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The Spaces Between Seconds

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Permalink for all artwork by RenneMichaels - The Spaces Between Seconds 

 

“I don’t know what they are called, the spaces between seconds — but I think of you always in those intervals.”

 ~Salvador Plascencia, The People of Paper

 

 

Bucky closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose against the headache forming at the base of his skull. He feels Steve’s eyes flick toward him, but he doesn’t interrupt his briefing, so whatever he sees on Bucky’s face must not be too worrisome. Yet. Bucky has a feeling he’ll hear about it after the meeting, which... Ugh. He sighs as he pinches a little harder and opens his eyes again, willing himself to sit still and finish the monthly progress meeting.

 

The Avengers are all gathered in a conference room listening to Steve drone on, and he knows it’s uncharitable, he knows, but he wants to break something, anything, just to avoid having to hear Steve describe his counter-conditioning and how it’s progressing. Short version: slowly. Slowly and often painfully, and while he agreed to the progress meetings as terms of his surrender, he still hates them with the passion of a thousand nuclear winters.

 

Seeing his own face next to Steve’s in that damned museum had been the final crack in the dam, and as his memories started flowing he’d felt unmoored. No way in Hell he was going back to Hydra, but he didn’t think he could make it on his own yet, either. Steve felt safe for unknown reasons, but safe was in short supply those days, so he decided to trust his intuition.

 

He found Steve a few days later asleep in a small house, still and quiet, and it looked unnatural on someone who’d always been so vibrant. His injuries seemed mostly healed, the bruises a pale yellow and the cuts a light pink. Satisfied, Bucky went into the living room and pulled a chair into the corner with the best view of the room.

 

The flying man woke in the middle of the night and made his way into the kitchen to munch on something and drink a glass of water. He was muttering to himself when he turned and finally noticed Bucky in the shadowed corner, instinct kicking in as he threw his water glass. Bucky dodged it easily, watching as it shattered against the wall, sending glass flying. The two men stared at each other blankly. Bucky slowly raised his hands in an effort to show he wasn’t a threat, but they both knew it was a hollow gesture.

 

“How did you get in here?”

 

Bucky shrugged. “I walked.”

 

“Oh, ha fucking ha. Steve conveniently forgot to mention you were a smartass, too. That some sort of super soldier requirement?” The flying man paused and stared at Bucky awhile. “You here to kill him?”

 

“No.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“He’s the only thing that makes sense right now.”

 

The flying man nodded his head. “Fair enough. You here to kill me ?”

 

“No.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“I don’t want to do that anymore.”

 

The flying man sighed. “Yeah. Yeah, all right.”

 

Bucky watched as the flying man walked down a hallway and fiddled around in a closet before coming back with a blanket and pillow he tossed down onto the couch. “Make yourself at home, if you can. It’s way too late for this shit, and I’m going back to sleep.”

 

“Wait,” Bucky called after him as he made his way back to his bedroom.

 

The flying man stopped and turned. “Yeah?”

 

“What’s your name?”

 

“Sam. Why, what have you been calling me?”

 

“The flying man.”

 

Sam snorted. “Not anymore. You broke my wings, man.” He paused. “Get some sleep. We’ll figure this out in the morning.”

 

Bucky waited until he heard the click of a door closing before cleaning up the broken glass and dumping it in the trash. He brought the blanket and pillow over to the chair he’d been sitting in earlier and tucked in, but he never managed to fall asleep.

 

Steve had been...overwhelming when he woke the next morning and saw Bucky. Emotions were flying across his face, so open and easy and effortless; shock, fear, happiness, joy, sadness, cautious optimism, one after the other and back again almost faster than Bucky could keep up. Steve finally settled on a mixture of glee and cautious optimism, and Bucky let the sound of his voice wash over him as he talked excitedly.

 

Sam had finally stepped in when he noticed Bucky’s eyes starting to glaze over. He cooked them food and asked Bucky questions in a low, soothing voice. It made him feel a little like a spooked animal, but it worked all the same. He shrugged off any questions about what he wanted to do now, where he wanted to go. He didn’t know. He didn’t trust himself to make good choices yet.

 

They’d ended up at Avengers Tower. Steve somehow convinced the team to let him stay, but it was the Widow’s discovery and translation of his Hydra files that cemented their desire to help. Things were tense with Tony for a while after his role in the death of Tony’s parents came to light, but they’d worked through it.

 

House arrest in the Tower until his triggers didn’t work was far more generous than he deserved, he knew that. Everyone had been patient with him, understanding as he worked to neutralize the trigger words. Natasha had known they’d been programmed in, but she didn’t know what they were. Figuring them out meant long hours of sitting in a chair while Natasha read from a Russian dictionary, stopping if a particular word made him uneasy. So far they’d gotten benign, daybreak, freight car, furnace, homecoming, longing, and—

 

“Nine,” Natasha says, and the buzzing starts in Bucky’s head, breaking him out of his reverie. “We got ‘nine’ in today’s session. We’re up to seven words out of ten, though we still don’t know the proper activation protocol order. Once we discover all ten, we can see if certain ones elicit more of a response. That may help us determine order. The first and last words will probably have the most visceral response, so…” Bucky lets his mind wander again as he waits for the meeting to end.

 

It does fifteen minutes later, blessedly, and Bucky is out of the room like a shot. He runs the stairs back to the floor where he shares a living suite with Steve and retreats to his bedroom. He just...he just needs to be horizontal for a little while. He crawls under the covers and closes his eyes and waits for a soft knock on the door.

 

There it is. “Hey, Buck, can I come in?” Steve asks.

 

“Yeah,” he croaks.

 

He hears Steve open the door and walk over to the bed. He pauses before setting down a plate and a glass. “I brought you some water and a snack.” Bucky smells apple and peanut butter and something sweet, maybe a cookie. “Let me know if you need anything else, okay? I’ll just be in the other room.” He leaves after he doesn’t get a response from Bucky, closing the door gently behind him. Bucky sighs and lets himself slip under.

 

He wakes with a start an hour later and wipes a hand down his face to try and clear the nightmare away. He eats the snack Steve left and forces himself out of his room, empty plate and glass in hand. Steve looks up from the book he’s reading when Bucky passes him on the way to the kitchen, the corner of his mouth turning up when he notices Bucky ate. Bucky rolls his eyes a little, but he smiles. Steve likes being able to help care for Bucky for once, and seeing how much he enjoys it never fails to make Bucky feel a little fuzzy on the inside. He’s been a good friend to Bucky, giving him space when he needs, busting his balls a little when he needs that instead.

 

He walks back into the living space and flops down onto the couch next to Steve, who looks up from his book. “What are you reading?” Bucky asks.

 

“Oh, some dystopian thing Sam recommended. 1984 it’s called.”

 

“You like it?”

 

“Yeah. It’s terrifying, but yeah.”

 

“Want to watch a movie or something?”

 

Steve’s face lights up. “Yeah, I’d like that a lot. You want to pick? I’ll go make some popcorn.”

 

They end up watching movies until the early hours of the morning. It’s the best night Bucky’s had since he came to the Tower.

 

********

 

It’s a perfect day on the Observation Deck, the late-spring sun warm and full of promise. Bucky wraps his blanket tighter against the wind. The sun was warm, but the wind was still sharp that high up the Tower. The Deck was Bucky’s favorite place to go when it felt like the walls were closing in on him. It was the only place he could feel the sun on his face, smell the city in the air. The windows in the Tower didn’t open, and he couldn’t leave, so up and out it was. He’d just been sitting on the ground up there until Stark figured out where he was going and made some upgrades. The high safety fence was still there, but now there were four metal chaise lounges that had been welded to the ground so they wouldn’t blow away. A stack of cushions for them sat just inside the door, gaudy red and gold. Got to give Stark credit for adherence to his theme at the very least.

 

Bucky’s enjoying the sun and the sounds of the city when a burst of light erupts from the sky and barrels down toward him. He’s out of his chaise and into fighting stance as the light hits the Deck, revealing a giant blond in a flowing red cape holding tightly onto the upper arm of a slightly less giant, scowling dark-haired man. “Who the fuck are you?” Bucky snaps. These assholes are ruining his perfectly nice day. The dark-haired man snorts. The blond tilts his head and drops his other hand toward a hammer hanging from his belt. A hammer. Who fights with a hammer? First Steve with his shield, and now a hammer?

 

“I am Thor, son of Odin, Prince of Asgard. Who might you be?”

 

“I’m Bucky.” The dark-haired man arches an eyebrow at that. Bucky nods his head toward him. “Who’s your friend?”

 

“This is my brother, Loki. He, too, is of Asgard.” This makes Loki rolls his eyes so hard Bucky’s afraid they’re going to fall out of his head and roll off the Deck.

 

Bucky glares as he bites out “What the fuck is an Asgard?”

 

Thor smiles, but definitely not in a nice way, and Bucky tenses. “Asgard is our home. It’s a realm—”

 

That’s as far as he gets before Steve and Tony burst through the Deck door and diffuse the situation. Bucky stands down after Steve gives the Thor guy a massive bear hug but tenses up again when Steve and Tony notice Loki hovering in the background.

 

“Team meeting,” Steve and Tony say after sharing a capital “L” look.

 

********

 

So aliens. Exist. That’s. Well, that’s something.

 

********

 

Bucky is pacing. After the incident on the Deck with the aliens, which, quite frankly, is taking some damn getting used to, Steve had escorted Bucky back to their living quarters. “Buck, if it were up to me, you’d be included in the team meeting we’re about to have, you know that,” he’d said apologetically.

 

Bucky flapped a hand in his direction. “Steve, it’s fine. I get it. I’m not a member of the team. I don’t have a voice in this.”

 

“Still. Hey, let me have JARVIS pull up some information for you so you can at least know a little more about who Thor and Loki are.”

 

“Thor is a friend and Loki isn’t.”

 

Steve huffs. “It’s a bit more complicated than that, but yeah, basically. Actually, no, that’s pretty much exactly it. I think it’s about to get a lot more complicated, though. JARVIS, would you please pull any information you have about Thor, Loki, Asgard, The Battle of New York, and whatever other pertinent topics you think best and send them to Bucky’s StarkPad, please?”

 

“Of course, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS responds. Bucky hears a soft ping from the other side of the room where his StarkPad is laying on his favorite chair.

 

“I don’t know how long this is going to take, but I’ll fill you in when we’re done, okay?”

 

“I’ll be fine, Steve. Go to your meeting.”

 

“If you need anything or have any questions or ̶”

 

“You’re procrastinating. Go.”

 

Steve sighs heavily. “Yeah, all right. See you later.”

 

Bucky locks the door behind him, even though he knows JARVIS can do it. It helps feeling the lock turn, though, knowing it’s locked instead of having to guess at it. Not that a door lock would stop anyone with enough motivation, he knows that better than most, but Bucky will take small comforts where he can get them. He turns back toward the room and makes his way to his favorite chair and settles in, StarkPad in hand, for some heavy reading.

 

There’s a lot to unpack in the reports and articles JARVIS pulled for him. He’d almost broken his StarkPad reading about Loki’s scepter and its mind-control capabilities, his clenching fist dangerously close snapping the thing in half. No more holding it in his metal hand, he supposes. Pacing around the room had helped. So had watching the video Tony had posted where Clint literally tripped over a banana peel in the kitchen. Clint was okay. He was a functioning person again. What he did while being controlled didn’t define him. Deep breath in, long breath out. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

 

By the time Steve gets back from his meeting, Bucky has long since finished reading. He’s pacing and trying to make sense of everything he read when he hears Steve at the front door. Steve comes into their suite, and he looks drained.

 

“There’s food in the microwave for you,” Bucky says.

 

Steve starts a bit like he hadn’t realized Bucky was there. “Thanks. Stark had food delivered, so I’m good, but thank you, Buck.”

 

“Okay, I’ll put it in the fridge, then.”

 

“You don’t have to do that. I can get it.”

 

“Steve, stop. You look like hell, and it’s late. Just go to bed. You can fill me in in the morning.”

 

Steve nods and smiles tightly. “Thanks, Buck. I’ll see you in the morning.” Bucky watches as he heads to his room, hears him futzing around as he gets ready for bed, sees the sliver of light disappear from under his bedroom door. He puts away the leftovers, cleans up the kitchen, and waits to see if Steve’s going to have a nightmare tonight. Steve’s usually happen within the first two hours of falling asleep, if they happen at all. Bucky waits for three hours then heads to bed himself. Sleep is a long time coming.

 

********

 

Bucky wakes to the smell of coffee and bacon. He grunts happily and rolls out of bed. Steve is humming tunelessly in front of the stove when Bucky walks into the kitchen, his favorite Black Widow silhouette apron tied in place. “Something smells good,” Bucky says.

 

Steve smiles as he turns. “French toast!”

 

Bucky raises an eyebrow. “You trying to butter me up?”

 

“Yep!” Steve replies cheerfully. Bucky snorts and rolls his eyes. “This Thor and Loki situation that bad, huh?”

 

“Yep!”

 

“Fake it till you make it?”

 

“Yep! Hey, have some bacon while it’s hot. French toast will be done in a minute.”

 

“Yeah, all right.” Bucky tucks in. No reason to have a hard conversation on an empty stomach, after all.

 

After breakfast, they make their way to the living area and flop down on the couch, bellies pleasantly full. Bucky makes a sweeping “go ahead” gesture with his hand, and Steve starts.

 

“Okay, so, Thor told us a lot of stuff, so just bear with me, okay? Okay.”

 

“Steve, relax. Just tell me. I can handle it.”

 

“I know, I know. It’s just...some of this is really messed up, and I don’t really want to talk about it.” Steve takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “Okay, here goes.”

 

They end up talking for hours. Steve tells Bucky about Loki’s heritage and the relationship between Asgard and Jötunheim, how Loki had a mental break and tried to destroy his home realm, how Thor tried to save his brother from falling into open space but he slipped and fell anyway, how he didn’t die but was found instead and tortured, how he was forced to lead the Chitauri army and attack Earth, about his return to Asgard and subsequent imprisonment, about the Dark Elves and the Aether and the attack on Asgard, about Frigga and Loki’s deaths. Bucky asks lots of questions that Steve answers as best he can.

 

“Is that everything? Please tell me that’s everything,” Bucky pleads.

 

“I wish. Let’s take a break, have some food, maybe go to the gym and hit something. Then we can come back and finish the rest.”

 

“Christ. Yeah, all right.”

 

********

 

“We left off with Loki dying, but he’s clearly alive, so what happened there?” Bucky asks once he and Steve have reconvened on the couch.

 

“Thor said that he came back to Asgard after the Dark Elves were defeated, and his father was suspiciously kind to him. So he started digging around and discovered that Loki had imprisoned Odin in a secret dungeon and was ruling in his place.”

 

“Right, shapeshifter.”

 

“Yeah. So Thor broke Odin out of prison, and together the two of them managed to contain Loki. Neither were very happy with him.”

 

“Did Thor say why Loki did that?”

 

“Loki wouldn’t say, but Thor thinks Loki wanted to get back at Odin by doing something terrible and ruining his reputation. I’m not so sure, though.”

 

“Why not?” Bucky prods.

 

“Loki likes an audience, and Odin was in the dungeon. He would want Odin to witness his own ruin.”

 

Bucky hums his agreement. “So Odin and Thor were pissed, Odin because Loki had imprisoned him, Thor because he thought Loki was dead. How is he alive, then?”

 

“Thor doesn’t know, and Loki won’t tell him. So Odin is pissed at Loki and decides that since Loki keeps using his magic to hurt, kill, and cause chaos, he’s going to take it away. So he has this gold torque made and enchants it so that while it sits around Loki’s neck, his magic is bound. Loki can cast cantrips, which are minor spells, as long as they don’t hurt anyone, and he can use his healing magic. But that’s it.”

 

“What happens if he tries to remove the torque?”

 

“And I quote, ‘Loki’s life will be forfeit, and the torque will heat until Loki is burned to death.’”

 

“Holy shit.”

 

“Yeah. And Odin is the only one who can remove the enchantments. So he put that thing on Loki and then sent him with Thor to Earth to learn some humility and make reparations, apparently. Even without his magic, Loki is still extremely strong and an excellent fighter, so he’s still dangerous. Odin has asked that we take a few days and talk it over and decide if we want to accept Loki and help him work on his reparations, whatever form those might take.”

 

“What does Loki have to say about all this?”

 

Steve sighs and runs a hand down his face. Bucky raises an eyebrow. This isn’t going to be good. “On Asgard, one of Loki’s nicknames is Silvertongue because he’s really good at using words as a weapon. Odin didn’t want Loki to influence our vote one way or the other, so he set a temporary enchantment on the torque so Loki can’t talk or use words in any way until we make our decision. If we let him stay, the enchantment will break immediately. If not, it won’t break until Odin decides to remove it.”

 

“That’s kind of fucked up.”

 

“Yeah, it is. Thor said Odin originally wanted to sew Loki’s mouth shut because some dwarves did it once before after Loki stole something from them, but Thor convinced him to just try an enchantment instead.”

 

“That is really fucked up.”

 

“I know. Asgard seems like a strange place. They have all this amazing technology but still use swords, and some of their social practices are so archaic. Not like Earth has the best track record, either, I guess, but still.”

 

“So what are you guys going to do?”

 

“I don’t know yet. We need to discuss our options. Clint isn’t super excited about the prospect of having Loki around after the whole mind-control thing, and I don’t blame him. But it changes things if he was tortured into compliance. Natasha thinks maybe his whole convoluted plan of attack was specifically designed to get the Avengers to assemble and defeat him, but that he had to make it look like a real invasion, too. It’s a tight line to walk.”

 

“Do you think that’s a possibility?”

 

“I want to take a look at all the footage again with that in mind, but yeah, I think it’s a possibility. Loki’s smart. Really smart. If anyone could pull it off, he could.”

 

“He can’t talk, but has he written anything confirming or denying any of this?”

 

Steve shakes his head. “He can’t do that, either. Technically those are still words, so as soon as he writes anything it just vanishes.”

 

“Christ, Steve.”

 

“Yeah, I know. Maybe it's for the best. I'm not sure I’d believe anything he says at the moment anyway. He seems like the type who would rather play the villain than the victim.”

 

Bucky sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose as he subtly angles his body away from Steve.

 

Not subtly enough from the look on Steve’s face. He reaches out like he's going to put his hand on Bucky's shoulder before hesitating. His hand hovers in the air a moment before he drops his arm. “It's not the same, Buck. You aren't the same as him.” Bucky forgets how perceptive Steve is sometimes.

 

“Maybe not, but we sure aren't as far apart as you seem to want to believe.”

 

“It wasn't your fault, Bucky. Hydra made you do those things.”

 

“Maybe I didn't choose to, but I still did it, Steve. I still did it.” Bucky stands abruptly. “I'm going out to the Deck.”

 

“Buck, it’s after dark.”

 

“Don't wait up, then.” He hears Steve call after him, but he ignores it and walks out the door.

 

********

 

Bucky freezes when he steps out onto the Deck and scans the area, trying to find the person he can sense is lurking in the gloom. His eyes lock onto a shadow against the building, and he watches as Loki steps forward into the light just far enough for Bucky to see his face. They stare each other down for a few tense moments before Bucky nods and relaxes his shoulders as he walks over to his favorite chaise lounge and flops down onto it, not caring how graceful he is at the moment. He’s tired from a long day of talking and listening and feels it deep in his bones. He tenses again when he hears Loki make his way over to the chaise lounges. Loki stops next to the farthest one from Bucky and looks up at him again, one eyebrow raised slightly. Bucky looks down at the chaise and nods slightly. Loki nods back and gracefully slips into the chair. He closes his eyes and lets the noise of the city wash over him on the gentle nighttime breeze. Bucky watches him for a bit before doing the same.

 

Loki’s there again when Bucky heads to the Deck the next morning, book in hand. Loki’s in the same chair he was in the night before, brow furrowed as he reads from a giant, ancient-looking book. Bucky glances down at the book in his own hands and decides tome is more appropriate for what Loki’s holding. Bucky’s never seen anything like it, and his curiosity is piqued. He shelves that for the time being, lying down onto his usual chaise and cracking open the book he brought with him.

 

Curiosity finally gets the better of him a couple hours of companionable silence later. “What are you reading?” he asks Loki, who starts slightly like he’d forgotten Bucky was there. Loki holds up his book, and Bucky watches as the runes on the front rearrange themselves into English and reveal “A Treatise On The Properties and Practices of Healing Magic.”

 

Bucky gapes a little before saying, “that’s a neat fucking trick.” The corner of Loki’s mouth quirks up as he nods. “Is it good?” Bucky asks. “The book?” Loki opens his mouth to reply before turning his head away and huffing softly in frustration when he remembers he can’t. “Right. Sorry,” Bucky says as he turns back to his own book. He catches Loki looking at him out of the corner of his eye, head tilted and brow furrowed slightly. Same to you, pal, Bucky thinks. Same to you.

 

********

 

Steve comes back to their suite and holds up his hand, stopping Bucky before he can even get the question out. “We’re still discussing. We haven’t voted on anything yet.”

 

“Yeah, all right. Pizza and beer for dinner?”

 

“Fuck yes.”

 

********

 

Bucky sneaks looks at Loki’s magic book whenever he can get away with it. He swears he sees moving illustrations one time but has to look away so Loki doesn’t catch him peeking.

 

********

 

“No vote yet.”

 

“Christ, how long is this going to take, Steve?”

 

“I don’t know. Not too much longer, I hope. I’m getting sick of these meetings.”

 

Bucky hmms in sympathy. “I made mac and cheese for dinner.”

 

Steve sighs and smiles brightly. “You are the best, Buck.”

 

“Yeah, yeah. Let’s go eat, punk.”

 

********

 

Loki moves one chaise lounge closer to Bucky with such obvious nonchalance that Bucky knows it’s fake. He carefully avoids looking in Loki’s direction for half an hour before he can’t help himself and glances at the magic book. Holy shit, those are moving illustrations! Loki clears his throat softly, and Bucky looks up at him. Loki’s still reading his book, but he has the tiniest smirk on his face, and Bucky knows he’s busted.

 

He waits another hour before exclaiming, “It’s just so awesome! ” Loki fights back a smile at that.

 

********

 

“Voting tomorrow. Tired now. Must sleep.”

 

“Cookies are coming out of the oven in two minutes.”

 

“Sleep later. Eat cookies now.”

 

Bucky snorts. “Okay, zombie Steve, whatever you say.”

 

“Braaaaaaaaaaaaaaainssssssss!”

 

“I’m going to punch whoever introduced you to ‘The Walking Dead.’”

 

“Cookies then braaaaaaaaaaaainssss!”

 

Bucky laughs and throws a dish towel in Steve’s face.

 

********

 

Bucky decides that trying four times to get into 100 Years of Solitude is plenty of due diligence and tosses the book aside in frustration. He walks over to the bookshelf and picks up a tattered piece of paper and a pen. He ticks off the box next to 100 Years of Solitude and writes a note about how he didn’t like it and couldn’t get into it. He closes his eyes and waves his finger around a bit before touching the paper and looking to see what he picked. Brave New World : sounds ominous.

 

He finds the book on the shelf, as usual. A few weeks after he and Steve had started living in the suite in the Tower, Tony had these giant bookshelves installed in the living area. There were lists of various book genres, Top 100 Books To Read types of things. And a copy of every single book on every single list was on a shelf. Tony had joked and deflected when he and Steve had tried to thank him, but Bucky knew he was secretly pleased he’d thought of it. StarkPads were great and all, but there was something about holding a physical book in your hand that still appealed to Bucky. Steve, too, judging by the condition of some of the books on the shelves.

 

Deciding a change of scenery would be nice, Bucky makes his way up to the Deck. He greets Loki with a “hey” before settling in to start Brave New World . He has a feeling he’s going to like this one.

 

He does. He’s barely moved in two hours he’s so engrossed in the book. Which is the excuse he’s giving for why he doesn’t hear Loki walk over and flop down onto the chaise lounge next to him, and for why he jumps slightly at the sound. The Winter Soldier does not fucking jump , dammit! Stupid good book.

 

Loki’s smiling when Bucky looks up at him. Bucky tenses slightly and waits to see if that’s a good smile or a bad smile. Nothing happens for a moment, and Bucky’s starting to wonder just what the hell is going on when suddenly a flash of yellow light bursts from the torque under Loki’s shirt. Loki’s smile grows bigger at Bucky’s eloquent “uhhh,” and he hands Bucky his giant healing missal.

 

Bucky blinks a few times. “What is going on?”

 

Loki’s smile drops. “I thought you might want a closer look at my book? You always seem so intrigued by it.”

 

Holy shit, Loki is talking. “Holy shit, you’re talking!”

 

“So it would seem.”

 

“Guess that means you’re staying.”

 

Loki hmms. He holds out his hand. “Pleased to formally make your acquaintance. I’m Loki.”

 

Bucky snorts and shakes Loki’s hand. “James Barnes.”

 

The corner of Loki’s mouth turns up, and he nods at his healing book. “Well, are you interested?”

 

Bucky nods and cracks open Loki’s book, paging through it carefully. It’s beautiful: the pages are thick and crisp and full of gilded text and lush pictures. Bucky lightly trails a fingertip over one of the pictures, and it comes to life in swirls of blue and green. “Whoa,” Bucky exhales. The text starts to change from some sort of runes into English just like the title had a few days ago. “How is it doing that?” Bucky asks as he looks up at Loki.

 

“It’s written in AllSpeak,” Loki says like that explains everything.

 

“And what is AllSpeak?”

 

“AllSpeak is a universal common language. I’m speaking it right now, and you hear whatever language you are most comfortable hearing. When you speak back, I hear it in AllSpeak. Books written in AllSpeak will change their text depending on who is reading it and what language they are most comfortable reading.”

 

“Wow,” Bucky says breathlessly. “That is...wow.”

 

“It’s quite useful.”

 

“Yeah, I’ll say. Are all your books in Asgard written in AllSpeak?”

 

“No, many are not. This one is because it’s a particularly important reference book for learning and practicing healing magic.”

 

“Can you read things that aren’t in AllSpeak?”

 

“Yes, if it’s a language that has been catalogued and added to AllSpeak.”

 

“Huh. That is...well, that’s really useful is what that is.”

 

Loki chuckles. “Indeed it is.”

 

They both look up as the door to the Deck opens. Loki grabs his book back and scoots away from Bucky when he sees Thor and Steve walk through the door. Bucky frowns and turns his attention to their visitors.

 

“We are here to inform you that we voted in favor of your staying, Loki, but it seems you already know,” Thor says, his eyes dancing as he fights a smile. Loki scowls and rolls his eyes. Bucky looks between the two in confusion.

 

“Yes, Thor, I am aware. The enchantment broke in quite a lurid fashion. It would have been difficult to miss.” Loki turns toward Steve. “Are you here to offer the terms of my continued presence on Midgard?”

 

Steve stands up straighter and answers with a solemn “I’m here to accompany you down to the meeting room where we can discuss terms as a group.”

 

Loki nods. “Very well. Lead the way, Captain.” He sends a tight smile Bucky’s way as he stands up and follows Thor and Steve off the Deck and down to the meeting room.

 

When Loki comes back a few hours later, his mouth is pinched tight. He looks tired. Bucky gets up and goes over to the storage cabinet in the hall just inside the door to the Deck. He pulls out a pillow and blanket and goes back to Loki, offering them wordlessly. He takes them with a curt nod and settles in on the chaise furthest from Bucky’s favorite. He pulls the blanket up over his shoulders and turns his back toward Bucky. Bucky stands to leave and give Loki some space when he hears a soft “James, you don’t— that is...” Bucky waits to see if Loki’s going to finish his thought. When he doesn’t, Bucky makes his way back to his chaise with a “yeah, okay.” Bucky smiles to himself as he watches the tension bleed out of Loki’s shoulders.

 

********

 

Steve fills Bucky in on the terms of Loki’s continued stay at the Tower: he’s to remain on the premises, he’ll see a therapist, he has to meet with the team once a month for progress reports, and he needs to start making reparations within the next two weeks and is expected to have an Avenger escort at all times if those take him out of the Tower.

 

“So pretty much the same as my terms except with the added joy of reparations, whatever he ends up doing for those,” Bucky surmises.

 

Steve sighs. “Yeah, pretty much.”

 

“Should I be making reparations?”

 

Steve surprises Bucky by actually thinking about the answer instead of just saying that he doesn’t need to, what happened wasn’t his fault, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.

 

“Do you want to?” he finally asks.

 

Bucky sighs. “Well, I mean...yeah, Steve, kind of. I know I can’t go out and put my murder skills to use anytime soon—”

 

“Buck, come on.”

 

“—but if there’s a way I can help while I’m here in the Tower, I want to. I want to, Steve.”

 

Steve smiles. “Okay, Buck. We’ll talk to Natasha and see if there’s a way you can help work through some of the Hydra files. You’ll probably have some good insight. Not sure why we didn’t think about sooner, frankly. How does that sound?”

 

“That’s good, Steve. That’s real good.” Steve’s smile widens. Bucky smiles back and looks down at the table.

 

********

 

Things settle down again during the next couple weeks. Bucky starts working with Natasha on his trigger words again, and on trying to glean useful intel from the Hydra files they recovered after the Insight incident. Natasha vets everything before it gets to Bucky, he knows, making sure there isn’t anything about his program or his time in captivity. Bucky’s thankful for that. One day he thinks maybe he’ll be ready to read his own file, but not yet.

 

He goes to therapy. He reads on the Deck. He watches movies with Steve. He trains in the gym. He busts Sam’s balls. He works with Natasha. He drinks tea with Bruce. He shoots things with Clint. He stares down Tony when he asks to work on his metal arm.

 

He doesn’t see Loki.

 

He tries to tell himself that isn’t a disappointment.

 

********

 

Bucky looks up when he hears the door to the Deck open and Loki walks through. He’s listing slightly and trying to pretend he isn’t. Bucky gets up to help him but Loki glares him into sitting back down. Loki finally reaches the chaise furthest from Bucky and all but collapses. Bucky waits for an explanation and when it doesn’t come, he goes to the storage cabinet and pulls out a blanket. Loki’s asleep when Bucky gets back, so he drapes the blanket over Loki and goes back to his own chaise and tries not to sneak peeks at Loki every few minutes. He fails.

 

********

 

“Did Loki do something today?”

 

“Uh, I presume. I don’t think he just sits around and stares at the ceiling all day, “ Steve quips.

 

“Ugh, Steve, come on, I’m being serious.”

 

Steve snorts at him. “I don’t know, Buck, I wasn’t with him today. I know he’s been working on his healing magic. He’s supposed to start making visits to hospitals soon, maybe help heal some people. Why don’t you ask Thor? He’ll know.”

 

“I think one gigantic blond with a murder bro and questionable taste in friends is quite enough for one day, thanks.”

 

Steve nods. “That’s fair. Why don’t you just ask Loki the next time you see him?”

 

“Maybe.”

 

“Maybe?”

 

“I get the feeling he...I don’t know. I think he may be avoiding me.”

 

“What? No. Why would he be avoiding you?”

 

Bucky huffs. “I don’t know. It’s just...he hasn’t been coming up to the Deck lately. Today was the first time in weeks.”

 

“Huh. Well, I know he’s been working a lot with that giant book of his, the magic one? Thor told me that Loki hasn’t really studied healing magic much aside from what their mother taught him when he was a kid. So he’s having to work hard to get it right. Maybe he’s just been really busy.”

 

“Yeah, maybe.”

 

Steve raises his eyebrows.

 

“That’s probably it.”

 

Steve suddenly gasps dramatically as his eyes widen.

 

“What? Steve, what?!”

 

“You like him!”

 

“Sure, I guess. We get along fine.”

 

“No, Bucky, you like him like him.”

 

“What are you, ten? And no I don’t!”

 

Steve just laughs.

 

“Shut up, Steve! I don’t!” Bucky lunges at Steve and gets him into a headlock. “I don’t!”

 

Steve waggles his eyebrows. “Really proving my point here.”

 

“I don’t!”

 

“Okay, Buck, if you say so.”

 

“Oh, it is ON, Rogers!”

 

Steve laughs and starts fighting back.

 

********

 

Loki starts coming back out to the Deck more. Some days he crashes and sleeps, but others he’s more awake. Sometimes they chat, but usually they sit in companionable silence and let the sounds of the city wash over them as they read.

 

********

 

“I’m going out of the Tower tomorrow,” Loki says one sunny afternoon in June.

 

“Oh, yeah? Where are you going?” Bucky asks.

 

“A hospital. I don’t know which one yet. Thor and Stark and Captain Rogers are all accompanying me. It should be quite the production.”

 

Bucky hmms. “What are they going to have you do?”

 

“Oh, meet with some doctors and hospital administration, perhaps see a patient or two, see if we can’t find some people willing to let me heal them a bit. I’ve been practicing on the team after their little skirmishes, and so far nothing has gone wrong.”

 

“Is that why you’ve been so tired lately?”

 

Bucky can’t quite read the look that Loki gives him before he says, “yes, it is. Healing isn’t my forte, and it uses rather a lot more energy than I was expecting. But no matter. I’ve agreed to this, and so I will do it, tired or not.”

 

“Be safe, okay? Don’t do more than you can handle just because you think it’s what’s owed.”

 

Loki stares at Bucky, emotions quickly passing across his face. He settles into a soft smile. “I will endeavor not to, James.”

 

Bucky nods. That will do.

 

********

 

“Loki and his party have left the Tower, Sergeant Barnes.”

 

“Thanks, JARVIS.”

 

“My pleasure, sir.”

 

Bucky makes his way down to the gym and hits things for a couple hours and pretends he isn’t worried. Worried and a little jealous, if he’s being honest with himself, which makes him feel guilty. He should be happy that his friend gets to leave the Tower not...whatever it is he’s feeling. Fuck, feelings are complicated. It was so much easier when Hydra was just telling him what to—

 

Bucky stops mid-punch and grabs the heavy bag he’s working on, leaning his forehead against it as he closes his eyes and forces himself to take deep, even breaths. It’s worth it , he tells himself. It’s worth it, it’s worth it, it’s worth it. He repeats the mantra until he almost believes.

 

********

 

Loki stumbles through the door to the Deck, and Bucky is out of his chaise like a shot. He wraps Loki’s arm around his waist as Loki puts up a token protest, his “I’m fine, James, really,” not fooling anyone. Bucky half carries, half drags Loki to a chaise and helps him flop down onto it. Loki smiles weakly before passing out. Bucky grabs a blanket and covers Loki, then takes a moment to assess him: he’s pale and drawn, brow furrowed in sleep like he’s in pain. Bucky frowns before making his way back to his own chaise.

 

A few hours later, Loki wakes with a snort and sits straight up, looking around wildly before settling his gaze on Bucky. Bucky manages to keep a straight face, but it’s a close thing. “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” he says. Loki narrows his eyes but is smirking when he says, “a wise decision, I’m sure.” Bucky smiles at that.

 

“Hey, are you okay? You crashed pretty hard and were really out of it for a while.”

 

Loki nods carefully. “I’m fine. I wasn’t fully prepared for the toll healing magic can take on the practitioner, but I’ll get better with practice.”

 

“Your head bothering you?” Bucky asks.

 

Loki tilts his head slightly as he assesses Bucky. “You’re very perceptive,” he says after a long pause.

 

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Loki does look much better than when he stumbled out onto the Deck, though. He’s back to his normal pale, and he’s breathing easier. Bucky guesses a lingering headache is the only current problem. “You’re probably dehydrated. You should drink some water or something.”

 

“I didn’t realize you were a nursemaid as well as an assassin!” Loki snaps.

 

Bucky raises his eyebrows as he stands up. “Okay. I’ll just leave you to it. Bye, Loki.”

 

There’s a bird sitting on Bucky’s chaise when he goes out to the Deck the following day. It’s not any bird he’s ever seen before, its body a deep blue with long tail feathers in bright, warm hues. It cocks its head when Bucky starts walking closer, making the tiny iridescent feathers sticking out of its head wobble back and forth. He takes a step closer, and the bird squawks at him in the deepest bird voice he’s ever heard, startling a laugh out of Bucky. The bird squawks again before taking off into the air. It flaps its wings three times before exploding into a sparkling green mist that’s carried away on the breeze. Something warm settles in Bucky’s chest, and he clings to the feeling.

 

“I accept your apology,” he says as Loki comes out onto the Deck. Loki nods and lays down on his chaise, tucking himself into the blanket Bucky left out for him. He’s asleep within minutes.

 

True to his word, Loki does get better at handling the effects of the healing magic over the next week. Which is why Bucky’s caught off guard when Loki stops mid-conversation to throw up. “Loki, what the hell?” Loki just groans and lays down, arm covering his eyes in an attempt to block out the sun.

 

“Okay. Okay, I’ll just...I guess I’ll go get a bucket and something to clean this up with.” Loki groans and retches. “Holy shit! Right now. I’ll do that right now.”

 

Bucky does not sprint into the building, thank you, but it’s a close thing. It’s just...puke is so gross. Bucky asks JARVIS for access to the nearest cleaning supplies, and JARVIS points him in the right direction. There’s a bot waiting by the door to the Deck when Bucky gets back. “Uh…”

 

“To clean the mess, Sergeant Barnes,” JARVIS informs him.

 

“Oh. That’s handy.”

 

“Indeed. One is glad not to have a sense of smell at times.”

 

Bucky snorts. “I don’t blame you. Okay, bot, let’s go handle this.” The Winter Soldier will not be conquered by vomit, for Christ’s sake.

 

********

 

It’s just...vomit is so gross.

 

********

 

Loki’s nauseated but, blessedly, not vomiting the next day. He’s sitting very still in his chaise, face pale and sweaty, breathing shallow.

 

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Bucky asks.

 

Loki shakes his head slowly.

 

“What if I read to you? I was just about to start a new book. It might help to have something to concentrate on that isn’t how shitty you feel.”

 

Loki’s still for a moment before nodding slightly.

 

“All right, then. This one sounds interesting. It’s about a man who reinvents himself to take his revenge after a false imprisonment ruins his life. Oh, and there’s a jailbreak, to boot. Maybe we should take notes.”

 

Loki quirks up the corner of his mouth. Bucky smiles back at him and starts reading. “On the 24th of February, 1810, the lookout at Notre-Dame de la Garde signalled the three-master, the Pharaon, from Smyrna, Trieste, and Naples.”

 

********

 

Another week passes, and Bucky reads to Loki when he’s awake, which is increasingly rare. He’s taking longer recovery naps, too, and looking paler and paler. Bucky’s starting to worry.

 

********

 

When Bucky gets back from the gym, there’s a text from Steve waiting for him.

 

To Bucky: *heart eyes emoji* * eggplant emoji* *thumbs up emoji*

 

To Steve: You’re such an ass!

 

To Bucky: *three peach emojis*

 

Bucky curses the day Steve discovered emojis and clicks play on the video Steve sent. It’s clearly taken on a phone, and the angle is funny like Steve was trying to hide what he was doing. Which makes sense once Loki appears on screen. He’s sitting next to a hospital bed and talking to the child it holds, nervous parents hovering on the other side of the bed. The audio isn’t very good, and Bucky can’t quite make out what anyone is saying, but it’s clear that Loki is answering questions patiently and with some amount of humor wherever possible. The little boy is adorable despite his illness, and he clearly adores Loki. He watches Loki boop the boy’s nose, drawing peals of squealing laughter.

 

Loki gets serious after the boy calms down, and the boy’s parents start clutching at each other. Loki looks to his patient, who gives him a stern nod and sits up as tall as he can. Loki nods back and holds out his left hand, palm up, and out pour dozens of green butterflies that flit around the room. The boy watches enraptured as Loki places both of his hands palms down a few inches above the boy’s legs. A soft golden glow radiates from his palms as he slowly moves his hands up and down the boy’s body. The boy grimaces a few times but focusses on the butterflies still flying about the room.

 

The butterflies explode into little green fireworks at the same time the golden glow dissipates. The boy laughs and points and looks to his parents to make sure they saw. The mother asks Loki a question, and he nods and smiles and shakes their hands. The boy reaches up for a fist bump, which Loki returns with glee. Loki looks up toward the camera, and Bucky hears Steve’s “oh, shit” before the video cuts out. Bucky snorts and starts the video again.

 

It’s not until his third viewing that he notices Loki’s discomfort during and after the healing process. Bucky curses under his breath and rewinds that part again. There. Loki’s eyes are pinched too tight, his smile a little tight, his body too stiff and rigid. He’s in pain, and he’s hiding it from the people around him. Quite effectively, too. The only reason Bucky noticed is because he knows what Loki looks like when he’s in pain. He’s certain everyone else in that room, including Steve, thought Loki was just fine. Bucky gets up and starts pacing around the room trying to figure out what’s going on.

 

********

 

Loki is nauseated again, so Bucky lets him sleep it off. When he wakes, Bucky can tell he’s feeling better.

 

“We need to talk, Loki.”

 

“That sounds ominous. Should I be worried?”

 

“Depends.”

 

“On what?”

 

“On what you have to say.”

 

Loki nods. “Very well. What would you like to discuss, James?”

 

Bucky holds out his phone and starts the video. “First I want you to tell me what was wrong with this boy.”

 

Loki scowls at him. “Where did you get that?”

 

“Answer the question, Loki.”

 

“Was it Steve? Damn him, I told him not to film anything, and I especially told him not to send it to you.”

 

“Why not?”

 

Loki looks away and doesn’t answer. He starts fidgeting with his hands.

 

“Loki, why didn’t you want Steve sending me any video?”

 

“James, please, can we just—”

 

“No!” Loki flinches and looks away again, and Bucky feels shame pool in his belly. He takes a deep breath in and slowly lets it out. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have shouted. But Loki, there’s something you’re not telling me, and I think it has to do with your healing magic and how it affects you. I’m worried about you, okay? So will you please just answer my questions?”

 

Loki sits silently for a long time, but if there’s one thing Bucky knows it’s how to wait, so he sits silently, too, and hopes he hasn’t just fucked up their...whatever this is. Friendship, maybe.

 

“He has leukemia,” Loki finally says. “The boy. Aiden is his name, and he has leukemia.”

 

“Christ,” Bucky says. “That’s awful.” Loki hmms his agreement.

 

“Is he on chemo?” Loki nods.

 

“Loki, please look at me while I ask this next question. Okay?” Loki slowly makes eye contact. “Are you actually healing people on these visits?”

 

Loki looks aghast as he says, “are you suggesting I’m lying to them, that I go in there and create a fancy illusion for them to look at and that’s all?”

 

“I don’t think you’re lying.”

 

“Then what?! What do you think I’m doing, James?!”

 

“I think you’re somehow transferring their illness to you!”

 

Loki gapes at Bucky for a long minute before collecting himself. He shakes his head and smiles sadly, saying, “too perceptive for you own good.”

 

“I’m right, aren’t I? You’re taking their illness and putting it into your own body. And you didn’t want Steve sending me a video because you knew I’d figure it out. Christ, Loki! What the hell are you thinking?!”

 

“Oh, spare me the indignant outrage, Sergeant,” Loki hisses, and it feels like a slap to the face. “I promised to make reparations, and I’m making reparations. That’s all there is to it.”

 

“That is not all there is to it, and you know it! How are you doing it? Why are you doing it?” Bucky shouts, and this is not at all how he wanted this conversation to go, but he can’t seem to stop himself.

 

Loki shouts back, “Why?! Because they are children! They are broken little children who didn’t do anything to deserve the indignity of wasting away in some lifeless hospital. I can help fix them, so why shouldn’t I? I’m finally doing something good, and you want me to stop?”

 

Bucky sighs and shakes his head. “I didn’t say I wanted you to stop.”

 

“What, then?”

 

“I don’t know, okay? Maybe slow down some? Because whatever it is that you’re doing, you’re getting worse and worse afterwards.”

 

Loki huffs. “I’m fine, James.”

 

“You’re not, Loki. You’re not ,” he reiterates as Loki scoffs at him. “And even if you think you’re fine now, you won’t be if you keep going like this. Something has to change. Tell me what exactly you do to help heal those kids. Maybe we can figure out a way for you to still help that isn’t so hard on you.”

 

Loki stands up abruptly. “I don’t answer to you, James, no matter what you seem to think.”

 

“What? I don’t think—”

 

“I’ve said all I have to say on this matter. There’s nothing further to discuss.” He turns sharply and heads for the door back into the Tower. Bucky stands and follows with a, “Loki, please wait!”

 

Loki stops and holds up his hand. “Leave me be.” Bucky hates the sinking feeling in his stomach as he watches him go.

 

********

 

Loki doesn’t come up to the Deck the next day, or the day after that. Or the day after that.

 

After a week, Bucky asks Steve if Loki is still going to the hospital. He is.

 

After the second week, Bucky stops hoping he’ll show up.

 

At the end of the third week, Loki bursts through the door, groaning loudly. Bucky rushes toward him but doesn’t make it before Loki passes out, crashing to the floor face-first. Bucky winces and kneels down beside him, cradling his head in his arms as he assesses the damage. Looks like a broken nose and a split lip, which isn’t terrible considering Loki didn’t even put his arms out to brace himself as he fell. Bucky picks Loki up and carries him to a chaise before grabbing a first aid kit and patching Loki up, settling in with his book for the long heal ahead.

 

Loki doesn’t wake until 4:00 in the morning, eight hours after he crashed onto the Deck. He looks dazed still, blinking rapidly until his eyes focus on Bucky. He smiles wistfully. “I think you may have been right,” he says quietly, trying not to shiver.

 

Bucky snorts softly as he gets up to grab another blanket for Loki. He brings it back and drapes it over him, tucking it tightly around his shoulders. Bucky lets his hand trail softly down Loki’s arm. Loki closes his eyes and hums at the contact. Bucky kneels next to him and whispers, “Tell me what you’re doing with those kids. Please?”

 

Loki sighs and nods. “I have no skill in healing magic, not really. I can do small things, but nothing like those children require. I excel at illusions and shapeshifting and conjuring. There’s a spell in my book that allows for the transfer of wounds or illness from one person to another. It’s complicated, but it’s not healing so much as shifting the problem from one place to another, and that I can do. So I shift some illness from the children to my own body. Not all of it; that would be overwhelming for me, and it would cause a great deal of problems in other areas. People would come from far and wide for miracle healing, it would be a nightmare. So I take away just enough illness so that their treatments, their medicine, works. I thought my body’s natural enhanced healing capabilities would be enough to counteract the effects, but it seems I am overburdened.”

 

“You need a break.”

 

“I can’t. Those children need my help. And besides, I’m required to make reparations as part of the terms of my stay here.”

 

“There will always be sick kids, Loki. It sucks, but that’s not gonna change. But if you work yourself to death now a lot more kids will suffer later.”

 

Loki doesn’t contradict him, which Bucky supposes is as good as it’s going to get for now. Bucky stands up and holds his hand out. “Come on, it’s late. Let’s get you into a proper bed. I’m surprised Thor hasn’t come looking for you by now.” Loki grunts and lets himself be pulled upright. He traces a finger lightly over the torque around his neck.

 

“Thor knows where to find me if I am needed.”

 

Bucky raises an eyebrow. “That thing has a tracker in it?”

 

“Less a tracker and more a magical mark, I should think. Thor can use Mjolnir as a conduit to channel the magic in the torque and find my position that way. Or he can just throw the blasted thing and it will find me, in a pinch.”

 

“Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

 

They make their way to Thor and Loki’s suite slowly. Loki’s healed but he’s still weak. “You need to eat more,” Bucky admonishes gently. Loki rolls his eyes and puts his hand on the biometric door lock.

 

“Goodnight, James.”

 

“Goodnight, Loki.”

 

********

 

Bucky manages a few fitful hours of sleep before giving up and heading to the kitchen for some breakfast. Steve’s there, all sweaty and gross after his morning run. Bucky scrunches his nose at the smell. “You stink, Rogers.”

 

“Well, good morning to you, too!”

 

“Take a shower already, would you?”

 

“Nah, I think I’d rather stand here and gross you out.”

 

“So thoughtful of you.”

 

Steve nods. “I’m a good friend like that.”

 

“Debatable.” Steve snorts. “Hey, I need to talk to you and Thor about something. Today, preferably. Are you free at all?”

 

Steve’s brow furrows and he takes a step closer to Bucky. “This about Loki?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Is everything okay? Did he do something?”

 

“He didn’t do anything, at least not how you’re thinking. I’ll tell you when Thor gets here, okay? I don’t want to have to go over everything twice.”

 

“All right. JARVIS, please ask Thor to come to our suite as soon as he’s able.”

 

“Of course, Captain. Shall I tell him it’s an emergency?”

 

Steve looks to Bucky, who shakes his head. “No, not an emergency. Just when he’s free.”

 

“Very good, sirs,” JARVIS replies. He’s back a few seconds later with a “Mr. Odinson says you can expect him in fifteen minutes.”

 

“Perfect. Thank you.”

 

“Go shower and change. I’ll let Thor in if he gets here before you’re done.”

 

Thor arrives less than ten minutes later, looking a bit frazzled, which is a little unsettling. Bucky didn’t think it was even possible for Thor to look frazzled. “James, good morning. What did you wish to discuss? Is something amiss?”

 

“Jumping right in, then. I can respect that. Steve’s still getting ready after his shower, so would you mind waiting for him before we start?”

 

“Yes, of course. Please excuse my haste.”

 

Bucky waves off his apology. “Can I get you anything to drink? I think we have water, orange juice, some gross smoothie thing that Steve likes, chocolate milk.”

 

“Nothing for me, thank you.”

 

Bucky grabs a water for himself before leading Thor to their living space. They both settle into the couch and wait for Steve to join them. Bucky tries to think of something to say that isn’t “so, space, huh?” It’s...well, it’s a little awkward.

 

Thor clears his throat softly before saying, “I wanted to thank you.”

 

“Uh, you’re welcome. What for?”

 

“For being kind to my brother. He can be...difficult at times, and there aren’t many people who treat him kindly. I’m glad he has you, James.”

 

Bucky feels his cheeks heat up, and what the hell?! Bucky didn’t even know he could still blush. He looks away from Thor and his hopeful, earnest face and coughs. “It’s nothing.” He risks a glance back at Thor, whose face is even softer. Dammit.

 

“It’s not nothing to me, and it’s certainly not nothing to him.”

 

Steve chooses that moment to walk into the room with an “oh, hey, Thor,” and Bucky offers up a silent prayer. “You ready to tell us what this is about, Buck?”

 

“Yeah. Why don’t you sit, Steve, and I’ll start.” Bucky waits for Steve to get situated before opening with, “how much do you two know about how Loki heals the kids at the hospital?”

 

“Uh, not much, to be honest. What about you, Thor?”

 

Thor frowns. “I had thought he was using healing magic he learned from the book we brought from Asgard. That’s what he told me he was doing. Is that not the case?”

 

“Yes and no,” Bucky says. “After he comes back from the hospital, Loki comes up onto the Deck.”

 

“To relax and refresh his magic,” Thor says.

 

“Not exactly. He comes up there and falls asleep or passes out most days. Sometimes he’s nauseous to boot. Yesterday he came back and passed out before he could make it to one of the chaises. He fell face-first onto the floor.” Thor winces at that and rubs his hand down his face. “He slept for eight hours without  moving a muscle. Back when he started his healing trips, he would only need an hour or two to recover. Some days he even managed to stay awake and talk or read or listen to me read. But he’s been getting worse and worse, and it’s taking him longer to recover.”

 

“How does that tie into his magic?” Steve asks. “Is he using too much for the healing and that’s why he’s getting worse?”

 

“No, he isn’t using too much magic. I’m not sure if it’s a finite supply that he draws from. We haven’t talked about that. He told me he doesn’t have the talent for true healing magic, but that the book had a spell that allowed for the transfer of injury or illness from the patient to the healer. So what he’s been doing it taking some of the illness and putting it into his own body.”

 

Thor looks thunderstruck. “ Norns , Loki,” he chokes out. Steve looks horrified. “He’s been working in the pediatric cancer ward, Bucky,” he adds.

 

Bucky sighs. “Yeah, he mentioned a patient with leukemia once, and all the fatigue and nausea...I figured that’s what he was healing. He says he takes just enough of the cancer into his own body to make the medicine and whatever treatments the kids receive work. He thinks it would cause too much trouble to start doing miracle cures all at once, not to mention how long it would take him to heal from a full-on cancer if just a small amount has him this laid up every day.”

 

“Why is he getting worse?” Steve asks.

 

“Asgardians and Jötun have remarkable self-healing capabilities. But it requires a great deal of energy and rest. He’s not giving his body enough time to fully heal in between, and he’s wearing himself out,” Thor fills in.

 

Bucky nods. “Yeah. He needs to take a break. I’ve tried convincing him to rest and relax for a few days, but he says he needs to keep working. I think he’s a little afraid of what will happen if he stops, even for the sake of his own health.”

 

“What do you mean he’s a little afraid of what will happen? He’s afraid of what we’ll do?” Steve asks.

 

Bucky shrugs. “Yeah, a little. It’s not easy being under house arrest, even if the house is a gigantic tower, especially when you’re surrounded by former enemies who just happen to be superpowered and also hold your life in their hands.”

 

Steve looks crestfallen, and he opens his mouth to say something, but Bucky holds up a hand to stop him. “We knew what we were getting into, Steve. We don’t blame you guys. It’s just...it would be nice to be able to get away for a little while. I want to take Loki on a road trip, let him rest for a few weeks. He can start again when we get back. He won’t stop to rest otherwise, you know he won’t.”

 

Thor and Steve share a look before Steve asks Bucky if they can have a minute to discuss in private. Bucky heads to his room and asks JARVIS to play some music so he can’t hear what they’re saying.

 

They call him back out a little while later, and Steve is having trouble meeting his eyes. Shit . Bucky closes his eyes and takes a deep breath and braces for the bad news.

 

“Thank you for telling us about Loki, Buck. We had an idea that something was going on with Loki, but we didn’t want to press the issue. We didn’t realize it was that bad, either.”

 

Thor nods. “Loki’s life is so restricted now that I was hoping giving him free rein in this matter would help him settle in and feel like he had some control over his life.”

 

“Thor thinks the road trip is an excellent idea, though.”

 

“Yes, Loki loved exploring in our youth. He would complain mightily about the planning and packing, but once he was on his horse and out finding adventure, he was happy. I wish that for him again.”

 

“We want to help, Buck, really we do, but our hands are tied. We can’t help you take Loki out of the Tower by yourself.”

 

“Steve, please, if you could just—”

 

“Buck, listen: WE can’t help you take Loki out of the Tower by yourself.” Steve manages not to wink, but it’s a close thing.

 

“Right,” Bucky says, “of course you can’t. That would be irresponsible of you, having signed off on our respective agreements and all. How foolish of me to even ask. Well, thank you for considering it anyway.”

 

Thor does wink as he stands up. “If that’s all, I shall take my leave.”

 

“Yeah, Thor, that’s all. Thank you for coming by,” Bucky says. Thor holds out his hand, and Bucky shakes it. Thor wraps his other hand on top of their clasped hands and holds Bucky’s gaze for a moment before nodding his head in thanks and turning toward the door. Steve gives Bucky a ridiculously exaggerated double thumbs up, complete with a lopsided grin. Bucky scowls and rolls his eyes and follows Thor to the door to see him out.

 

********

 

Bucky tracks Tony down in his lab and watches him tinker with a robot for a while. Bucky wishes things were a little easier between the two of them because watching Tony work is delightful; he talks to himself as he works, and his running commentary is hilarious. Bucky decides to stop being a creeper and pushes away from his hiding spot in the shadows against one wall. Tony flinches hard and throws a wrench in Bucky’s direction with a “holy shitballs!” Bucky watches the wrench clatter harmlessly to the floor and shrugs at Tony. “Sorry.”

 

“Jesus, Barnes. Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s not polite to scare people in their own labs?”

 

“Nope,” Bucky says, popping the “p.”

 

“Fair,” Tony says with a tilt of the head. “So what brings you here, anyway?”

 

“I need your help with something.”

 

“I’m sorry, I thought I just heard you say you needed my help with something.”

 

Bucky rolls his eyes but doesn’t stop the small smile that crosses his lips. This asshole right here. “I did, because I need your help with something.”

 

“JARVIS, please tell me you have that available for playback.”

 

“Indeed, sir.”

 

“Yay! Okay, what do you need, Robocop? Ooh, is it something to do with your arm?”

 

“No, it’s not my arm. But if you play nice, maybe I’ll let you take a look at it anyway.”

 

Stark lights up at that. If he were a dog, his ass would be wiggling from wagging his tail too hard. “I can play nice. What do you need?”

 

“I need to take Loki on a road trip for a few weeks, a month tops.”

 

“Whoa there, Buckaroo. Did Steve and Thor sign off on this?”

 

“Steve’s exact words were ‘WE can’t help you take Loki out of the Tower by yourself.’”

 

“Ah, implying that someone else could.”

 

“Bingo.”

 

“And you came to me for help. Barnes, I’m flattered.”

 

“I’d tell you not to let it go to your head, but, well…”

 

“Ha ha,” Tony deadpans. “Why exactly do you need to whisk Loki away, anyway?”

 

“You know how he goes to hospitals and helps heal sick kids?”

 

“Yeah, been there, saw that.”

 

“Well, he doesn’t heal them as much as he transfers some of their cancer into himself, chemo side effects and all. He takes enough for the drugs and treatments to heal the kids, and he uses his body’s own superior healing to heal away the cancer in himself.”

 

“Holy shit, that is fucked up.”

 

“Yeah. And he’s not giving himself enough time in between patients to fully heal, and he won’t stop while he’s here in the Tower. Hence the road trip. And, to be honest, I could use a little time away, too.”

 

“Aw, Barnes, you and Lokes on a little getaway. That is adorable! When do you want to leave?”

 

“As soon as possible.”

 

“Okay, give me three days, five tops, and I’ll have everything ready for you.”

 

Bucky exhales sharply in relief. “Thanks, Tony. I really appreciate this.”

 

Tony flaps his hand in Bucky’s direction. “Yeah, yeah, don’t mention it. Seriously. Don’t mention it to anyone.” He looks expectantly at Bucky’s arm then back to his face, arm then face, arm then—

 

“Okay, okay. Just make sure it still works when you’re done.”

 

Tony rubs his hands together gleefully. “Deal!”

 

********

 

Tony knocks on their door exactly four days later while Steve is out for a run. Bucky opens the door and Tony brushes past with a chipper “morning!” He’s holding two stuffed duffel bags and a thick manila envelope. He drops them on the kitchen table and helps himself to some juice from the fridge.

 

“Tony, what—” Tony holds up his index finger and finishes his juice. “Okay, what were you going to ask?”

 

“I was going to ask what all that is.”

 

“Oh, that? That’s just your road trip. I figured you and Loki weren’t exactly the ‘shop for clothes’ kind of people, so Pepper helped me put together bags for you. Nothing fancy, jeans and shirts and comfy pajamas mostly, toiletries, etc. etc. Besides, have you ever been on a road trip before? And no, WWII does not count.”

 

“Well, there were the times when—”

 

“Neither do super-secret assassination missions!”

 

Bucky fights back a smile. “Then no, I guess I haven’t been on a proper road trip before.”

 

“Knew it!”

 

“I’m sure we could have figured out what to pack, though.”

 

“Yeah, probably, but this way was more fun for me. And for Pepper. She lives for this kind of thing. So think of it as doing us a favor.”

 

“Okay, I—”

 

“You can thank us by bringing back ridiculous souvenirs.”

 

“Deal.” Bucky walks over to the table and picks up the manila envelope. “What’s in here?”

 

“Open it and see.” Bucky pulls open the flap and pours the contents onto the table. Inside are fake IDs for him and Loki, credit cards under their fake names, two new StarkPhones, a StarkPod with a car charger, some maps, two wallets full of cash, and a set of car keys. Tony walks over and sits down at the table.

 

“Tony, this...you did all this in four days?”

 

“Yeah, sorry it took me so long.” Bucky snorts at that. “Those identities will hold up to police or internet search. The phones have your current cell numbers but have social media accounts and contacts and stuff under your aliases. Accounts are set to private, and all your followers are very realistic bots, courtesy of moi, but posting a picture or two now and then will help sell your aliases should anyone happen to be looking. Those credit cards are in your names, but they are tied to Stark accounts. That’s just an extra way for us to track you, if necessary. Use those to pay for your hotel every night, okay? What else. Oh, the phones have GPS trackers per usual but also special trackers you can’t turn off. Please don’t lose or destroy them. I’m happy to help you with this, but if the shit hits the proverbial fan out there, we need to be able to find you. The StarkPod is full of music and podcasts and audiobooks and is already synced to the car you’ll be taking. What else?”

 

Bucky blinks and takes a deep breath on Tony’s behalf.

 

“Oh, yes. Do you know how to drive?”

 

Bucky levels an “are you kidding me with this” stare at Tony.

 

“Right, that’s good. Have you ever walked into a hotel and reserved a room?”

 

“Hydra taught me how to do that.”

 

“Shit. Okay, well, terrible reason to have life skills, but at least you have them. If you don’t have any other questions, grab the car keys and let’s go check out the car.”

 

Bucky follows Tony as he walks to the elevator and asks for a subterranean garage level, bemused by his running commentary about how to make the best of their road trip. Tony leads them to a plain-looking silver four-door sedan, and says, “here she is!” It is...not what Bucky expected.

 

“Not what you expected, huh?” Tony says with a twinkle in his eyes.

 

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but no. No, it is not.”

 

Tony laughs. “I thought about something flashier, but then I figured you wouldn’t want to draw any attention to yourselves. There’s no better way to blend in than by driving a boring, pedestrian car. It’s nicer on the inside.”

 

Tony’s not wrong. The interior of the car is all grays and blacks, the seats a plush, soft leather. The sound system and dash display reek of Tony. “There’s a cooler on the floor in the back seat. I’ll have it filled with water and other stuff before you go. And snacks. I’ll make sure you have plenty of snacks. It’s not a road trip without those.”

 

Bucky turns to Tony and holds out his hand. Surprise flashes across Tony’s face before he breaks out into a genuine smile, taking Bucky’s hand and shaking it. “Thank you, Tony. This means a lot to me.”

 

“You’re very welcome, Buckster. When were you planning on leaving?”

 

“Tomorrow, after Loki gets back from the hospital. No sense in waiting now that everything is ready to go.”

 

“You kids have a good time. I’m a little jealous, really. I haven’t taken a road trip in years.”

 

“I’ll be sure to give a full report when we get back.”

 

“I’ll hold you to that. Oh, wait, I almost forgot!” He pulls out a small box from his pocket and hands it to Bucky. Inside is a filmy sort of mesh shaped into a tall glove.

 

“What is this?”

 

“It’s a holo sleeve. Put that on your metal arm and it will make it look like flesh and bone. It will still feel like the metal arm to the touch, though. It activates automatically once it’s stretched up all the way. It can get wet, but not for longer than an hour at a time, and don’t submerge it past fifteen feet, if you can help it. And take it off before showering, too. It’s stronger than it looks, so it won’t tear or anything.”

 

“Tony, thank you. This is incredible.”

 

“Well, it’s summer. Can’t go around in long sleeves in the summer or people will get suspicious.”

 

Bucky nods at that. “Smart thinking.”

 

“It’s almost like I’m a genius or something!”

 

“Yeah, almost! This took you most of that four days, didn’t it,” he says, not even a question.

 

“I could have done it in three, but I had meetings.”

 

********

 

Thor looks surprised to see him when he answers the door. “James, welcome! Please, come in!”

 

“Thanks. Is Loki in?”

 

“He is, yes. I’ll go fetch him. Can I offer you some refreshments while you wait? Some water or something else of your choice?”

 

“I’m good, thanks.”

 

“I’ll only be a moment.” Bucky watches Thor as he practically sprints down the hallway, stopping at Loki’s door with a fervent knock and an overloud, “Loki! James is here! Come out and greet him!”  Thor’s beaming at Loki when he opens his bedroom door and peeks out. “He is?” “Indeed,” Thor says, smile growing impossibly wider. “Tell him I’ll be out shortly.” Loki closes the door to his room, and Bucky hears the faucet in his en suite bathroom running. Something flops around in Bucky’s chest as he fights back a smile.

 

Thor walks back into the room. “He’ll be out in a moment, if you’d like to sit down.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

They sit down and wait for Loki. The silence is...well, it’s awkward. Thor looks like he wants to say something but doesn’t think he should, and it’s putting Bucky on edge. Thankfully, Loki comes out a few minutes later.

 

“James, how good of you to drop by,” he says, sending a look Thor’s way. Thor stands up abruptly. “Ah, yes, I have just remembered something I need to go and do right away, somewhere that isn’t here. Have a nice date! DAY! I meant day. Have a nice day!”

 

Bucky turns to look at Loki as Thor flees from their apartment. His cheeks are tinged red, and he looks like he wants to throw a dagger at Thor’s retreating back. Thor must make some sort of gesture before he walks out the door because Loki closes his eyes and sighs heavily. Bucky chuckles as he says, “brothers, huh?”

 

Loki hums his agreement. He sits down next to Bucky on the couch and turns his body so they’re facing each other. “So, to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”

 

“I want to take you away from the Tower for a while, let you rest and recover.”

 

Loki sighs and raises his hand to absentmindedly rub at his torque. “James, you know we can’t.”

 

“Steve and Thor all but gave their permission, and Tony made us some fake identities and got us a car ready and everything. All we have to do is get in and drive away. We can leave tomorrow after you’re done at the hospital so you can tie up any loose ends before we leave.”

 

Loki’s quiet for a while as he considers Bucky’s proposal. “How exactly did you convince them to let me leave with you?”

 

“They suspected there was something you weren’t telling them about the toll the healing was taking on you. I just filled in the details for them. They don’t want you sacrificing yourself like that.”

 

Loki’s face is closing off more and more as Bucky speaks, his breathing growing more rapid as his face falls into a blank mask. “You told them about the spell, about the precise conditions of my healing.”

 

Bucky feels his throat closing up as Loki talks, his voice a monotone he’s never used around Bucky before. “I did. Loki, I—”

 

“You had no right to share that with them,” Loki hisses, suddenly furious and beautiful for it. “I thought you were my friend, that I could trust you, but as soon as things are difficult, you go running back to your masters like the dog you are!”

 

Bucky stills and settles his face into an unreadable mask so Loki won’t know just how much that hurt, because fuck, it did. He’s still and quiet as the realization of what he’s just said hits Loki. His anger mixes with regret and they dance across his face.

 

“James—”

 

Bucky holds up his hand to stop Loki before he gets any farther. “I get why you’re upset. But I wasn’t about to just sit around and watch you kill yourself, not when there was something I could do to stop it. And let’s be honest, Loki, we both know that’s what you were really doing. So be mad at me all you want. I don’t care. Just come with me.

 

Loki gives a little nod and looks away as he says, “if you insist.”

 

Bucky nods back and stands up to leave. “Find me on the Deck after you’re done at the hospital and we’ll take it from there.” Loki stays seated on the couch and watches Bucky walk out the door.

 

********

 

Bucky dreams of Hydra that night and wakes screaming.

 

********

 

It’s late afternoon when Loki stumbles onto the Deck, the dark circles under his eyes a stark contrast to his overpale skin. He smiles tightly when he sees Bucky and sits down heavily on the floor before Bucky can make his way over to help stand him up.

 

“Are you ready to go or is there something you wanted to get from your room first?” Bucky asks, sliding his arm around Loki’s waist and pulling him close. Loki shakes his head as they make their way off the Deck and toward the elevator. “I’m ready,” Loki whispers. “You can sleep in the car, okay?” Loki nods.

 

The elevator announces its presence with a ding, and they step inside. When they exit the elevator at the garage level, their car is parked in the closest spot, and Bucky thanks whoever had the foresight to put it there. He unlocks the car doors and has to move the passenger seat back to accommodate Loki’s stupidly long legs. There’s a pillow and a folded blanket in the back seat, and damn, Stark really did think of everything. Bucky tips the seat toward horizontal and slips the pillow under Loki’s head before covering him with the blanket. Loki’s already asleep, eyes moving rapidly behind his eyelids, brow furrowed. Bucky hopes the motion of the moving car will help lull him into a more peaceful sleep.

 

He checks the trunk to make sure their bags are there. Satisfied, he climbs into the driver’s seat and takes a few minutes to adjust the seat and acclimate himself to the car. Loki whimpers quietly in his sleep, drawing Bucky’s gaze. Loki’s curled up on his side, facing Bucky, black hair pooling over the white pillowcase. He looks younger in sleep, ethereal almost. His fingers itch with the desire to reach out and gently trace the circles under Loki’s eyes with his fingertips. He wraps his hands around the steering wheel instead and squeezes.

Chapter Text

Once they clear city traffic, they make decent time. Loki wakes with a snort 20 miles outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Bucky fights back a smile. “I’ll thank you to pretend you didn’t hear that,” Loki says, yawning. The smile breaks free. “Where are we?” Loki asks.

 

“Just outside of a place called Scranton. I thought maybe we could stop here for the night, grab some dinner, talk about places we want to go. How does that sound?”

 

Loki’s stomach makes its opinion known. “It seems I am in favor of dinner at the very least.”

 

Bucky parks the car in the Days Inn lot once they reach Scranton. “Stay in the car. I’ll go rent us a hotel room.”

 

Loki raises an eyebrow. “One room? Not two?”

 

“Less expensive. Plus, we should stay together in case...well, just in case. It will have two beds, though.”

 

“Ah. In that case, proceed.”

 

Bucky gets a room and asks for dinner recommendations before returning to the car. They drop their bags off in their room and hop back into the car and head to an Italian place close by that the concierge said was pretty good. Loki still looks exhausted, so they sit in silence until their food arrives. Loki’s a bit more energetic with some food in him, so Bucky opens with, “so, anywhere in particular you want to visit?”

 

Loki thinks as he chews his pasta. “To be honest, James, I don’t really know much about Midgard and all it has to offer.” Bucky nods. That makes sense. “There was this one child at the hospital, Emma. She said there were giant red trees that lived for thousands of years. She said they were so big you could drive a car through the trunk. I’d like to see those trees.”

 

Bucky feels one half of his mouth quirk into a smile. “That sounds nice. I’d like to see those, too.”

 

“What about you, James? Where would you like to go?”

 

“Well, those trees are in California, which is all the way across the country. If we’re going to drive out that way anyway, I’d like to see the Grand Canyon.”

 

“What is the Grand Canyon?”

 

“It’s a giant hole in the ground.” Bucky chokes off a laugh at the look of disgust on Loki’s face after he says that. Loki’s eyes widen as his face softens into surprised wonder before he smiles this small, lopsided smile, and oh, it looks so much better on him than his usual aloofness or scorn.

 

“A giant hole in the ground,” Loki deadpans. “Why, James Barnes, you sure know how to treat a man,” he says sarcastically.

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky says around a smile. “Giant redwoods, got it. Anywhere else?”

 

“No.”

 

“Okay, how about we just go look at some natural wonders and beautiful scenery, stop when we want to, take our time, and just, I don’t know. Just be for a little while.”

 

“Why, James Barnes, you sure know how to treat a man,” Loki says softly. Bucky blushes at the sincerity in Loki’s voice this time and looks down as he picks at his gnocchi and tries to fight off a smile.

 

********

 

Bucky wakes suddenly and is instantly alert, adrenaline racing. A sliver of light pours into the room where the heavy curtains don’t quite meet. It’s still dark out, and quiet, or as quiet as the Days Inn in Scranton ever gets. Bucky frowns as he tries to work out what woke him, listening for any clues. Ah, there; Loki’s breathing erratically. He must be having a nightmare. Bucky rolls out of bed silently and makes his way toward Loki. In the gloom, he can see that Loki is rigid, tension rolling off him in waves. His eyes are twitching behind his eyelids, but he hasn’t made a sound.

 

Bucky calls his name, increasing in volume each time. Loki wakes just when Bucky thought he’d have to shake him awake, which he really didn’t want to do. Torque or not, he’d rather not risk startling Loki awake like that.

 

Loki’s up and out of the bed looking wild and feral, the moonlight sharpening his already sharp features. Bucky holds his hands up and speaks in a calm, even voice. “You’re in a hotel room in Scranton, Pennsylvania. You’re safe. No one is going to harm you. You’re safe.”

 

Loki eyes Bucky’s metal arm, then takes a long look at his face. Whatever he sees there calms him into relaxing somewhat. He wipes a hand down his face and makes his way back over to his bed, crawling under the covers, back facing Bucky. “Thank you,” he says softly with an undertone of embarrassment. “You’re welcome,” Bucky whispers back. “I’m sure you’ll be returning the favor more than once.” Loki gives a little nod and draws the covers up further. Bucky goes back to his own bed and tries to get comfortable. Sleep is a long time coming.

 

********

 

Loki sleeps the entire drive up to Niagara Falls. He’s still asleep after they arrive, so Bucky drives around until he finds a drive-thru and grabs some food. He finds another Days Inn, this one close to the Falls, and parks the car before calling the front desk and making a reservation for a room they’ll use after the check out the Falls. He eats some lunch, and plays on his phone while he waits for Loki to wake. He does a little over an hour later, a red line from the seat belt like a gash down the side of his face. And is that...drool? Bucky looks away before Loki can notice the smile on his face.

 

“What’s so funny?”

 

Shit. “Nothing. Well, um, actually, you’ve got a bit of… There’s a mirror on the back of the visor above your head.” Loki frown as he flips the sun visor down and looks at himself in the mirror.

 

“Is that drool?” he asks with a scowl. “Charming. You know, back on Asgard, I used to cast a glamour over myself when I spent the night with a lover so that they wouldn’t see if I did anything so uncomely as drool in my sleep.” Loki looks at Bucky expectantly, a smirk on his face.

 

“You didn’t!”

 

“I assure you, I did.” Loki’s smirk turns into a toothy smile as Bucky laughs at his admission.

 

“There’s some food in the back if you’re hungry,” Bucky says once he’s stopped laughing. “I didn’t know what you’d want, so I got a bunch of different sandwiches and burgers and stuff.”

 

“Thank you. I’m sure I’ll find something appetizing.”

 

It’s a close thing, but he does. They sit in silence while Loki eats. When he’s done, he asks, “where are we?”

 

“Niagara Falls,” Bucky replies.

 

“Have you been here before?”

 

Bucky shakes his head. “Nah. We were too poor to travel when I was growing up, and then the only travel I did was for the war or as a weapon. I haven’t done any for fun before. Let me put my holo sleeve on and then we can go see what all the fuss is about.”

 

“Your what?”

 

“It’s this meshy sleeve thing that covers my metal arm and makes it look like a flesh and blood arm instead. Tony made it for me so we wouldn’t draw attention to ourselves,” Bucky explains as he pulls it on. It activates with a soft whoosh sound. Bucky wiggles his fingers to show it off.

 

“If I had my magic, I could have done that for you,” Loki says, a little wistfully.

 

“If you had your magic, you wouldn’t be here,” Bucky counters.

 

“I suppose that’s true. Enough of that,” Loki says as he straightens up and makes a dramatic sweeping motion with his arm. “Shall we?”

 

“Yes, let’s!” Bucky says, making an equally dramatic arm gesture of his own.

 

The sound of rushing water grows louder and louder as they get closer to the Falls. Bucky almost misses Loki’s “oh” when they finally come into view. “Oh” is right. The Falls are incredible. The sheer volume of water pouring over the cliff is amazing, as is the violence of the churning water at the base. And the air...Bucky breathes deeply and lets the crispness of the air here fill his lungs. He feels lighter already.

 

“James, this is wondrous,” Loki says, eyes wide with awe. Bucky nods. It really, really is.

 

“Hey, you have anything like this back on Asgard?”

 

Loki shakes his head. “Not to this degree, no. There are taller waterfalls, but nothing quite this massive.”

 

“Want to see what else there is to do here?”

 

“Please.” Bucky pulls out his phone and heads to a Niagara Falls tourism website. “Looks like we can go on that boat that’s going up to the bottom of the Falls, see that down there? And there’s this wooden path thing called the Cave of the Winds, oooh, fancy. Anyway, you can walk along the path, and it takes you really close to the edge of part of the Falls. Want to try either of those? Both?”

 

Loki shrugs. “May as well do both since we’re already here.”

 

“Both it is.” Bucky uses his phone to buy tickets for the Maid of the Mist boat tour. “We have to buy tickets for the other thing when we get there. Come on, let’s go be tourists.”

 

Being a tourist with Loki is surprisingly fun. He seems to have a real appreciation for the beauty around him but doesn’t take things, or himself, too seriously. A few of his pithy comments are genuinely funny, and Bucky laughs more than he has in, well, decades. Loki seems happy to be there. He’s definitely more relaxed than Bucky has ever seen him. Not even the garish yellow souvenir ponchos that came with their Cave of the Winds tour is enough to dampen his spirits.

 

“Where are the goats?” Loki asks as they’re walking on the boarded path.

 

“What goats?”

 

“This is Goat Island, is it not?”

“Yeah. Oh, but it’s just called that. There aren’t actually any goats on the island now.”

 

Loki frowns. “Well, that’s disappointing.”

 

Bucky chuckles. “You like goats?”

 

“Not especially. Thor has a fondness for them, though, and I was going to have you take a picture for him.”

 

“Ah.”

 

“No matter. Shall we continue?”

 

After both their tours are over, Loki asks, “might we return to our hotel for a brief respite before dinner?”

 

“Yeah, of course.”

 

They make their way back to the Days Inn and head to their room. Bucky grinds to a halt in the doorway, causing Loki to bump into his back. “James? Is something wrong?”

 

“Yeah. Uh, there’s only one bed.” Loki casts his gaze around the room. “So there is.”

 

“I asked for two. I don’t know what happened. There must have been some sort of mixup. Let me call the front desk and see if they can get us a different room.”

 

Loki flaps his hand at him. “It’s fine. I’ve slept in tighter quarters with worse companions. I’m just going to lie down. Wake me when you’re ready for dinner.” Loki pushes past Bucky into the room, sets his poncho down on the desk, pulls off his shoes, and flops down onto the bed. He’s asleep moments after.

 

Bucky is still frozen in the doorway, heart thumping wildly at Loki’s casual indication that they will be sharing a bed tonight. He hasn’t shared a bed with anyone since the war, and he hardly thinks snuggling up together with Steve or another Howlie on a musty bedroll to keep from freezing to death is really the same thing, anyway.

 

He shakes himself out of his funk and closes the door, bolting all the bolts tight. He flops down into the room’s armchair and pulls out his phone, opening up his photos and scrolling through. He stops on one of Loki looking up at the Falls from the wooden path on the Cave of the Winds tour, his face in profile. He has a small, contented smile, his face soft with wonder, his hair curling from the mist and the humidity in the air. He looks serene. Bucky runs his finger across Loki’s face on his screen gently before sending the picture to Tony, asking him to show it to Thor. Steve and Thor need some measure of plausible deniability, after all, so he can’t contact them directly.

 

Bucky wakes Loki after his stomach grumbles the first time, and they head to dinner. It’s pleasant, their conversation easy. They talk about nothing, but it’s nice to not have to put on airs for anyone or pretend to be anything he’s not.

 

Bucky tries to will his nerves into silence after they’ve paid the check and start making their way back to the hotel, but it’s a losing battle, the room’s lone bed looming large in his mind. Loki lets Bucky get ready for bed first, and Bucky would be embarrassed at how easily Loki can read him if he weren’t so relieved that he’ll be the one to crawl into bed first. He’s not sure he could do it if Loki were already waiting in bed. He puts on a soft t-shirt and the stupid Iron Man sleeping pants Tony packed for him and slips under the covers. He flicks on the lamp next to the bed and cracks open the giant first volume of the Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes that he brought with him and reads the first paragraph over and over as he waits for Loki to come to bed.

 

Bucky’s drawn out of his head by Loki’s “please tell me I’m not the only one in Iron Man pajamas.” Bucky laughs as Loki holds his arms out and twirls around. His pajamas are a matching Iron Man top and pants made to look like one of Tony’s suits. Bucky hops out of bed and shows Loki his pants. “Nice of Tony to stick to his theme, huh?” he says. Loki snorts at that and gestures for Bucky to get back into bed before joining him.

 

“What are you reading?” he asks when Bucky picks up his book. “Oh, it’s the first volume of the Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes.”

 

“He must have been a prodigious writer. That book is massive.”

 

“Oh, no, Sherlock Holmes is the character. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is the author.”

 

“Ah. What’s it about?”

 

“It’s a collection of different stories. Sherlock Holmes is this brilliant detective, and each story is about him solving a mysterious case.”

 

“That sounds intriguing.”

 

“I haven’t gotten very far into it. Want me to read it aloud?”

 

Loki looks pleased by the suggestion. “Please.”

 

“All right.” Bucky settles in and starts to read.

 

********

 

Loki guesses the ending to the story not halfway through, the little shit.

 

“How the fuck did you guess that?” Bucky asks, incredulous.

 

“It wasn’t hard if you know what to listen for.”

 

“Bullshit. Half of the clues weren’t even in the story! It was like some Sherlock ex machina.”

 

“It was rather obvious, I thought.”

 

“Okay, I get it, Mr. Genius story spoiler.”

 

“It’s not my fault some of us aren’t as keen on the uptake.”

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes and playfully nudging Loki with his elbow, which makes his brain misfire for a second. Loki is close enough to elbow. Keep it together, Barnes!

 

Loki’s chuckle turns into a yawn so wide Bucky’s worried he’ll crack his jaw. “I’m going to turn in. I had a nice time today. Goodnight, James.” Loki rolls away and settles in on his side, his back to Bucky.

 

“Yeah. Yeah, me too. Goodnight, Loki.” Bucky turns off the bedside lamp and lies still in the darkness, the distant sound of the Falls matching the rushing of his heartbeat.

 

********

 

Bucky is still awake an hour later, and he’s pretty sure Loki is, too, but he doesn’t want to call him on it. He feels pleasantly worn out from all the walking around they did today, but his nerves are pinging at Loki’s proximity, and he can’t seem to calm himself enough for sleep. It’s nice, though, the weight of Loki pleasant beside him on the bed, despite the way his insides are swooping and swirling.

 

“James?” he hears Loki whisper.

 

“Yeah?” he whispers back.

 

“Are you all right?”

 

Bucky sighs internally. The last thing he wanted was for Loki to notice how tense he is. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

 

“Are you sure? I can sleep in the chair or on the floor if you’d rather

 

“No!” Bucky interrupts, too loud in the quiet room. “No,” he tries again, quieter. “You don’t have to move. It’s not you, I’m just... I don’t know.” Loki hmms at that.

 

Bucky decides to be bold and says, “it’s just been a while since I shared space with someone like this. It’ll take some adjusting. It’s not bad, though.”

 

Loki huffs gently. “I’ll take not bad.”

 

“That came out wrong. I mean

 

“I know what you mean. It’s been a long time for me, as well.”

 

Bucky nods and lets out a soft “yeah.”

 

The silence stretches between them again.

 

Bucky’s just managed to doze off when Loki says, “I wasn’t quite honest with you earlier.”

 

“What?”

 

“When we were talking about Niagara Falls, and I said Asgard doesn’t have waterfalls that massive. That wasn’t entirely true.” Loki pauses, and Bucky gives him a moment to collect his thoughts.

 

“The realm of Asgard is an island, and it is surrounded by a small sea on all sides, The Sea of Space. The water falls off the edge of the realm and into The Void, or open space, as you’d call it. If you walk out on the Bifrost, which is a bridge, and look over the edge, you can see the water falling into space. It’s quite a sight.”

 

“Is that where you fell, off the edge and down the waterfall?” Bucky asks gently.

 

“No. No, I fell off the end of the broken Bifrost after I let go of the spear my brother was holding.”

 

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know you let go. Steve didn’t...That is…”

 

Loki hums at that. “Thor doesn’t like to talk about it. I think he’s convinced himself that I slipped. I suppose that’s easier for him to believe than the alternative.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“I remember, though, I looked away from Thor and saw the water falling into space like so many glittering stars. It was rather breathtaking. I felt a sort of peace thinking it would be the last thing I ever saw. But, well, we all know how that turned out.”

 

“I’m glad it wasn’t. The last thing you ever saw, that is.”

 

Loki’s quiet, no doubt reliving the memory. “So am I,” he whispers into the night.

 

********

 

They don’t fall asleep until close to dawn and end up sleeping past checkout, so Bucky reserves the room for another night. They head to a cafe to grab some lunch and walk around the Falls some more and people watch.

 

“This is the largest waterfall I’ve ever seen that doesn’t fall into space, though,” Loki says with a grin. Bucky snorts at that.

 

“How does that even work?”

 

“What, a waterfall? Well, James, there is this force called gravity, you see, and it acts upon

 

Bucky flaps his hand at Loki and rolls his eyes. “No, you ass,” he says fondly. “How does the water around Asgard fall into open space if open space is a vacuum? What’s causing the gravity that causes it to fall down and not just drift away?”

 

Loki stops walking so abruptly that the person behind him runs into his back with a “hey, watch it!” Bucky apologizes on his behalf and steers Loki off the sidewalk.

 

“Are you okay?”

 

“You know, in all the years of my life, I never once stopped to think about that? About why the water falls?”

 

“Is it magic or something?”

 

“It must be. Otherwise…” Loki trails off, deep in thought.

 

“Come on,” Bucky says, leading him to an empty bench. They sit down, and Bucky listens to the sound of rushing water and feels the sun on his face as Loki has a mild existential crisis.

 

********

 

“It must be magic,” Loki says that night as they’re laying in bed.

 

Bucky rolls over to face him. “Get some sleep, Loki. You can figure it out in the morning.” Loki just hums at that. Bucky smiles and closes his eyes. It only takes him an hour to fall asleep.

 

********

 

Loki finds an audiobook of Sherlock Holmes stories and guesses the ending to another story as they make the drive to Presque Isle. “Next time keep it to yourself,” Bucky grouses.

 

Loki laughs and shakes his head. “It’s much more fun this way,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes.

 

“For you maybe,” Bucky huffs without any real heat behind it.

 

Bucky’s phone pings with a text alert, and he frowns as he pulls it from his pocket. He unlocks it and hands it to Loki. “Can you see what this says, please?” Loki raises his eyebrows but does as he’s asked.

 

“It’s from Stark. It says, ‘Days Inn, Barnes? DAYS INN?! How are you supposed to impress ’”

 

Bucky snatches his phone from Loki’s hand. “Got it. Thanks,” he chokes out, his face heating up.

 

“You’re welcome,” Loki says around a smile.

 

Stark may have a point, Bucky thinks as he pulls into a lakefront hotel when they arrive at the park. They toss their bags in the, admittedly, much nicer room, Loki raising an eyebrow when he notices there’s only one bed again.

 

Bucky coughs lightly and says, “they only had single rooms available. Summer is the busy season, after all, and people like to come here, and they were almost booked, so it’s lucky we got a room at all, really, and it wasn’t so bad sharing a bed, was it? It was fine, so I figured it wouldn’t be a problem now.” He closes his eyes and sighs because what the fuck was that?

 

Loki blinks a few times before tilting his head a bit. “Do you know, that may be the most I've ever heard you talk at one time?” He smiles gently and moves further into the room.

 

Bucky says a silent prayer for a hole to open up in the floor and swallow him whole.

 

********

 

They spend the rest of the day exploring. There's a lighthouse Loki is drawn to, so they start there. “Must be lonely, don't you think, living alone in such an isolated area, miles from anyone? Actually, when I describe it like that, I can see the appeal.”

 

Bucky barks a laugh. “I think most of these lighthouses are automated now anyway.”

 

“Shh, don't spoil the charm.”

 

Bucky pretends to zip his lips closed, drawing a laugh out of Loki in turn.

 

They go kayaking in a lagoon and watch the sun set over the lake. There are people all around, and Bucky catches himself scanning the crowd for threats more often than he'd like. He's seen Loki do it, too, though, so he doesn't feel too guilty about it.

 

That night in bed, they're lying on their sides facing each other, talking about nothing. Loki’s brow is furrowed, and Bucky’s fingers ache to touch his skin and smooth away his concern. He gives in to the desire and reaches out only for Loki to flinch away, hard. Bucky pulls his arm back as if he had been burned and puts more space between them on the bed.

 

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have...I’m sorry.”

 

Loki exhales sharply and covers his eyes with his hands, shakes his head. “It’s all right. It’s all right. I’m fine, I am.”

 

Bucky feels his throat tighten and tries to swallow it down. “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” He rolls over and puts his back to Loki and lies awake wondering just what the hell he had been thinking.

 

********

 

Silence lies heavy between them in the morning. They each shower and dress, they head to the lobby for an awkwardly silent continental breakfast. Bucky keeps his head down and picks at his food. He feels a bit like a coward, but he doesn’t want to risk looking up and seeing the rejection on Loki’s face. Or worse, pity.

 

They’re silent the first three hours of the drive to Chicago. They’re silent through lunch. They drive for another hour after lunch and are silent through that, too. Bucky wants to call Steve and talk it over with him, listen to Steve tease him for being an idiot, tell him to fix it somehow before he loses his chance. He can’t, though, he knows he can’t. But he aches for the comfort of his friend, feels it right between his ribs. He sighs heavily and tightens his grip on the steering wheel and tries to will the feeling away.

 

Loki rolls his eyes and huffs beside him, biting out, “look, I know you’re angry with me, but you don’t have to be such an ass about it.”

 

“What?”

 

“I rejected your advances, and now you’re angry at me. You won’t even look at me. To be perfectly honest, I thought you were better than that, but it seems I am proven wrong yet again.”

 

Bucky pulls the car to the side of the road and puts his hazard lights on. He is so not having this conversation while driving. He turns in his seat and faces Loki.

 

“I’m not angry at you.”

 

Loki snorts.

 

“I’m not, Loki. I’m angry at myself. I had no right to try and touch you like that, especially without permission. I don’t blame you for your reaction. I’m just...I’m embarrassed, all right? I thought...but it’s okay. I get it. I was wrong, and I’m sorry.” Bucky faces forward again and stares out the windshield.

 

“Oh,” Loki says, a little breathlessly. Bucky waits for Loki to continue. When he doesn’t, he pulls the car back onto the highway.

 

“You weren’t wrong,” Loki says some time later.

 

“What?”

 

“You weren’t wrong when you assumed that I’d...it’s only that…” Loki huffs in frustration, and Bucky waits patiently for him to continue. “People tend not to touch me anymore unless it’s in anger,” he whispers, unsure, as he turns his head and looks out the passenger window.

 

Bucky nods, though he knows Loki can’t see him do it. “I have some experience with that myself.”

 

Loki turns back. “Yes, I imagine you do,” he says gently.

 

“Steve sometimes will touch me in passing, but it’s not the same as…well, you know.”

 

Loki nods. “What a pair we are.” Bucky snorts lightly.

 

It’s almost an hour later when Loki whispers, “you can, though. I wouldn’t mind.” Bucky nods and smiles. “Same goes for me,” he replies. Loki looks back out the window to hide his smile.

 

********

 

Bucky swears Loki’s disappointed when they walk into their hotel room and there are two beds, but he quickly schools his face, dropping his bag on the bed closest to the window. “Might we find somewhere to eat? I’m quite famished.”

 

“Yeah. Let’s find a good deep dish place around here and we can see what all the fuss is about.”

 

Bucky spends most of the meal bitching about how the pizza is vastly inferior to a New York slice. Loki listens intently and doesn’t call Bucky on the fact that he ate four pieces anyway.

 

********

 

Bucky wakes and is instantly alert. He hears the quiet shuffling of clothing, feet dragging across stiff carpet. Bucky tenses as the covers shift and the bed dips.

 

“It’s just me, James. Is this all right?”

 

Bucky forces himself to relax. “Yeah, it is.”

 

He scoots over a little to give Loki more space on the bed. After he’s settled in, he asks, “nightmare?”

 

“Something like that,” Loki replies.

 

Bucky listens to the hum of the air conditioner and waits for Loki’s breathing to even out before he lets himself fall asleep.

 

********

 

Loki solves yet another Sherlock Holmes story as they drive away from Chicago. They drive in companionable silence for a while, the hum of the road lulling Bucky into a sort of trance. It’s peaceful, in a way, the seas of corn stretching into the distance. He lets his mind wander.

 

“Thor told me about your past with Hydra.”

 

Bucky tenses as his adrenaline spikes. He tries some of the deep-breathing exercises his therapist taught him, but they don’t really help.

 

“He told me there are words in your head somewhere, waiting, and if someone says them in the proper order, you’ll turn back into the Winter Soldier and leave James behind.”

 

Bucky tenses further and waits.

 

“Is that true?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Loki nods. “I can help with that, if you wish.”

 

“How?”

 

“Well, it seems to me that those words are like a cancer of sorts, foreign things planted deep into your mind. A sickness. Your body doesn’t want them there, so the same spell that let me transfer illness from children to myself should let me take a word from you.”

 

Bucky stills, his heart pounding in his chest. “You think that would work?”

 

Loki shrugs. “In theory. I don’t see why it wouldn’t, especially for something as small as a word. It is my understanding that you need all the words in the proper order for this conditioning to work, so remove one word and the others will be rendered useless. You would have a better idea than I would. Do you think it would work?”

 

Bucky shakes his head. “I don’t know. I never remembered anything when they primed me using the words.”

 

“Ah,” Loki says as he reaches out and gently touches Bucky’s arm.

 

“I think...I think I need some time to decide.” Loki pulls his hand away and folds it onto his lap.

 

“Of course. Take all the time you need. The spell would necessitate giving me access to your mind. On a small scale, of course, but...access nonetheless. I don’t blame you for being cautious.” Loki looks over and smiles tightly.

 

“It’s not you. It’s just

 

“You don’t need to explain yourself to me, James. I understand. More than most, I suspect.”

 

********

 

They spend the next day driving and decide to spend the night in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Regular sleep has been good for Loki; the dark circles under his eyes have almost vanished, and his skin isn’t as pallid. Bucky feels better, too, when he stops to think about it. He doesn’t feel on-edge like he does at the Tower, where despite their best intentions, most of its inhabitants are just waiting for him to slip back into Soldier mode. He doesn’t blame them, especially with the trigger words floating around in his brain, but it wore on him more than he realized.

 

Bucky finds the nicest hotel he can and asks for a King bed and only blushes a little. The hotel has free HBO On Demand, so Bucky orders an obscene amount of food from the Cambodian restaurant nearby. After their food arrives, Bucky turns on the TV and queues up “Game of Thrones .

 

“What’s this?” Loki asks.

 

“You’ll like it,” is all Bucky says.

 

“I’m sure I will,” Loki says, his eyes on Bucky. That brings a blush to his cheeks, and he clears his throat and looks away before he does something embarrassing.

 

********

 

“Where is this realm? Westeros, is it? It’s not a name I’ve ever heard before.”

 

“I think it was somewhere in Europe but centuries ago.”

 

Loki narrows his eyes. “I don’t believe you.”

 

********

 

“Stark? As in Anthony Stark?”

 

“Yeah, he’s related to Eddard Stark somehow. It’s complicated, and Tony doesn’t like to talk about it.”

 

“...I still don’t believe you.”

 

********

 

“Ah, direwolves. Now I believe you. Only Westeros’ version are greatly undersized.”

 

Bucky chokes on his green curry. “Christ. How big are the direwolves on Asgard?”

 

“The live on Vanaheim, and they are a good three times bigger than those ones.”

 

“Christ.”

 

“I had a pelt in front of the fireplace in my old rooms. Thor and I slayed it ourselves.”

 

“That’s...good? I guess?”

 

Loki just hums and goes back to watching.

 

********

 

“Norns, even Thor would be a better king than this Robert fellow.”

 

“Loki, shut up and watch the show already!”

 

“My apologies.”

 

********

 

Bucky waits until they’re lying in bed trying to sleep to ask, “what word would you take?”

 

“I don’t know. Tell me what they are, and I’ll choose one.”

 

“I don’t know what all of them are yet.”

 

“Tell me the ones you do know, then.”

 

“Benign, daybreak, freight car, furnace, homecoming, longing, and nine.”

 

“Any of those something you’d never care to hear again?”

 

Bucky shrugs and shakes his head.

 

Loki slowly raises his hand toward Bucky’s face, giving Bucky plenty of time to move away or ask him to stop. When Bucky doesn’t, he gently trails his index finger along Bucky’s cheekbone. “I would take ‘longing,’” he whispers as his finger follows the curve of Bucky’s jaw and settles into the cleft on his chin before making its way down Bucky’s neck.

 

Bucky’s eyes widen as his breathing deepens. He feels the path Loki traced like a brand on his skin, heat continuing down and pooling in his belly. He closes his eyes and gives himself over to the sensation.

 

Loki pulls his hand back when he reaches the collar of Bucky’s shirt, smiling almost bashfully as he tucks his hand under his other arm. Bucky smiles back, and just for a moment, he feels impossibly young.

 

********

 

The morning brings rain, which dampens Bucky’s mood; driving in the rain is terrible.

 

“There’s no point in trying anyway,” he says, interrupting Loki as he’s reading. They’d finished the Sherlock Holmes stories, and Loki decided he’d rather read aloud than listen to another audiobook, so they’d started The Count of Monte Cristo again.

 

“I’m sorry, what?”

 

“My trigger words. There’s no point removing one of them because we don’t know all of them, so we wouldn’t be able to test it to see if it worked. And if we can’t know for sure it worked, then I’d rather not risk it.”

 

“I see.”

 

“Thanks, though. I appreciate the offer.”

 

“If you change your mind…”

 

Bucky nods. Loki waits a moment to see if Bucky has anything else to add before going back to poor Edmond Dantès in the Château d’If.

 

********

 

The weather clears after a couple of hours, leaving nothing but clear blue sky in its wake. Bucky’s amazed at just how big the sky is out here. The land is flat, crops for miles and miles, and with nothing to impede the view, no skyscrapers or mountains or even trees, it feels like the sky goes on forever. It feels like freedom. It’s exactly what Bucky needed.

 

They decide to stop at the Big Badlands Overlook to stretch their legs and take in the scenery. The flat cropland had finally given way to jagged canyons and craggy rocks thrusting their way upwards from the tall prairie grass.

 

“It looks so inhospitable,” Loki says. “Beautiful for all its harshness, nonetheless.”

 

“Hell on your skin, though,” Loki says with a sigh after they’ve been walking around for an hour or so. Bucky laughs and pulls a water bottle from his pack. “Here, have a drink. My skin heals sunburn faster than I get it now, so I don’t bother with sunscreen, but we can get some for you, if you need it.”

 

Loki lowers the water bottle from his face and looks at Bucky with the best “bitch, please” face he’s ever seen. Bucky bursts out laughing, saying, “okay, no sunscreen” after he finally recovers enough to speak. Loki’s smiling now, too, and Bucky sidles up next to him on the path.

 

“Come here,” he says and holds up his phone for a selfie as he leans in close to Loki. Loki turns to look at Bucky as he snaps the picture, and Bucky cups his hand around his phone to block the light so he can see how it turned out.

 

“James, I wasn’t ready. Take it again,” Loki says.

 

Bucky’s stomach swoops as he looks at the picture and sees the open adoration on Loki’s face. “Nah,” he says. “This one’s perfect.”

 

********

 

The closer they get to Mount Rushmore, the more beautiful the scenery gets. The jagged Badlands give way to open prairie and cropland again, as far as the eye can see. The land isn’t as flat here, low hills dotting the landscape now and again. The Black Hills start rolling in the distance as they close in on Rapid City, the dark green pines a startling color against the light greens and browns of the prairie grasses. Chunks of white granite pop up more and more as they approach Mount Rushmore itself.

 

Bucky starts getting excited as the GPS ticks down to 20 miles out. He’s drumming his fingers on his thigh while he drives, left leg bouncing up and down. Loki stops reading and looks over at him.

 

“Are you all right?”

 

“What? Yeah, I’m fine.”

 

“You seem nervous.”

 

“I’m not oh, no, I’m just excited is all. When we got close to Mount Rushmore, I recovered this memory about it, and...I don’t know. It just made me excited to see it.”

 

Loki smiles sweetly. “How nice, to look forward to something with joy and not dread.”

 

Bucky snorts. “It is, yeah.”

 

“I find it happening more often, lately.”

 

“Yeah,” Bucky says through a smile.

 

********

 

Bucky’s practically vibrating by the time they park the car and make their way to the viewing area. And then there it is; Mount Rushmore, in all its stoic carved glory. “Wow,” Bucky sighs.

 

“It certainly is...something,” Loki replies, which makes Bucky laugh. “I mean, it’s wonderful. And large. Striking, really,” Loki covers. That makes Bucky laugh harder.

 

“It’s okay. It probably means more when you know who those people are and why they’re important.”

 

“Possibly. But it is the largest carving I’ve ever seen, which is impressive in its own right. And it truly is a lovely location.”

 

Bucky takes a few pictures, and they stand in silence and just look for a while.

 

“I was ten when they started blasting away the rock to carve the faces,” Bucky says quietly. “The original plan was to carve the Presidents to the waist, can you imagine? It was so far away from our shitty apartment in Brooklyn that we couldn’t even picture what it would look like; a giant granite mountain surrounded by pine trees meant nothing to us city dwellers. I’d hear about it now and then and just...it captured my imagination. Steve, too. We talked about it, using dynamite to blast rock away to create art. It sounded dangerous and incredible. My pa thought it sounded like a waste of money, but my ma understood. She used to sneak us newspaper articles about it when she came across them.

 

“They finally finished it when I was 24. There was this little article in the New York Times , and my ma clipped it for me when the paper got passed around to her. There wasn’t a picture, though, and I remember being so frustrated by that. I wanted to see it, but South Dakota felt out of reach, it was so far away. Then a couple weeks later Pearl Harbor happened, and the war, and then…”

 

Bucky trails off and stands silent and gazes up at the mountain.

 

“You’re here now,” Loki says gently. “Is it everything you hoped it would be?”

 

“You know, it is. It kind of is.”

 

********

 

They spend the next day driving across Wyoming, through grasslands and endless prairie. Loki marvels at how vast the landscape is out here. He’d bought an atlas at a gas station a few states back and would spend hours poring over the maps in between bouts of reading.

 

“Your maps do a terrible job portraying the actual land of your nation,” he’d griped.

 

“Well, those are just road maps. They’re to help when you’re driving. Topographical maps show elevation and geographical features.” Loki had looked up, intrigued by that. Bucky laughed and pulled up the nearest book store on his phone. Loki’s eyes bulged at the map books, and when he couldn’t decide between three books, Bucky just bought them all. He tossed a leather-bound blank journal on top for good measure with a “maybe you can make your own maps in this.”

 

“Thank you, James,” Loki had said with such sincerity it made Bucky blush.

 

Bucky looks over at Loki, who’s drawing something in his journal. He looks up when he feels Bucky’s eyes on him and smiles. “Where are we going next?” he asks.

 

“Yellowstone National Park. There are geysers and hot springs and all sorts of things to see there.”

 

Loki hums at that. “Do you think we could make camp there, sleep under the stars? I haven’t done that in decades, and I would like to see how your night sky is different from the others I have seen.”

 

“Yeah, that that sounds great, actually. We would need to get some supplies, but yeah. Let’s do that.” Loki smiles his thanks and goes back to his journal.

 

********

 

They stop in Cody to get camping gear and spend the night before heading into the park. The hotel has a brochure for a town full of Wild West relics and buildings, so they go there in the morning to check it out. Bucky tells Loki about playing Cowboys and Indians with the neighborhood kids when he was growing up, which leads to a discussion about Native Americans and their terrible treatment at the hands of the white men who pushed West. “I served with a few in the war,” Bucky tells Loki. “They were good men. Made me question everything I had ever learned in school, you know?”

 

“I do know a little about questioning everything you thought you’d known, yes.”

 

********

 

Loki spends the drive to Yellowstone National Park researching things to do and places to camp. They decide to make a real go of it and camp for a week, settling on the Tower Fall campground. It’s a little more commercial than Bucky was expecting, but they luck into site 15, with a tent pad far enough from other sites that it feels more private. Loki is surprisingly adept at getting the tent set up and rolls his eyes when Bucky brings it up.

 

“I may be a prince, but I have pitched a tent before,” he grouses.

 

“Oh, I bet you have,” Bucky purrs.

 

“I just told you I had.”

 

“No, it’s a euphemism. You know, for. Um…” Bucky makes a hand gesture and hopes Loki gets his meaning.

 

Loki tilts his head and shrugs.

 

Bucky closes his eyes and sighs. He feels his cheeks heating up. “Okay, so, it’s you know, when you start to feel…” He looks at Loki, whose lips are quirked, and oh, that little shit!  He picks up the closest thing, which happens to be a rolled-up sleeping bag, and chucks it at Loki. “You little shit! You knew exactly what I meant!”

 

Loki catches the sleeping bag and laughs. “You should have seen your face, though!”

 

“Yeah, yeah. Ten points for Slytherin,” Bucky says around a smile. “Let’s finish setting up camp and then we can go check out the falls.”

 

********

 

The next four days are a whirlwind of hiking and exploring all the park has to offer, from the geysers and hot springs to Yellowstone Lake to the canyon and waterfalls. They head down to Grand Teton National Park and spend a day hiking in the mountains there.

 

Day six dawns bright and beautiful back at their campground, and they decide to check out one of the more remote trails and spend the day hiking. Bucky turns to Loki as they’re eating lunch and says quietly, “don’t react, but someone has been following us for the past hour.”

 

Loki snorts and smiles like Bucky just said something funny and says, “any ideas who?”

 

Bucky smiles back and says, “yeah, I have a pretty good idea.”

 

“Need any help from me?”

 

“Nah, just follow my lead, okay?”

 

Loki nods and takes another bite of his peanut butter and banana sandwich.

 

“You can come out, Nat!” Bucky shouts. Loki raises an eyebrow but keeps eating.

 

Natasha emerges from the underbrush a few minutes later, a small pack on her back, hiking poles in her hands. “Hey, fellas,” she says. Bucky offers her a sandwich. She takes her pack off and lays down her poles and sits down for lunch.

 

“Why are you here?” Bucky asks once everyone’s done eating.

 

Natasha opens her pack and pulls out a ledger, red with a black star on it. Bucky sucks in a breath and stands up and tenses for a fight. Loki springs up beside him.

 

“I found this stuck in a box in some Hydra goon’s basement.” Natasha looks pointedly at Loki.

 

“He knows about the words,” Bucky chokes out.

 

Natasha nods. “I just want you to know that I have it, and I’ll keep it locked up until you get back. We can start working on negating the code words when you get back.”

 

Bucky nods and forces himself to take a deep breath, drop his shoulders, and unclench his fists.

 

“I can help with that,” Loki says. “The code words.”

 

“How?” Natasha asks.

 

“Loki, you don’t have to do that,” Bucky says.

 

“How are you going to negate the codes?” Loki asks Natasha.

 

“Well, the code words prime Bucky to go into Winter Soldier mode and wait for further instruction. If we prime him again and again and don’t give him any further instruction, eventually his body and mind will realize that nothing is happening, and the code words will lose their efficacy.”

 

Loki nods. “That seems like a plausible solution. How long do you anticipate that method will take?”

 

“Months, probably.”

 

“I can fix him in less than five minutes.”

 

Natasha narrows her eyes. “How?”

 

“Did Thor and Steve fill you in on how I was healing the children at the hospital?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I can use the same healing magic to take a word from Bucky’s mind. It will be as if he never knew it, and he will never be able to learn it again. It simply will not exist for him no matter how many times or in what language he hears it. And if it takes all the code words to prime him, as you say, then if we remove one of the words, the rest will be rendered harmless.”

 

Natasha looks between Loki and Bucky, brow furrowed. “If you can do this, why haven’t you already?”

 

“We didn’t have all the words until now, so we couldn’t have tested it. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to let anyone back into my head until I could know if it worked,” Bucky says.

 

“And now?” Natasha prods.

 

Bucky nods and looks at Loki. “Yeah. Yeah, let’s do it. Just in the morning, okay? We can try Loki’s way and test it in the morning. I want...” He shrugs his shoulders instead of finishing his thought.

 

“Okay, James. In the morning.” Natasha gives him a wry smile, puts the book away in her pack, and stands to go.

 

“Tell Clint he can come down from the tree now,” Bucky says. “Does he want some lunch?”

 

“Aw, man!” Clint says as he flips down out of a tree a few hundred feet away. “How did you know I was there?”

 

Bucky raises his eyebrows at Natasha, and she rolls her eyes and shakes her head. “Keep him around tomorrow,” Bucky says. Natasha rolls her eyes again and smiles. “You boys enjoy the rest of your day.” She grabs her gear and heads off to meet Clint, the two of them skulking off through the trees.

 

“Can we go back to our tent?”

 

“Of course, James. Lead the way.”

 

They hike back in silence, Bucky’s thoughts swirling around in his head. When they get back to camp, he asks Loki if he needs anything special to prep for the following morning. Loki shakes his head no. Bucky nods and starts a fire to cook them some dinner. Loki takes his journal and sits down at the picnic table in their campsite to give Bucky some space.

 

********

 

Nights are dark, so dark, outside their tent. It reminds Bucky of rare nights during the war when they weren’t getting shells dropped on their heads. The night was dark then, too, and long. There’s a creek not far from the campground, the babbling of its water part of the nighttime chorus of sound; crickets, frogs, owls, sometimes even wolves join in.

 

“Are you still awake?” Bucky whispers. Loki hums his assent.

 

“Is it okay if I...that is…” Bucky huffs at himself and scoots closer to Loki, who’s rolled onto his back, face turned toward Bucky as he closes the small gap between them. Bucky raises his eyebrows in silent query. Loki gives a small nod. Bucky lays his head on Loki’s chest and wraps his arm around Loki’s waist. Loki drapes his arm around Bucky’s upper back and holds him tight.

 

Loki is solid beneath him, his lean frame strung with corded muscle. He’s cooler than Bucky expected, but it’s nice. Bucky always ran hot even before the serum. Being this close to Loki feels good. It feels right. He feels safe.

 

Loki lifts his hand from Bucky’s shoulder and lightly strokes his hair. “Is this all right?” he asks.

 

“Yeah. Feels nice.”

 

“You’re so warm.”

 

Bucky hums. “It’s the serum they gave me. Well, that just amplified things. Too much? I can move if

 

“Don’t you dare! It’s not too much. It’s true that my Jötun heritage often makes me susceptible to the heat, but this...Well, like you said. It feels nice.” He moves his hand to Bucky’s arm, stroking it gently up and down, up and down. Bucky tightens his grip on Loki’s waist and lets the movement of Loki’s hand pull him into a deep sleep.

 

********

 

Bucky wakes with a start, blinks a few times to blink the sleep from his eyes, and looks around the tent. Loki isn’t there. He hears soft murmuring outside, two men and one woman having a whispered conversation, but they’re too far away for even Bucky’s enhanced hearing to make out what they’re saying.

 

He pulls on a long-sleeved shirt against the morning chill and unzips the tent flap, sticking his legs out to pull on his hiking boots. The sun is just starting to color the sky, the brighter of the stars still visible. He heads in the direction of the voices and stops once he gets a visual; Clint, Loki, and Natasha are deep in conversation. No one looks angry with each other, so Bucky makes his way to their car and grabs his toothbrush and toothpaste. No way in hell is he letting Loki dig around in his brain with a full bladder and shitty breath.

 

The other three are still deep in conversation when Bucky’s done in the bathroom, so he makes sure to step on a few twigs as he approaches. Loki looks up and quirks a small smile.

 

“You guys have a plan in place?” Bucky asks Natasha.

 

She nods. “We do. If you’re hungry, we can have breakfast first.”

 

“Nah. Let’s just get this over with. I assume we will be hiking out into the wilderness so if something goes wrong there’s less chance I hurt an innocent bystander, and that Clint will position himself somewhere with good sight lines so he can take me down, if necessary.”

 

“Is that what you want?” Natasha asks gently.

 

“I don’t want to hurt anyone, Nat. Not some random hiker, not any of you: no one. So you take me down if you have to and don’t think twice about it. I mean it.”

 

“I know you do. We won’t let you hurt anyone.”

 

Bucky sighs in relief and reaches out to pat Natasha’s shoulder. She covers his hand with hers and squeezes his fingers before letting him pull his hand away.

 

They gear up and hike for about half an hour before Clint peels away, the rest of them continuing for another half an hour before heading off trail for a bit. They find a little clearing with some downed trees that will be perfect benches for Bucky and Loki to sit on. Natasha pulls out the red book from her pack and stays standing a few feet away from where Bucky and Loki are seated.

 

“James, please take a deep breath and look at me,” Loki says, and Bucky does. “Here’s what is going to happen: when my hands start glowing yellow, I need you to say the word ‘longing’ in as many languages as you know. Repeat them again and again until I tell you to stop. Once I’ve found the word in each language in your mind, I’ll remove it. Then we will take a short break, and I will teach it to you in Allspeak. Once you’ve mastered that, we’ll start again. I’ll need you to say the word in Allspeak again and again until I tell you to stop. We may need a short recovery period at that point, but after that’s done, we can test to see if it worked. Does that sound satisfactory to you?”

 

Bucky nods his assent.

 

“It shouldn’t hurt overmuch, but it will feel akin to those headaches where it feels like someone has thrust something sharp into one specific point in your brain.”

 

“Ice pick headaches,” Natasha supplies.

 

“No shit, is that what those are called?” Bucky asks, grateful for the distraction.

 

“Yeah. Kind of morbid, huh?”

 

“Yeah, no kidding.” Bucky turns his attention back to Loki. “Okay, how do you want me?”

 

Loki’s eyes widen slightly before he tilts his head down, raises an eyebrow, and smirks.

 

“No! I mean, that’s not what I meant you know what? Fuck it.” Bucky clears his throat and rolls his shoulders back. He puts on his own best smirk and says, “maybe that’s exactly what I meant.”

 

Loki’s grin turns feral and delighted. Natasha sucks in a breath with an “oh, my god!” Bucky swears he hears a choked off laugh in a tree 50 yards behind him. Bucky rolls his eyes and shrugs a little “my friends, the assholes” shrug. Loki snorts and moves closer to Bucky on the log.

 

“If you’re ready, we can begin,” he says.

 

Bucky takes a deep breath and exhales it slowly. “Let’s do this.” He starts saying “longing” in every language he knows, slowly and surely as Loki raises his hands and positions them around Bucky’s head, the heels of his hands by Bucky’s temples with his long fingers curved around Bucky’s skull, about an inch away from actually touching. Bucky can see the golden glow in his periphery as he repeats the words again and again and braces himself for the stabs of pain Loki said would follow.

 

Loki was right, it does feel like an ice pick to the brain each time he pulls a word. Bucky squeezes his eyes tight and repeats, repeats, repeats. “You can stop now,” Loki says as he lowers his hands. “Do you need a break?”

 

Bucky shakes his head gently, pain lingering slightly. “No, let’s just keep going.”

 

“All right. This next time, I need you to say ‘ÆØŚŹŰƝƘ’.”

 

“ŒŎŞŹŰƝƘ?”

 

“No, ‘ÆØŚŹŰƝƘ’.”

 

“ÆØŚŹŰƝƘ.”

 

“Yes, that’s it. Repeat that, please.”

 

“ÆØŚŹŰƝƘ. ÆØŚŹŰƝƘ. ÆØŚŹŰƝƘ. ÆØŚŹŰƝƘ.”

 

Bucky can feel a slight pressure inside his head now that he knows what to expect, and then suddenly there’s a sharp pain that feels more like a pickaxe than an ice pick, and Bucky cries out.

 

“Almost done,” Loki says through gritted teeth.

 

The pain swells as the glow around Loki’s hands intensifies, the pressure in Bucky’s head growing and growing until Bucky hears a loud pop, and the pressure abates. Loki pulls his hands back as the yellow glow sparks and snaps and fizzes out. Bucky leans down and puts his head between his hands, gulping in air as the pain slowly recedes.

 

“James, are you all right?” Loki asks tentatively as he shares a look of concern with Natasha.

 

“I’ll be okay. Just hurts a bit. Do you think it worked?”

 

“It worked,” Natasha says.

 

Bucky frowns at her, not expecting the answer to come from her. “How can you tell?”

 

“When you were reciting the words like Loki told you, each time he found one and removed it from your brain, it would disappear from your recited list. Eventually you were just moving your mouth but no sound would come out.”

 

“No way. But I remember saying it!”

 

Natasha shrugs her shoulders. “Magic, I guess.”

 

“Try saying it now,” Loki prompts.

 

Bucky opens his mouth but he can’t seem to form the word. His eyes widen. “Tell me what it is. Loki, say the word.”

 

“       .“

 

Bucky sees Loki’s mouth move, but it’s blurred slightly, and he can’t get a fix on the exact shapes Loki is making, he can’t read his lips. No sounds comes out, either. For the first time in months, Bucky lets himself feel a flutter of hope. “Again,” he says.

 

“       .“

 

“Sweet mother Mary...” he says. He turns around to face Natasha. “Nat, try the trigger words.”

 

“Are you sure you don’t want a break first?” she asks.

 

“No, please, we’re so close.”

 

“Okay. Loki, can you come stand back behind me, please?” Loki gets up a little unsteadily but does as she asks. “Ready?” she asks Bucky. He nods. She opens the book to the right page and starts reading.

 

“        . Ржaвый. Семнадцать. Рассвет. Печь. Девять. Добросердечный. возвращение на родину. Один. грузовой вагон.”

 

The moment stretches as they wait for Bucky to prime. Nothing happens. “Do it again,” Bucky asks.

 

“        . Ржaвый. Семнадцать. Рассвет. Печь. Девять. Добросердечный. возвращение на родину. Один. грузовой вагон.”

 

Nothing happens. “Again.”

 

“        . Ржaвый. Семнадцать. Рассвет. Печь. Девять. Добросердечный. возвращение на родину. Один. грузовой вагон.”

 

Nothing happens. Joy bubbles up through Bucky’s chest, and he lets it burst free on a laugh. “It worked! Fucking hell, it worked!” He feels giddy and light , so fucking light, lighter than he’s felt in years. Decades, even. It’s incredible, and he laughs and laughs and laughs and then suddenly it’s too much, and he sits down, hard, and he’s sobbing. Loki rushes over and wraps his arms around Bucky, who lets himself be held as his tears fall and fall.

 

********

 

Natasha is gone by the time Bucky stops crying, Clint presumably with her. Bucky wipes his nose on his sleeve and scrunches his nose at how gross that was, immediately feeling worse when he looks down and sees the snotty wet spot on Loki’s shirt.

 

“I’m sorry,” he says to Loki, unable to meet his eyes.

 

“You have nothing to apologize for, James.”

 

Bucky sighs heavily and stands up, offering a hand to Loki, pulling him to his feet when he takes it. They grab their gear and hike back to their campsite. Bucky collapses in their tent, emotionally drained and bone-weary. The rumbling of his stomach wakes him a few hours later, and he stumbles out of the tent in search of food. Loki’s sitting at the picnic table, eating a sandwich. He wordlessly pushes a plate Bucky’s way when he sits down, and Bucky’s grateful for the silence and the space.

 

“I think…” Bucky starts around a mouthful of sandwich, pausing before starting again. “Can we leave after lunch? I think I need to move on now.”

 

“Of course. What did you have in mind?”

 

“I was thinking we could go to Colorado, spend a few days in a hotel relaxing, maybe climb a mountain before we drive down to the Grand Canyon. What do you think?”

 

“Hot water, a real bed, and food not cooked over an open flame? Count me in.”

 

Bucky laughs and nods his head in agreement.

 

********

 

Bucky tires again after a few hours of driving, so they find a hotel, have some dinner, and turn in for an early night. Bucky tells Loki he doesn’t mind if he stays up and reads or works in his journal, but Loki tells him it’s fine, that he’s tired, too. Pulling words out of Bucky’s brain wasn’t as taxing as healing cancer, but it wasn’t simple, either.

 

They curl up in bed together, Loki on his back and Bucky using his chest as a pillow. Loki starts playing with Bucky’s hair, and he hums at the soft pull of it.

 

“Thank you,” he whispers.

 

“You’re very welcome,” Loki whispers back.

 

********

 

 

They take their time the next day, stopping at little roadside markets and scenic overlooks. Bucky pulls Loki close and tells him they should take a picture for Tony with the mountains in the background. Loki tells him to wait a moment before a green flash sparks from the front of their shirts.

 

“Now we can take the photo,” Loki says.

 

“What the hell was that?” Bucky looks down at his shirt and laughs at the changes Loki’s made. “Perfect,” he says. Loki drapes his arm across Bucky’s shoulder, and Bucky snaps a selfie, then sends it off to Tony.

 

To Tony: Introduced Loki to Game of Thrones and convinced him you’re a descendant of Eddard Stark.

 

He gets a text back half an hour later.

 

To Bucky:  I AM THE KING IN THE NORTH!

 

********

 

They roll into Breckenridge in the early evening.and find a fancy resort hotel to stay at. The room is nice and has an amazing view of the mountains around them. Bucky steps out onto the room’s patio and breathes in the fresh, crisp air around him.

 

Curled up in bed that night, Bucky runs his finger along Loki’s torque and asks, “hey, why didn’t this show up in the picture I sent to Tony earlier?”

 

“Oh. It’s enchanted so that only those who know it’s there can see it. The camera is an inanimate object and therefore cannot know the torque exists, and so it cannot ‘see’ it.”

 

“Huh. That’s a neat trick.”

 

“Yes, how kind of Odin,” Loki says, voice dripping with condescension.

 

Bucky starts to pull away, saying, “right, sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

 

Loki sighs. “No, don’t go, please. I’d rather not talk about the torque, if it’s all the same to you.”

 

“Sure. Hey, want to watch some ‘Game of Thrones?’”

 

“Absolutely.”

 

********

 

They spend a couple of days hiking around the area and exploring Breckenridge. Bucky goes online and does some research on the nearby mountains, and they decide to spend an entire day climbing Mt. Bierstadt, the Sawtooth ridge, and Mt. Evans. They gear up and drive to the trailhead, arriving just as the sun rises. The climb is easy for a super soldier and a little “G” god, and they make good time. The views are absolutely breathtaking, and both he and Loki are stunned into silence once they reach the first peak. The mountains just go on forever, their white, snow-covered caps glittering in the sunlight. They’re on top of the world, or at least this part of it, and they feel giddy with adrenaline and maybe just a touch of altitude.

 

Bucky wasn’t sure he would actually be able to make the climb at first, kept thinking about the Alps and falling into them. These mountains looked different enough, and they felt different enough, that Bucky was able to work past his fear. It was so long ago, now, and so much had happened since then that it almost felt like the fall happened to a different person. Almost.

 

Loki stands at the summit of Mt. Evans for a long time, eyes closed, feeling the wind whip around him. He looks light and carefree, and Bucky’s stomach swoops and swirls, and when Loki opens his eyes and smiles at Bucky, he wants to hold his face in his hands and kiss him breathless. Desire blooms in him like the first spring flowers cutting through a late snow. Christ, he hasn’t wanted to kiss anyone in ages, not since the war, and even then it was more about distraction and taking your pleasure where you could than it was about real desire for someone. He wasn’t even sure he could feel like this about someone anymore, not after everything he’s been through. His therapist had said maybe someday, and don’t force the issue, and wait for the right person, don’t be so hard on yourself. And then Loki dropped into his life, all scowling menace and magical wonder.

 

He’s not sure if Loki feels the same way about him, but he thinks maybe he does. He hopes he does. He smiles back at Loki, a real, true smile, and he hopes.

 

********

 

“I fell off a train in the Alps during the war,” Bucky says on the drive back to Breckenridge. “I didn’t die, though. Got captured instead, and then Hydra got me, and...well.”

 

“Oh, James. You should have told me. We didn’t have to climb a mountain. We could have just driven around the overpass.”

 

“No, it’s good. I’m glad we did it. Face your fears and all that. Besides, if we hadn’t done it, then I never would have seen how incredible you looked standing on the summit.”

 

“Incredible, you say?”

 

“Transcendent, even.”

 

“Hmm, yes, that would be worth seeing. I hope you took a picture so you can remember it always,” Loki teases.

 

“I don’t need a picture for that.” Loki smiles at Bucky’s sincerity. “But yes, yes I did take a picture.” That draws a laugh out of Loki.

 

“You’ll have to show it to my brother when we return,” Loki says quietly. “He would like to see that, I should think. Me being happy, that is.”

 

“Are you happy?” Bucky asks.

 

“I am. I’d forgotten how, really. But I am.”

 

Warmth spreads through Bucky’s chest. “Good. That’s good.”

 

********

 

They get up early and spend the entire day driving. Bucky’s original plan was to push all the way through and find a hotel close to the Grand Canyon, but once Loki gets a glimpse of Las Vegas rising from the desert, he perks right up with a “what is this ?!”

 

“Las Vegas. Do you want to explore?”

 

“Norns, yes!”

 

Much to Loki’s chagrin, they don’t stay in one of the casinos. “There are way too many cameras in those places,” Bucky had said. “We’re supposed to stay under the radar.” Loki had conceded the point, begrudgingly. They do walk around the strip and watch the shows and gawk at all the lights and the neon and the people passing by.

 

“This is positively lurid. I adore it,” Loki says, enraptured. “Oh, the fun I could have here.”

 

It’s not quite as fun in the light of day, and Bucky’s excited to finally see the Grand Canyon, so they leave Las Vegas behind.

 

********

 

Arriving mid-morning means they have to park and take a shuttle to actually get to the Canyon, and Bucky is practically vibrating out of his skin he’s so excited. There’s a young family sitting across from them, the kids giggling at the faces Loki keeps pulling. The little girl is wearing a Captain America t-shirt and Iron Man shoes, and she narrows her eyes at Bucky when he smiles at her. Loki notices, of course he does, and laughs and bumps Bucky’s shoulder with his. Bucky rolls his eyes and bumps back.

 

“You two make a cute couple,” the mom tells Bucky once they’re all off the shuttle.

 

“Oh, uh, we ” he stammers, cut off by Loki’s, “thank you so much. Your children are darling.” She beams at Loki and tells them to have a nice day, and Loki wishes her well, waving after her as her kids tug her toward the Canyon.

 

“You didn’t have to do that,” Bucky says, slightly embarrassed and not sure why.

 

Loki shrugs. “She’s right, we do. Besides, we’ll never see her again, so she doesn’t need to know we aren’t actually a couple. Come on. Let’s go see this canyon that’s so grand.”

 

They walk through the visitor’s area and finally get their first view of the Grand Canyon. “Holy shit,” Bucky says at the same time Loki breathes out an, “oh, James.” They move to the side of the path and just stand and stare at the majesty before them. Bucky is absolutely thunderstruck. He’s seen plenty of pictures, who hasn’t, but no matter how incredible the picture, it pales in comparison to the real thing. Bucky thinks he could spend an entire day describing the place and still not have enough words to do it justice.

 

“Wow,” he says as he shifts his weight, which makes his flesh hand brush against Loki’s. He hadn’t realized they were standing so close, but the back of his hand is tingling now, and he can’t think of any reason why he shouldn’t reach out and take Loki’s hand. He inhales deeply and slowly moves his pinky finger out until he feels Loki’s pinky, then wraps them together and holds his breath.

 

Loki spins his head to look at Bucky, surprise written all over his face. Bucky smiles the smallest of smiles, and Loki smiles back and turns his head to look at the Canyon again. He pulls his finger free only to slide his palm against Bucky’s and thread their fingers together. Bucky exhales in relief and gives Loki’s hand a little squeeze.

 

Bucky’s not sure how long they just stand there taking in the view. Eventually Loki turns to him and asks if he wants to start walking around the rim a bit, see what other views they can find. Bucky agrees, and they head off, hand in hand.

 

********

 

“How many ping pong balls do you think would fit in there, do you think?” Bucky says a few hours later, apropos of nothing.

 

“What?”

 

“Ping pong balls. You know the green table with the little net in the game room, the one where you hit that little white ball back and forth with paddles?”

 

“Yes…”

 

“That’s called ping pong.”

 

“Ah. And you’re wondering how many of those balls would fit into the Grand Canyon.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Why?”

 

“You know, I don’t know? It just sort of popped into my head.”

 

Loki hums. “Well, I supposed it would depend on the day, really. You’d have to calculate the volume of the entire Grand Canyon, and that would vary day to day depending on the sediment levels at the bottom, the amount of water in the river, how many people are in the Canyon hiking, the mules, in winter you’d have to calculate for snow, etc. So figure out that and you’d be able to calculate how many ping pong balls could fit inside.”

 

Bucky thinks about that for a moment. “Do you think JARVIS could do it? The calculations?”

 

Loki frowns as he thinks. “I don’t see why not.”

 

“I’m texting Tony.”

 

To Tony: Stark, ask JARVIS how many ping pong balls we would need to fill this place.

Bucky gets a reply less than a minute later.

 

To Bucky: Don’t you dare.

 

To Bucky: You guys are killing me.

 

To Bucky: I can be there in three hours, don’t start without me.

 

To Tony: We aren’t ACTUALLY going to do it. I just want to know.

 

To Bucky: ...do you WANT to actually do it?

 

To Tony: Where would we get that many ping pong balls? And how would we transport them here?

 

To Bucky: That’s just logistics, Buckaroo. Come on, let’s do it!

 

To Tony: Tony, no.

 

To Bucky: For science!

 

To Tony: Why don’t you just write yourself a virtual simulation program and do it in that?

 

To Bucky : …

 

To Bucky : That’s actually a really good idea. I’ll talk to you later.

 

Bucky snorts. “What did he say?” Loki asks.

 

“He’s going to write a virtual reality program and run a simulation in there and get back to us.”

 

Loki nods. “That sounds about right for Tony. Hey, do you want to have a little fun with him?”

 

Bucky raises an eyebrow. “How do you mean?”

 

Loki holds up his hand, thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. His fingers spark green for a second, and suddenly he’s holding a ping pong ball.

 

Bucky barks out a laugh, saying, “holy shit! That is awesome! Let’s take a picture holding this and send it to him.”

 

Loki hands the ping pong ball over, and Bucky holds it up next to his head. Loki stands next to him and laughs, and Bucky sees another flash of green above his head as he takes the picture. He looks at his camera roll and sees that Loki has spelled out “Glad You’re Not Here” in clouds above his head.

 

“This is perfect,” he says, and sends it off to Tony.

 

 

 

They spend the rest of the day walking around the rim of the Canyon and stick around for the sunset, a gorgeous mesh of pinks and oranges that settle over the edge of the canyon and paint its walls. They hold hands as they walk, squeezing every so often to remind themselves they can do this now, they can touch and hold hands, and it’s real. It’s real.

 

They’re eating dinner when Bucky finally gets a text back from Tony.

 

To Bucky: PLEASE TELL ME YOU DIDN’T DO THAT WITHOUT ME!

 

To Bucky: JARVIS checked the news, and no, it seems you didn’t. So good one, you got me.

 

To Bucky: The answer is 7.29x10^ 16 , give or take, by the way.

 

To Tony: So, more ping pong balls than exist on Earth?

 

To Bucky: Definitely. Think Loki could make that many?

 

To Tony: Probably not without his full magic.

 

To Bucky: Damn.

 

Bucky chuckles and shows the number to Loki. “That’s rather a lot of ping pong balls. I’m not sure I could conjure up so many even with my magic at full capacity. Maybe if I spent a week working on it…”

 

Bucky laughs and shakes his head. “Don’t tell Tony that. Hey, what do you want to do tomorrow? Do you want to spend another day here or start driving to Yosemite and the redwoods?”

 

“Can we spend another day? I’d like to hike down into the Canyon a bit. Nothing too strenuous. It’s beautiful here, and I’d like to spend more time exploring.”

 

“Sounds good. Let’s find a hike we want to do.”

 

They decide on the South Kaibab Trail and take the shuttle there in the early morning before it gets too hot. They plan on stopping at Ooh Aah Point and deciding if they want to continue to Cedar Ridge or turn around and head back. There are a decent number of hikers on the trail with them, but not so many that it feels crowded.

 

When they get to Ooh Aah Point, Loki says, “I see why they called it that now.” He’s right. The trail opens up into an incredible, wide-open view across the Canyon. The clouds in the sky are casting shadows across the peaks, coloring them in purples and blues and reds. Bucky takes some photos, and Loki takes his hand when he’s done.

 

“Thank you for bringing me here, James. I’m glad we came.”

 

“Yeah. Me too.”

 

They decide to continue to Cedar Ridge and make a day of it. The climb back up the Canyon is steeper than they anticipated, and by the time they make it back to the rim, they’re ready for a nap.

 

Rested and fed, they head back to the Canyon to take in the sunset before they head out in the morning. Loki rests his head on Bucky’s shoulder, and they sit in silence and listen to the wind whistle through the Canyon and watch the sun paint the rocks and the sky.

 

********

 

Loki asks if they can drive through Death Valley on the way to Yosemite with a smirk on his face.

 

“Okay, I’ll bite. Why do you want to go through Death Valley?”

 

“So I can add it to my collections of times I’ve gone through Death and come out the other side, of course.”

 

Bucky groans but chuckles anyway. “That was terrible.”

 

Loki’s grinning fully now. “And yet you still laughed.”

 

“That was a pity laugh.”

 

Loki scoffs. “Hardly.”

 

“I was led to believe you were better with words than that.”

 

“Excuse you, that sentence was marvelously crafted. One cannot account for the taste of one’s audience, I’ll have you know.”

 

“Oh, so it’s my fault?”

 

“Indubitably.”

 

Bucky laughs. “Man, I will never win an argument with you, will I?”

 

Loki’s face softens at the implication. “Probably not. And even if you do, I’ll never acknowledge it. Best get used to the idea.”

 

Bucky huffs without any heat behind it and shakes his head teasingly. “You may win all the arguments, but I’m real good at the silent treatment.”

 

Loki laughs. “Fight fire with fire. A sound strategy.” He pauses for a moment. “So can we?”

 

“Can we what?”

 

Loki rolls his eyes. “Drive through Death Valley.”

 

“Oh! Oh, you really want to, that wasn’t just a joke?”

 

“I really want to.”

 

“Sure. Let’s do it.”

 

They stop to fuel up and restock their food and water supplies before heading into the Valley. They drive into the park and find a place to stop and gear up for a hike. Loki makes it a hundred feet from the car before abruptly turning around.

 

“Too hot. It’s too hot. We need to stay in the car.”

 

Bucky rushes after him and starts the car, blasting the air conditioning. Loki’s skin has a blue tint to it, his eyes are faintly red. When the air starts cooling down, Loki’s skin and eyes return to normal.

 

“What just happened?” Bucky asks.

 

“Ah. When I overheat like that, I change into Jötun form and make ice to cool me down. I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the weather here and didn’t realize it would be hot enough to force the change.”

 

“Yeah, it’s called ‘Death Valley’ because it’s hot enough to kill you.”

 

Loki hums. “My mistake.”

 

“It’s all right. We’ll just stay in the car and drive through. That’s probably smarter anyway.”

 

“I’ve never seen so many shades of brown in my life,” Loki says as they drive through the Valley. “It’s beautiful, in it’s own way.”

 

“Deadly things often are,” Bucky replies, as he reaches out and takes Loki’s hand. Loki twines their fingers together and smiles at Bucky before looking back out the window.

 

********

 

Loki is dozing lightly when they arrive at Mariposa Grove, so Bucky gently shakes him awake.

 

“Hey. We’re here.”

 

Loki groans and stretches, and fuck, that’s adorable. Bucky chuckles, saying, “come on, you big cat.”

 

Loki responds with a, “mmm, yes, pet me and I’ll purr for you.”

 

Bucky’s brain freezes, and Loki laughs delightedly. “Come on, James. Let’s go see these giant trees.”

 

They grab their backpacks and gear up for the hike around the grove. The first giant redwood they see is a downed one, and Loki lets out a little gasp. He looks at Bucky, eyes wide. “Yeah,” Bucky says gently. Loki sets a fast pace in his excitement, and Bucky smiles as Loki pulls him from tree to tree, marveling at each and every one. He finally stops once they’re alone on the trail, overwhelmed by the sights around him. He turns to Bucky, his face open and vulnerable and full of wonder. He’s beautiful, so goddamn beautiful, and Bucky closes the distance between them, cups Loki’s face in his hands, and kisses him.

 

And then he panics because Loki isn’t kissing back, and fuck, he thought this would be okay, they’d been holding hands and cuddling at night, but he should have asked first, shouldn’t he? Shit, abort mission! He pulls back, opens his mouth to apologize when he sees how shocked Loki looks, but Loki shakes his head slightly as if to clear it, and he surges forward and they’re kissing again. It’s perfect, sweet and firm and a little desperate, and Bucky wants to kiss Loki forever and hopes Loki feels the same way.

 

When they finally break apart, they’re both a little breathless and a little sheepish, a light blush coloring their cheeks. Loki takes Bucky’s hand and pulls him along. “Let’s go see some more,” he says. They spend the rest of the afternoon hiking and marveling at the trees, kissing when they want in the soft evening light, filtered by centuries-old trees. Loki huffs but lets Bucky pull him close for selfies, probably way too many selfies, but Bucky feels effervescent, and he wants to remember it always.

 

The sun is starting to set by the time they finish their hike, so they find a hotel and grab some dinner. Butterflies start fluttering in Bucky’s stomach at bedtime. He can’t remember the last time he felt this nervous. He slides under the sheets but leaves some space between Loki and him. He sees Loki furrow his brows as he asks if everything’s all right.

 

Bucky hears the subtext of what he’s really asking. “I still want you, Loki,” and Loki visibly relaxes at that. “This...thing between us, the kissing, the, well, cuddling; it’s good. More than good. It’s just...I’m not used to good anymore, and I’m worried…” Loki tenses again. “No, not worried. I guess I’m not ready for more than this yet. Physically. If that’s...I mean, would you be okay? With that?”

 

Loki rolls onto his side and faces Bucky, reaching out and resting his hand on Bucky’s cheek before tucking it back by his side. “Of course I’m okay with that, James. I will never make you do anything you don’t want to, all right? You set the pace. Besides, to be honest, I’m a little relieved myself. I’m not ready for more yet, either.”

 

Bucky scoots close and kisses Loki, and they whisper together in the dark until sleep claims them.

 

********

 

Yosemite is stunning. They spend close to a week exploring and hiking and camping. The see Half Dome and El Capitan, hike through the valley along the Merced River, visit Bridalveil Falls. They make their way up to Glacier Point and spend hours just looking out at the view. They hike to Vernal Falls and let the mist cool them off in the hot afternoon sun. It’s idyllic. Bucky never wants it to end, but he has a creeping feeling that their time away is drawing to a close.

 

********

 

“Let’s get an early start tomorrow,” he tells Loki at dinner that evening. “I have a surprise for you that I think you’ll like.”

 

Loki smiles sweetly. “I don’t generally enjoy surprises, but for you, I’ll make an exception.”

 

They leave at sunrise and drive north. Bucky takes a slightly longer route through San Francisco and over the Golden Gate Bridge. The fog has just burned off enough for them to enjoy the spectacular view. They continue north through the rolling brown hills dotted with dark-green trees and shrubs.

 

It’s early afternoon when they arrive at their destination. Bucky parks the car and gets out, Loki following suit. “What is this place?” Loki asks.

 

“It’s called the Avenue of the Giants. Let’s walk around for a bit and then we can get back in the car and drive through.”

 

“Giant whats?”

 

“Redwood trees. Lots and lots of them.”

 

Loki strides over to Bucky and kisses him thoroughly. “Thank you,” he whispers as they pull apart. Bucky grins, all lopsided and giddy. They walk around for about an hour and then get in the car and drive through redwood groves and regular forest. There are stopping points along the way at the redwood groves, and Loki asks to stop at a few, so they get out and walk around and breathe in the pine smell of the trees.

 

Their hotel, a quaint collection of cottages, is right along the Avenue of the Giants. Theirs has one bed, a private little patio, and a fireplace. They sit on the patio and have coffee while Loki reads, and when it gets too cold after dark, they go inside and light a fire and snuggle up in front of it.

 

Loki’s already awake when Bucky stirs from sleep the following morning, smiling gently as he brushes the hair off Bucky’s forehead. Bucky has a strange sense of finality that he can’t quite shake, like this is their last free day. Loki must feel it, too, because he offers Bucky a sad smile and kisses him. They lie in bed for a while, both unwilling to break the moment.

 

Eventually they get hungry and make breakfast. “Let’s go to the beach today,” Bucky says, and Loki agrees. They drive to a beachhead an hour away, at the end of the Lost Coast, to find a beach with black sand. Loki snorts and thinks it’s appropriate, and Bucky doesn’t disagree.

 

It’s cool on the beach, especially for the summer, the wind kicking up a salt mist to join the hint of fog hanging in the air. The waves crash against rocks along the shore, their rhythm a soothing cadence. They walk hand in hand and try to block out the rest of the world.

 

Bucky’s phone rings a few hours after they arrive, and it’s Steve, so he answers.

 

“Hey, Steve.”

 

“Hi, Buck. I’m real sorry about this, but it’s time to come back now.”

 

Bucky sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Yeah. Yeah, okay. We’ll head straight home. See you in a few days.”

 

“Okay. Drive safely. Tell Loki I said hi.”

 

“Will do. Later.” He hangs up and looks at Loki, who nods and looks away, tears glittering in his eyes.

 

They take their time walking back to the trailhead where their car is parked.

 

“Hey,” Bucky says as they reach a little cove not far from the trailhead. He stops and looks out at the water. Loki stops and looks at Bucky and waits for him to continue. “Do you have baptism on Asgard?”

 

Loki shakes his head. “No. What’s that?”

 

“There are some religions on Earth that believe that water can wash away your sins. Holy water, or sacred water or something.”

 

Loki hums. “And you believe that?”

 

“Nah. Well, I don’t know. I don’t believe in God anymore, not after what I’ve seen and done. But there’s something almost comforting about the idea that water can wash away your sins, make you whole again.”

 

“A fresh start,” Loki says quietly.

 

“Yeah. Yeah, a fresh start. I like that.”

 

“Do you think this water is sacred?”

 

“Not to any religion. But maybe that doesn’t matter, really. Maybe it just has to be sacred to you.”

 

They stand quietly together for a while, listening to the waves and contemplating the water. A small group of hikers passes them and nod their heads in greeting before continuing on their way. No one else comes by.

 

“Shall we?” Loki eventually says as he pulls the shirt from his back. Bucky smiles and does the same, and they strip down to their underwear. They clasp hands, and Bucky gives Loki’s a little squeeze. They walk together into the cold ocean water and let the waves crash over their heads and wash them clean.