2016- Somewhere along Route 66
“That was our exit,” said Sam.
Barnes cursed and braked but it was too late, they were too far past. “Gee, thanks for telling me. You’re a real help.”
“I warned you about it half a mile ago. If you insist on driving you should at least keep your mind on the goddamn road.”
“Well where do I go now?” demanded Bucky.
“How the hell should I know?” Sam spat back, “I’m not a goddamn GPS.”
They were putting as many miles as possible, in the blandest car imaginable, between them and the Queens shoreline where Bucky had hoped to collect Steve’s allies. He’d been ready to transport all of them as far from the Raft as they could get. Steve had gone in to get them. He’d gotten Sam. And that was all. Bucky had let Steve go in, and now Steve was trapped in there, with the rest of his friends. So Bucky was here, in the wind, in the middle of Nowhere USA, hoping to meet up with the Widow, to get some kind of plan together, with Sam Wilson. He pulled the car over to the shoulder with a jerk, unbuckled his seatbelt.
“You drive then. You’re the one who’s supposed to know where to go, how to fix this.”
They changed spots, Sam adjusting the steering wheel as aggressively before pulling back out onto the highway. Bucky faced the window, keeping his mouth determinedly shut. Eventually his eyes drifted shut as well.
Violent shaking snapped him back into awareness. It was dark out, punctuated only by the orange glow of the sparse streetlights.
“Fuck!” Sam yanked the car off the rumble strip back into their lane.
“Maybe you could try not killing us before we have a chance to save Steve?” Bucky asked.
Sam rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I can’t keep my eyes open over here. And we’re not even close yet.”
It had been almost two solid days of non-stop driving. One of them sleeping at a tortuous angle in the passenger seat, eating an endless supply of crackers and jerky from roadside convenience stores, pissing in bottles to avoid stopping.
“We’ve got to find somewhere to stop,” said Sam.
“There isn’t anywhere.” Bucky gestured out at the flat openness with his metal hand.
“There’s always something. Next sign for lodging, we stop for the night. The IDs and credit card are in the dash.”
Bucky shuffled through the stack of passports and driver’s licenses from various states. Steve’s was on the top of the pile. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Sam watching. Hurriedly, Bucky fished their two IDs out and shoved the rest away out of sight.
“There!” cried Bucky. Up ahead in the distance was a shimmering light.
“Hallelujah for that,” said Sam.
The sign read Hotel La Branche in yellow neon lights shaped like arcing tree branches. Although the pavement was dry, the light reflected off it with startling brightness. It was weird, Sam thought, not just odd, but weird in the way that he’d read about way back in honors English, in poems about unknowable creatures and otherworldly lands. The golden light left spots in his eyes. He was about to say something, ask Barnes to take over driving again and push on. But Bucky had already slung his duffel over one shoulder, gathered the accumulated wrappers and empty coffee cups and was making for the sliding glass doors. Sam followed.
Inside, the place was stunningly, comfortingly average. Tiled foyer gave way to a carpet that looked in good condition, if a bit sun-faded. Everything painted a not quite tasteful pale green or wallpapered in eggshell. A spotty-faced young man sat at the reception desk. He checked them in without asking for identification and handed over two key cards. There was a name tag on the man’s jacket. Sam read the name, a reflex to gather information about his surroundings, file it away for later if needed. But as soon as he was four feet away, he realized he’d forgotten it. Something common- Joe or Tom maybe? Or Steve? Why did he think it was Steve? His brain tripped the way it did when he needed to recall the name of a movie or book he knew beyond well but which existed temporarily only as the outlined absence of itself. Who did he know named Steve?
Bucky turned to stare and, embarrassed, Sam realized he’d spoken aloud.
“What the hell, Wilson?” he hissed, “Don’t shout it from the rooftops, would you?”
“Sorry, just- tired I guess,” apologized Sam. “Hey, what was the guy’s name? At the desk?”
Bucky frowned. “Jack.” He’d taken too long to answer. If Sam was vigilant, Bucky was paranoid. He’d have clocked the man’s name, hat size and star sign from a five minute conversation. Yet Sam would have sworn that Bucky was guessing.
Their room was on the second floor, down a hallway that started off smelling of lemon-scented cleaners and ended with the scent of over-chlorinated pool water. There were two double beds.
Of course, the man at the desk didn’t even ask if they wanted one bed or two, thought Sam. Not that he wanted to share a bed with Barnes. But still. Assumptions sucked.
One bed had a firm mattress and old scratchy sheets. The other had soft sheets and a mattress that sagged in the middle.
“Get some sleep.” Sam threw his jacket down on the right-hand bed, the one that didn’t slope inward. “I want to be on the road tomorrow at stupid o’clock.” Barnes merely grunted in agreement.
It was 11:45 a.m. The digital clock blinked at Sam from the night stand. “Shit, shit, shit!”
They were back in the car, with a new map snagged from the rack of brochures in the foyer and all the slightly stale Danishes from the continental breakfast by twelve o’clock. The hotel grew smaller and vanished behind them.
The mood in the car had started off ugly and grew uglier with each passing mile.
“Are you kidding me, we’re fucking lost?”
“Who’s a useless goddamn navigator now, huh Barnes?”
They passed blame back and forth like the sun-warmed bottle of Gatorade Sam had found beneath the seat. They drove in a straight line but never seemed to be where they should have been. Fifteen hours later, the nondescript sedan turned off the highway, and they were back in the parking lot lit by the golden neon sign.
Bucky stared at the sign. The winding script in its tree-trunk shape seemed bigger than he remembered. The tails of the fluorescent letters curling down in to a pattern he assumed was meant to evoke roots. To him, it looked more like fingers, grasping, not quite reaching. Not yet. Bucky shook his head, told himself not to let his broken head completely fuck this up if he could possibly manage it, please and thank you. He trailed Sam back inside.
Gentle piano music filled the lobby. A young woman with close-cropped brown hair sat at the upright piano, playing something that seemed to have no real end or beginning. She watched them approach the desk, her hands never stopping on the keys. By her feet sat a sleek black Labrador. An old man with grey, tonsured hair sat in one of the square armchairs reading a newspaper. He glanced up as Sam and Bucky made their way to the desk.
“Back again so soon?”
Bucky shied, wary and unequipped to handle this sudden overture from a stranger. Sam steered him to the desk and turned to the man. “GPS got us all turned around.” He smiled sheepishly.
“They do that out here.” The old man rose stiffly from his chair and pulled a folded map from the display in the entryway. “Here,” he held the map out to Sam, “Try this one. Don’t suppose you know how to make head nor tail of such a thing as a road atlas?”
Sam took the map, smiled his thanks. “I think I can manage.”
They walked back to their room, avoiding further argument by saying nothing at all. Bucky ordered a 6 a.m. wake-up call before tumbling into a bottomless sleep.
The next day they woke up past noon. Continental breakfast had been cleared away an hour ago, so Bucky stockpiled supplies from the overpriced hotel kiosk while Sam bent over the map, planning their route. They set off north at two. By sundown, they were back again.
“Damned highways are like a maze,” Bucky said squinting at the map. He sat in the lounge for an hour, scratching the old Labrador’s silky black ears while the woman played the piano and Sam stretched his legs walking aimlessly up and down the hallways. It was one of the better evenings Sam had spent in the past months.
On the third day, Sam woke up at nine. He’d been sitting with a cup of coffee for half an hour before the crashing realization that they had to go. They got in the car and the arguments started. The map looked like nothing at all. They got out of the car. Walking through the parking lot, the tension lifted. By the time they reached the lobby, they were loose and easy, all insults forgotten, all failures forgiven.
Bucky took the left-hand bed. His bed.
On the fourth day, they took their spare clothes to the guest laundry. Better to get everything clean now, while they had the opportunity. After, Sam hesitated halfway through placing his newly folded t-shirts into the drawer. He stared down into the open drawer, something nagging at him.
“You ok?” asked Bucky from where he sat, channel surfing, on his bed.
“Feels like I needed to do something,” said Sam.
Bucky pondered this for a moment. “Those pants ought to go on a hanger,” he said finally.
“Right,” agreed Sam.
The presence of other people had not felt natural to Bucky since before he could remember. Even on his own, trying to live his life with his head down and his guard up, surrounded by city dwellers who saw stranger things than him on a daily basis, he had still felt conspicuous. He’d had to pick his way around crowds, choose whether to make or avoid eye contact.
In this place though- there were people, but they were few, and felt far enough away not to grate on him. Kids running up and down the corridor. People in the elevator, everyone facing the same way, not speaking, giving each other that little, neutral not-smile. The hum of televisions in other rooms, background noise twice removed. Bucky reveled in the peaceful anonymity.
There were just enough touches of other personalities in the common spaces to keep it from feeling institutional: someone’s abandoned baseball with the logo for a tackle shop hanging in the men’s changing room, a deck with only 49 cards in the lounge. He made his own cards out of hotel stationary and played solitaire in the evenings while Sam read one of the dime paperbacks on the hotel’s lending shelf. Probably they should leave soon. Tomorrow or the next day. He hadn’t had a break in so long, neither he nor Sam had really. They needed a little retreat. They deserved it.
Somehow, the car felt smaller than it had before. Sam slid the driver’s seat as far back as it would go on its squeaky runners and still his knees were cramped. His back spasmed almost the moment he slid behind the wheel. He stepped out of the car again. There was a pop as his spine released the tension from that sitting in that car. There was no way he’d be driving out of here in that thing. No rational person could expect him to, and ruin his bones like that. Better to wait for someone to come along who’d be willing to sell. They were supposed to change cars anyway, to hide their trail. Really, staying put was the only thing that made sense.
Adirondack chairs were stupidly comfortable, Bucky thought, enjoying the afternoon sun on the back patio. He’d like to have one, someday. If he ever had things again. But he wouldn’t. Couldn’t. He’d never have anything of his own, so why not stay in this chair, right here? Why should he ever move?
Later, he met the pianist with the dog rolling a tennis ball down the length of the hallway outside his room. The dog invited him into conversation, pushing his soft muzzle against Bucky’s leg with endless doggy hope. He scratched the dog’s rump, and learned that the young woman was named Sonia, that she’d had to leave her family, that she was driving to Nashville.
“You must be heading out again soon then?” Bucky asked.
“Oh,” she seemed distracted, slightly surprised by the question, “Yeah. Well- pretty soon. You have no idea how hard it is to find someplace that’ll take Seamus- “ she patted the dog, “He doesn’t like being in the car for so long. It’s nice to have a place he can run off leash. Plus I won’t have a piano of my own when I get there. Couldn’t afford it. So, it’s a good chance to practice.”
“Have you been here long?”
“Not very long.”
The concierge’s chair was the most comfortable one in the lobby. Sam sat there, feet propped against the check-in desk, reading a yellowed paperback from the hotel’s meager lending shelves. The book was a romance, short- barely 120 pages and breezily written. He should have been finished with it in an hour. He’d been sitting there all day. The young clerk, who’s name Sam realized he still did not know, had not materialized once.
Midafternoon some guests arrived. A man and a woman, both hesitating slightly over what name to leave in the registry. The desk clerk was off somewhere, but Sam had been sitting at his place since early morning. It was only right that he should take the money from these two who were so clearly married to other people, take their money and give them a key and directions to park around the back.
“What time does the pool close?” the woman asked.
Sam told her it closed at 10 p.m. He had not been near the pool since they’d arrived. He wasn’t sure he’d even known the hotel had one. Sam shook his head to clear it, blinked fast. Through the glass doors to the lobby, he could see out. Everything past the hotel driveway looked slightly fuzzy. Sam went back to his book- that he could see clear enough.
As evening fell, Bucky wandered from the back patio, around the perimeter of the hotel. He wasn’t planning to go anywhere, only a sudden restlessness had seized him and he had to walk. He turned his steps to the front of the building, through the lobby and stopped. The man behind the desk looked vaguely familiar. For a moment, Bucky stood staring vaguely at the man in the concierge’s jacket. The old feeling of fumbling for a memory that he knew by shape if not by name enveloped him, left him feeling queasy.
“Can I help you?” the man asked, looking up at Bucky with raised eyebrows. His tone was not the well-modulated tones of someone in the hospitality business. The man’s tone was annoyed, familiar. Recognition seized Bucky like a riptide.
“Why are you working at the front desk?” he asked Sam.
There was a pause, as Sam’s face underwent a strange series of expressions before settling on baffled. “What? I’m not.”
“You’re wearing a hotel uniform,” Bucky gestured at him, “And you’re sitting at the desk.”
Sam looked down at himself. He was wearing the cream colored jacket with the hotel name embroidered in red on a patch at the lapel. “I- it was- I was cold. And it was right there.” He sounded unsure of his own words.
“But why are you back there?”
“I don’t know. I was looking for somewhere to sit and… it just seemed like where I should be.” Sam rose quickly, sliding the jacket off and tossing it down behind him.
They looked at each other, both wary of something- possibly each other. Possibly something else.
“Let’s go, Bucky.” Sam was suddenly decisive. He wanted to be away from this place with its affordable mid-tier accommodations and its useless perks. He didn’t want to spend one more night in their white box room with its predictable art and its blank, nothing décor. “I can’t stand this place, it doesn’t even have the balls to be tacky.”
Bucky nodded, relief he didn’t know he needed surging through him. Sam even thought he might have flashed smile. “Ok, we’ll go.”
The problem was, they didn’t know who crashed the car because they couldn’t remember who had been driving. Sam knew that Bucky had crashed them into the sign for the entry ramp, while Bucky swore right back that Sam had been driving too fast and had spun out on some loose gravel and into the safety rail. But of course, neither of those things could be right, because they were still in the La Branche parking lot.
“This… this isn’t right?” Bucky shut his eyes tight, like a man staving off a migraine. “It’s not right, is it Sam?”
There were ugly things on Sam’s tongue. Cruel, hurtful things about how of course there was nothing wrong, nothing except Bucky fucking things up for him and for Steve and for everyone, and— he didn’t want to say these things. Especially not to James Barnes. But they were fighting to get said anyway. “Yeah,” he managed, the words painful as though he had almost no breath to speak them, “Very fucking not right.” Saying what he’d wanted sent a surge of endorphins through him, it felt like a victory. But something else twisted in his chest, tighter and tighter.
There was nowhere to go, but by unspoken agreement they both avoided going inside the hotel. Instead they sat facing each other across a checker set at one of the picnic tables out back. The Labrador Seamus came clicking up to their table, seated himself in the triangle of shade cast by the awning and pushed his wet nose against Sam’s leg.
“Here you go bud.” Bucky emptied some corn chips into his palm and held it out in offering. Seamus snapped it from his hand; a quick snap, the teeth of a spring-loaded trap closing automatically on some poor critter.
“Ouch, shit!” Bucky snatched his hand back. Gingerly, he examined his hand- no break in the skin, but the indentation of the Labrador’s teeth were impressed deeply around his thumb. He and Sam stared at each other.
“You alright?” asked Sam. Bucky nodded, shaking the injured hand.
“Didn’t know he had it in him,” said Bucky, “Always thought he had the best manners of any dog I’d ever met.”
The dog snapped down the chips and whined for more. Sam tossed him the remnants of a muffin. He cautiously placed his palm against the dog’s back, feeling the flex and swell of his trunk as Seamus scarfed down the food.
“Bucky?” There was broken glass in Sam’s voice.
“How does this dog look to you?”
His reflex was to open his mouth and make some ‘ask a stupid question’ dig at Sam. That tone though- that tone cut past the bullshit they slung back and forth at each other as a matter of course. It was an honest question, it demanded an honest answer.
“He looks fine. I mean, he’s not winning any beauty contests, but he looks ok to me.”
Sam took Bucky’s hand by the wrist and pulled him towards the dog. Only for a second before Bucky jerked back. “What the hell?”
“No I mean it,” Sam said, “Here, feel his side.”
With a put upon sigh, Bucky reached down and patted the dog’s sleek flank. Sam’s broad, warm palm covered his own, pressed it against the fur. “What- “ Bucky cut himself off. The words for what his senses were telling him didn’t exist. The body beneath his hand was ridged with protruding bones. The skin felt fragile and papery.
Sam watched his face. “You feel it too?” Bucky nodded, “He’s barely skin and bone.”
They stared at each other again. Twice Sam tried unsuccessfully to start a sentence. “Either we have spontaneously developed a very specific folie à deux, or there is some kind of psychic gaslighting going here.” He studied Bucky. The man looked grey, his shoulders rising and falling too fast, like someone preparing to vomit or hyperventilate or both. Sam gripped his shoulder, squeezed just hard enough. “What is it?”
Bucky swallowed, steadied himself. “Sometimes they would leave the monitors on. I could see what they were doing in other cells, to other people. But they played the wrong audio. The people were screaming, I could see that they were screaming, but the sounds were laughing, singing.” He shut his eyes tight, “This… this feels like that.”
Sam shook him gently by the shoulder. “I’m sorry, man. I’ve said it before but… that place was bullshit.”
Bucky made a noise that tried to be a laugh. “Yeah. It really was.” He opened his eyes. And stared down where his hand still rested against the dog’s back. “Fuck.”
“What, what is it?” asked Sam. Shifting their grip, Bucky slid his hand out from beneath Sam’s palm and pressed the other man’s hand against the dog again.
“Close your eyes.”
Sam cocked his head slightly but did as he was asked. With his eyes shut the smell of unwashed dog was stronger, he could hear the wet, ragged sounds the dog made as he swallowed the last of their lunches. Sam blinked.
The dog was skeletal, matted. Nothing like the clean, happy pet he was familiar with. Now though, his senses were all finally in alignment. Like the tumblers of a lock finally forced free of a jam, clicking into their rightful place. “Jesus,” he breathed.
Bucky stood abruptly. “We have to find Sonia.” Nodding, Sam turned towards the patio door. He pulled it open and they were striding, in step, to the stairs and down the hall to her room, the dog clicking along behind them.
“You know something Sam?” said Bucky, “I think this place is bullshit too.”
“She’s not answering. Break the lock.”
For a moment he thought Barnes might argue, but Bucky merely glanced at him, set his jaw and wrenched the door handle clean out of the door.
The room was dark in that depressing way that only black-out curtains could make a room. The only light spilled in thin streaks across the bed. She’d been dead a while, longer than they’d been there for sure. The sight was terrible but the smell was worse. Whining, Seamus tried to pad over to his owner. Bucky scooped the skinny dog up before he could reach the bed. Gently, Sam lifted the cover off the second bed and draped it over her.
“I’m sorry,” said Sam. They’d returned with the dog to the room they’d been using for a length of time neither can be sure of.
“I’m sorry you’re back in a place where you’re not safe. Where you can’t trust your senses again.”
Bucky swallowed. “Thank you. I’m sorry too. You wouldn’t be in this mess, any of it, if it weren’t for me.”
“Nah, not your fault. It’s what I’d been needing to do, stick my neck out for people who need it. Hard habit to break.”
“I can see why Steve likes you.” For some reason that made Sam flush, it’s the highest praise he can imagine Barnes having to offer. Bucky went on, “Still, doesn’t seem worth the trouble.”
Sam spread his hands in a ‘what can you do?’ motion, sing-songed mostly to himself, “What else can I be but what I am?”
They’ve been taking turns glancing at each other, then away. It’s dumb, but neither can seem to stop. “I’d be in the same kind of mess with or without Steve. Or you.”
Bucky’s eyebrows rose at that, he looked meaningfully around at their surroundings.
“Same shit, different details,” said Sam. “What now? How the fuck do we get out of here?”
“We can’t stay here if there’s no here left,” said Bucky matter-of-factly.
“Sounds good to me. I’m past done with this hospitality-school drop-out bullshit.”
Together, they siphoned gas out of the cars. Many had almost none left, leaving only a trickle for them to collect. “What are the odds that this many people just happened to be driving thirty miles from the next rest stop with barely an eighth of a tank?” Bucky asked as stream of gas from the sixth car sputtered and ran dry. Sam hummed in agreement.
One by one, they checked the rooms for anyone living, finding not a soul. The staff, the families, even the couple Sam remembered checking in himself- there’s no one. Not that these people had all vanished without a trace. There were traces. A pair of men’s dress shoes, blood caked in the treads, a stuffed toy owl, a drawer full of tiny, fine bones.
Still, just in case, they pulled the fire alarm.
The trail of gasoline snaked up and down every hall, through conference rooms, kitchen, lobby, lounge. Sam’s supply ran out in front of the indoor pool. Even empty, the tiled walls feel as though they’re waiting for something to echo. There’s no moon, but light from the sign outside mingles with the eerie blue lights of the pool itself. And then a voice:
“Young man, I would rather you didn’t burn down my hotel.”
Sam turned to see the old man from their second night, impeccably dressed, seated in a deck chair. How had he not noticed the man’s eyes? The whites were nearly grey, the irises such a sickly pale blue they were practically indistinguishable from their surroundings.
“Well I’d rather not spend eternity in a moldering wannabe Howard Johnson’s,” retorted Sam.
The man’s eyes grew even whiter, as though layers of film were building up over the already watery-looking irises. He moved too fast to track, feet sliding across the slick floor with unnatural grace. He seized Sam’s chin, tilted his head back like a disobedient child he was about to give a good talking-to. “This place is extraordinary,” he hissed. “If you don’t see it now… well, you will have plenty of time to reconsider.”
The old hotelier’s grip was bruising, hard enough to bring tears to Sam’s eyes. He choked, “It’s a tomb, and you’re a fucked up old corpse who sucks the life out of anyone who has any.”
“Are they using it? Hmm? This life you accuse me of stealing? Most people go through life never knowing what they want. Why shouldn’t they stay here? They are no less contented here than they are anywhere else in this vast world.”
“As though you knew the first thing about any of them.”
“It is a matter of will. If any of you had the will to leave, why then you would. It was the same way with my wife, my family. It always is. If they had truly desired to get away, well then, they should have been better at it.”
Sam shook his head. “You made this place to keep people trapped. To keep them lost and confused.”
“I keep them alive, don’t I? Where there is life, there is hope. Until I have need of them. And well,” he leaned in, nose to nose with Sam, his teeth perfectly straight and even, normal looking. I can’t see what they really look like-- thought Sam-- he’s not letting me. “Doesn’t everything taste better when it’s fresh?”
Bucky sprinted through endless hallways, doubling back, dithering over right turns or lefts, looking for the place where he’d turned back to find Sam no longer behind him. Finally, thankfully, he could see across the courtyard, into the glass walls of the indoor pool, where there were human shadows moving. He turned, ready to fly back through the maze of the hotel’s ground floor to where Sam is, but already the ground around him seems to be shifting, the pattern in the carpet multiplying into dizzying fractals. Faster to go through, across the courtyard, leaving the huge windows shattered behind him.
Something knocked the old man away from Sam. Oxygen, sharp with the scent of chlorine and copper, rushed back and he fell back against the wall gasping. Bucky and the old hotelier thrashed, slipping and grappling across the wet floor. Bucky, even with his reflexes, his arm and his enhanced strength, unable to fully match a being that had selfishly clung to life for so long, at any cost. The man flung himself on Bucky, tearing at his face, drawing blood- too much blood.
His vision still dancing with black spots, Sam seized the steel pole used to reach the highest of the now-shattered skylights, and thrust it through the creature’s ribs. The blow forced it back, away from Bucky, but Sam paused a breath too long, wrenching the pole in further, and the thing that had trapped them here knocked him back again, his temple cracking against the stone floor. Then the dog, a black shadow illuminated by blue and gold light, leapt on the creature’s back, bore him down and Bucky, a bloody ring in the side of his face, stepped toward it again.
Awareness crept back in as a burning sensation in Sam’s eyes. He blinked, rolled to his side. The sharp scent of too much chlorine scratched at his eyes and throat. Small square impressions gouged his skin where he’d lain too long against the tiled floor. Bright blood dripped from his forehead, diluted to pink where it pooled on the floor and streamed into the bright blue pool water. Slowly, Sam moved his limbs, testing himself, checking in with each extremity. Nothing seemed broken. Where was Bucky? Where was the thing that had attacked them?
Something worse than chlorine seeped into his senses- an earthy, meaty smell. It lay in a heap of unnatural angles, smoke and sludge. Sam ordered himself to absolutely not be sick, then thought, what the hell, that pool can’t be much worse a health hazard than it is now.
Sunlight flooded the solarium. There, flattened against the far wall, squeezing himself into the last vanishing patch of shadow, was Bucky. Sam crawled over to him.
“What- “ Sam began.
“It was dead.” Bucky whimpered, afraid even with the evil lying unmistakably dead not feet away. “I know it was dead, its neck was broken. But then when I woke up, it was burning. It screamed when it burned.”
Jesus, this place, thought Sam, this place had to be one of the inner circles of hell. He looked at Barnes. The man’s skin was blistering where he couldn’t keep it out of the encroaching ray of sunlight. “Spontaneous combustion?” Sam asked with a weak smile. He put himself between Bucky and the light, and Barnes seemed to uncoil slightly in the protection of Sam’s long shadow.
“Last I checked, spontaneous combustion wasn’t catching,” rasped Bucky, “Why can’t I go in the sun?”
Sam seized one of the flimsy cotton towels, wrapped it around Bucky’s exposed arm. “Can you stand? You can’t stay here, it’s too exposed.” He hauled Bucky to his feet. Bucky ducked his head away from the sunlight, hiding his eyes against the curve of Sam’s neck. Sam felt a rush of air, as though Bucky had drawn a quick, deep breath. “C’mon,” he murmured, draping another towel over Bucky’s head like a habit. He led his friend out of that starkly bright, chemical-scented gore.
For three days, Bucky cycled through fevered sleep and more fevered wakefulness. His skin had gone clammy and shrank to fit too tautly over his bones. The first night, Sam had tried to get them both away again. He wrapped Bucky up head to toe, helped him to lie down in the backseat of the car with the most fuel still left, loaded the dog into the passenger seat and made for the highway. He woke up, disoriented, back in the parking lot sometime in midafternoon. Sick fear cramped Sam’s insides and he jerked around, terrified to see what had become of Bucky during his fugue. Bucky lay still, blissfully unaware in the backseat, the blankets securely around him.
Sam did not try to leave again. He brought them all back inside. Another day and night passed, and Bucky’s lips cracked and his gums began to peel back from his teeth. The bite mark on the side of his face was a livid red. The morning after that, Bucky began to dream terrible dreams, and Sam knew he was going to put a stop to this. He found a paring knife in the kitchen, on the way back to their room he stopped at the bar for an unopened bottle of Grey Goose.
There was nothing, and then warmth. Warmth everywhere, driving out the deep cold in Bucky’s bones. His shrunken skin loosened, let him move and think again without splitting himself open.
He woke in the dark, and found that his eyes adjusted quicker than they ever had before. Beside him, Sam lay asleep on the double bed. The artificial lights outside highlighted his rich skin, all the angles of that handsome face. Even battered and unshaven he was lovely. Bucky took in his long lashes, the slope of his nose, the steady rise and fall of his chest. There was a bandage wrapped around one of Sam’s wrists, and when he laid a hand on it, Bucky could feel the heat and pulse of a new wound. At the touch, Sam stirred.
“You have to get out.” Bucky’s whisper was harsh, pained.
Sam let his head loll back, cracked his neck. He’d started doing that too much lately- all that time in the damn car. “The old bastard is dead, and we still can’t get out. Whatever mindfuck he built into this place is still here. It’s still working.” For long moments they stared at the ceiling in mutual despair.
“Maybe we can still get a message out,” Sam began, “Warn Natasha that we’re out of commission. She can get to Steve, they’ll be alright.”
“I’m not worried about them. It’s you- you can’t stay here. This place wears people down until there’s nothing left. It’s caught me but you still have a chance.” Those blue eyes squeezed shut. Bucky went on, more to himself, “You have to still have a chance.”
Shifting onto his elbow, Sam looked down at him. “I can help you, I’ve kept you alive this long.”
“You can’t keep doing that. I won’t let you. You’ll weaken, and then you’ll die.”
“Just until we can both get out,” Sam continued, “Once we’re out- “
“We can’t get out! You just said so yourself! And we can’t wait around for something we haven’t thought of yet. How much blood have you lost already?”
“I’m not leaving without you.” The finality in Sam’s tone was absolute.
They faced each other. Sam’s chest was tight with something that wasn’t quite the old anger, but was still the desire to push back against this man until they found that gorgeous Newtonian balance between them. Next to him, Bucky worried at his lower lip with his teeth. The new, razorblade canines would draw blood.
“Stop that,” Sam reached, unthinking, cupping Bucky’s chin. His thumb pressed against that perfect mouth.
“Don’t tell me what to do.”
Sam relented, feared he’d overstepped. “Sorry.”
“Are you really?”
They were smiling at each other, when had that started? Barnes must have started it, and who could help smiling back at him when he looked like that? “’Course I am.”
The silence between them was warm, even with the tendrils of their argument still woven through it.
“I could make you go,” said Bucky.
“You could try,” answered Sam.
He still held Bucky’s jaw, his thumb resting gently against that sweet dimple. James Barnes had a face made to be cradled in someone’s hands. Sighing, Bucky tilted his head into Sam’s palm. He brought his forehead up, pressing against Sam’s own, mindful of the still-healing cut at his scalp. There were so many points of contact between them- brow to brow, palm to cheek, the curve of one knee pressed against another. Sam felt as though their bones might burn through their skin like hot metal through paper, might meld together entirely.
He brought his hand up around the nape of James’ neck. They were perfectly in sync as they angled towards each other. Sam brought their mouths together. Was there anything as exciting as the feel of those new, fierce teeth against his mouth?
As perfectly as they had fit together to kiss, they were equally clumsy moving past that. Both pushed, trying to roll the other over onto his back, and, failing, each then overcompensated the other way. There was a gentle tug-of-war, back and forth, until Sam lost patience. He slid to his back, pulling Bucky down on top of him. They were both hard, and Bucky writhed spectacularly against Sam, Sam gripping that trim waist between his thighs. It wasn’t enough, not even close. Sam pressed gentle fists against Bucky’s chest and Bucky let go, his eyes open wide in apprehension. With a shake of the head, Sam reassured him. He reached for Bucky’s shirt, peeling it up and over his head, before doing the same with his own.
Bucky was fumbling with his belt, the fastening of his pants. They got both down, then off, and then they were chest to chest, kissing hard again and rocking against one another in what was not yet practiced enough to call a rhythm. It was Bucky who pulled back first this time. He pressed a kiss to the pulse point in Sam’s throat, to his collar bone, sternum, navel.
“Can I?” he asked, looking up at Sam beneath eyelashes Sam had always thought were ridiculously pretty.
He laughed breathlessly, “Man, I hope you know what an insane gesture of trust this is for me.”
“Relax,” said Bucky, “You’re in good hands.” He continued his exploration down Sam’s body.
“Not your hands I’m worried about,” Sam gasped as Bucky enveloped his cock in that clever mouth. “You’ve only had those things a- ah- couple of days.”
Bucky smirked at him, letting Sam fall out of his mouth, “I’m a fast learner.”
Sam woke, splayed across Bucky’s cool chest. There was a thought pinballing around in his head that he couldn’t quite get a glimpse of.
Barnes sighed. “’Morning.”
“It’s not morning.”
“You know what I mean,” Bucky huffed at him with no real animosity. “So would you like to lose the argument to me now or do you want to find something to eat first?”
Sam grinned, “Which argument am I going to lose? Because that’d be a first.”
Bucky smiled back, but shifted his gaze away uncomfortably before speaking. “About how we get you out of here.”
That little steel ball of an idea bounced around in the corners of Sam’s brain, still too slippery to make out. “Man, I told you, you can’t make me- “
“Sam- “ Bucky interrupted. But Sam had gone rigid beside him. That thought ricocheted off their past words and lit up something in his mind that flashed bright lights and sounded a dozen bells.
“Wait! Just wait- “ he pushed himself into a sitting position. “We can’t leave when we want to. Trying to just gives you a temporary lobotomy and questionable taste in reading material. But what if- what if we could leave when we didn’t want to?”
“…How would that work, exactly?” asked Bucky.
“You could make me leave. By force.”
Bucky let this admission pass unremarked. “But you want to leave too.”
“I do now,” said Sam. “But after each attempt it takes what? A day at least before we start to feel how fucked up this place is again. You could force me out then and it wouldn’t be me trying to leave this place.”
Bucky nodded slowly. “Alright,” he said, “It’s worth a shot.”
“I have some damn fine ideas, don’t you think Barnes? If this gets us out of here I expect all due glory.”
A snort. “Please. Your whole plan depends on the fact that I could kick your ass in my sleep if I had to.”
“No way, this is me letting you kick my ass, for the sake of defeating evil. It doesn’t count.”
“If that’s what you want to call it.”
Sam made Bucky stop arguing. Or convinced him there were better things to do. One or the other.