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It’s tense, standing there in front of the time travel platform, just waiting for Steve to come back. It gets even tenser when Stark joins them; his hair is greyer than it was the last time Sam saw him and he has scars winding all up his left side, now, ending with his left arm in a sling. Stark studiously avoids so much as looking in Bucky’s direction and the air feels heavy with it; they lost five years but that particular wound has gone ignored, festering in their absence.

Just when Sam was so sure that his life couldn’t get any weirder.

He can’t even bring himself to appreciate the absurdity of this moment -- he was way into science fiction back when he was a kid, remembers spending so many Saturday mornings sitting cross-legged on the living room carpet watching Back to the Future five million times over, and now here he is. He’s standing next to an hundred-year old super soldier wearing skinny jeans, in front of a literal time machine that doesn’t look anything like a DeLorean, and it’s not even the most surreal thing that’s happened to him in the past twenty-four hours.

After watching his mom cry near-endless, gasping tears through FaceTime on Steve’s phone, all because him and his dad spent the past five years as so much dust in the wind, everything else feels kind of second rate.

Sam shoves his hands in his pockets, and blows out a breath. The air feels cleaner, somehow, and he can’t decide if that’s just because he hasn’t been upstate since the Accords or if there’s something else that’s brought in this sharp, pine-scented breeze.

Five seconds pass and still, Steve isn’t back.

Sam glances sideways at Bucky. He’s frowning softly, the way he does when he’s worried, but he also looks entirely unsurprised, and Sam tracks back a couple of minutes, to the near-silent conversation that Sam had mistakenly assumed was a private goodbye, an exchange of I love you’s, just in case.

There was something stubborn in the set of Steve’s shoulders and it takes a second for Sam to place it, to realize where he’s seen that exact look before: on a bridge, a whole lifetime away, right before they took down HYDRA. It was the look that meant one thing and one thing only -- that Steve Rogers wasn’t going to just give up on someone he loves, not without a fight, and suddenly, Sam knows exactly what’s going on.

“You think he can pull it off?” Sam asks, pitching his voice low, so Bruce and Stark can’t hear him.

Bucky doesn’t even try to feign surprise or ignorance, and Sam is thankful for that, because everything is just a little bit off-kilter, like the world is tilted off its axis, and he needs to know that he can trust his instincts, trust his team. The two of them are getting to be friends, Sam’s pretty sure, and he’s glad for it in a way that surprises him.

“I think he’s stubborn enough that he’ll refuse to come back until he does,” Bucky says, letting out a small shrug that belies the worry lines drawn between his brows.

“Or until he dies trying,” Sam points out because, well, that’s starting to seem like a pretty real possibility, but even as he says it, Sam doesn’t believe it. That’s the thing about Steve: when it really counts, he always comes through.

Bucky shakes his head but doesn’t respond, like he already knows what Sam is thinking.

“It’s been a minute,” Stark says, his voice cutting through the silence, high and accusatory, “why has it been a minute, what do you know, what did you let him do - ”

There’s a bright flash, the time machine letting out a huge crack followed by a soft whirring sound, and just as suddenly, there’s two very familiar figures standing on the platform.

“Hey fellas,” Natasha says, tossing her red braid behind her, “what’s with all of the fancy black clothing? Is someone getting married?”

Bruce lets loose a strangled laugh from somewhere behind them. Sam rolls his shoulders back, feels a wide smile tug at the corner of his lips, just as ten different knots of tension loosen at the sight before him: his two best friends, alive and whole and grinning stupidly, like they just got away with the best kind of prank.

“Holy shit, Romanoff,” Stark says, gaping, a little, and clearly in shock, as he leans against a tree for support. “Holy shit, do you have nine lives or something?”

“I’m a spider, not a cat,” Natasha quips, and Steve catches Sam’s gaze to roll his eyes at Natasha’s joke, like he’s done a thousand times before, like no time has passed at all. Sam is terrified, a little, of peeling back the layers to discover the magnitude of what’s been lost in the past five years but right here in this moment, he’s relieved to know that some things haven’t changed at all.

His team is still his team; his family is still his family, as buck-ass crazy as they are.

Natasha presses the button to retract her suit and jumps down the steps. “Seriously, Yasha, is this schmuck finally going to make an honest man out of you?” She jerks her head behind her, where Steve is retracting his own suit.

Bucky says something back in Russian, voice dry and annoyed, but he hugs her anyways. Next to him, Stark lets out another small, quiet what the fuck, and now, Sam has to laugh; he’s guessing Stark wasn’t exactly privy to that particular piece of knowledge.

“Now there’s an idea,” Steve says, still with that stupid, reckless grin on his face. “What do you say, Buck?”

“You’re a real romantic, doll,” Bucky says, still as dry as anything, but he lets Steve sling an arm over his shoulders, anyways, and now it’s Natasha’s turn to roll her eyes at Sam, just as Sam makes his standard “the old folks are being gross” gagging face right back at her.

Natasha freezes, just for a second, and Sam can see the exact moment when the pin drops, when it dawns on her that she’s really here and so is he, and then he’s got an armful of Natasha, her slight frame bowling right into him, knocking Sam back a few steps as Natasha buries her face into his neck.

“You’re never allowed to do that again,” Natasha murmurs. “Come on, Wilson, you’re supposed to be the responsible one.”

Sam huffs. The only way he's the responsible one is when you compare him side by side with Steve, and even then, well. They did break a lot of international laws together. “Yeah, okay, I’ll make sure not to get snapped out of existence by a genocidal maniac next time,” he says, but then hugs her tighter, still.

“That’s all I ask,” Natasha says, taking a small step back, but slipping one of her hands into his. She’s not even trying to hide the tears falling silently down her face and that’s another check in the column marked “things that terrify Sam about the past five years,” because the Natasha from before would never be so open, not in front of so many people.

It’s all over, now, the stones have been returned, so Sam can take the minute to really take stock, to swing his gaze between Natasha and Steve, and wonder at what they’ve lived through. The grin has slipped off Steve’s face, replaced by a small, tentative smile, but there’s more lines in his face, these days, and shadows under his eyes that speak of grief.

And Natasha isn’t much better.

Both of them call to mind echoes of yesterday, of the tear-tracks running down his mother’s face.

The battle may be done but the war…..the war still lives on, lodged deep inside of the people who lived through it.

Well, that’s no different than usual, then. Sam can work with that.

.

 

He remembers Wakanda. Remembers a sudden dizziness coming over him, remembers feeling weak and light-headed.

T’Challa turned to ash before his very eyes and when Sam looked down at himself, his hand turned to ash, his arm turned to ash, and when he closed his eyes, he slipped into nothingness.

When he opened them again, T’Challa was standing in front of him, solid but wary, and he could hear Wanda and Bucky shouting in the distance.

Steve is gone. Natasha is gone. Okoye is gone. They’re alone, in the forest, and for the first time in a long, long time, Sam lets the panic slide beneath his skin, lets it take control over him but not for long. Not for more than a minute, and then he’s shaking himself off, bracing one hand against Bucky’s shoulder, steadying them both.

“Sam,” Wanda says, voice shaky, and there are still tear tracks down her face from Vision, god, where did Vision’s body go, what the fuck is happening. “Sam, what do we do?”

Sam looks to the sky, and then back down to the ground, to what’s left of his team. There’s a chill in the air and it smells different, like the seasons have changed.

“I don’t know,” Sam says, “but we’ll figure it out.”

.

There’s a lot of crying, when they get back to the house.

The Wakandan crew has the fanciest damn tent Sam’s ever seen in his life pitched in the yard in front of Stark’s house, complete with tables set up for a feast and an ample amount of booze for them to all drown their sorrows in.

A warrior’s funeral, T’Challa had called it, and it was the least any of them could do, for Natasha, who gave her life to bring them all back.

Well. That’s gonna be a little awkward, now.

Okoye sees Natasha first, and pulls Natasha into a tight hug, pressing their foreheads together, whispering something gently for only the two of them to hear. Which is…..interesting and definitely merits teasing Nat about later, hopefully after they’ve broken into some Wakandan wine because man, that shit is good.

But then Thor sees Natasha and promptly drops the crate of Asgardian ale he was carrying, picking her up and spinning her around, and chaos pretty much erupts from there, waves upon waves of reunions and hugs and so much goddamn joy, Sam is pretty sure his face is gonna split open from smiling too hard.

There’s tough work ahead, sure, the specter of it still lingering in the back of his mind, but this is not the moment for it. Not now, when this funeral turned party is in full swing, and no one can think of a good enough reason to spoil it.

Across the tent, Bucky appears to be attempting to teach Shuri how to lindy-hop. Sam can hear her voice cutting through the crowd, as she says, “this is a dumb colonizer dance, Sergeant,” all while Steve watches on, unmistakably fond and also, judging by the sight of the Asgardian ale next to him, maybe even a little drunk.

So Sam grabs himself a glass of wine, fills it to the brim, and moves to join him. “Penny for your thoughts, old man,” Sam says, straddling the wooden bench.

“Penny’s not worth much, these days,” Steve says, with a sly half-grin. “I’ll need at least a Hamilton for that.”

Sam smacks him in the arm. “I don’t know what lies Barnes is telling you, man, because you are not as funny as you think you are.”

Steve looks down at his glass, twirling the liquid around in it, and smiles, softly. “You know, I still can’t quite believe that this is real. That it worked.”

Sam hums. “Gotta say, this is the most fun funeral that I’ve ever been to.”

“Yeah, it’s a little different when the deceased comes back to life and gets to show up to her own party, huh?” Steve’s gaze locks onto where Natasha is holding court in the center of the tent, deep in conversation with Barton and his family. “I didn’t know I could feel anymore hopeless than I already did, until we lost her.”

Sam thinks back to that moment at the VA, in another lifetime, when he asked Steve what made him happy, and Steve’s response, the hunched shoulders, the “I don’t know,” had to be just about one of the saddest fucking things that Sam had ever seen.

He doesn’t want to picture this more recent Steve, a Steve who lost him and Bucky and Wanda and then, after all of it, Natasha. Sam tries to put himself in Steve’s shoes but he can’t, his mind stalls at the thought of it. His parents, his team. God, losing Riley was hard enough.

Sam shakes himself. There’s nothing any of them can do about the past, now. It’s all about going forward. “You think you and Barnes are gonna head back to Wakanda?”

Steve’s eyes are drawn back to the makeshift dance floor, where Natasha has now joined Shuri and Bucky, as Natasha gamely tries and fails to get them both to do pirouettes. Man, Sam has got to ask T’Challa what is in that wine.

“I think so,” Steve says, slowly, like he’s still mulling it over, a little. “Not forever, but just….just a little while, I think. I haven’t been very good at uh, taking care of myself lately. Going off the grid to Bucky’s farm to just, I don’t know, figure out what I wanna do next. It’s a good idea.”

“What, you didn’t take any of your own advice in those therapy sessions of yours?” Sam says, and that was a surprise, both that Steve led those groups in the first place, and that Sam had to find out about it from his mom, instead of Steve.

Steve ducks his head, the tips of his ears turning red. “Not at all. I guess I just, tried to guess at what you would do and lied through my teeth.”

“Rogers,” Sam starts, as he goes to level Steve with a disappointed dad glare that he’s absolutely copying from a pastor that he knew growing up. It mostly works; it would, what with all of Steve’s Irish Catholic guilt. “I’ve known a lot of dumb white boys in my day but I have to say, you just might be the dumbest.”

Steve smothers a laugh, and then nods towards Bucky, who has abandoned the dance floor to stand off to the side, exchanging quiet words with Wanda. “Dumber than him?”

“Yep,” Sam says, “but don’t tell him I said that, he can’t know that I like him, it ruins all of the fun.”

Steve crosses his fingers over his heart but grins like he’s gonna squeal on Sam the first chance he gets which probably, he will. “You’re gonna go home, right?”

“Yeah,” Sam says, “god, I can’t wait. I didn’t mean to stay away for so long.”

He was already missing home, missing Harlem and his mom’s perfume and their little walk-up on West 145th and Broadway, long before Thanos showed up on the scene. Now, armed with the knowledge that it’s been six whole years since he last saw his parents’ faces, it’s no kind of a decision at all: he has to be there, has to see them, has to be what they need.

The corner of Steve’s lips quirk upwards in a small, even smile and he nods, like he understands, like he knows exactly what was just going through Sam’s mind. Well, if anyone would.

“You know, I can’t believe you were living in my childhood bedroom, Cap,” Sam says, already warming to the teasing jokes he’s about to make, trying to guess at how hard Steve is gonna blush and run away. “I lost my virginity in that bedroom.”

Steve blanches, predictably. “I’m sure it was a different bed.”

Sam cups his chin in one hand, and stares off into the distance. “Me and Toro Raymond, getting all hot and heavy after band practice, my god.”

Steve balls up a napkin and throws it in Sam’s direction, but Sam ducks away from it easily.

“You know, I think he’s a firefighter now,” Sam muses. “Maybe I should look him up.”

“You do that,” Steve says, letting out a put-upon sigh, but he’s grinning, a little, as he gets up from the table. “Me? I’m gonna get myself another drink, Falcon.”

Sam chuckles to himself; that went exactly the way he expected it to.

He sits back, and takes the whole place in. It’s getting into the early hours of the morning but the party shows no sign of stopping, not anytime soon. The lights are bright, the food has pretty much been demolished, and the wine is still flowing.

Not everyone underneath this broad, fancy tent gets along, all the way, but after the battle, after everything, no one’s making a fuss about it.

This is a good night. Sam knows he’s gonna need it, need the strength that it’s shoring up inside of him, for whatever comes next.

.

 

Stark lends him a car and Sam throws whatever little belongings he has left in the trunk. It’ll take him about two hours, give or take, and his phone still works, somehow, so he has a playlist all ready to go.

He remembers going home after his first tour, worn out from so much adrenaline and lost sleep, and overwhelmed by everything he saw, not sure yet if he belonged back in the real world.

He remembers going home after his second tour, his body and soul aching in equal measure, grieving Riley, grieving for himself, and for the life they were supposed to have together.

He went home different, both times, but home, home was always the same.

Sam starts up the car and turns off the dirt road, heading towards the city.

This time, he’s not so sure what he’s gonna find.