They were in rural Russia, following a combination of the logical conclusion, a hunch, and a prayer more than any concrete lead.
Steve’s single-minded devotion to the quest of finding Bucky hadn’t flagged a bit.
“He’s trying to put the pieces together,” Steve kept saying. “He’s researching his own life. You saw the security footage from the Smithsonian. He’s tracking his own path—from before the war, and after. Trying to figure out who is.” Then, wistfully, he’d add: “If we don’t find him, then maybe he’ll find us. Once he knows….”
Increasingly, Sam bit back words. Words that could’ve brought reality crashing down. Instead, he let himself buy into Steve’s brand of tireless hope.
But if hope wasn’t tired, then it was hogging all the energy between the two of them. Sam was exhausted, and Steve looked even worse.
Still, Sam got it. He wouldn’t have agreed to come with Steve he hadn’t understood why Steve needed to do this. But, increasingly, he saw his role shifting from “staunch and plucky sidekick” to “friend with an ounce of common sense.”
“You look terrible, Steve,” Sam had remarked casually, just that morning. “Really scrape-the-bottom-of-the-barrel bad. And I mean all that, genuinely, from the bottom of my heart.”
But Steve just grunted, mechanically eating the second and third helpings of breakfast Sam kept ordering him at the dingy little café.
He’d looked bruised straight down to the soul, and it hurt to watch. Hurt to lie awake at night and listen to Steve pace back and forth, thinking too loudly to let either of them rest
So all in all, Sam had enough to worry about without Steve picking up freelance jobs like this.
“‘Stay here and look out for them,’ he says, before diving headlong into the burning building…” Sam had to work to keep from shouting it at the world. Steve certainly wasn’t listening, and neither were any of the huddled bystanders. None of them spoke English, far as he’d been able to find.
But the main point of not yelling his head off was that he was being calm. Level-headed. The friend with an ounce of common sense. And common sense dictated that he not run in there after Captain America, because that was what a crazy person did. That was what Steve did. Sam was going to be there to pick up the pieces after he was done pulling his stupid-heroic stunts, and getting his stupid-heroic self burnt to a crisp.
Flames were licking towards the roof of the derelict building, and even from where he was Sam could feel the heat on his face.
The woman next to him might not have spoken English, but terrified sobbing translated pretty well into any language.
Yeah. As angry as Sam was at Steve, he still understood why he’d had to take the risk.
And wasn’t that just the story of Sam’s life right now: standing there watching Steve perform self-destructive acts of heroism out of the well-intentioned, idiotic goodness of his heart. Both of them were idiots.
“He’ll get your boys out,” Sam told the woman next to him. “He’ll get ‘em out, just you see. He’s awesome like that.”
Words like that kept popping out of his mouth whenever he tried to explain Steve, never mind how much the man didn’t deserve commendations for being reckless. What he deserved was a good chewing-out.
“He’ll survive this,”Sam added quietly, for his own benefit, “he’s awesome like that, Sam. The man doesn’t die. He doesn’t know how to die.”
There was a small burst of flame—sparks flew from where part of the roof had caved in—and sooty smoke billowed out over the spectators.
The spectators turned as a boy of about ten came running out from around the back of the building, hunched over the bundled infant in his arms.
Call him selfish, but Sam couldn’t take more than a moment to have his heart warmed by the reunion. There was no sign of aid coming. No sirens in the distance—and even if there had been, they were too late.
Most importantly, there was no Steve coming bursting back out of that death trap.
He clenched his fists, and only hesitated a moment before he took a step towards the building. Towards heat that wanted to boil his skin even from that distance.
“Well, then, Steve, if you say today’s a good day to die, then I guess that’s what what’s on our agenda… Coulda given me a heads-up, though, Cap.”
There was another explosion of flame, and Sam instinctively lifted his arm to shield his head as the building spit out searing ash fireworks.
When he lowered his arm, there was a dark-haired figure walking towards him, burdened with the considerable weight of an unconscious super-soldier. He didn’t look burdened, though.
In fact, a ghost had never looked more solid and unyielding.
He was wearing a black leather jacket and gloves so that his metal arm was hidden, and there was a red bandana pulled up to cover his mouth that was all too reminiscent of the mask Sam had seen him wear on their first encounter. But the eyes were unmistakable as the Winter Soldier’s.
There was a lot to be taken-aback by. Steve—what he could see of Steve as the Soldier drew closer—was sooty, and bleeding, and scorched. His face was a mess, his shirt torn (burnt) across the left side, and the skin that was visible beneath... God. Dear God. He’d been buried in there, trapped under live coals. In another minute he would’ve been cooked alive.
He had been cooked alive. Those were some second- and third-degree burns, and no mistake.
Sam tore his eyes away from the sight, nauseated.
The Winter Soldier came to a halt a few feet away, smoke curling from the tips of his lank hair as if the man himself was a smoldering ember straight out of the furnace. His eyes were certainly hot enough as they bored into Sam, as if he directly blamed him for Steve’s condition.
He’d managed to shrug the bandana down around his neck, and while a mask was dehumanizing the scowl that was fixed on his face didn’t exactly reassure Sam of his compassionate intentions now that he could see it, either.
The people behind Sam were speaking rapid-fire Russian, but they seemed far away from the sphere the three of them were locked in.
Sam took a step closer only to halt again at the snarling curl of the Soldier’s mouth. “Woah, easy,” he held up both hands placating, “don’t bite my head off. I was against the idea. I tried—”
The Soldier brushed by without verbally interrupting, his gait sure and measured, his arms a vice around Steve as he carried him further away from the heat.
Now the fire trucks arrived to get the blaze under control—but no ambulance, Sam noted sulkily. Welcome to the quaint wiles of small-town Russia.
Sam stalked after the Soldier, the coolness a relief as they achieved more distance from the fire and the tumult. “C’mon, man, you can’t just take your toys and go home. He’s—”
Suddenly he was face-to-face again with that feral glare.
“He’s my friend,” the Winter Soldier muttered petulantly, tightening his hold on Steve. “My friend.”
Sam guffawed. He couldn’t help it. This was his life now, apparently. His actual life. “Yeah, man, you think? We’ve only been searching for you all over half of creation. I kind of got that part.” More quietly, he added, “And now we found you, and Cap’s missing out on all the fun.”
Sam would’ve called the situation ironic if it weren’t so tragic.
“Look,” he addressed the Soldier, pitching his voice like he would’ve to a small child, or a cornered animal, “he’s in rough shape. Even Cap needs some medical care every now and then, right? He’s gonna wake up, and he’s gonna be hurting.”
He was close enough to smell the damp, burnt smell wafting off of the Soldier. Close enough to look closely into the steely eyes, circled by rings of smudged, sooty black that currently made him look more like a dirty waif than a cold-hearted killer.
“I’ll take care of him,” the Soldier replied darkly, possessively. There was a rusty familiarly to the way he said the words—testing them out, remembering how to use them.
“I’m sure you would.” Until that moment, Sam hadn’t been sure. But, regardless of the man’s dark stare, there was a strange tenderness in the way he was holding Steve to his chest. There was a subtle tameness that tempered his glances down at Steve that Sam couldn’t deny. “But he needs a hospital,” he insisted.
Sam cast a look around. A few of the onlookers had cellphones to their ears while they watched the firemen struggle with the flames. “Then you know we’ve got to wait for an ambulance.”
The Soldier shook his head. “Wrecked last week.”
“The nearest hospital only has one ambulance—it was wrecked last week.”
A complete sentence, with information and everything. “How could you possibly—“
This time, he definitely deserved the glare. It didn’t matter how he knew. Sam darted a look at Steve’s face: pale, and blistered and red across one side, and impassively blank in unconsciousness. Steve was rarely down for long unless it was pretty bad.
It looked pretty bad.
The Soldier started back up with his steady march, headed for the open road that twisted and cut through the landscape.
“Would you just hold on a second? What d’you think you’re doing?”
“Walking.” He didn’t stop to answer, either.
“It’s ten miles!” Sam exclaimed, near his limit, not sure what he’d do when he got there. “You can’t just…”
But clearly he could just, and would just. Sam had to admit, his hold on Steve looked pretty unshakable.
“Keep up,” the Soldier barked.
Sam jogged after him.
No matter how many times he offered to carry Steve, he was turned down (at first just with the glares, and eventually with growls) until Sam simply settled into the rhythm of the Soldier’s long stride, occasionally checking just to make sure Steve’s chest was still moving.
The walls were a pukeish shade of green-yellow-brown, and it wasn’t helping Sam’s stomach any.
Sam had let the ER staff do their job, but the walls were thin. Too thin.
After witnessing the Soldier’s unwillingness to share Steve with anyone now that he’d gotten a hold of him, Sam had expected to have a fight on his hands once they arrived at the hospital. Instead, he’d found himself the breathless tag-along as the Soldier pushed his way through doors, and shouldered past obstacles, yelling in Russian in a way that couldn’t be ignored.
Help him. Help him, now.
Sam hadn’t needed to speak the language to get the message.
Even so, he’d seen the struggle on the Soldier’s face. After raising hell, and getting the attention he’d demanded, there was a moment when he held on tight to Steve with clenched jaw and fire in his eyes that promised punishment if Steve died.
Well, Steve didn’t die. But he had screamed. Honest-to-God screamed. The sound sent Sam’s heart into his throat.
The Soldier went stock-still, eyes wide and suddenly young and vulnerable as he listened, and in that moment he was been a guy Sam understood. Not an assassin. Not a killer, or an experiment, or a brainwashed HYDRA drone. Just a guy worried for his friend.
For the first time, Sam mentally tested out the name James Barnes, and found it fit.
“He’ll pull through,” Sam offered, in the too-still quiet that followed.
The Soldier’s adam’s apple worked, and he let out a sound that was almost a whimper before he blinked slowly and covered his own reaction with a hoarse: “I know.” His favorite line, apparently.
“Burns…they’re just bad,” Sam continued, not sure who he was really trying to comfort. “And the pain meds…”
“Don’t work on him,” the Soldier finished for him. He stared at the swinging doors. “I-I should make sure they know—“
Sam shook his head. “You got him here. Let them do what they can for him. We’ll see him—after.”
To his surprise, the Soldier obeyed, watching him with a desperate, hungry sadness that, strangely enough, seemed eager to be told what to do.
“Steve…he wouldn’t want us to see him like that,” Sam finished, gently, “not hurting like that.”
The Soldier’s lips formed a tight line, and Sam could forgive him the slight tremble to his jaw. The slight glassy wetness in his eyes as his gaze went distant with memory. “I’ve seen him hurting. Plenty of times.”
Sam lowered his face into the palm of his hand. “You and me both, man. You and me both.”
At least he’d snagged a private room for Steve, instead of a bed in a long row of beds, but the walls were still thin, and the light as sickly as the still vomit-reminiscent color scheme.
Sam went right in, the moment he was given permission, and sat down in a chair that creaked and groaned in a way that pretty much summed up how he felt.
He slowly took in Steve’s condition. The bandages on his face and blankets pulled up to his shoulders hid the burns—but Sam could still remember them. He wondered if Steve had passed out after that one horrible scream, or he’d had to suffer through more.
He hoped Steve stayed unconscious for at least a few hours, but he knew better than to hope too much.
Those IVs they had attached to him wouldn’t do much to help, but they looked like the pretense of a comfort at least.
The Soldier hung back in the doorway, eyes fixed on Steve, and Sam knew that somehow their terms of their truce (or whatever this was) had changed again.
He tried anyway. “C’mon,” he urged. “You’ve been waiting to see him.”
“I can see him from here,” the Soldier pointed out.
Sam counted to ten, and then counted to ten again. “Wasn’t too long ago you had to be persuaded to let him out of your sight. Now you’re gonna hang back there, all doom and gloom? C’mon. That’s just cowardly. Hospital rooms aren’t anyone’s favorite place, but that’s no excuse for any of that lurkin’ in the shadows stuff. Sure, neither of us is exactly a bouquet of sweet-smelling roses right now, but we’re better than nothing, right?”
The Soldier didn’t budge. Didn’t acknowledge the scolding with so much as a flicker of his closed-off expression. Apparently, with the crisis over, he was similarly over needing Sam’s sage advice.
Testing his luck, Sam goaded, “You going to answer me, or what?”
“I don’t want to hurt him.”
“Then don’t poke at him. No one’s asking you to play nursemaid. Just siddown.”
The Soldier shook his head like a stubborn toddler. “I hurt him.”
“What do you mean you—” Sam stopped, trying to parse that file and come up with the right thing to say. If there was a right thing to say.
He could’ve meant the bullets he’d pumped into Steve, or the grief he’d caused Steve by “dying,” or the fact that he wasn’t the man Steve wanted him to be. Any of the above would’ve been true, he supposed.
“I can’t…I can’t keep doing that. Seeing me—it hurts him. I can tell.”
“Well you’re not exactly putting a grin on his face by keeping your distance, you know.”
“I just couldn’t let him die,” the Soldier continued, ignoring Sam again. “That’s all.”
“And for that, believe me, I’m grateful.”
“Had nothin’ to do with you.”
Sam raised an eyebrow at the hint of a Brooklyn accent, and the hint of something approaching humor. “Yeah. I get it, I’m just the plucky sidekick. That’s me.”
“You’re more. You’re…his friend.” The Soldier sounded crestfallen—like he’d just come to the realization.
“Sure I am,” Sam agreed.
“His best friend.”
“Now hold on, there. I see where you’re going with this, but this isn’t preschool we’re talking about. We’re not a bunch of toddlers.” At least one out of the three of them wasn’t. “A guy’s allowed to have more than one friend, and the way I see it you can have all kinds of ‘best’ friends, too. Different times, different problems, different people stepping into your life to fill different needs. Steve had to start over. He made a lot of new friends in the here and now, and I’d like to think I’m one of ‘em—but I know you are.” He paused, tried to get a read on the Soldier’s expression, and couldn’t. “He’s told me the stories. Y’always have been his friend, James Barnes.”
“And what about when I fought him, and let him fall?” the Soldier snapped. “What about when I almost completed my mission?”
“That was another guy,” Sam answered without hesitation, because he knew his own hang-ups over the Barnes’ trustworthiness didn’t have a place in this. The main thing was: “He knows that wasn’t you. Steve never thought otherwise, not for a minute.”
“Steve’s an idiot.”
“At the moment? I gotta agree with you. Jumping into a burning building like the serum made him fireproof…”
“Nah. It’s not the serum. He’s always been a stupid punk like that.” Another glimpse of Brooklyn, paired up with dry exasperation.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Sam looked down at Steve’s face, searching it for signs of pain, “he misses you like a man missin’ half of himself. You’re his brother, man. The guy he grew up with—the only one who’d looked out for his stupid-punk-self when he was still just a scrawny kid from Brooklyn. Yeah, I’ve read the history books. I know how it goes.” He leaned closer to the bed, intent on Steve and willing Barnes to hear what he was saying, because that was what Steve needed more than anything. “You can’t replace that kind of trust. You don’t just up and find another best friend like that. He thought you were dead—and now that he knows you’re not? There’s no way he’ll ever give up on you. You know that right?”
But when he turned back, the Soldier had vanished.
“I tell ya, Steve, we gotta get him GPS tracker, or a bell, or something.”
The joke fell on deaf ears, and Sam tried not to think too hard about what he’d tell Steve if that was the last they saw of Barnes.