Sam might have been overjoyed to see Steve, but he wasn’t naive enough to think that they were free and clear by any stretch. Clint took the controls from Steve and it didn’t take them long to lose the tail that Ross had called in.
“Steve, can you give me a hand with Wanda?” Sam called as they made land over the coast of Senegal.
Sam already unfastened most of the straps on the reinforced straightjacket she was wearing. He had tried cutting it off but ended up breaking the safety shears. The wasted time didn’t really matter though; Wanda wasn’t really aware enough to notice.
“What happened?” Steve asked as he held up Wanda while Sam cut away her clothes.
Sam tensed and choked on his answer. He focused on cutting, unwilling to answer just yet, but after a moment, Sam realized that Steve had only been asking about Wanda.
“They never let her out of that thing. Someone fed her, gave her water, and helped her use the bathroom twice a day. You can only hold it for so long, you know? We need to get her cleaned up so she doesn’t get skin infections. Help me turn her,” Sam instructed.
Sam worked as quickly as he could while still being thorough. When they laid her back down and covered her with a blanket, Sam started checking her vitals.
“Do you know why she’s non-responsive?” Steve asked.
Sam pursed his lips and laid the stethoscope around his neck. “They drugged her on a pretty regular schedule. See the needle marks on her thigh? I guess she did enough damage in Berlin that they didn’t want to take any chances. But it’s probably got a lot to do with dehydration and lack of food, too.”
Sam could see the weariness on Steve’s face as he scrubbed his palms over his face. Sam felt the same way too, though for different reasons. But bothering Steve wasn’t going to make it easier for any of them, so he kept his mouth shut and placed an IV in Wanda’s hand.
An hour after they made landfall, they picked up an escort from the Wakandan Air Force and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. An hour after that, Wanda started to come around. Sam busied himself checking her vitals again while Steve held her hand. Sam was glad for the distraction, because Steve was watching him like a hawk -- every cough, every wince, every aborted groan had Steve on alert, asking Sam if he was sure he was alright.
When they landed in Wakanda, medical transport was waiting. Wanda was shuttled into an ambulance and Sam, Clint, and Scott all waved Steve off.
“Just go, man. She needs someone with her,” Sam told him. He would never admit it, but Sam just wanted Steve gone. Without him, Sam could fly under the radar and avoid going to medical. Besides, it wasn’t like medical could do anything for the funk he was in.
T’Challa’s staff shuttled the three of them to a guest house. There were rooms for everyone, including Steve and Wanda, when they returned. There were also changes of clothes in their sizes and a hot meal on the table.
The pull of fresh food was more enticing than the promise of a warm shower. Sam happily sat down and plated himself up hearty servings of greens, something resembling stew, one of the several tortilla-looking things, and then went to rummage for a fork in the kitchen. So while Clint and Scott took turns getting cleaned up, Sam ate his fill. His aching body demanded more food than theirs did at the moment, he figured. By the time he had finished two whole plates of whatever delicious thing dinner had been, Scott and Clint were back, and Sam went off to use what hot water was left.
The shower stung on his broken skin, but not enough to deter him. Washing the smell of the past week off of his body and letting the heat loosen up his muscles felt amazing. He stood under the spray and tipped his head back, just letting the water run over his face.
Suddenly, the world inverted, and he couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move his body no matter hard he tried, the restraints cutting into his wrists and ankles, bruising his sides and legs as he thrashed. The water was in his nose and his mouth and his throat. He swore that he could feel it sloshing in his lungs. Sam managed to stumble out of the shower, only to slip on the floor and go down hard. He struggled to sitting, his ribs shooting bolts of pain through his side, but he stayed bunched up on the cold tile floor dripping wet and shaking, the shower still running.
He pulled himself up and sat naked on the floor and just breathed. Sam had just started trying to count his breaths when someone knocked on the bathroom door.
“Hey, Sam? You alright in there? Sounded like you fell down,” Clint called.
Sam clenched his fists and swallowed. “Yeah, I’m alright. Still feeling it from the fight you know? I think the shower was just too hot, got a little dizzy is all.”
There was a pause. “Lemme go call someone. I think you need to be checked out, man.”
Sam really could have done without this. “Really, I’m fine now. I’m just gonna take it easy for a few days.”
“Alright. Holler if you need anything,” Clint replied.
Clint sounded reluctant as all hell. Sam knew he would be too if their places were reversed, but he didn’t care. All he needed was some time to himself with no one touching him. Just a few days to decompress and he’d be alright. Sam rhythmically clenched and unclenched his hands and counted his breaths.
After another half hour, Sam pried himself from the floor and turned off the water. He was mostly dry, but he toweled off anyway and then mopped up the puddle on the floor. Once he was dressed, he made his way to an empty bedroom and lay down to sleep.
Steve and Wanda joined them around midmorning the next day. Sam was glad to see that Wanda was feeling better and seemed to be in relatively good spirits -- hugging them all and looking generally less haunted than when he had last seen her, though her smiles were still a bit tight. They all sat around the living room, and Steve recounted the sequence of events after the airport fight. Sam wanted to say he couldn’t believe that Stark would attack Bucky like that, but the unfortunate truth was that he would have been surprised if Stark hadn’t.
Wanda didn’t want to talk about what happened on the Raft. Sam figured that the indignities of having her bathroom needs handled by unsympathetic male guards were still fresh. Steve mentioned something about the last of the drugs they gave her taking a while to leave her system. Detoxing seemed to be leaving her wide open emotionally, if her physical proximity to Steve was any indicator.
Clint and Scott on the other hand complained a mile a minute about the food, the temperature, the periodic and seemingly random rough handling, the seasickness, the lights, and a thousand other things, but Sam was glad to note that neither of them had anything too serious to mention.
“What about you Sam?” Steve asked when Scott and Clint had stopped talking.
Sam shook his head and uncrossed his arms, trying to look as relaxed as possible. Definitely not protecting his ribs, the ones he figured were cracked. “Nah, same as them. I got nothing to add.”
Sam immediately felt every set of eyes on him and he tensed. Finally, Clint spoke.
“You were gone a lot, and you usually didn’t look so good when they brought you back. Are you sure?”
Sam’s gaze went steely. “I said I didn’t have anything to say.”
Clint put his hands up in surrender. “My bad. I just wanted to check in was all.”
Sam breathed out hard and carefully relaxed his hands, which he had bunched into fists. When he looked up, Steve was staring right at him in a way that let Sam know he wasn’t fooling anyone.
Sam developed a cough after lunch, but he managed to hide it for the rest of the day. After he went to bed, though, it got substantially worse. Laying flat made it nearly impossible to breathe. Sitting up helped, but he kept having to cough to get whatever this was out of his lungs, and he ended up spending most of his time hunched over coughing and spitting into a cup.
Sam was trying to pant through the pain in his ribs and the feeling of water in his chest when someone knocked on the door.
“Sam, are you okay?” Steve called out.
Sam hung his head and hoped that he could convince Steve to just go back to bed. He was sure that he’d feel better if he could just get some decent sleep.
“Yeah, man. I’ve just got a cold,” he called back. The force of speaking had Sam coughing and hacking again.
“Sam, I’m coming in,” Steve called.
Sam would have protested, but he was too busy coughing to say anything. Steve sat on the bed next to him and put his too hot hand on Sam’s forehead.
“God, you’re burning up, Sam. Hang tight. I’m getting help,” Steve said and turned to leave the room.
Sam could hear Steve on the phone in the other room calling for an ambulance. He wanted to argue but, since he couldn’t talk and it was Steve he would be arguing with, he saved his breath. The phone clicked as Steve put it back on the receiver and Sam listened, in between his coughs, as Steve walked down the hall back to Sam’s room.
“Help’s coming,” Steve explained as he handed Sam an empty cup and took the other to dump it in the bathroom.
Sam’s head was swimming when Steve sat down beside him and dropped new set of pajamas on the bed next to him.
“Steve, what the hell-” Sam started to ask before being wracked by another round of coughing.
“You’ve got a fever, and you’ve sweated through all your clothes. I think you’ve got pneumonia. Just let me help you change before the ambulance gets here,” Steve explained.
Sam gave up and helped Steve peel the wet clothing away. Steve gave Sam a hand towel to wipe himself dry with, and with a little help, Sam got the most of the sweat off. By the time they were done, Sam was beginning to think that Steve was right about this hospital business. He barely had the energy to sit back up and stay that way. When Sam leaned forward to cough, Steve moved in to sit behind behind Sam and slipped an arm around him for Sam to rest on. He gently percussed Sam’s back, carefully avoiding the swaths of bruising he must have seen when Sam changed, until Sam caught his breath.
The touching involved in the clothing change had been bearable, but with Steve so close to him, Sam wanted to scream. He wanted Steve to be anywhere else as long as it was out of his personal space, and at the same time he wanted to cry in Steve’s arms. In the end though, Sam settled for just breathing and coughing.
Sam didn’t put up a fight. Once the paramedics took his vitals, Sam could see how bad off he was, and he complied the best he could. Nonetheless, knowing the point of complying didn’t make it easy. The paramedics strapped him to the stretcher, and Sam had to clench his fists not to punch one of them, the similarity to his experiences with Ross’ men too close for comfort. Steve grabbed Sam’s hand as they rolled him out to the ambulance, but thankfully, he didn’t offer any of the obnoxious empty platitudes that most people would have.
The ride to the hospital was relatively quick, given that they were flying through the capital city with sirens wailing. Steve was relegated to the waiting room while Sam was hurried off to radiology. By the time that they let him come back, Sam was already settled in a room with oxygen and an IV.
Sam was partially conscious and blinked lazily when Steve sat down next to him.
“Hey, Sam. Why don’t you take it easy and go to sleep?” Steve offered. “I’ll take first watch.”
Sam pulled off a lazy smile, but devolved into another coughing fit.
It went on like that through the night. Sam slept in spurts, but they were always punctuated by coughing fits. He sweated through two hospital gowns by morning, and his vitals were getting steadily worse.
“We do not know why the medications are not working, but the infection is not responding to traditional antibiotics,” the doctor explained with a thick Wakandan accent and a grave expression.
Sam didn’t need any more explanation to know how bad it could get, if this didn’t begin to turn around. He’d pulled men out of prison camps before when he was a PJ. Pneumonia went quick, and he had more than a few healthy looking men walk out of a rescue and then drop dead two days later. His fingers bunched in the covers.
“Any idea why not?” Steve asked.
The doctor shrugged. “Any number of infections could be acquired in a prison setting. We have sent sputum and blood samples to the lab, but it can take several days to get results, depending on what we are looking at. If you could give us a clearer picture of the people you came into contact with, we might be able to tailor the treatment based on their symptoms as well.”
Steve turned to Sam, and Sam looked away. He had maintained his honor in the face of coercion. There was nothing to discuss. Or at least there hadn’t been until now.
“Hey, Sam,” Steve said as he put a hand on Sam’s. “Whatever it is-”
“They waterboarded me,” he bit out.
The doctor nodded and began typing on his tablet, professionally nonplussed by the revelation. “There are specific medications for pneumonia resulting from near-drowning. These treatments will likely yield better results. We will get those started right away. Excuse me. I will get a nurse.”
The doctor hastily left to collect the needed medications, and Steve squeezed Sam’s hand.
“Sam, if you need-”
Sam turned a heated glare on Steve and pulled his hand away. “Shut up. I don’t need your pity.”
“I understand. Do you need me to go?” Steve asked.
It felt like a knife twisted in Sam’s chest when Steve asked, but bitterly Sam took him up on the offer, just to be able to make someone leave him alone. Even if that meant having Steve leave. “Yeah, why don’t you?”
Before Steve could stand up, Sam had another coughing fit. Steve moved to grab the tray Sam had to cough into, but Sam put out his hand to stop him. He managed to grab the little rolling cart by the bed on his own and drag it to himself, ribs be damned. Sam spit in the tray and lifted his head long enough to growl out, “Go,” at Steve before coughing again.
“Alright, I’ll go, but I’m coming back tonight,” Steve declared.
By the time Sam leaned back against the bed and resituated the oxygen mask on his face, Steve was gone.
Sam spent the day coughing, sleeping, and eating as much as he could, which wasn’t much. He was on an unrestricted calorie diet to make up for the energy he was burning to fight the infection, but even so, he wasn’t terribly hungry. Periodically, the nurses came to draw blood or fiddle with the IV, and a respiratory therapist visited once, but mostly they left him alone. Sam figured out how to drag himself to the bathroom unassisted, even though they told him to call for help if he needed to get up.
Steve reappeared shortly after dinner carrying a stack of linens, towels, a pillow, and a fresh hospital gown.
“You moving in?” Sam asked. He was glad to see Steve, but rather than just admit it, he threw barbs instead.
Steve dropped the things in the chair by the bed. “Nope. You’ve got pneumonia and you’ve been sweating most of the day. It stinks in here.”
Steve stopped and looked at Sam. “Look, I had pneumonia at least once a year growing up. I know what it does to you. I know how it smells and how it feels.” Steve looked down and then sat on the edge of the bed, not touching Sam. “When I was a kid, my ma could move me around and clean me up herself when I got it like this, but as I got older Bucky would come over and help her. I hated it. But I also know that it made me feel better, rest better, and heal up quicker once I get clean. It’s what you need. So it’s me or that male nurse I passed when I came in. Take your pick.”
Sam bit the inside of his lip. He wanted to talk Steve into getting him into the shower, where he could clean himself up in relative privacy, but the thought of sitting under the water, especially after what happened last time, made his stomach turn. Sam knew that he didn’t have the energy for an anxiety attack again, and Steve was a better option than letting someone he couldn’t trust touch him.
Steve nodded but didn’t say anything as he gathered the supplies. Sam watched as Steve put a plastic tub of warm water on the tray next to the bed, along with a stack of washcloths. He reminded himself that the washcloths and water had a different purpose with Steve and tried to focus on the far wall as he waited.
Keep your mouth shut. Don’t look them in the eye. Don’t watch what they’re doing to you. Breathe.
Sam breathed and clenched his fists. After a few minutes, when nothing happened, Sam let his eyes drift and he caught sight of Steve just sitting on the edge of the bed.
“Ready?” Steve asked.
Sam looked down at the covers, ashamed that he had compared a fucking sponge bath to waterboarding. The tension in his chest and his shallow breathing abruptly turned into coughs. Steve helped him sit up and gently thumped his back until he could catch his breath again.
Sam lay back against the bed, exhausted again. No matter how little he wanted this, he wanted even less to show how terrified he was. So he pulled his head up and met Steve’s eyes. “Bath time?”
Steve nodded and cracked a small smile. “Bath time,” he repeated.
For all Sam expected it to be awkward and awful, it wasn’t. Steve clearly knew what constituted a decent wipe-down when you felt like you were dying. He also knew how not to take the last of Sam’s dignity with it. Steve unbuttoned Sam’s gown and let it pool in his lap while he wiped down Sam’s chest, stomach, back, arms, hands, neck, and even his face. And Sam would never admit it, but it felt good. Steve was gentle. His hands were strong but not forceful and Sam felt relaxed, secure. By the time Steve moved on to Sam’s legs, he was nearly asleep.
Steve switched to a clean washcloth and went to get fresh water before he got started.
“Hey, Sam. I’m gonna leave your gown in your lap, but I’m taking the blanket, alright?” Steve warned. He pulled the blanket off and dropped it to the floor.
Sam blinked groggily. “Yeah, fine,” he murmured.
When he was done, Steve switched the water again and grabbed another rag.
“Here, you can get your privates,” Steve said as he extended the washcloth to Sam.
Sam was grateful that Steve understood that some things you had to do yourself. While Sam cleaned himself, Steve stayed conveniently occupied by pretending to fold or unfold or examine the fresh linens.
“I’m done,” Sam finally announced.
Steve snagged the clean gown and Sam peeled the old one away and dropped it on the floor. Between the two of them, they got Sam dressed. Steve pulled the chair around the side of the bed and helped Sam into it while he changed the sheets and blankets. When Sam stumbled trying to get back in, Steve just lifted him like a sheet of paper.
A small part of Sam was indignant as hell about that, but another part didn’t want Steve to put him down. Steve was warm and didn’t smell like sickness, the Raft, the ocean, or the hospital. He was reassuring, safe, and familiar.
Tucked into bed and warm, Sam had to admit, at least to himself, that Steve had been right about this whole bathing business. He felt more human and slightly more alive. Though it had likely been hours, Sam finally registered that his fever had broken. The knowledge that he was taking a turn for the better, combined with the warm weight of Steve’s hand on his, lulled him to sleep.
Steve was still sitting in the too-small plastic chair next to the bed when Sam woke up in the morning. He wasn’t surprised -- Steve had been there all night to help him with his coughing fits, get him water, and get him a bedside urinal when he needed to piss. Still, in the daylight, it felt a lot less like comfort and a lot more like hovering.
He lay there looking at the ceiling, knowing that Steve could tell he was awake, but not saying anything. Sam was a counselor. He knew the routine. You talk about it. You process. You find a support person you can trust. You get a therapist. But that first step -- being willing to talk -- seemed too big and too much.
When an orderly brought breakfast to the room, Sam was glad that he didn’t have to figure out a way out of the silence himself. They ate quietly, and when Sam cleaned his plate, Steve went and got him another. Sam managed to put away half of his second helping and Steve finished the rest, bottomless pit that he was.
Sam managed to stay silent in the face of Steve’s earnest concern until the respiratory therapist arrived for his morning evaluation. Steve sat silently, looking deeply concerned, while Sam completed the exercises.
Sam quietly nursed his ribs while Steve talked with the RT. Ross’ men had worked him over pretty thoroughly after Stark visited the Raft. Ross knew something had passed between Sam and Stark when the audio on their security feed had gone out. He made it clear that he wanted to know what it was.
A while after Stark left and Ross’ men had had their fun, Ross came in sounding regretful that Sam hadn’t chosen to help them before something serious had happened. All Sam had heard was that Steve and Bucky had gotten away and he laughed in Ross’ face. The punishment had been swift.
When they grew bored beating a man who couldn’t fight back, they sent him back to his cell with instructions to keep his mouth shut about it all.
Sam already knew why. The others weren’t being interrogated. And why would they be? He had been Steve’s closest friend for the past two years. If anyone knew something of tactical importance, he did. But he had to wonder if it weren’t something else, too. Scott and Clint were two white guys with kids and Wanda was a teenage girl. If anything like file dump in DC were ever to go down again, he knew he was the logical choice. No one would bat an eye at torturing a Black man, regardless of his military service or innocence.
But that aside, there was a strategy. There was a point to their rules and the point was for him to weather it alone. To isolate him. To deprive him not only of the support of his peers but to make his suffering invisible to them as well, so that the only people who could know or relate or touch him were his captors. Sam knew what they were doing. They did it in code of conduct. It broke their group cohesiveness. It broke morale. It built social dependence on the interrogators. Sam knew what they were doing, and it worked anyway.
So while Steve talked to the RT, Sam tuned him out and kept his mouth shut. He knew the rules didn’t apply anymore, but he couldn’t quite turn it off. It didn’t help that Steve and this other person were talking about him and around him but not with him. He told himself they weren’t true, but the feelings of invisibility and isolation pressed in anyway.
Sam mentally shook himself. Get a grip. The Raft hadn’t been the first time he’d felt invisible in a group of white people, and he doubted it would be the last. Getting emotional over Steve talking to the RT was hardly worth the effort after thirty-seven years of being ignored.
Sam jolted out of this thoughts and looked up at Steve. The RT was nowhere to be seen.
Steve nodded at the door. “He just left. You wanna talk about it?”
Sam tensed. Of course he wanted to talk about it. He wanted to scream about it and cry about it. He also didn’t want to think about it or relive it or bring it up ever again. But more importantly, he also didn’t want someone to hurt because he talked about it. Staying silent had kept them all safe -- Steve, Bucky, Clint, Scott, and Wanda. His silence would keep them all safe now too. Don’t try to fix what wasn’t broken.
“No. Wanda could probably use your company, though,” Sam finally answered.
Steve frowned. “Wanda is with Clint. She’s doing well enough talking with him, and she was assigned a therapist before she left the hospital. I can be spared here.”
Sam gritted his teeth. “I just need some time to myself.”
Steve stood up. “That’s all you had to say. Come back tonight?”
Sam nodded and looked back down at the bed. “Sure.”
Steve put his hand on Sam’s and squeezed briefly. “See you then. Call me if you need me to bring you anything, alright?”
Sam nodded and finally made eye contact. He felt like it sapped the last of his energy. “Yeah, I will.”
Steve nodded and quietly left. Sam closed his eyes. He tried to count his breaths, but they rattled in his chest and he lost count every time he had another coughing fit. Eventually, his exhaustion was enough to overwhelm his anxiety and memories and he slept until lunch.
In all, Sam spent four days in the hospital. Steve stayed the nights with him and left after breakfast. After the bath that Steve gave him, Sam managed to muster the strength to do it himself. He didn’t chance the shower. The risk of an anxiety attack wasn’t something he was willing to face just yet, but he could still get himself clean, and that’s what counted.
Sam left with a small bag of pill bottles, a ream of follow-up instructions, and an appointment card for a psychologist that found its way to the trash can before they made it out of the hospital. Late in the afternoon, a driver shuttled them back to the small guest house they shared. Clint, Scott, and Wanda were playing rummy at the kitchen table when Sam shuffled in slowly, Steve trailing like a guard dog.
“Sam!” Wanda called. She got up and hurried to Sam and hugged him warmly. “We missed you. I’m glad that you’re alright.”
Sam tried on a tired smile that he hoped wasn’t too fake. “Thanks Wanda. I missed you too. I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
Wanda nodded tiredly and Sam understood without her saying anything. It would just take time.
Clint and Scott stayed in their places at the table, their body language clearly non-threatening and open. Hands on the table at all times. Sam seethed. This was why he didn’t talk about it. The kid gloves were unnecessary.
Without preamble, Scott jumped in and started to ramble. “I, uh, I made some dinner stuff. I mean, I’m not a great cook and the food they bring us is good, but it’s kinda weird, you know? Anyway, so I made some American food. I thought maybe you might want something like that for a change. And, uh, anyway. Wow, yeah, I’m glad you’re back, man.”
Sam nodded. “Thanks, man. I’ll get some here in a bit. I’m gonna go lie down. I’m still pretty tired.”
Clint nodded and looked at his hand before laying the cards on the table. “Let us know if you need anything.”
Sam nodded, ready to sleep for a week. Social interaction was exhausting. “Sure. Thanks.”
He plodded down the hall to his room and Steve bustled in behind him.
Steve put his hands up. “I’m just making sure you got everything you need, and then I’m gonna go play a few hands with them.”
Sam nodded and sat on the bed by way of falling in the general direction of the mattress. He tugged at his shoes while Steve peeled back the covers. As soon as Sam lay down though, he began to cough and he clutched at his ribs. The bed in the hospital had been tilted so that he was partially sitting up. Being flat was instantly suffocating.
Steve immediately pulled Sam back up to sitting and grabbed him a cup to spit into as he coughed. When Sam had caught his breath, Steve stood up.
“I’ll be back. There are extra pillows in the hall closet,” he explained.
Sam sighed internally. The sense of helplessness that had crept in as the interrogations went on was starting to come back. In the hospital, it made sense that he couldn’t do everything for himself, even if he damn near insisted on it, but he was well enough to be discharged now. He shouldn’t need someone to help prop him up in bed with extra pillows like a helpless child. As Steve arranged the pillows on the bed and helped situated him, Sam carefully kept his mouth shut.
“It’ll be a while before you can lay flat again without feeling like you’re about to die. Just take it easy for now. We’re all just down the hall, if you need anything. Here’s a phone so you don’t have to shout yourself into a coughing fit. Get some sleep,” Steve instructed and he laid the small flip phone on the side table.
Sam nodded both in gratitude and also to help hurry Steve from the room. Once the door clicked shut, Sam stared the ceiling and clenched his fists. Feelings of weakness and inadequacy washed over him. He reminded himself that he wasn’t weak. Weakness would have been spilling about Steve and Bucky, and he hadn’t done that. Weakness would have been putting Clint, Wanda, or Scott in any more danger than he could help, and he hadn’t done that either. Still, he wondered if Steve would still be as dedicated if he knew how Sam had cried and begged and pleaded after the hours of interrogation right before Steve had broken them out.
It didn’t matter, Sam told himself. He turned his thoughts to the indoctrination from SERE and repeated what he had been taught.
I returned with honor.
Sam repeated it in his head until he realized... he hadn’t. He was a fugitive hiding from his own country with no strategy to ever return, honor or no.
He had repeated the Code of Conduct to himself in the times when he was alone. It had been drilled into him all through PJs and SERE, but honestly, what did it mean if he was a labelled a traitor? Had he been fooling himself to think that holding out for Steve had been honorable? What the hell did it mean to resist interrogation as an American when the people he was fighting were Americans themselves? The idea that any of what he had been telling himself was false undercut his entire belief system, and he felt like the last thing anchoring him to Earth had been cut away.
Sam knew in that moment that, days after his escape, they’d still done it. They had found their in with him. Another day of interrogation, another hour of rationalizing and propaganda, another minute of waterboarding -- Sam knew he would have given them anything he had, because he didn’t know who he was or why he was fighting.
With what little energy he had, Sam sat up and leaned against the wall. He pulled his knees to his chest and wrapped himself tightly in a blanket, as though that would be enough to keep himself together and keep the world out. Sam watched the door to his room and cried until he couldn’t see past his knees.
Sam wasn’t sure how long it went on, but eventually his gasping sobs brought more than the occasional cough. He found himself doubled at the waist hacking and gasping for breath, not coughing up anything, but barely breathing all the same.
The door cracked open, startling Sam into further coughs. Sam was sure that at this rate his cracked ribs would be broken ones in the next couple of days.
“Hey, man. Lemme help you out,” Clint said as he grabbed a cup of water.
Sam knew that tears lingered on his face but Clint had undoubtedly already seen. He wouldn’t let himself look so weak as to have to wipe them away like he was hiding something.
Sam took the cup with resignation and drank. While Sam drank, Clint dumped the spit cup and grabbed some toilet paper. Sam accepted the tissue and blew his nose. His crying had mostly resolved itself and, after a few more sips of water, his coughing fit seemed to resolve as well. Clint sat on the bed with Sam as his breathing evened out again.
When Clint didn’t speak, Sam turned to him, already angry for the intrusion. “Did you need something, Barton, or were you just planning to hang out for a while?”
Clint shrugged, seemingly unfazed by Sam’s obvious ire. “Just wanted to see if you were alright I guess... Are you alright?”
Sam glared at Clint and then turned away. “I don’t need to talk.”
“Never said you did. Just asked if you’re alright."
Sam rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’m fucking peachy. We done?”
Sam breathed a sigh of relief. “Great. Get out.”
Clint put up his hands in defeat but didn’t say anything and he silently vacated the room. Sam lay back on the mountain of pillows and stared at the ceiling. After the exhaustion of his crying jag, he fell asleep in moments.
There was a knock at the door and Sam startled awake. “Hey, Sam. Dinner’s ready. You coming?” called Steve.
Sam mentally groaned. Fuck no, he thought.
“Yeah, I’ll be there in a minute,” he called out instead. He might not want to be there, and he might not know who he was, but damned if he would lie around and wallow like a baby. So he scraped together some dignity and rolled out of bed.
He made his way out of his room and shuffled to the bathroom. Once he caught sight of himself in the mirror, Sam swore. He looked like death warmed over, though only slightly warmed. He rummaged around and found a new razor and some shaving cream and shaved everything off. In the absence of energy and a decent electric trimmer, Sam wasn’t about to fool around with his normal style. It looked a little strange at first, not having facial hair, but Sam figured that it beat the hell out of the vagrant look that he had been sporting just a few minutes ago.
After that, Sam grabbed a fresh washcloth and cleaned up the smelliest parts of himself all while studiously ignoring the fact that there was a perfectly functional shower right behind him. He wrung out the washcloth and tossed it in the hamper. In the spirit of delaying, he brushed his teeth before finally shambling out to the table.
“Hey, looking good,” Scott declared as Sam sat down.
“How are you feeling?” Steve asked before Sam could respond to Scott.
Sam shrugged. “Alright, I guess. I got some decent sleep earlier.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Clint said you had a pretty bad spell earlier. Sorry I wasn’t here. Wanda and I have been going for walks to the botanical garden in the afternoons. It’s beautiful there,” Steve explained.
Wanda nodded and put down her injera and began to move her hands animatedly as she tried to swallow. “Oh Sam,” she said when her mouth was finally empty, “when you have the energy, you have got to visit the garden. It’s incredible. I have never seen plants or animals like this. There are bird feeders and you can put the seeds in your hands and the birds will come and eat right from your hand. I really think that you would enjoy it.”
Sam couldn’t help but smile at Wanda’s obvious delight and excitement. “That does sound nice. Gimme a few days and I might be up for it.”
The conversation moved to Clint’s wife and kids, who had called him earlier. Sam listened but didn’t speak as he scooped some wat onto his injera and ate it like a burrito. When Scott started talking about his daughter, Sam stopped listening altogether. He finished his dinner around the same time as everyone else and immediately begged off to go back to sleep.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t an hour into his sleep, which had come surprisingly easy, that he woke up drenched in sweat. Being soaked in his own sweat didn’t help matters as being wet hadn’t gone well for him lately, and when Sam’s heart rate had dropped to a tolerable level and the shaking had stopped, he managed to peel the soaked clothing off. He tried to lie down but quickly found that being naked was unnervingly vulnerable. He staggered to the dresser for another pair of pajama pants.
Sam lay back down in bed wondering what had changed. He had slept comparatively well in the hospital which, as far as places to get rested go, is usually not the place people think of. It occurred to him then that the difference had been Steve. Steve “kept watch” or held his hand or read him boring news articles until he was asleep. And when Sam inevitably awoke, Steve was always right there. He had felt safe, if not slightly annoyed. Now though, Sam was alone in the dark and, though he was loath to admit it, he was terrified.
The rest of the night was spent dozing off and startling awake at the slightest sound and trying desperately not to think about how pathetic it all was that a grown-ass man couldn’t sleep alone.
By comparison, Sam’s days were easier. He slept a little better in the daylight hours, but his nights remained gruelling. He began to dread the dark; not only did it remind him of the hood that Ross’ men put on him, but also of what he had come to think of as inevitable nightmares.
When he went back for a check up four days after he was discharged, the doctor assumed Sam’s exhaustion was related to the pneumonia. Grateful for the excuse, Sam mentioned coughing a lot at night. He got a prescription for cough syrup.
Sam took the cough medicine that night, hoping that it would knock him out enough for some decent rest. Instead, he woke up groggy and gasping for air. The next morning he was even more tired than before. The cough syrup sat on the dresser untouched after that.
Clint, Scott, and Wanda had gone to talk with some interested parties -- law enforcement, scientists, other enhanced individuals -- at a luncheon set up by T’Challa. Steve had opted to stay at the guest house with Sam and conned him into watching a movie.
“Come on, everyone says it’s a classic. I’ll make popcorn,” Steve had goaded.
Sam had relented because, honestly, it wasn’t like he was doing anything else. He sat on the sofa, wondering why Breakfast Club was “classic,” and picking at his microwave popcorn. The fact that the popcorn was both absolutely normal, with Orville Redenbacher printed on the bag, and also flavored like that bowl of seasoned beans he ate the hospital, was enough to remind Sam that life wasn’t normal, couldn’t be normal, not after everything. Instead, it felt like everything was just shifted to the side of normal. An after image. An illusion. A pretense. A reminder of something just out of reach.
“Sam?” Steve asked during a lull in the movie's dialogue.
“If you need to talk about what happened out there, I’m willing to listen, but I also get it if you don’t want to talk to me. Wanda really likes her therapist, I’m sure-”
“Hey, man, look. I appreciate the concern alright?” Sam did not appreciate the concern. “But I’ve been interrogated before. Hell, I’ve been waterboarded before. SERE ain’t no walk in the park. I was trained for this eventuality. I just need some time. I’ll be fine.”
Steve nodded, and nothing more was said.
Sam was lying in bed watching the shadows from the curtains play across the ceiling as the fan moved them. He thought about the code of conduct. He might not be returning home with honor but damned if he hadn’t fought for freedom, protected his comrades, and kept his mouth shut. Those were tall orders in the hands of Ross’ men, and Sam was trying his damnedest to believe that those things were a measure of success. And then he heard something.
It was muffled, and at first he couldn’t make out the sounds, but when he focussed he knew immediately. Someone was crying, not a delicate cry either, but sobbing and gasping for breath. Sam was getting awfully well acquainted with that sound recently, and he got out of his bed and stepped into the hall. The sounds were louder and they were coming from Steve’s room.
Sam knocked on the door. “Hey, you alright in there?”
Steve gasped and choked out “Sam,” and that was all Sam needed. He opened the door and sat down with Steve on his bed.
“Hey, man. Nightmares?”
Steve nodded his head in between his gasping attempts at breathing and clenched his fists.
Sam was in full therapist mode. “What would help? I can stay, I can go, I can get you something, I can hug you, you just tell me.”
Steve shifted on the bed, wrapping his arms around himself, but not saying anything.
Steve was already hugging himself. Sam figured, why not join in?
“Alright, come here, Steve,” Sam urged.
Sam scooted closer and wrapped his arms around Steve who didn’t give an inch. “This is really awkward. You should try hugging me back,” instructed Sam.
A small, wet-sounding sob that was probably meant to be a laugh escaped Steve’s mouth and he leaned into Sam. They sat like that -- Steve arms gently wrapped around Sam and his cracked ribs, his fingers bunched in Sam’s t-shirt, crying unabashedly into Sam’s shoulder -- for long enough that Sam lost track of time.
When Steve finally sat up and pulled back, Sam grabbed his hand. “Wanna talk about?”
Steve swallowed and swiped at his eyes. “Nah. Just a dream.”
“Man, dreams like this are the kind you need to talk about. Don’t be so heroic about it.” Unsurprisingly, Steve stared silently at the floor and didn’t answer.
Sam gave him another minute or so before he prodded again. “Do you want me to guess?”
Steve shook his head. “Just… It was Bucky and Siberia… I just… I don’t know.”
Sam nodded. “You dreamed Tony came out on top instead.”
Steve’s breathing hitched again and he nodded. Sam understood what those dreams were like. It was a lot. And even more, it was lot right then. They all had so much on their plates after the last couple of weeks. Sam had almost forgotten that they were all suffering in one way or another. Maybe telling Steve wouldn’t be quite so bad.
“Do you want me to stay tonight?” Sam asked.
Steve shrugged. “I don’t care either way.”
“Well, that wasn’t a ‘no,’ so I’m staying. Lemme go grab my pillows-”
Steve rose from the bed, cutting Sam off. “I’ll get your stuff.”
Sam nodded. “Thanks.”
It didn’t take any time at all for them to get settled in and go back to sleep.
When daylight finally woke them, Sam realized that he had slept through the night for the first time since the hospital.
With his new reserve of energy from a full night’s rest, Sam immediately overdid it. He had done more on less more times than he could hope to count, but nonetheless the walk to the botanical garden was definitely more than he was ready for. He was aware of this fact by the time that they arrived, even though it was only a fifteen minute walk from the house.
They made their way to a bench by a bird feeder. Wanda brought Sam a handful of seeds, and she and Steve sat with Sam while they each fed the birds. The variety among the birds was stunning and for a time Sam simply sat and watched them come and go amongst the trees and the flowers.
When they finally struggled home, Sam immediately ate a snack and went for a nap that lasted until dinner.
The next day Sam was exhausted again. His legs ached from the simple exertion of walking the day before and his head pounded from another fitful night without sleep. He stayed at the house when Steve and Wanda went on their afternoon walk and lay in a hammock on the porch.
After an hour or so, the humidity had Sam sticky with sweat. He had more or less tried to ignore it after their walk the day before, but there was no getting around how badly he needed a shower. Steve and Wanda were still gone, and Clint and Scott had gone for an afternoon jog. Sam figured if the shower and he were going to have issues, they’d be best had when no one else was around to know about them.
The water was as hot as Sam could stand it, just so that it would be a sharp departure from the freezing water that Ross’ men used on him. His bruises weren’t as tender, and the places where his skin had been rubbed raw against restraints or split by knuckles were healing well. Even though it hurt like hell, Sam raised his arms above his head and stretched to let the warm water relax the muscles around his cracked ribs. The coughing hadn’t done those any favors and the muscles there were still swollen and sore.
When he finally had to wash his hair, Sam kept his eyes open as long as he could. Rinsing proved difficult but he managed it. Even so, he couldn’t exactly wash his face with his eyes open. As soon as he put his face under the spray, all he could see were those fucking grey metal bulkheads that made up every ceiling, floor, and wall on the Raft. He quickly pulled his face back and opened his eyes, startled at the intensity of the afternoon light in the bathroom.
He immediately shut off the water and grabbed his towel. Sam wasn’t sure how to feel about the shower. It wasn’t a success -- he still panicked when the water hit his face -- but he didn’t have a flashback this time. Only barely. In that regard, it was better than the last shower. Grabbing for the slightest shred of autonomy and self-sufficiency, Sam forced himself to feel good about it as he dressed and trimmed his growing facial hair.
The house was still empty, and Sam was unwilling to go back to his room which had taken on a feeling of oppression and misery as he lay in there night after night trying to get even the smallest shred of restful sleep. There was a radio in the living room and Sam turned it on to some local channel. He couldn’t understand the radio announcer or the lyrics to the music, but he enjoyed the upbeat tempo and sound of electronic music mixed with traditional instruments. Sam snagged the throw pillows on the sofa and propped himself up for a nap.
Dinner time that night grated on Sam’s nerves. Scott asked him twice how he was feeling, and Clint wanted to know Sam’s thoughts on their legal situation. When Sam had managed to cobble together an opinion on the matter, the talk turned to the legal actions Wakanda was thinking of bringing to the UN about an American prison floating somewhere in international waters.
“I mean, Jesus, it was like they didn’t have any rules on how they treated us. I guess that’s kinda the point of international waters and secrecy and all that, but god. Prison stateside was bad enough, but out there they could have done anything,” Scott said without looking up from his plate.
Sam glared at his food and gripped his fork tighter, but he said nothing. It wasn’t “anything” they did. It was interrogation, Sam reminded himself. The same kind he underwent at SERE. The same kind guys like him used on terrorists. It was rough but it wasn’t just anything. It sure wasn’t what Scott was implying.
As soon as Sam’s plate was clear, he excused himself to his room. He was pissed. Scott implying that they had been, or would have been, tortured was ridiculous. There was a line between interrogation, even enhanced interrogation, and outright torture. Sam was sure that line hadn’t been crossed.
Studiously, Sam ignored the afternoon when he came back from the hospital. He sure as hell felt broken then, but interrogation didn’t break people. Surely it was just a low point, a moment of weakness. Americans sanctioning torture against their own people was as hard an idea for him to accept as the idea that he was a victim of said torture.
The indoctrination workshops in his various programs had given him the beliefs and the tools to stay strong and keep his faith in times like these, but not when facing off against his own people. The walls, the support systems, the coping skills he had for this -- all of those were built on the foundations laid since the moment he set foot in basic. It felt like the bricks in that foundation were crumbling faster than he could replace them. He wanted to be mad at Scott for contributing to that, but the reality was that it didn’t even matter whose fault it was. Sam just wished it would all stop coming apart.
Sometime after dark, Sam finally fell asleep. He dreamed that he was taking a shower. It felt nice. The water was warm and bathroom smelled like some potpourri nonsense that he would never admit to liking. Sam took his time, unhurriedly scrubbing his skin and massaging shampoo through his hair which had begun to grow long. He relished in the ease of his body. No bruises, no cracked ribs, no healing skin, no aching lungs.
Without warning the water went cold and Sam tried to jump back, but a hand reached from behind him and forced him into the spray. Sam tried to twist and grab at the hand, but his assailant was so much stronger than him that his exertions were futile. Suddenly, another hand wrapped his towel around his face and pulled him under the water again.
He could feel the water in his mouth and his nose, and nothing he did made it better. He wanted to scream, to fight back, but the drowning reflex just made him freeze, his head bent back under the water, arms waving.
The shower curtain opened to his attacker’s face and he spoke. “Sam, we can make this stop. All you have to do is tell me about Barnes. Where is he, Sam?”
Sam gasped at his assailant and sucked in a lungful of water. Steve wouldn’t… he would never… not like this…
“Sam! Sam, wake up!”
Sam opened his eyes to Clint standing over him, holding him by the shoulders.
“Get the fuck off me!” Sam yelled. He was still panicked and had no idea how he got from one place to the other or why Clint had now taken Steve’s place as attacker.
Clint let go and sat on the edge of the bed. “You were having a nightmare. It sounded pretty bad. I swear I wasn’t trying to do anything.”
Sam looked at his open door and saw a silhouette in the darkness outside his bedroom. He must have been screaming if the soreness in his throat was anything to go by.
“Fuck,” Sam finally replied.
“I’m going to go,” Clint said a few seconds later. “I think Steve wants to visit for a minute.”
Sam nodded and muttered out a “thanks” as Clint left. Steve came in after Clint left and closed the door behind himself. Without asking, Steve sat on the edge of the bed and put his hand on Sam’s leg.
“I think you need to talk to someone,” Steve said evenly.
Sam sucked in a breath. He didn’t want to admit it, but Steve was right. He’d had time to decompress and it hadn’t happened. It had gotten worse.
Sam knew what he needed to do, who he needed to tell, and his experience told him that overthinking this would just keep him from doing it. He knew that Steve couldn’t be the solution, but someone knowing what had happened -- someone who understood, someone who cared -- was what Sam needed. He couldn’t bear the silence of his torment any longer.
“They interrogated us all pretty thoroughly once they rounded us up in Berlin," Sam finally said. “Ross’ men knocked me around a bit, but nothing too serious. Once we got to the Raft, they singled me out for the enhanced stuff. It started out slow -- irregular schedules, periods of loud noises, short periods of sleep, repeated interrogations, indoctrination and misinformation to confuse me. Then, once I was tired and off-balance, they started in with the pressures and the rules.
“The first rule was that I couldn’t talk about what they did when I was away from the others. Even though they could shut off the audio between the cells, they didn’t. It was isolation without the isolation. It’s something they teach you about in SERE -- you obey and punish yourself and they never have to lay a hand on you. Shit like that is to break unit cohesion, alienate you, isolate you from your peers. You believe that for everything you will do that you hate, they’ll do something worse. It teaches you to fear them and reminds you at all times who has the power. You develop feelings of inferiority, helplessness, isolation, guilt. The kicker is that it fucking works, even when you know what they’re doing.”
Sam could see what he was doing by delivering the story in a clinical monologue, but there would be time to wrestle his emotions out of this mess later. One step at a time. He took a few breaths and readjusted on the bed so that his legs were folded in front of him, rather than stretched out. His mind raced to analyze the meaning behind that action -- guarded, protecting his vulnerabilities, afraid -- but did his best to turn that off.
“They had other rules about moving around. Positions I had to sit in. Things I had to do, even though they didn’t make sense to anyone else. Like I wasn’t allowed to lie down for more than fifteen minutes at a time and if I did a buzzer went off in my cell. I don’t think the others could hear it. After so many faults, a guard would go to either Scott or Clint and rough them up a little. That stuff they were complaining about? Each time it was because I had one too many faults and they paid for it.”
Sam closed his eyes and swallowed. Steve was listening closely, giving Sam all of his attention. He looked so concerned that Sam couldn’t bear it. It was another layer of vulnerability, of awareness, of knowing, and it was nearly overwhelming.
The pause must have concerned Steve because he reached out again and put his hand on Sam’s knee. “That wasn’t your fault. Those rules were made so that you would fail.”
Sam shook his head, ignoring Steve’s interjection. He was determined not to lose momentum or get distracted.
“After two, maybe three, days -- it was hard to tell in there because you’re under the goddamn ocean and they never turned out the lights -- they stepped it up. They moved on to physical pressures. None of it really injured me, mostly intimidation, some pain, but it adds up.”
And yeah, it did add up. Sam sat on the bed frozen in place just thinking about it. The anxiety made him feel like if he moved, something vital and important would crumble, that his stillness was the only thing protecting him from something truly awful.
A gentle hand folded over his. It was burning hot.
“Sam, tell me what they did,” Steve asked softly.
Sam felt the tears run down his face and he gripped Steve’s hand back. The stillness was broken, and he hadn’t fallen apart. It hurt, but he was alive.
“At first it was just obnoxious -- walling, slapping, finger jabs, grabbing me by the face. It was more rude than anything. But then they moved to stress positions, hosing, the drum. Sometimes they left me in there for what felt like hours. You can’t tell how long when there’s no sensory input. You start to lose it pretty quick. They waited until they got me good and weak, and that’s when they brought Ross back in. They tried all the indoctrination shit along the way, but Ross just put on his ‘disappointed dad’ face and watched when they waterboarded me. It went on fucking forever, and they were sloppy. If you do it right, they shouldn’t drown or get pneumonia when you waterboard, but they didn’t tip me back far enough. They just grabbed my head and bent me back in a chair and I inhaled enough of it.”
Sam choked on a sob as he thought of what came next, but he didn’t even want to stop anymore. He needed Steve to know this -- this one thing more than any of the others.
“I didn’t tell them a word, Steve. Nothing. Ross got so pissed. That’s when you know you’re winning, you know? When they get mad. But it doesn’t count for much when you can’t get away. Out there, Jesus, Steve. The waterboarding I could understand. I mean, not really, they were wrong, you were doing the right thing going to Siberia, we were doing the right thing, but Ross, god, he was so fucking mad.
“There’s this thing. I had heard of it before but we never really learned about it because it’s kind of a niche interrogation thing, mostly South America. It’s called the Picana electrica. Nothing hurts like that thing. You can’t even imagine. Ross just let his guys have free reign with it. Used it between the waterboarding rounds, during. Didn’t matter to them.
“By the end, I begged for them to stop. Steve, I was crying and pleading, and if I’d had anything to give them, if I could have remembered anything, I would have. I just wanted it to stop.”
Sam doubled over sobbing and Steve pulled him tight against his chest.
“I’ve got you, Sam,” Steve said and Sam nodded against him. The warmth of Steve was everything the Raft was not. His cell was frigid and he was never given blankets. Sam could hear Steve’s heartbeat -- proof of life, even though Sam wasn’t sure if he was alive himself -- and he listened to the steady rhythm as his sobs eventually ebbed.
After an age, Sam sat up but didn’t pull away from Steve’s touch. “This is pathetic. It was just an interrogation.”
Steve shifted where he was facing Sam and put at hand on each shoulder. “Sam look at me. They didn’t interrogate you. They tortured you. There’s a difference.”
Sam shook his head. Americans might do some unsavory things to get done what needed to be done, but torture wasn’t one of them. Steve was wrong. “No, no, that’s not what happened.”
“Sam, I know what the US says about torture, but it doesn’t line up with the the Geneva Convention. I read it when I got back. It seemed like such a good thing that it was updated after the war. But waterboarding, electrical torture, sleep deprivation, hooding -- all the things you described are classified as torture. Our government may call it something else but it doesn’t change what it is.”
At that, Sam did draw away from Steve. Steve didn’t have any right to tell Sam what he went through. If Sam said that it was just interrogation, then Steve should take him at his word.
“Sam, even under the government’s guidelines, electrical shocks are torture,” Steve explained. “At least that part doesn’t line up.”
Again, Sam shook his head. “The picana hurts but it doesn’t injure you. The pain stops when they stop. Torture has to cause damage, the pain has to last. You didn’t see any burns when you bathed me, did you?”
Steve sighed minutely and shook his head. “No, I didn’t.”
“That’s because the picana doesn’t leave marks. Interrogation, but not torture. Look, I’ve seen guys who were tortured. I’ve pulled a few out of some shitty places. I know what it looks like. It’s not the same.”
Steve nodded. “Alright, Sam. I don’t want to argue with you right now. We can talk about it later. Can I sit up there beside you for a while?”
It took a second for Sam to decide. He was still a bit pissed that Steve would argue with him, but at the same time he could tell that Steve cared. He wasn’t arguing that Sam didn’t suffer, he was arguing that he thought Sam suffered more than he actually did. Once Sam realized that, it was easy to forgive and he leaned heavily on Steve, who put an arm around him.
He must have fallen asleep after a while, because again he awoke to the bright morning sun of Wakanda shining in the windows. Steve was already awake and staring intently at the far wall of the room. Immediately, Sam rolled away from Steve.
“Morning. You get some decent rest?” Steve asked.
He hadn’t, but Sam nodded his head anyway.
They could already smell the breakfast, and they stumbled out to the table. Sam wasn’t an idiot. The uptick in tension as he walked into the room was palpable. He resolved to eat and go back to bed. It wasn’t like he was hiding, he reasoned. He really was fucking exhausted.
He managed some decent sleep after breakfast, but after lunch everyone pressured him into going back to the botanical garden. They took it easy and rested on the same bench as last time. With five of them feeding the birds, they arrived in droves. A large black and white crow perched on Sam’s knee and cocked his head to the side, squawking in Wakandan.
“Dude, I think that’s the word for ‘please,’” Scott said.
Everyone turned to Scott. “How the hell do you know that?” Clint asked.
Scott shrugged, looking self-conscious. “I picked it up from the lady who brings us stuff.”
Clint chuckled and shook his head. “Well I’ll be damned. Scott Lang can learn.”
“Man, shut up, okay? I’m trying,” Scott muttered.
Sam nearly smiled and turned his attention back to the bird. Gently, he raised his hand up to pet it and, when the bird didn’t object, he did. It became apparent pretty quickly that the bird preferred to be scratched, and Sam complied. When Sam put his hand down, the bird eyed him for a moment and then hopped onto his shoulder. It used its beak to groom Sam’s hair, which had started to grow out a bit, before moving on scratch him behind his ear and under his chin.
Everyone fed the birds from their hands while watching the strange interaction. Sam was content to let the bird do as it pleased. Eventually, the bird hopped back down to Sam’s knee and stared at him. It squawked a few words and flew away.
Again, everyone turned to Scott who sighed. “It said ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye.’”
Steve tipped his head and to side and raised his eyebrows. “Huh. Polite bird.”
“Yeah,” Sam replied.
After they finished with the birds, they trudged back to the house and Sam lay down in the hammock for a nap. He was already sweaty and gross from the walk. Being inside wasn’t going to change the fact that he needed a shower, so he might as well enjoy himself out here in the hammock.
He was looking at the banana trees just off the porch when Steve came out and sat next in the lawn chair that was on the porch. “Hey Sam.”
After several minutes of comfortable silence, Steve shifted in his chair. “Sam, can we talk about last night?”
Sam closed his eyes and took a deep breath that made his lungs ache. “Sure. I’m not doing anything else.”
Steve nodded and looked down at the tablet in his hands for a moment. “Sam, whether or not you think what happened out there was torture doesn’t really matter. You need help. I know you’re still recovering, pneumonia takes a while to get over. Believe me, I get that. But don’t try to tell me that everything you’re dealing with is related to that. It’s not. You’re a counselor, Sam. If I came to you with nightmares, anxiety attacks, depression, and flashbacks, you would drag me to a psychiatrist on the spot. Once you got me on medications, you’d drag me to therapy. And that’s what you need.”
Steve sat and watched Sam, and Sam just wilted. He didn’t necessarily agree with Steve’s assessment of himself, but all the arguments Sam had seemed contrived, like he couldn’t believe that he needed therapy and at the same time he couldn’t believe that he didn’t.
“Yeah, alright,” he conceded. If nothing else, he could go and then quit later. It wasn’t like therapy could hurt him.
Steve smiled and nodded. “Great.” He held out a piece of paper to Sam. On it was a name and phone number. “Wanda asked her therapist for a referral for you. They said they can get you in pretty quick.”
Sam nodded and looked back at the banana trees.
“Here,” Steve said. Sam looked over and Steve was holding out a phone. “Go ahead and give them a call.”
Sam took the phone and made the call before he could really think himself into a funk about it. The receptionist was nice, and after only a few moments he had an appointment for the following morning. When he was done, he handed the phone back to Steve, who smiled. They sat together quietly on the porch until dinner.
A car came in the morning to collect Sam. Steve came along for moral support and they rode for half an hour through the city in silence. Birnin Zana was, by far, the most incredible city Sam had ever seen. Watching the city whirr by gave Sam the distraction he needed to take the edge off his anxiety.
By the time the driver pulled up at the curb, Sam was no more enthusiastic about the situation, but he was at least less angry that it had come to this. The driver said that he would be back in two and a half hours and pulled away from the curb, leaving Sam and Steve to peer up the mirrored windows of the highrise building.
Sam set off first. There was no sense in being late to an appointment he was already on time for. The last thing he wanted, was for Steve for feel inclined to try to hand-hold him anymore, and that was the only thing that delaying would get him.
A directory in the lobby let them know that they were going to the twelfth floor, and they joined the other people waiting for the elevator. The jostle of people bumping into him and invading his personal space brought back every ounce of anxiety Sam had, and more. By the time he and Steve stepped off the elevator, Sam was clenching his teeth so hard that he had given himself a headache.
With the directory on the wall outside the elevator, the office was easy to locate. The receptionist who handed Sam a tablet with the intake questionnaire was the same woman he had spoken with the day before. He quietly took the tablet to the seat next to Steve and began to fill it out. At least the questionnaire was familiar. Mental health seemed to be more or less the same in Wakanda as at the VA.
After returning the tablet, it only took a few moments for an older Wakandan gentleman with white hair to appear in the waiting room.
“Samuel?” he asked with a smile.
Sam nodded and followed the man, and Steve offered him an encouraging smile.
When Sam came back out to the waiting room not quite two hours later, Steve was quietly chatting with the receptionist. Steve smiled broadly at her and shook her hand before they left. They walked silently to the elevator and then rode down to the lobby. They still had fifteen minutes before their ride would be back, so they staked out a bench just outside the doors to the building.
Sam was exhausted, and he rested his elbows on his knees, no longer concerned about what Steve might think after the last few days.
“How’d it go?” Steve asked after a couple of minutes.
Sam nodded at his feet. “It was alright.”
Steve nodded and looked at the vines growing on the side of the building across the street. “Did you like him?”
Sam waited a moment before nodding his head. “Yeah, he seems like a good guy.”
“You going back?”
Sam knew that this was the question Steve had been leading up to since he started talking. “Yeah, I got an appointment for next week.”
Steve put his hand on Sam’s shoulder and squeezed. Sam was inordinately grateful that Steve didn’t offer some stupid platitudes about being proud or courage or bravery. Sam didn’t feel like there were any words in the world that could make better how he felt in that moment.
The ride back to the house was quieter than the ride to the office. Not because they spoke less. Sam figured you couldn’t have less conversation than nothing. It was more like Sam felt quiet. All the thoughts that had raced through his mind since he got himself ready that morning were finally silent. He was drained of every last ounce of energy.
When they got back, Steve gave Sam a short embrace before they went in the house. Sam quickly ate some leftovers for an early lunch and promptly lay down for a nap that lasted until dinner.
“Already?” Steve asked as Sam dropped out of his run.
Sam shook his head. “Gimme a break. I was dying a few weeks ago. I’d say I’m doing alright to be out here keeping up with you.”
Steve laughed and took a drink of his water as he led the way to a bench.
When they’d both had a minute to recover -- not that Sam thought Steve needed it -- especially given that Steve was clearly going his “I am a nice friend and not leaving you behind” speed, Steve looked at Sam.
“So how’s it feel?”
Sam set his water bottle on the ground. “How’s what feel? Having you kick my ass again? Yeah, I really missed it.”
Steve chuckled and Sam smiled. “I meant getting back out and doing stuff. You were laid up a while.”
“It feels good. I mean my lungs still ache, but it’s good to do something.”
“I always hated how long it took to recover when I would get sick like that,” Steve sympathized.
Sam nodded and sat back against the bench. He was about to get up so they could go back to their run when Sam’s crow friend flew up and landed on his knee.
“Pretty bird,” it cawed.
“Pretty bird,” Sam agreed with a smile.
Sam gave the bird a cursory scratch before jamming his hand in his pocket and fishing around. When he produced a button that he’d found on the sidewalk, the bird shouted “thank you” in Wakandan, snatched the button, and flew away.
Sam looked at Steve, who nodded, and off they went for another lap around the botanical garden. Sam only made one lap before needing a break again, but the doctor had told him that it would probably be a few more weeks before he was fully back to himself. Still, being off restrictions was the best news he’d had in a while, and he had wasted no time in procuring running apparel.
When they rested on the bench again, Steve didn’t give him any grief about it. Sam was glad. The banter was fun, and it was good to get back to being himself with the others, but he was still wrung out on a regular basis. The medications helped push back the depression and nightmares to manageable levels, but managing still took a ton of effort.
Sam leaned forward on his elbows and watched a blue and green iridescent beetle mill around in the dirt by his foot. He had talked about it in therapy the day before, about using the words “torture” and “victim” to describe his experiences on the Raft. His therapist had told him that his homework for the week was to try to figure out how those words might fit into his narrative.
He’d thought about it the night before and, somehow, calling it torture made everything sharper and ten times more awful to think about. He had immediately hopped off that train of thought and worked on getting to sleep, which he did fitfully after that thought exercise. On the bench though, it began to sink in.
Sam thought over the Geneva Convention, the Protocols, and the US policies on torture that he had read and which Steve had so helpfully provided. He knew where they didn’t line up. He could see where the US policies whitewashed the worst of what they were doing. He knew what was done to him qualified as torture, but it was hard accept that he had been tortured. There seemed to be a difference between acknowledging what had happened and acknowledging that what had happened had happened to him. In times like that, Sam knew that sometimes doing was the best way to pave the road to knowing.
Sam breathed deep and slow through his nose. “You were right, you know, about it being torture. What they did to me.”
Steve leaned forward next to Sam. “I’m sorry, Sam.”
Sam nodded and his eyes lost focus on the beetle. “I didn’t want to admit you were right, because it meant the situation was just that much farther out of my control. I sure as hell didn’t want to be a victim, to admit to having been completely helpless, but I think it’s the truth. If you hadn’t come, they probably would have let me die in that cell, if they didn’t accidentally drown me first.”
Sam shook his head. “It’s alright. I mean, it’s not alright, but it just is. No reason to pretend it was anything other than what it was, you know?”
Sam looked at Steve for confirmation and Steve nodded. “Yeah, I think that’s probably a good way to approach it. I’m just sorry I didn’t get there sooner.”
Sam shook his head and looked back down for the beetle, which had started trying to a carry a disproportionately large leaf. “You couldn’t have known, and what they did was no one’s fault but their own.”
“Still…” Steve trailed off before he got started, and Sam nodded his understanding.
After another minute, they rose by unspoken agreement and wandered towards the pond. It was short walk around the pond, but after their earlier running, Sam was a bit worn out. So they sat by the water’s edge and watched the fish swim up in hopes of a thrown treat.
Time was something different in Wakanda. It might have been that they had next to no responsibilities in their lives for the first time in years, but also the days and the people seemed to move differently. There was no pressure to watch the clock, and the people there seemed content to let life happen a moment at a time rather than rushing the minutes to get them onto the next thing. And after the last few weeks, Sam was starting to let time move around him, too.
So, without any sense of urgency, they sat and Sam thought. He thought about their conversation on the bench and let the horror and dread of having been tortured seep in around the edges of his defenses. It was devastating. It eroded the last remaining bits of the indoctrination from his years of service. He felt adrift, unmoored from the place that had kept him anchored through years of trauma, violence, loss, and grief. It was terrifying and freeing at once. With the last of his ties severed from that life, he no longer owed his existence to anyone but himself, something he hadn’t really ever felt, even after getting out the first time. He'd given more than enough in service to an ideal that wasn't even being upheld, especially when it came to African Americans like himself.
Unburdening himself of those expectations opened up a door to possibilities he hadn’t let himself consider, things he could do just for himself. It was terrifying in its potential.
If anyone would understand what Sam was feeling in that moment, he figured it would be Steve. “Steve?”
Sam frowned at the grass before going on. “I- When you woke up, and everything you believed in had changed, how did you find yourself? How did you build yourself, you know? There’s the stuff they give us in basic, but that only gets you through war; it doesn’t get you through life after. It got me through torture, it did what it was designed to do, but only through it. Now on the other side… I don’t know. It was different the first time I got out.”
Steve nodded and stared out the pond for a long time before answering. “No one’s ever thought to ask me that before. But yeah, that pretty much nails it. I mean, in a lot of ways I think I had it easier. The war I fought in wasn’t a grey area like yours. Another country sent their military to attack us on American soil. They were rounding up and exterminating people by the millions, to say nothing of the war itself. They were bad and we stopped them. But even with that knowledge, even still believing that the war was justified, even if everything we did was right, and let me tell you, not everything we did was right, coming back -- waking up -- after that, and not having the Army or the SSR, not having that purpose, was hard. I tried to let SHIELD be that, and it worked until it didn’t. I had to figure out who I was, and who and what I was fighting for. I had to know where my lines were without someone higher in rank telling where they were. It took a while.”
Sam nodded. He didn’t doubt for a second that no one had ever asked Steve, not with the way that his thoughts just tumbled out once he got started. Sam realized that this wasn’t something he alone was struggling with. They all lost something of themselves out there -- though maybe he and Steve more so than the others. Clint, Scott, and Wanda didn’t seem to have a whole lot of lost love over the US, only the people in it.
Sam thought for a while about what Steve had said. He’d been mired in the grey area for years. He knew about the problems with the wars as a whole, but he focused on his orders. His ops were about saving lives. His work had been black and white. Even if everyone else’s orders had been sketchy, his were clear, and even when he had fought and killed he had held onto that belief, had held onto the values he had learned. Except... he couldn’t absolve himself of what happened simply because his orders seemed more clear cut. The values that he held onto to justify his actions didn’t stand up after everything he had been through. If he couldn’t justify the way that Ross and his men had tortured him, then he had no business justifying his actions. That meant that the lives he took in the war weren’t any different from the lives anyone else took. It meant he was complicit.
But he wasn’t just complicit in the war. He felt responsible for upholding an institution that tortured. An institution that took not just soldiers, but decorated war veterans, and used them up and spit them out like they were nothing. And Sam had to wonder if the disregard for life, for his life, had been there all along. He had to wonder if the roadblocks he had encountered along the way were because it was the military or because he was Black. Had he been so deep into the culture, the indoctrination, that he had missed it? Had he overlooked what was happening around him, and even to him, because he had succeeded? It was a hell of a question, but definitely one for later. One topic at a time.
He turned to Steve, who was looking thoughtfully out over the pond. “What’d you find?” he finally asked in an effort to turn the conversation to something more manageable.
Steve sighed and crossed his legs in front of him. “I found some answers but not others. I know I’m not fighting for any country in particular anymore, and I’m not just fighting for myself. For me it has to be about stopping oppression and violence; it’s about freedom and choice and human rights. But I’m not going to join a fight because someone tells me to anymore, not if it feels wrong. It’s why I can’t sign the Accords. I can’t go back to letting someone else tell me who to kill and who to save. I did that with SHIELD and it was a hard lesson to learn, but if I have to sleep with those lives on my conscience, then I need to know that I did it for the right reasons.
“It’s hard because telling the good guys from the bad guys used to be a lot easier. Remember in DC, when you asked me how to tell the good guys from the bad guys, and I said ‘If they’re shooting at you they’re bad?’ Yeah, well it ain’t that simple anymore. Not where we are now.”
“Nah, it ain’t,” Sam agreed.
“You gotta decide which fights are yours, and honestly, I haven’t quite figured that out yet myself. For a long time, it felt like a responsibility, like I had to pick up the shield and go whenever something happened, but now… I don’t know. I guess I felt like I owed a debt after the serum, and Army, SSR, SHIELD -- they always made it my responsibility; I didn’t realize that I could just live for me. I don’t what I’m going to do with that now that I can’t be Cap anymore.” Steve looked out of the pond for moment before turning to Sam. “How about you? What you think you wanna do?”
Sam wasn’t really sure, but he decided to try on some things. Talking it out had always been a tried and true method for figuring out what he thought. “I love flying. I don’t know what I would do with that, but god I love being in the air. I always liked helping people, too. Patching people up gave me a lot of purpose. Working at the VA was good for me, too. But right now, I’m not in a place where I can help people like that. Maybe one day I could go back to that, but I don’t know if I want to.
“I don’t know if I wanna be in the fight anymore, to be honest. I got out once and I enjoyed it. I got back in for good reasons and I don’t regret it, but shit, this is a rough life. I know that I’m not out forever. I don’t think that’s an option anymore, not given the choices we’ve made, but I don’t wanna do this full-time anymore; I know that much.”
And as he said it, the words seemed true.
“You could be a civilian paramedic, maybe a flight paramedic,” Steve pointed out.
Sam nodded. “Yeah, that’s not a bad plan. How about you? What’d you do before the war?”
Steve tipped his head to the side like he was considering something. “I went to art school and painted signs for the FAP. I kinda liked it, Depression and war aside.”
“You could get a job doing that now. I mean, not sign painting, but I’ve seen your work. It’s good. See what’s out there,” Sam suggested.
Steve smiled. “Yeah, that’s not a bad idea. We could go back to the house and do a little job hunting online.”
Sam laughed. “I haven’t had to really do that since I needed a summer job in high school. Circling stuff in the want-ads.”
Steve hopped to his feet and gave Sam a hand up. They walked back towards the entrance to the gardens.
After a couple of minutes, Steve asked, “So you ready?”
“Ready for what?” Sam asked hesitantly.
“To be normal people until the next time we get called up,” Steve elaborated.
Sam laughed. “I was already ‘normal people,’ Rogers. Don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
Steve laughed. “Yeah, alright.”
“But yeah, I think I’m ready to do something a little more down to Earth for a while,” Sam agreed.
After mentally scrabbling for purchase since he first landed in Wakanda, Sam finally felt like he had grabbed onto something solid. He didn’t feel like he was defined by being Staff Sergeant Wilson or Falcon; those were just the jobs he had done. He felt like, for the time since he was a kid, that Samuel Thomas Wilson was who he was and all he was required to be. When, just an hour earlier, it had seemed overwhelming and terrifying to realize that he could be who he wanted to be rather than who he had to be, the same thought suddenly felt like relief. He felt like he was setting down a heavy burden, but rather than feeling tired, he felt excited by the possibilities.
Sam’s thoughts ground to a halt, and he looked to where Pretty Bird, as he had taken to calling it, had landed in front of him on the ground. Sam knelt, held out his hand, and the bird quickly snatched something off the ground before hopping up. Sam straightened up and raised his other hand to scratch it. Rather than accept the affection, Pretty Bird began to gently peck the scratching hand until Sam stopped and opened it. The bird deposited a shiny black pebble in his palm.
“You’re welcome,” it crowed in Wakandan.
Sam and Steve both laughed.
“Thank you,” Sam replied. He scratched the bird a bit more but, their daily exchange having been completed, the bird took its leave after only another minute.
Sam put the pebble in his pocket and turned to Steve. “Come on, I bet I can at least make it back to the house.”
Steve was already raring to go. “You’re on.”
Sam stood up and off they went. His legs ached, his lungs burned, he had a stitch in his side, and his ribs throbbed in time with his pulse. And for all it was unpleasant, it felt amazing. The parts of his soul that had been raw and tender suddenly felt like the first layer of new skin had grown over a wound. It was fragile and new, and it felt like hope.