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Back in the Day

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The hospital smells like all hospitals do – of disinfectant and illness, iodine and blood. Steve twitches in his sleep. Everything’s healing fast – too fast, Sam thinks, watching Steve’s finger spasm once, twice, listening to his breathing hitching. The serum can make Steve’s body knit back together, but it can’t make it painless, and no one seems exactly sure how to dose a super soldier. The IV drugs hanging from a metal stand at Steve’s left shoulder might be useless for all any of them know, a placebo to make them feel like they’re doing something as Steve sleeps a heavy, unnatural sleep.

Sam stays there, keeping watch, for hours. Natasha comes by, but Sam impresses on her that he’s got this, and that she should go see to the broken pieces of her own life while she has the chance. She lingers for an hour all the same, lays her hand over the blanket that’s covering Steve’s right foot before she leaves. The doctors come and go, the nurses more often, and Sam watches their hands as if he can weigh the standard of care Steve’s receiving by the uptick of a pen scratching over paper, a finger tracing patterns on a tablet, a palm smoothing a wrinkled sheet.

When Steve wakes again, Sam’s almost asleep himself. “Bucky?” Steve asks, and Sam comes to, rubbing one eye with the heel of his hand.

“No trace,” he says, and stands, his left knee aching from sitting so long.

“Good.” Steve’s eyes drift closed.

Sam shakes his head a little, feels how out of practice he is at smiling by the awkward feel of it on his face. “That’s it? You’re going to fall back asleep again now? Can I expect to continue this conversation in another six hours?”

Steve opens his eyes and Sam makes his breath stay steady despite the intensity of Steve’s gaze. “You don’t have to stay.”

Sam huffs and looks over at the distressingly placid art on the wall, then back again. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Sam.”

“You,” he says, poking the air with a finger, “have a martyr complex. Too bad. When I said I was back in, I meant it. I’m not leaving anyone behind.”

Steve’s expression softens – on a better day he might be smiling. “So that’s how it’s gonna be.”

“That’s how it’s gonna be,” repeats Sam.

Steve turns his right hand over on the bed, palm up, and it makes something prickle along the length of Sam’s spine, as if it’s too vulnerable a move for him to watch. “Hey,” Steve says.

Sam jerks his head up.

“Come closer.”

Sam does as he’s told, and his gaze drifts back to Steve’s hand as he wraps it around Sam’s wrist. “I like my chances if we’re about to wrestle,” Sam says.

“We’re not,” Steve says, but his thumb is rubbing back and forth over Sam’s skin and Sam’s starting to feel a whole lot of things that he’d been committed to not examining.

“I just . . .” Steve lets the sentence hang for a long, quiet moment. “I never was any good at this.”

“At what?”

“Telling a guy.”

“Telling him what?”

“That I liked him.”

Sam feels a laugh startle out of him. “You told a lot of guys you liked them?”

“Back in the day.”

“Back in the day.”

“Okay, no. I was as bad with guys as with women. Didn’t stop me looking.”

“And you’re looking?”

Steve’s cheeks pink up. “I’m looking because it hurts to do anything else.”

Sam shifts his hand and bends his head, brings his lips to Steve’s with the barest touch. “Okay?” he asks as he pulls back.

Steve is pinker now. “Okay.”

Sam reaches behind to pull up his chair and sits back down, Steve’s hand still in his. “Go to sleep, you little punk.”

Steve laughs quietly, winces, lets his eyes drift closed. “Change the music,” he mumbles.

“Never,” Sam replies, and sits there, thinking, planning, waiting, until the nurses come back around again.