d matter; their burner phones are off, batteries in one pocket and handset in the other. The car radio crackles in and out for hours before fizzing out entirely, filling the car with loud static that they listen to for minutes before switching it off. Bucky hums tunelessly under his breath for a while, whistles through his teeth. Taps his fingers against the steering wheel until the rhythm bores its way into Sam’s skull.
He reaches out. Sets his hand over Bucky’s fingers, stills their movement. “Quit it,” he says, “it’s driving me crazy.”
“Yeah, shit,” Bucky mutters. “Sorry. This damn road is driving me crazy. Fuck, I’m bored. This is worse than driving to Germany in a fuckin’ clown car.”
“Nothing’s worse than that,” Sam says, wincing, and Bucky frowns, throws him a dark look.
“You weren’t stuck in the damn back seat,” he points out, and there’s nothing to do with that except laugh.
It’s less funny when they’re still on the same damn road sixteen hours later, not even a seedy motel in the last hundred miles and nothing to do except pull over into the loose gravel and drop the back seat down. There’s just room enough for them to lie side by side, ignoring the seatbelts jabbing them in the kidneys, and they don’t have pillows but they fold their jackets to approximate. They even manage to dig up a single wool blanket from the detritus of the trunk.
“Man, I really did plan this poorly,” Sam mutters, trying to get comfortable on the lumpy seat. “No safe houses on route, didn't even pack a goddamn sleeping bag. And now I'm sleeping in a fucking car with you. I should have gone with Nat, sent you and Steve out together at this end to get some quality buddy time. You know he's been moping since you woke up and decided to farm goats instead of joining us running black ops under the radar out of a bunch of crappy motels.”
“He'll get over it. And don't lie, you love my company,” Bucky tells him, unsympathetic on both counts. “Anyway, I gave you the blanket, what're you complaining about?”
“It smells like it's moldered in the trunk for the last thousand years. Shit, I think something might have died in it.”
“If you don't want it, I'll take it,” Bucky offers, and Sam scowls into the grey darkness.
“I didn't say that. Ugh, move over, your arm is cold.”
“It's not,” Bucky says, outrage in his voice. “Shuri designed it to mimic body heat, look, it's totally normal.”
“Stop poking me,” Sam snaps, and they get into a brief and overtired slapfight, swearing under their breath, until it descends into a sudden fit of actual giggling. Then they’re winding down into exhausted silence, breaths lengthening toward sleep. You better not snore, Sam wants to say, even though he knows Bucky doesn’t.
The car still smells like dust, stale coffee, the sweat of two people who’ve been driving for way too long. Except that when Bucky swears under his breath, props himself up on one elbow and tugs the hair tie out of his hair so he can shake out the shitty bun he’d pulled it up in that morning, Sam catches the faintest trace of something herbal, too sharp to be floral but sweet all the same. It makes him pause, not sure whether to hold his breath or inhale, and then Bucky sighs, rolls onto his side facing away from Sam, and Sam figures that’s sign enough he should get some sleep.
When he wakes up, Bucky’s still asleep. The car’s gotten cold overnight, and they’ve shifted toward each other in their sleep so that Sam’s side is pressed up against the length of Bucky’s spine. Sam’s warm where they’re touching, so he doesn’t move away; just lies still, lets himself drift in and out of sleep in long moments.
He realizes it suddenly, in the palely grey light of very early morning. Watches the definition begin to creep in around the edges, the sky beginning to lighten, and in the quiet stillness of the day before it’s begun, nothing but dew and faint birdsong and the gentle rhythm of Barnes’ sleeping breath, Sam thinks: wait. Thinks: this isn’t what you thought it was.
“Morning,” Bucky says, voice gravel-rough with sleep, and Sam doesn’t want to say it. Wants to leave Bucky free of the truth for another minute, another hour, and suddenly knows that it’s just another sign of how deep they are; he doesn’t know Bucky like this, not where they’re from. Not the kind of friendship that has them eating off each other’s plates, falling into familiar patterns of bickering, protecting each other from hard truths. Up one level they barely know each other: a car ride, a couple battles, second-hand stories from Steve in their off-hours. How long have they been caught in this, Sam wonders, to get from there to here. How much of what he knows of Bucky is only—whatever this is, wherever they’re stuck just filling in the gaps, or have they been down here months, years without realizing it?
“Hey,” Bucky says then, interrupting Sam’s train of thought. “You sleep okay, sweetheart?”
“I,” Sam says. Shakes his head, sits up. Yawns, jaw cracking, before he can help it, and then rubs his palm over the dewed-up window, looks out at the featureless desert beyond. “I don’t know. I think—”
“You okay?” Bucky asks, concern in his voice now, and Sam turns back to face him.
“Barnes,” he says. “Do you know where we're going? Where we're driving to?”
“We're gonna meet Steve,” Bucky says. “We're gonna…”
“Yeah,” Sam says, “I thought that too for the longest time, but that's not right, is it? I don't think that's what we're doing at all.”
Bucky takes a breath. Chews his lip. “Well, shit,” he says, “ain't that a shitter.”
They keep driving, for lack of anything better to do. A mission, Sam had said, and maybe that's true; maybe wherever they're headed is the way out, the way up.
“You got family, right?” Bucky asks, looking into the middle distance ahead of them, and Sam glances away from the road to look at Bucky's face briefly, to take in the cautious set of his mouth.
“Yeah,” he says eventually. Looks back at his own hands on the wheel, ten and two just like his pop taught him way back when. “Yeah, I got family. My mom’s gone, but my sister's still in Harlem. My niece too, her daughter.”
“That's nice,” Bucky says, quiet. “I had a sister once, right. Little spitfire who started about ninety percent of the fights in the neighborhood. Well, the ones Steve didn't, I guess. You keep in touch?”
“Less than I should,” Sam says. “Less than I'd like, you know? Kinda tough to stay in touch when you're all over the world chasing ghosts and fighting crime, let alone the whole wanted fugitive thing.”
“Don't I know it,” Bucky agrees, solemn. “They got names, these family of yours?”
“Trina,” Sam says. “My sister's Trina. And her little girl, that's Monique.”
Is it? he wonders suddenly, caught up in his own head. Is he remembering it right? A sister, a little girl all curls and questions, is that his own memory or just a dream from a life he had on the other side of whatever this is, wherever they are?
“Sam,” Bucky says. “Sam,” and Sam realizes he's veering, car drifting across the center line with his lack of attention.
“Shit,” he swears, “shit, sorry,” and yanks the wheel, corrects their path.
“Yeah,” Bucky says, almost to himself. “I wondered, you know? What kind of limbo this was. Whether we'd start to lose whatever we…”
“You think we'll start to forget?” Sam asks, alarmed, and Bucky shrugs.
“Memory, y’know, it's never as lost as you think. Worth reminding ourselves, though. Not taking it for granted that we'll remember.”
Time moves differently where they are.
It takes a while to notice; they don’t get hungry, not really. They don’t get tired. It might have been hours or years, decades or minutes or seconds. They stop to fill up gas, go through the motions of eating and sleeping like maybe that’ll tether them to life. Whatever dead zone they’re stuck in seems to throw up a motel every couple of days, a shitty mostly-deserted town every week or so, but other than that it’s like they’re just stuck driving through back blocks of the Midwest, sometimes more like Arizona or Nevada. Cornfields that stretch unbroken for days, fading into desert and prairie and back again to seemingly-barren farmland. Way back when, Sam and his buddies once took a week’s leave and drove from Fort Meade out to Las Vegas; this feels kind of the same.
“Your hair isn't growing,” Sam says after a while. Touches his jaw. “My beard’s out of control, but your hair's the same as it was a month ago.”
“Even limbo loves my hair,” Bucky shrugs, and Sam can only roll his eyes and resolve to shave at the next motel stop.
“Hey,” Bucky says, days later at a gas station which seems like it mostly services long-distance trucks, if there were any such thing as long-distance trucks in this shitty little stub of existence. He nudges Sam, leaning his shoulder in against Sam's side, and nods at the sign taped in the window. Sam follows his gaze.
“How much your showers?” he asks the clerk, and the guy spits a stream of tobacco juice into an empty coffee can, picks at his teeth.
“Five bucks gets you a stall, a towel, a bar of soap and ten minutes of hot water. The two of you wanna save some cash and share one stall, it's just a buck extra.”
Sam glances at Bucky. They are pretty fucking low on cash—it's fucking ridiculous, stuck in limbo or a pocket universe or some low-rent version of the afterlife and still running low on funds—and saving four dollars will get them each a coffee after, a pack of stale donuts laden with powdered sugar. It's kind of tempting.
“I don't give a shit,” Bucky shrugs. “We're both used to the barracks, right.”
“Speak for yourself,” Sam mutters, but it's true, he doesn't care either. He peels off the notes, slides them across the counter in exchange for a clean but threadbare towel, a wrapped motel-size bar of soap, a plastic token.
“That'll turn on the hot water system for your ten minutes. Might take a bit to get properly hot.”
“This is a rip-off,” Sam mutters as he follows the clerk’s pointed directions out the back of the gas station to the shower block. Bucky murmurs agreement, gets in the stall and steps back.
“You take the first five minutes, I'll go after?”
“Fuck that. We’re paying for it, I want a solid ten minutes of shitty hot water. Come on, get in here, I’m sure we can shower without making it weird.”
“Yeah,” Bucky says, kind of slowly. “Okay,” and begins shucking off his clothes. Sam looks away. Slots the token into the shower control, starts the water running.
At first it’s not weird at all: backs to each other, passing the soap. The water's a couple degrees below properly hot, but it still feels good to get clean.
“You want me to scrub your back?” Bucky says, deadpan, and Sam snorts with laughter, blinks water out of his eyes.
“Sure, if you're offering.”
There's a long silence, and then Bucky's fingers land on Sam's shoulder, warm and soap-slick. The touch makes Sam shiver, counterintuitive, and Bucky stills, takes a breath behind him.
“Is that okay?” he asks, quiet, and Sam shivers again, blinks water out of his eyes.
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, sure, it’s fine.” Leans into it, the touch and the warm water both, and tilts his head back, closes his eyes.
“You didn't have to worry about it,” Bucky says, sliding the bar of soap down Sam's back, and Sam must make a noise of confusion, because Bucky takes another breath, clarifies. “Your physique. Maintaining it. Guess limbo loves your muscles as much as it loves my hair.”
“Oh, you jealous?” Sam asks, teasing, and Bucky pauses.
“Jealous ain't the word I would use, sweetheart,” he mutters eventually, low and a little loaded, and it's like a jolt of arousal sparks all the way up Sam's spine to the base of his skull. Fuck, he wants to say, goddamn, or maybe he's thinking about turning around, pushing Bucky up against the tile and taking both their dicks in one hand, biting at his mouth the way he’s wanted to do for way too long now.
The water runs cold, sudden and shocking. “Guess that’s ten minutes,” Bucky says, reaching for the shower faucet to shut it off. “You clean enough? I can go buy another token if you want.”
God, Sam wants. “No,” he says instead, “nah, I’m good,” and grabs the towel to dry himself off.
It'd be awkward, if Sam let it be, but he just doesn't think too hard about it. Laughs at Bucky when he gets powdered donut sugar in his hair, inevitably winds up with sugar all over his own face when Bucky retaliates and throws a donut at him too fast for Sam to catch. The empty road and long hours of driving suck; sleeping in the car sucks; everything is low-grade the worst, but Sam finds himself not minding it. Enjoying it, regardless, and he knows that wouldn't be the case if he was on his own. Takes a minute to be thankful he's not.
They pull over that night, same as usual, and Sam decides to take a walk, stretch his legs. He doesn’t go far, maybe a few hundred yards, but stands for a while in the dark, looks up at the sky and the stars arcing overhead, and loneliness crests over him in a sudden and fast-breaking wave. God, he thinks, where are we, and heads back to Bucky, shivering a little.
Bucky is sitting up on the hood of the car, head tilted back so that he can watch the stars too, and when Sam gets closer he catches the smell of cigarette smoke drifting out into the night.
“The fuck, where did you get cigarettes,” Sam says, mildly outraged. Bucky flicks ash off the tip, takes another drag before he answers.
“Pickpocketed a guy in the grocery store. Didn't have much cash on him, but I couldn't resist the pack of smokes in his back pocket. Kind of figured, you know, we're not meant to be here, what harm can it do.”
“Hmm,” Sam mutters, unable to disagree with this logic. Pushes himself up to sit on the hood of the car next to Bucky, takes the half-burned cigarette from his fingers and lifts it to his mouth. “Ugh, this is disgusting, the fuck.”
“Yeah, he had real poor taste in tobacco,” Bucky agrees, “the cheapest shit you can buy, I should have chosen a different mark.”
They sit on the car for a while, not speaking. Bucky smokes another cigarette; Sam shoves his hands in his jacket pockets, tries not to notice the cold. Doesn't want to break the silence.
“Do you think we're dead?” he asks eventually. Not sure whether he wants an answer. Bucky considers the question for a long moment, brows knit together and teeth catching at the corner of his lip.
“In Wakanda,” he says eventually. “In Wakanda—Shuri told me they have this thing called the ancestral plane. A jumping off point, a dreamtime, and the heart-shaped herb will take you there, let you talk to those who've gone before.”
“Right,” Sam says, not sure where Bucky's going with this.
“Shuri said it was beautiful,” Bucky tells him. “She hasn't been there, not yet—it's not a place for everyone—but there are paintings of it. People's memories of the lit-up sky, the plain and the grass and the trees.” He pauses for a minute, chews his lip again. “I mean,” he says, “I know we ain't Wakandan, right, but I'd hope death for us would be at least a little bit prettier than a boondock back road and some beat-up gas stations.” Sam laughs at that, can't help it—flings his head back and laughs right from his belly—and Bucky smiles, eyes briefly bright. “So no, sweetheart, I don't think we're dead. I don't know what the fuck we are, but dead ain't it.”
They find a place to stay the next night—some Holiday Inn facsimile, a little nicer than their usual, and the bed's bigger than the usual twin.
“Hey,” Sam says, feeling generous. “Barnes. No need to sleep on the floor, man, we can share.”
“Oh,” Bucky says, “sure, if you're offering,” and shucks off his jeans, his jacket. Disappears into the bathroom to wash his face and brush his teeth—god, Sam knows his routine by now, how strange to know someone so intimately in a place like this—and reappears a minute later, hair damp and curling at his jawline where he's splashed it with warm water. “All yours,” he says to Sam, and by the time Sam’s done brushing his own teeth, Bucky’s sitting on the left side of the bed, flicking through channels with the remote.
“Anything good on?” Sam asks—there’s never anything good on, they’ve learned, this universe is as light on decent entertainment as it is on actual destinations, Sam would just about commit a murder for one new episode of Game of Thrones—and Bucky shrugs one shoulder, turns the TV off.
“Nah,” he says, yawning. “Come to bed, darlin’,” and Sam’s too tired to think much about it even as it sparks something in the back of his brain. Just climbs into bed, settles down beside Bucky. Switches off his bedside lamp.
“Man, this bed is way more comfortable,” he murmurs, sleepy already, and Bucky laughs softly.
“Yeah, it's enough to convince me out of the floor,” he says, and Sam gets this flare of guilt which dissipates once he remembers how Bucky’d once said, casual over breakfast in some diner, you struggle with sleeping in a bed, sweetheart? When you first came back, I mean?
Yeah, Sam had agreed, yeah, of course. Had laughed into his cup of coffee, told Bucky about that first conversation with Steve, and Bucky had sipped his own coffee, made eye contact over the chipped rim of the cup.
It ever go away? he'd asked, and Sam had shrugged.
“About half,” he'd said in the end, and Bucky had nodded, thoughtful. Drained his coffee.
“You good? Should I turn out the light?” Bucky says then, and Sam nods. Turns on his side, punches his pillow down a couple of times.
“Yeah,” he agrees, “go ahead,” and when Bucky does, the after-image stays in Sam's vision for a few long seconds, flaring and dissipating into the anonymous darkness of the room.
“There's a question I've been meaning to ask you,” Bucky says, voice low in the warm dark, and when Sam hums acknowledgement Bucky rolls over, props himself on one elbow and cups Sam's jaw, thumb against the pulse point in Sam's throat.
“I—” Sam starts, doesn't finish, and Bucky is leaning in, kissing him slow in a long brush of lips. “Oh,” he breathes, “yeah, okay,” and reaches out, tangles his fingers up in Bucky's hair, drags him back in. It's weird they're doing this now, here, in whatever reality this might be, but maybe it's not weird at all. Maybe it's been building since they woke up, since before; maybe it was always gonna go like this. It's good, Sam thinks, it's good, and quits thinking too hard about it, lets himself get caught up in Bucky's mouth against his.
After that, things change. It's like time is expanding around them, maybe, or perhaps they've just run out of urgency. Some days they give up driving, just spend their mornings sleeping and their afternoons lazy in bed, tangled up in each other and the scent of warm skin. Once they happen across a motel with a pool; could be any anonymous Californian motel, kind of run-down, half-hearted housekeeping and string lights wound into the palm trees, but there's something kind of charming about it anyway. They spend the evening sitting out by the pool, eating candy bars and potato chips from the vending machine, drinking a couple cans of cheap beer. The next day Bucky swims, lays out in the sun until his hair's dried wavy and a little blonde at the tips, and that night Sam traces a new map of freckles that have come up, magic, across his shoulders.
“Nice here,” Bucky says, lazy, sun-warm. “Maybe we should stay a while.”
“Nah,” Sam says, “we’re gonna set down somewhere for good, I don’t want it to be a motel,” and in the end, the next town they pass through, they find a house that looks like nobody’s been home the last couple months based on the stack of bills in the mailbox. Perhaps nobody's ever been there; hard to tell, the kind of facsimile reality they're in. Bucky picks the lock; Sam grabs clean linen from the hall closet, makes up the bed and opens the windows for some fresh air.
There’s a geranium half-dead in a flower pot on the kitchen windowsill, and Sam watches for what seems like days but must be months as Bucky waters it every morning, coaxes it back to flowering. They settle into routine more easily than they should: morning runs, evenings spent reading whichever dog-eared paperbacks on the bookshelf look vaguely interesting. It’s kind of the same as the time Sam spent stuck in a safehouse with Steve and Nat, just after Sokovia, except for how he wakes up every morning with Bucky’s arm slung over his hip and Bucky’s hair inevitably in his mouth. They don’t really have neighbors, forget to go to the grocery store and go days without eating before they remember again. Time’s still kind of weird, weirder for this liminal domesticity. Sam thinks he could get lost in it, spend the rest of his life in this almost-real world if he’s not careful, and some mornings he lets himself forget they’ve got anywhere else to be.
“We should probably go,” he says eventually, unwilling. Voices it only into the quiet dark when they’re both on the edge of sleep, almost hoping Bucky will be too drowsy to hear it or understand the words beyond soft and meaningless phonemes.
“Yeah,” Bucky says though, quiet, considered. Maybe a little regretful. “Yeah, sweetheart, I guess so.”
“I mean,” Sam says, wanting suddenly to take it back. “We’ve still got a mission, right?”
Who knows if they do, really, but they pack up the car the next morning, wash their dishes and stack them to dry in the sink. Whoever owns this house never came back for it, Sam thinks, looking around the shabby little living room as they’re about to go, and that thought makes him turn back, grab the geranium and bring it with him out to the car.
“Thought we could plant it somewhere,” he says when he catches Bucky looking, and Bucky nods, looks off into the middle distance a moment longer before sliding into the driver’s seat.
Once they’re back on the road it’s like their time in that anonymous house slides away, melts like snow in July. Like they’re back to the start, black coffee and radio static and pointless but affectionate bickering over shit that ceases to matter almost immediately. The landscape turns more toward desert. Big sky, long days, horizons that their eyes slide away from. Bucky squints so much he steals a pair of sunglasses from a gas station.
“Haven't seen rain in a while,” he says at one point, looking out at the cloudless sky, and half an hour later there's a downpour. It's blinding, overwhelming; their windscreen wipers struggle to keep up, and Bucky has to slow down to a crawl so they don't hit anything or hydroplane off the road. The passenger side window leaks a little where the rubber’s degraded around the frame; Sam rips a blanket, shoves the rags into the crack.
It rains for two days and a night; Sam drives for hours, swaps out again with Bucky and falls asleep to the sound of water on the roof. Then the rain stops just as quick as it started; leaves the road steaming, the wilderness sodden and immediately blooming green in the damp summer heat.
“Weird,” Sam says, as if nothing else about the entire place has been weird up until then, and grabs Bucky's sunglasses since he's driving right then.
“Yeah,” Bucky agrees, “weird,” and winds down the window, lets the fresh smell of ozone and wet earth blow in.
“Hey,” Bucky says, half an hour or three days or eight months later. “Hey, it's the kid.”
“What the fuck,” Sam says, but it is the kid—Peter Parker, that's what Steve had said—sitting on the side of the road under a spindly-looking tree, his arms wrapped around his knees, one hand still stuck out with his thumb up like he might actually hitch a ride out here. Sam slows the car, pulls into the shoulder.
“Hey, you need a ride?”
“Oh, man,” Peter says.”Yeah, that— that'd be great, actually. Hey, I know you, right? Didn’t I fight you at that airport in Germany? I totally did! Awesome.”
“He stuck us to the goddamn floor,” Bucky mutters, “quick, drive away,” and Sam stifles a laugh.
“Come on, get in, kiddo. You can apologize to us while we're on the road.”
“Okay,” Peter says. “Cool,” and gets to his feet, nods up at the tree. “This is Groot.”
“That's a tree,” Sam says. Peter nods.
“Yeah, his name is Groot.”
“How do you know?” Sam asks, before he can think better of it.
“I am Groot,” says the tree, and Sam thinks: well, I guess that settles it. Looks at Bucky, hoping his expression conveys the appropriate level of can you believe this shit. Bucky shrugs.
“Hey, don't look at me. This didn't happen the last time I died.”
“Thought you said we weren't dead,” Sam mutters. Bucky just smirks. “Okay, come on, get in, you and your tree,” he sighs, and Peter opens the back door, slides in. Sam watches Groot get in—he can't help it, it's a goddamn tree getting into his car—and Bucky punches him semi-gently in the shoulder.
“It's rude to stare,” he says, gives Sam this shit-eating grin, and Sam can only smack him back, roll his eyes again.
“Oh, what, you've seen it all?”
“Well, before we got here I had a talking raccoon try to buy both my gun and my arm, so, y'know, I've seen some shit.”
“I am Groot,” says Groot, and somehow, god knows how, the tone fucking translates.
“What, you know that guy?” Sam asks. “Yeah, of course you do, I don't know what I expected. He’s probably hanging out with Steve right now mourning our untimely deaths and helping him punch his way through the grieving process. Okay, Parker, you lost, or you know where you’re going?”
“I kind of…” Peter says, trails off. “I think I was kind of lost, you know? This place is weird. But I had a feeling I should be going that way.”
“You had a feeling,” Sam repeats. Peter shrugs.
“I had a feeling, yeah. I get them that way, you know? The hairs on the back of my neck, that kind of thing.”
“Plants turning to face the sun,” Bucky suggests, deadpan, and it's Sam's turn to punch Bucky’s shoulder, regretting it immediately when his knuckles make contact with hard metal.
They've got food in the back, bottled water and granola bars and a bag of clementines they picked up at the last little roadside stall, and Peter clears his throat, reaches for a water.
“Is it okay if I—” he says, polite, and Sam nods, watches in the rear mirror as Peter drinks half the water, passes it to Groot and eats a couple clementines, a granola bar.
“How long have you been waiting for someone?” Sam asks Peter eventually, curious. “I mean— it has to have been a while, right?”
“Yeah,” Peter agrees. “Must have been nearly all day before you came along. I thought I was dead at first, but then I ran into Groot, kind of figured I probably wasn't.”
“All day,” Bucky says. Glances at Sam.
“Yeah, I got tired of walking after a while, and then I took a nap for an hour or two, I think. Do you know where we are? Are we dead?”
“No,” Bucky says. “At least. This doesn’t feel like dying?”
“Well, you'd know, I guess,” Sam says, unable to help it, and Bucky shrugs.
“Turns out I wouldn't, apparently. Just can't seem to make it stick.”
“Oh, big mood,” Peter says, and then clears his throat again like he's embarrassed at himself. “So are the two of you, you know…”
“Are the two of us significant pause what,” Sam says. Glances in the rear view mirror, and Peter shifts on the back seat.
“Nothing!” he says, voice going high. “Just, you know, are the two of you dating, or something.”
“No,” Sam says. “I don't know. How's that any of your business?”
“It’s not, it’s not, sorry! It’s just. Cool, you know? I don’t really know any other superheroes. Except for Mr Stark, but I guess that’s kind of different.”
“I am Groot,” says the tree, and Peter nods.
“Yeah, and you. I met a bunch of them in outer space, too, but it's not like I really know them, you know?”
“Outer space,” Bucky says, sounding intrigued. “Shit, really? We’re going to space now?”
“What do you mean, now,” Sam says, kind of despite himself. “We landed on the moon in ‘69, don’t tell me you missed that on your catch-up of world events.”
“Guess I must have,” Bucky shrugs. “I was mostly off ice round that time, but they kept me out of the US for most of the 60s. Well, after ‘63. Think I was in Prague in ‘68, maybe in Vietnam for a while. Tet Offensive, I think, Hydra definitely had a hand in that one.”
“What happened in 1963?” Peter asks, curious, and Sam makes a face.
“JFK assassination,” he tells Peter, because this is a child who was literally born after the year 2000, Jesus Christ Sam feels old. “Come on, Barnes, you don’t just go around admitting to that type of shit.”
“Didn’t admit to shit,” Bucky says, sly. “Could have been anyone in Dallas that time of the decade. Hey, so, outer space, what’s that like?”
“Pretty cool, pretty scary,” Peter shrugs. “Kind of half each way. I met this alien girl with antennae.”
“I am Groot.”
“Oh, what, she’s another one of your friends? What are the damn chances? Hey, tree, stop poking the upholstery.”
“His name is Groot,” says Peter.
“I am Groot,” Groot agrees, and on that, they all kind of fall silent.
They keep driving until the sky's darkening around the edges. Sam flicks the headlights on, wonders if they'll come across a town big enough for a motel or if it'll be another night in the car. Peter falls asleep in the back, and Bucky looks over his shoulder, reaches back and grabs a blanket from under the back seat. It's one they'd taken from the house, slightly scratchy plaid wool that still smells of lemon laundry detergent, and he passes it to Groot, nods at Peter. Groot appears to consider both the blanket and Peter for a minute before shaking it out and tucking it over the both of them, settling back into the seat and making every indication that he's going ahead and falling asleep too.
“Weird,” Sam mutters. “Hey, peel me a clementine, would you?”
Bucky does it without comment, the sharpness of citrus peel filling the car. Hands Sam a segment, and Sam takes his hand off the wheel to pop it in his mouth. Sucks juice off the side of his wrist where it's dripped and gestures for another piece.
“So, we're not dating?”
“Man, I don't know what we are. Get me back to the world and I'll tell you. Anyway, not like there's anywhere we could date round here. Not exactly rolling in candlelit restaurants and movie theaters.”
“You wouldn't want me to take you to the damn movies,” Bucky says. “You'd get bored ten minutes in and want to go start some shit somewhere, you're just like Steve that way.”
“You got me there,” Sam agrees. Opens his mouth so Bucky can put another segment of clementine in it. “Dinner, though, that'd be nice.”
“I'll take you out,” Bucky promises, voice so solemn he can only be fucking with him. “Soon as we aren't dead or in a desert limbo. You wear a suit, I'll even brush my hair.”
“Wow,” Sam says, dry, “you’re really selling it,” but he can't help smiling at Bucky anyway, something that feels a little too tender.
Even with Peter and Groot in the car, their routine doesn't really change. Driving, stopping for food and gas, sleeping where and when they can. Peter seems to accept it without comment, although that's basically the only thing he doesn't comment on. There's usually not so much talking, Sam remembers saying back in that fucking airport; he hadn't realized that's just Parker all the damn time.
They're stopped again for gas, and Sam leans against the car, enjoying the wind and the sun on his face. Hears the bell ring in the gas station, and glances over to see Bucky walking towards them like it’s some kind of mission critical. Hides a small smile, but Bucky catches it anyway.
“What?” he asks, reaching out to touch the corner of Sam’s mouth, and Sam lets himself smile broader.
“Nothing,” he murmurs. “It’s just, those sunglasses, the way you walk, all you need’s a machine gun and you’d be a ringer for the Terminator right now.”
“What’s the Terminator?” Bucky says, kind of curious, and Peter pops his head out the back window.
“Oh man, you don’t know the Terminator? Okay, so it’s like, this really old movie, right, it’s got this guy Schwarzenegger, he was a German weightlifter and then he got into action movies and then I think for a while he was, like, the governor of California, but anyway, he’s this robot sent back in time to kill this woman Sarah Connor, and he’s all like—”
“This is gonna go on,” Sam warns Bucky, getting back in the car, sliding into the driver’s seat, and Bucky shrugs, takes the passenger side, tosses Sam the keys.
“I don’t mind. So why’s he gotta kill this Sarah Connor, huh?”
God, Sam thinks, not sure if it’s a prayer for patience or just a general observation on the state of his life right now, and pulls out of the gas station, gets back on the road.
“Hey, stop the car a second,” Peter says from the back about forty minutes later, interrupting his own monologue about the way Linda Hamilton had done pull-ups in her asylum cell, and Sam slows reflexively, glances back at him.
“Nothing, nothing, it’s just, look.” Peter points to something on the road, in the dust behind them; it’s humped over, weirdly armored, and Sam blinks at it a couple of times before it clicks.
“It’s an armadillo,” he says. “We’re in the desert. Makes sense.”
“I think we hit it,” Peter says, concern in his voice. “I felt the bump. I’m gonna go see if it’s okay.”
“Wait—” Sam says, but it’s too late, Peter’s already out of the car, bounding over towards the armadillo.
“I am Groot,” Groot says, and Sam nods.
“Yeah, buddy, I hear you.”
“We gotta get back home,” Bucky says, belatedly joining the conversation. “If I die again before seeing these Terminator movies I’m fuckin’ coming back to life just to spite someone, you hear me?”
“You already did that the first time,” Sam shrugs. “It’s getting old, coming back to life just to spite people. Starts getting expected.” Bucky huffs out a soft laugh, looks out the window.
“Ah, shit, he’s bringing it back to the car. Shit’s sake, kid, it’s just roadkill.”
“It’s not,” Peter says calmly, tucking it down into the floor of the back seat and wrapping his sweatshirt around it to make some kind of nest. “I’m gonna look after it.”
“Those things can give you leprosy, you know,” Sam says, conversational, starting up the car again. Bucky glances at him sideways.
“Now, how the fuck do you know that, sweetheart?”
“Back in basic there was this guy who took a weekend pass to go on vacation down in Daytona Beach, came back with leprosy. Apparently he thought it was a great idea to try eating armadillo roadkill barbecue.”
“Fucking Florida, I swear to god. Never goddamn changes. You hear that, pal, that thing is a bucket of disease, it’s gonna give you leprosy.”
“Whatever, I got a healing factor,” Peter says, shrugging.
“I am Groot,” Groot says again; in the rear view mirror, Sam can see him regarding the armadillo with what seems like a healthy amount of caution.
“Right?” Sam says, flooring the gas, and there’s a brief lull of quiet calm in the car now containing two grown men, one cybernetic arm, one extra-strength teenager, a sentient tree and a goddamn stray armadillo.
“Hey,” Bucky says, breaking the silence, “so, what happens once Sarah Connor breaks out of jail?”
“Well,” Peter starts, and Sam makes a mental note to get Bucky to steal him an MP3 player the next time they pass through a town so he can put headphones on and ignore everything happening around him.
That afternoon Bucky drifts asleep, something he doesn't usually do while they're on the road. Sam tries the radio without success, hums under his breath for a while, plays I spy against himself. The answer is always desert; there's not even a saguaro to break the monotony. “How's the armadillo?” he asks eventually, cursing his own boredom and knowing this conversation will end nowhere good. “Still alive?”
“I'm thinking of calling it Patrick,” Peter says. Sam shakes his head.
“Uh uh. You are not calling that thing Patrick. That is not a name for a goddamn armadillo.”
“Patrick,” Bucky says, eyes still closed. “Pat. Paddy. Patrizio.”
“Patricia,” Sam adds, just to be contrary. “You're not calling an armadillo Patrick, man, that's just wrong.”
“I don’t see why,” Peter says. “Hey, can I ride in the front seat for a while?”
“Come on, why not?”
“Because you are literally a child,” Sam tells him, “and Barnes is a hundred-year-old man, and I’m driving.”
“I could drive,” Peter offers, reasonably, and Sam glances back at him again in the rear mirror.
“Can you drive?”
“I am Groot,” says Groot, and okay, Sam can’t keep staring at them both and also keep an eye on the road, but he honestly doesn’t know what the fuck is happening right now.
“Jesus Lord,” he mutters. Speeds up a little. “Okay, man, can you drive?”
“I am Groot!”
“He can’t drive,” Bucky says easily. “I can take over for a bit if you want, darlin’.”
“No, we’re good. We’re fine. We’re all just— you know what we’re gonna do? We’re all gonna just shut the goddamn fuck up so I can drive in peace.”
“It’d be a good place for the kid to learn how to drive,” Bucky says, instead of shutting the fuck up. “Not much traffic. No consequences, so long’s we get back to the world eventually.”
“We get back to the world, you know what I wanna do?” Sam says, trying his best to move the conversation onward instead of acknowledging any of this nonsense. “I’m gonna move to Jamaica by myself. Retire from the superhero game, start a jerk chicken place.”
“What’s jerk chicken?” Bucky asks, displaying an impressive disregard for Sam’s tone of voice. Sam sighs.
“I was wrong,” he says. “I am dead. This is hell. I’m trapped here with you three assholes in hell, and I’m never gonna get to Jamaica.”
“You could call it Three Jerks,” Peter offers. “Your jerk chicken place. You know, after the three of us. It’d be funny.”
“You know who I miss?” Sam asks, now directing his question at the world in general. “I miss Steve. We were on the road damn near two years, looking for Barnes’ sorry ass, and you know what that guy did when we were on a long car trip? He shut the goddamn fuck up and let me play some Motown in peace.”
“He couldn’t drive either,” Bucky says, in tones of fond reminiscence. “I had to teach him how, with a stolen truck in the middle of Nazi Germany.”
“Yeah, and he never figured out how to drive stick properly,” Sam says. Bucky snorts with laughter.
“Oh, I’d say he figured that out just fine,” he mutters, makes a filthy hand gesture, and Sam gestures back, like are you kidding me? There is a child in our back seat right now.
“Okay,” Peter says, plaintive from the backseat. “If I can’t ride in the front, can you at least move your seat up? There’s hardly any room back here.”
“Christ,” Bucky mutters, and Sam shares a glance with him, something that he hopes translates to you brought this on yourself and also as soon as we find a motel, we are getting our own goddamn room and locking the door and you are gonna fuck me until I forget this entire conversation ever happened to me.
“You got something in your eye, sweetheart?” Bucky asks, and Sam sighs again.
“I fucking hate you all,” he says, and turns the radio static up loud enough he can’t hear anyone talk.
It begins to feel like they’re getting somewhere; maybe that’s just the full car, Peter’s boundless if sometimes irritating enthusiasm for explaining all the pop culture Bucky has missed in the last twenty years, or maybe it’s the way the sky’s getting bigger and bigger, the kind of white-blue that hurts to look at.
“You feel it, right?” he asks Bucky, voice low, and Bucky nods.
“Yeah, there’s an energy to it. Don’t know where we’re going but I think we’re getting close. About goddamn time, honestly.”
They might, usually, have driven through the night, but the sky is beautiful and the air is warm, and they pull over in twilight, share the last of their candy stash and wander out into the wilderness a little way.
“Could get lost out here,” Bucky says, squinting at the sky, the mesa mountains hazy on the horizon. “Feels like we're deep in badlands now.”
“Beautiful, though,” Sam murmurs. Looks at the pink-tinted desert, the darkening sky. “Could be worth getting lost.”
“Ain't we been lost, baby?” Bucky asks, and Sam catches Peter making a face like he can't decide whether to be disgusted or delighted. Despite himself, Sam imagines Peter's brain right now: the Winter Soldier called someone baby, oh my god, and then Peter opens his mouth.
“Oh my god, I can't believe you just called the Falcon baby, that's so—”
“I'll leave you by the roadside,” Bucky tells him, grabbing him in a headlock and ruffling his hair. “Of course you're from fucking Queens, kid, nobody's this annoying and not from New York. Go on, go sleep in the car, we'll go up on the roof a bit.”
“Yeah, okay,” Peter says, pink and breathless like he sort of can't believe he just got noogied by the goddamn Winter Soldier, and goes, settling down in the back seat with Patrick and a blanket.
The two of them climb up onto the hood of the car, spread out their own blanket and lie back. The sky is so lovely Sam feels his heart ache with it; he doesn't want to stay in this place forever but he wants this, wants to hold on and remember.
“Shit, honey, maybe we did die after all,” Bucky says, apparently echoing Sam's thoughts. “Guess it’d be worth it for all this.”
“We're not dead,” Sam says, but he rolls over to kiss Bucky anyway, hears Bucky exhale and feels his warm breath against Sam's mouth. Bucky reaches up, cups his jaw and bites gently at Sam's lower lip, and Sam can't help it, lets out a quiet little groan in the back of his throat.
“Are you two making out up there?” Peter asks. “It's just, it's kind of awkward if you are, you know?”
“Christ, he's worse than my own little sister was,” Bucky growls. “Yeah, kid, we're making time up here. Go sleep by Groot if it's keeping you awake.”
They don't sleep. Groot does, a few paces off and rooted into the ground, and Peter does—Sam takes a look, sees him sprawling across the back seat with the armadillo curled up on his chest, his mouth slack and face even younger in sleep—but Sam and Bucky just lie on a blanket, look up at the sky. Make out a little, talk a little, and it's like the world is holding its breath around them. The sky is bright with stars, feels almost luminous; Sam thinks maybe this is what that ancestral plane Shuri told Bucky about might look for him someday.
“Something’s gonna happen tomorrow,” Bucky murmurs.”I don't know what, I don't know how I know, but—”
“I can feel it,” Sam agrees. “Yeah, we're on the edge of something.”
“If we die,” Bucky says, serious. Carefully not looking at Sam. “Sweetheart, I'm glad we had this.”
“If we live,” Sam counters, “we’re gonna keep having it,” and that makes Bucky exhale, makes him roll over and pull Sam in close.
The road runs out the next morning: tarmac first giving out to unsealed gravel, and then petering out completely. They get out of the car, grab the bag of food and water. Consider the hiking track ahead.
“Well,” Bucky says, “I guess this is us, right?” and they start walking, feeling the world shift around them. Open landscape gives way to stone walls rising up each side, a slot canyon that narrows overhead. The track is narrow but easy, wide enough only for them to walk two at a time. Peter trails his fingers along the water-sculpted lines of stone, tucks Patrick into the hood of his sweatshirt and climbs up the side of the canyon to the surface before rejoining them.
“We're getting deeper,” he says, unnecessary; they can feel it closing in around them. It's— there's an energy Sam can just about feel under his skin by now, something that buzzes and prickles until he's unsettled and weirdly peaceful all at once.
“You ever visit Antelope Canyon?”
“No,” Bucky says, “what is it?”
“Beautiful,” Sam says. Looks around, the ribbons of glowing pink sandstone winding around them. The shafts of sunshine like waterfalls of light spilling from above. “It's beautiful.”
Minutes or hours pass, the sun holding position overhead and walls pressing in until they're walking single file, and then they turn a bend, find someone sitting ahead of them in a wide-open space like an amphitheatre hollowed into the rock. No, Sam thinks, not sitting; they're cross-legged, levitating just above the floor of the canyon.
“Hey, it's the wizard Mr Stark and I met!” Peter says cheerfully. “Dr Strange, right?”
“Oh, we're doing our superhero names, huh?” Sam mutters, as the guy lowers to the ground, unfolds himself to standing, and the wizard—Dr Strange—rolls his eyes.
“You're the first bunch who's had enough common sense to come for a rift space,” he says, sounding beyond done with every part of this shit, which, yeah, Sam can definitely relate.
“The kid had a feeling,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes at Sam, and Peter nods.
“I had a feeling,” he agrees. “Wait, what's a rift space?”
The wizard gestures at the canyon around him as if it's extremely fucking obvious. “Rift space,” he says. “Thin spots between worlds. I'd call it liminality, if I thought any of you would know what that meant.”
“Threshold spaces,” Peter says. “Doorways and shit, spaces in between.”
Dr Strange blinks. “Yeah,” he says, “that’s mostly accurate, actually.”
“I’m in AP English,” Peter shrugs. “Wait, does that mean this is, like, purgatory or something?”
“No. You're not dead, just… held between. More like a quantum superposition.”
“Oh, so we're all Schrödinger’s cat, and this is the box, right? Neat. I'm in AP physics too, right, I love paradoxes, there's this one from Fermi about aliens which is, like—”
“So it's a trap,” Bucky says, ignoring Peter's segue into the fun world of paradoxes. “A prison.”
“That's about right. This ersatz world is only barely real enough to be convincing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. It’s real enough to trap you, anyway.” The wizard goes silent, squints at them all for a minute, longer. “You–” he says, and makes a hand gesture, frowns a little.
“Who,” Bucky says, “me?” Strange just ignores him, makes another gesture and frowns harder like he's concentrating.
“What, he couldn't have been talking to me?” Sam mutters under his breath. “Or the kid. What makes you think he was talking to you, huh?”
“Just got a lot of experience with people saying you in that tone of voice,” Bucky replies, mild, and then there's a flare of light, orange sparks, and where Peter was cradling the armadillo he's suddenly got his arms full of Loki, that goddamn murderous shit Loki of Asgard, Peter holding him bridal style with his arms and legs akimbo. It's hard to tell which one of them looks more startled.
“Jesus,” Sam says. “Where the hell did you come from, huh? Have you been there all along?”
“Wizard,” Loki spits. “Your tricks again, I will fucking cut you—would you put me down, you imbecilic child.”
“My uncle died in the Chitauri invasion,” Peter says quietly. “His office building got side-swiped by one of those big flying things. The city never even dug him out.”
Loki’s expression changes from homicidally irritated to something that, on someone else, Sam would have pegged as uncomfortable. Peter sets him down, more gently than Sam might have expected given the circumstances, and makes a face. “I'm just saying,” he adds. “It's been a while, but—you did kind of fuck up a lot of New York.”
“Awkward,” Bucky says, so cheerfully that Sam's got no doubt he'd be eating popcorn if he had any. “Take it from me, bud, this goes a lot smoother if you just apologize for the shit you've done.”
“Odin's beard, you're tiresome,” Loki mutters, but he tilts his head at Peter, makes a constipated expression that Sam guesses might charitably be interpreted as apologetic.
“You're not supposed to be down here,” Strange says. “Not like the others. How did you— oh.”
“Oh?” Sam asks.
“He knows how to open rift spaces,” Dr Strange says. Gestures at Loki. Loki scowls.
“I do not know how to open them. I know how to exploit them. Manipulate their matter, the space that lies between. There’s a difference.”
“Either way, the chances of finding a rift space in that stretch of open galaxy? Infinitesimal.”
“I've got experience surviving when I shouldn't,” Loki says, and then he takes a breath, shoulders slumping. “The rest… were not so lucky.”
“I am Groot,” says Groot, and Loki looks up.
“My brother? He survived?”
“I am Groot.”
“He did what?”
“I am Groot.”
“What’s he saying,” Sam interjects, and Loki waves his hand impatiently.
“Alright, alright, I’m not your translator. He went to—Nidavellir, really? To get a new weapon forged in the heart of a star.”
“Oh,” Bucky says, “yeah. Thor, right? Big ol’ fuck-off axe. Almost got Thanos with it too, if only he'd gone for the head.”
“Oh,” Loki breathes, “oh,” and his expressions are careful, reserved, but there's a brief flash of unguarded and tender joy. “Oh, that changes everything.”
“That's sweet,” Sam mutters to Bucky. “I kind of thought he and his brother weren't exactly buddies.”
“I have to admit, I'm missing a lot of context here,” Bucky replies. “Like, what the fuck happened in New York.”
“Oh, there was an alien invasion,” Sam says, offhand. “Didn't see it myself, it was back when I was still deployed, but it kind of brought the rest of the team together the first time.”
“Huh,” Bucky says. “Wait, another alien invasion? I thought the one we were fighting was the first one.”
“Nope,” Sam says. “Not even close.”
“Man, I can't believe I missed this shit,” Bucky grouses. “Steve knows how much I love space and shit, you'd think hey Bucky, let me catch you up on what you you've missed would have included an update about the aliens we're apparently fighting now.”
“Well, he's one,” Sam shrugs. Nods at Loki. “Or a god, I'm never real clear on the distinction.”
“A god,” Bucky says. “Really. My hair is still prettier'n his, right?”
“Oh yeah,” Sam agrees. “His is stringy.”
“I am right here,” Loki gets out through gritted teeth, and Sam shrugs again.
“So what? You're not gonna murder us for talking shit about you.”
“I might,” Loki says, smooth and dark. “Don't think I wouldn't.”
“Yeah, okay, bud. I got a vibranium arm, a Nazi knock-off super-soldier serum and a bunch of Soviet assassin training, I'd like to see you try. God, I can't believe you're not Patrick. What a betrayal. I was kind of beginning to like you.”
Peter and Groot have sat down, made themselves comfortable against a rock outcropping, and Peter is chewing a granola bar like he might as well have a snack while the adults sort out their shit. It's the best decision-making Sam's seen him capable of this entire time, and he's pretty sure it's Groot taking some odd kind of care of him just the way an older brother would.
He shifts his weight, leans in against Bucky. “So we're here now, right? In this rift space? That mean you can send us the fuck back already?”
“Yes,” Strange says. “I couldn't have, before, but the universe is aligning. It's ready for you.”
“Great to hear there's a reason we've been fucking around all this time.”
“More fucking than fucking around,” Peter says. Claps his hand over his mouth, turns bright red. “Shit, sorry, that just—”
“It's cool,” Sam tells him, trying not to laugh. “Barnes is rubbing off on you. Your mom is gonna kill us.”
“Oh, I don't have parents anymore,” Peter says. “My aunt May, though,” and then he drifts off, blinks a couple times. “She's still alive, right? She's gotta be— she can't—”
“You'll find her,” Dr Strange says. Tilts his head to the side and back again. “One way or the other.”
“Well, that isn't ominous at all,” Sam mutters. “Come on, then. The universe is ready for us? We're ready for it. Send us back.”
“I have to warn you,” Dr Strange adds. “Things are different. You won't be going back to where you started.”
“A battle,” Sam remembers. “In Wakanda. We won't be going back into that shit? Suits me, man.”
“Oh no, I'm sending you back into battle,” Dr Strange says. Swirls his hand to begin a spell. “Just not the same one.”
“Great,” Bucky says, voice hollow. “Let me guess, Steve's starting shit again? My goddamn life.”
“Wait,” Peter says, with more insight than Sam. “Different, you said. How different?”
“Time's not the same, up there,” Dr Strange tells them, and Sam recognizes evasion when he hears it.
“How long,” he asks, urgent now. “How long has it been?”
Dr Strange hesitates. Pauses, lets the half-opened portal in his hands fade out. Looks at them all, considering. “Five years,” he says eventually, and Sam feels like he's gotta sit down. Five years, and Steve's just been—
“Come on then,” Bucky says, impatience in his voice. “Time's wasting. I've been on ice long enough already. They need us, right? Hurry it up.”
“Oh,” Dr Strange says, like he's remembering. “Right. You'll need these.” Waves his hands and they're in their battle gear again, the weight of Sam's wings familiar on his back and shoulders.
Loki doesn't hang back, exactly, but his own armor doesn't appear, and he looks down at himself, frowns. Shivers like he's trying to bring it back; Sam's seen the footage, the way he can slide from one appearance to another the way another person would brush lint off their sleeve, and he's seen it in person too with Thor and his armor, the gilded mail and scarlet cape. He'd never admit it, but it's kind of impressive. But nothing happens here. Loki's still in road-dusty jeans, softly worn-out black sweater. It's a little ridiculous, Loki of Asgard in an outfit Sam's seen Bucky wearing at least fifteen times. He could be a grad student at Columbia, for shit’s sake.
“You coming, or what?”
“Not like that,” Dr Strange says. “The last Valkyrie is waiting for you.”
Loki gives him a deeply unimpressed glare. “I hate you,” he says, resigned, and lifts his shoulders, shivers a little. There's another flare of light, uncomfortable to look at, and when it fades standing where he was is a huge winged horse, nostrils flared and eyes dark.
“Wow,” Peter says. “Cool. I wish I could shapeshift. Hey, can I have a ride on you? I did pick you up off the road, right.”
“Don't pester the demi-god, kid,” Sam says. “I swear, you have the worst self-preservation I've seen since I met Steve Rogers.” Takes Peter by the shoulder, watches Loki stamp restlessly at the ground and flick his wings.
“Ain't you supposed to have six legs?” Bucky says, squinting critically at Loki, and Peter shakes his head.
“That's Sleipnir, and it's eight legs. What? I got really into old mythology in middle school.”
“It's uncanny how you can tell what I'm about to ask,” Sam says. “Doesn't explain how you know it though, Barnes.”
“My neighbors were Swedish when I was a kid. Spent a lot of time playing Norse legends with Mary Nillson.”
“Wow, I'm gonna tell Steve you remember Mary Nillson better than you remember him, he's gonna cry,” Sam says, as Strange opens a portal in front of Loki. “Well, see you on the other side, I guess.”
“Yeah, bye, Patrick,” Bucky says, smirking, and wow, Sam's pretty sure that it's only because Loki is currently a horse that Bucky doesn't get stabbed for that one.
“You're a little shit, Barnes,” he says, as Loki disappears through the orange portal, and Bucky shrugs.
“Yeah, yeah. You love it, don't lie,” and it's true, Sam does, that's the honest truth, so he just leans in against Barnes for a minute, feels the heat of his body even through both their armor. Then Strange is opening another portal, the chaotic noise of a firefight audible on the other side, and Sam takes a deep breath.
“You ready, sweetheart?” Bucky asks, eyes warm when he looks at Sam.
“Yeah,” Sam says. “I'm ready,” and he is, they are, they’re awake.