When they’d found him on the bank he’d looked dead, streaming blood and water. Pale, unmoving, riddled with bullet holes and covered in bruises. He looked like a man who’d taken on the world and lost—not the fight for freedom, but his life.
“That’s a price I’m willing to pay,” Steve had said, and meant it, and proved it.
Sam stumbled forward numbly, and the injustice of it would’ve been crippling enough. How many times did a man have to give his life for his country before his country got her act together and started keeping her heroes from needing to die for her?
But on a personal level, Steve had become something less and something more than a hero to Sam. Something closer and more personal: a friend, and a good man. The kind of soldier who could give an off-the-cuff speech that would rally the brave and timid alike to live up to the expectations of Captain America.
The serum had kept Steve alive, but it wasn’t what had made him the man his country had needed to fight Hydra, then or now. Super-soldier or not, Steve had weathered the decades and remained relevant because good men willing to do the right thing were always relevant.
And Sam wasn’t ready to watch another good man die. All the group therapy in the world, and all the knowledge of the insidious nature of PTSD, didn’t make it any easier to survive the bloody fallout of war. Grief wasn’t something you got better at doing, or more efficient at moving past, and Sam just wasn’t ready. Not again.
Natasha was present during the swarm of activity that had followed as they transported him out: a flash of red hair amidst the generic uniforms of the EMTs, as they all worked to assess and stabilize Steve.
He watched red, white, and blue, trampled and beaten, being loaded onto a gurney. Sam didn’t let Steve out of his sight until the doors were literally being slammed in his face. Sirens wailed.
He jumped when Natasha’s hand landed on his shoulder and she said in a voice even huskier than usual, “Come on, Wilson. I’ll give you a lift.” He opened his mouth to protest, but she added with her own unique blend of sharp kindness: “To the hospital.”
“There’s something you should know about working with the Captain,” Natasha continued, as the world went by in a blur outside the car window.
Sam regrouped and refocused on her. On the set of her jaw as she stared dead ahead at the road. For all her mystery, she seemed a solid enough anchor just then. “Yeah?”
Natasha gripped the steering wheel. “He makes a habit of worrying his friends.”
“Don’t we all?” Sam sighed, because if there was one thing he’d learned from listening to the confessions of soul-torn soldiers it was that guilt was one of the worst feelings in the world to have to live with.
You did what you had to do in order to live with yourself, even if that meant getting yourself killed.
Natasha’s laugh was tinged with harsh fondness, or outright bitterness, or just bone-deep exhaustion. “Yeah. But Steve has a special gift for it.”
“Thinks he’s invulnerable, or super or something, huh?”
“Or something,” Natasha agreed. Green eyes darted to him briefly, like a warning. “He heals quickly.” She paused, and apropos of nothing—and everything—added softly, “Doesn’t mean it hurts any less.”
What she didn’t say was that it hurt Steve more.
Hours later, when Sam was finally allowed in to see Steve—and Natasha materialized out of the air from wherever she’d disappeared to—Steve was unconscious, but not peaceful.
Hospital lights left no scratch undisclosed, and face looked bad, now, real bad. Like someone had whaled on him for an hour. Or for just a few minutes, with a metal fist. Sam wouldn’t know for sure until Steve woke up and told him. If Steve told him.
The bruises spread in stark contrast against pale skin, one particularly bad one turning a swollen purple-black. His eyebrows were drawn together tightly, and when he turned his head fitfully to the side with a just-audible moan, Sam said sharply, “You’d think someone around here would have the heart to spare something decent for the pain.” He reached for the call button, but Natasha shook her head.
“None of it works on him.” Her words were pragmatic with experience, even if her eyes weren’t. “His metabolism burns through it before it can help.”
Sam sagged into a nearby chair and watched her card fingers through Steve’s hair, her actions as calmly comforting now as they could be calmly lethal in battle. She answered every stifled whimper with protective, sheltering words, and the tenderness Sam saw there was startling and natural all at once.
When Steve started murmuring “Bucky? Buck…” in a pleading way that could only be described as heart-broken, Sam swore under his breath—at what or whom he wasn’t sure anymore.
Natasha cast him a brittle smile. “About sums it up.”
Steve’s yearning whispers were hard to listen to, but when Sam asked if they should try waking him up she shook her head. “Let him sleep as long as he can. He needs it.”
He’d be hurting even more if he were awake. The lesser of two evils. Yeah, Sam got it. Didn’t like it, but he got it.
Eventually Steve stilled under her light touch, and only then did Natasha say regretfully, “I should go. There are things…” So many things that have to be fixed. So many things that can’t be fixed. But she had to delve in, anyways, both eyes open, ignoring whatever ached inside.
Sam crossed his arms, settling them on his chest. He wanted nothing more than to leave the hospital smells behind and let a shower ease the ache in his own muscles.
But he needed nothing more than to stay exactly where he was.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Her departing smile was awash with weariness, but less brittle than before. “He’ll have visitors,” she said unequivocally, and Sam wasn’t sure if she was warning him again or reassuring him.
“Dr. Banner,” the first visitor introduced himself, shaking Sam’s hand firmly before tucking his hands back into his pockets.
Later, Sam felt like an idiot for not connecting the dots right away—not realizing that he was talking to the Dr. Banner—but in his own defense he’d been reeling from just half-a-dozen earth-shattering events.
Adrenaline crashes were another thing you never got over.
Also in his defense, Dr. Banner had a calming, mundane way about him that made it easy to talk to him. If, beyond the kind face and the kind voice, there’d been a sensation of there being more to him than met the eye, then Sam had been too tired to examine it too closely.
They’d both had other priorities to focus on.
“How is he?” Banner asked, scrutinizing first Sam, and now Steve.
“Rough. Better than he was a couple of hours ago, but…you know.” Sam didn’t know if he did know.
But Banner nodded slowly. “Given what I’ve heard about recent events, I can’t imagine he’s had much time for things like rest, or eating as much as he needs.” He stepped closer to the bed and glanced aside at Sam, questioningly, as if he expected a detailed report.
Sam shook his head, wishing he had a full report to give. “No. I can’t imagine he has had much time for any of that lately.”
Banner grunted, dissatisfied but not surprised. “Operating on inadequate food and rest always makes it harder for him to recover. Accelerated healing takes a lot out of you.”
“Well,” Sam mused, “I don’t know about the rest of the time he was out there saving humanity, but I oversaw one breakfast personally. Man, he can eat.”
“You should see the kind of damage he can do to an all-you-can-eat buffet.”
Sam chuckled, thinking about how much he could pack in after a heavy workout. “I’ll arrange that ASAP.”
Banner was silent for a while then, watching Steve with the critical eye of someone who knew how fragile the human body was. Even a super-soldier’s serum-enhanced body.
Sam had the fleeting feeling that Dr. Banner had both fixed and broken things himself, and that he’d never stop hating seeing things broken—especially when he knew he couldn’t fix them.
When he turned back to Sam he was still critiquing, and Sam wasn’t sure how he measured up.
“He trusts you?”
Sam shrugged. “He came to me for a place to crash. I watched his back.” He forced himself not to look away from Banner’s stare, which was mild and piercing at the same time. “I’ll tell you one thing for sure: I did the best I could to keep him out of that hospital bed.”
“And you’re still here.”
For some reason, his tone made Sam feel warm inside in a way that all the profound military commendations and decorations in the world could never achieve.
“I’m still here,” he agreed.
Sam was dozing when visitor two came, and it wasn’t the man’s entrance that woke him.
“Falcon,” Sam retorted blearily, automatically, and maybe a little petulantly. It’d been a long day, so shoot him if he didn’t take kindly to people barging in. He narrowed his eyes. “Who’re you?”
The man narrowed his eyes back, but there was glimmer of irony in his voice as he replied, “Hawkeye.”
Well. Weren’t they just birds of a feather.
The Black Widow. Dr. Banner. And now Hawkeye. Sam began to get the picture. He could take an educated guess at what other visitors might be cueing up.
“I’m a friend,” Sam amended, with a nod in Steve’s direction. “Agent Romanov had to go take care of some things, but I told her I’d stay and keep the Captain company.”
It’d been the right thing to say. The man didn’t exactly soften, but he looked less inclined to strangle someone. “Clint Barton,” he said, clipped and to the point.
Sam shook his hand. “Sam Wilson.”
Barton turned back to the bed, and Sam took a moment to assess him. He looked dirty and harassed enough to be fresh from war himself.
“I’m gone on a mission for a few weeks, and I come back to all of this.”
By “this” Sam took him to mean not only the wreckage outside, but the wreckage right there in the hospital bed.
Sam kept quiet. He wasn’t the one being addressed.
“You fool us all with your good-little-soldier act, Cap, and then you—you of all people—go rogue, and decide to start smashing up agencies in your spare time.” Like with Romanov, there was a distinct lack of bite in the biting tone he used on Steve. “You know, this wasn’t what I had in mind when I suggested you get a hobby, old man.”
“He tried jogging,” Sam couldn’t help but interject. “Guess he got bored running laps around me.”
Barton turned with a raised eyebrow. “And so you let him make this mess?”
“I helped him make this mess,” Sam retorted self-righteously. “In my own small way.”
Apparently, he’d said the right thing again, because Barton nodded. After a thoughtful moment, he stated simply, “It’s always better for him to wake up to a familiar face.”
“Figured as much.” It didn’t take firsthand experience with PTSD to work out that Cap would have a few issues with fear of loss. Waking up disoriented, in a hospital bed, still dealing with the shock of finding out one of his buddies had made it out of the war…more or less…It would be a lot for anyone to sort through on a normal day, without having been stabbed, and shot, and half-drowned, besides.
No. Sam didn’t plan on leaving it anyone else, even to well-meaning strangers, to give Steve the assurances he’d need to hear in those first moments of waking.
“I’ll be hangin’ around, then,” Sam said casually, “if that’s alright with you.”
“And if it isn’t?”
“I’ll be hangin’ around.”
Barton almost-chuckled, and with a last lingering look at Steve, stalked out. Sam figured he’d passed muster again, and wondered which Avenger he’d have the pleasure of being interrogated by next.
Visitor number three didn’t so much enter the scene as he happened to the scene.
The door cracked open, and from in the hall Sam heard him addressing the guards outside: “Carry on, and look sharp about it. Trust me, you don’t want to be the guy on guard when some assassin gets the jump on Captain America as he lies wounded from pulling over government’s collective butts out of the fire.”
Sam stood without really thinking about it. Even if he hadn’t caught on to the pattern of visitors, he would’ve recognized this one. “I wouldn’t worry about that, Mr. Stark.”
Stark appraised him with a blink. “And you are?”
“Sam Wilson.” Exhaustion and a sense of deja-vu—of steeling himself to be tested again—made him add: “A friend of Steve’s. I’ve been watching his back.”
Stark stuck out a hand and shook Sam’s with a business-like grip. “Have you, now.” He wandered over to the bedside looking less like a worried friend than a tourist peering at a museum showcase. But Sam saw the sober look that shuttered his easy smile as he took in Steve’s condition.
He also heard the hardness behind the levity as Stark carefully asked instead of demanding: “So, in the spirit of your clearly zealous protection of Captain Rogers, I take it there are a few less jokers alive on planet earth.” He stared fixedly at the bruising around Steve’s left eye. At the row of neat stitches that held together the gash near his mouth.
“I took down my fair share of jokers, alright. But the one responsible for that…” Sam breathed a heavy sigh. “Let’s just say it wasn’t my call.”
Stark turned a shrewd gaze on him. “The one responsible, huh? Just one guy?” When his stare didn’t draw further information out of Sam, he grumbled, “Nice. Tight-lipped as well as loyal. Not going to pry it out of you, am I?”
“It’s the Cap’s story to tell.”
Sam thought about the frozen look on Steve’s face after he’d first seen the face behind the mask and realized his best friend was back from the dead—on a mission to kill Captain America. A nearly-successful mission. James Barnes as an adversary had been an Achilles heel made-to-order for Steve. Sam had watched with a heavy sensation in his chest as Steve had zoned out in shock, hardly responding to Rumlow and the strike team as they’d ordered him to his knees.
Brock Rumlow. He couldn’t think about the man without his blood getting hot. Hydra’s Winter Soldier might’ve done the most harm, but as far as Sam was concerned it was back-stabbers like Rumlow that were at the heart of the corruption they’d been tearing down.
The media would have their own spin on all this, of course. News, of varying degrees of integrity, would spread like wildfire—and no doubt Stark had enough sources to already know more than the average citizen.
But Sam wouldn’t put words into Steve’s mouth. The scar was ripped open, and Steve would heal at his own rate. Sam wouldn’t try to explain what he didn’t fully understand himself.
“He’s been through the wringer,” was all the comment he could think to make.
“Obviously.” Stark was still staring at Steve, like he could fix the damage by being peeved with it. He snatched up the chart from the foot of the bed, flipping through the information with an air of entitlement.
“Pretty sure you’re not supposed to do that.” Sam didn’t know why he bothered to try lines like that on any of these people, he really didn’t.
“Unlike Cap, here, I don’t follow the rules.”
Sam had to smirk at that. “In justice to Cap, the man did just finish tearing down an intelligence agency.”
“Yes. Yes, he did. And I plan on talking to him about that.” Tony continued to peruse the medical chart with a frown etched between his brows. “Just because I was out of town and incommunicado doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have tried calling. After all, he’s the one who keeps going on, and on—and on—about the need for teamwork.”
“We were a bit short on time.” Sam could do imperious right back at him. “Besides, my house was closer—and I make a mean pan of scrambled eggs.” He couldn’t help the defensive note that crept into his tone. He might not have kept Steve exactly hale and whole, but he’d done his best. He’d been there. “Wasn’t like he was exactly alone. It might’ve been an impromptu band we got together, but I like to think we did a decent job of making it work.”
Stark did look at him, then. “So it was teamwork that put a dent in our fair capital city?”
“Captain’s orders,” Sam agreed, only a little ruefully, remembering Hill, and Romanov, and Fury all falling in line first—and the surge of pride he’d felt at the way so many others had followed Steve without question. “I wouldn’t have gotten back in the game for just anyone, Mr. Stark. But for him? Proud to.”
Stark didn’t make any quips at that. Not until he’d taken his turn to assess Sam with an enigmatic smirk on his lips. “Huh. Look at you, Cap,” he addressed the unconscious man beside him, “making fans wherever you go.”
There was something beyond the apparent mockery of Stark’s comment that kept Sam from scowling in response.
“I should go,” Stark added, then, heaving a not-quite-sigh as he returned the clipboard to its place.
“The cleanup’s never fun.”
Stark snorted. “Oh, I’m used to cleanup. I just usually help make the mess first. Also, Captain Conscience is usually in full nagging order for these gigs.”
“The doctors say he’ll be just fine.”
“’Course he’ll be fine—and a lot sooner than you or I would be fine. Just because he came back from being dead, the idiot thinks he can take anything and bounce right back. And the worst part is he’s right.”
Tony Stark might be a genius, but he wasn’t the best actor Sam had ever met, especially when it came to nonchalance as a cover for caring.
“Before you ask,” Sam continued, an old hand at this now, “I’ll be here when he comes around.”
Stark nodded. “Good. Tell him…”
Sam raised an eyebrow. “Do I look like Captain America’s answering machine?”
Stark grinned. “Since you ask so nicely, the job is yours.” He looked back down at Steve, moody again. “Tell him to rest while he can because I’ll be back to have words with him.”
“You won’t make him regret it. He did what he had to.”
“Oh, sure,” Stark agreed easily, “Cap always does. But, my extremely valid point remains: he had other resources he should’ve used.”
Sam didn’t argue. Stark was a certified genius, after all. He was used to being right—and maybe he was right about this, too. Sam had a feeling that Steve wasn’t used to thinking of himself as a guy with an overabundance of resources, let alone friends. Let alone the kind of friends who’d drop everything and come running to help at a moment’s notice.
Stark turned to go, then paused, glancing over his shoulder at Sam. “He’s got a lot to sort through, I imagine, after all…this.” He waved a hand airily in Steve’s direction in a way that was clearly intended to deflect any edge of touchy-feely-caring-ness. “He’s got a whole shiny collection of guilt, and something tells me he just bought something new to add to his repertoire.”
“He wouldn’t be the first guy to take on what he doesn’t deserve.”
“No,” Stark admitted, grudgingly. “But he’s got this knack for it. This obsession with taking things personally.” He glared at the man in the bed. “Believe me, there’s nothing more pathetic than a super-soldier with a bad case of super-guilt,” he muttered, and added even more darkly: “The nightmares…”
Whose nightmares, he didn’t specify.
Sam could imagine. He’d been there for enough fellow soldiers going through the stages of grief and guilt, and he’d witnessed Natasha’s pragmatic soothing away of Steve’s distress. He wasn’t sure where Stark would’ve had the opportunity to see Steve that way, but clearly he had some kind of experience.
“Like I said,” he reiterated firmly, “I’ll be here.”
“Well,” Stark said, like he’d come to some internal conclusion, “if you’re going to be on this team, you might as well call me Tony.”
Whether by “team” he meant “Team Watch Cap’s Back,” or something more Sam didn’t know. But it was good enough for now.
The God of Thunder didn’t require introductions. He brought his calling card with him, crackling the air.
He swept in with his red cape flowing behind him, in charge of the room, and intense with open concern.
Sam stood once more, pushing back the exhaustion. “I’m Sam Wilson,” he said, without preamble, “a friend of Steve’s.”
Of all the Avengers, Thor should’ve been the threatening one. But, despite the frown on his face, he stepped forward and heartily shook Sam’s hand with a sense of etiquette that made the gesture unexpectedly formal.
“If you are a shield brother of the Captain’s, then you are already as a brother to me as well.” His attention drifted to the bed, and any other formalities of introduction were instantly forgotten. “How does he fair?”
“Miraculously well, all things considered. Took a bullet to the gut. To the leg. A knife to the shoulder…”
Thor clenched his jaw. “He was overcome by many foes?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s mostly the work of one.”
“One?” Blue eyes turned on him in shock. “It must have a mighty enemy indeed.”
“I don’t know the details of how the fight went down—I only saw how it ended.” He nodded to Steve. “But I can make a guess at the weapon his enemy used. And, yeah. It would’ve been enough to bring down any guy. Even Captain America.” Especially Captain America.
The deep boot tracks leading away from where Steve lay on shore were another matter entirely. Answers would have to wait until Steve regained consciousness.
Thor’s eyes were searching. Knowing. But, unlike the rest, he didn’t pry for details—and despite his regal bearing, Sam realized there was the familiarity of soldiers-at-heart that made an easy assumption of trust between them.
“You are indeed his shield brother,” Thor said gruffly.
“I do what I can.” He looked at Steve, too, even though the image was burned into his mind’s eye from the hours of waiting. “I did what I could to keep it from coming to this at all.”
“And you watch over him, now.” Thor’s gratitude was as open as his concern. “I wish I could remain and do the same.”
Sam smiled. “I’ll let him know you were here.”
Thor returned the look. “You have looked to the protection of Midgard, and the Captain—and I am grateful for it.”
“I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
“Of that,” Thor said warmly, “I have no doubt.”
Sam settled back into chair. Despite the darkness outside, the room felt warmer than it had a minute before.
He dozed again, as night set in, and nurses came in and out checking Steve’s vitals.
The man who appeared in front of him would’ve been unremarkable if it weren’t for the fact that he was carrying Captain America’s shield.
“Sam Wilson.” The man greeted him with cheerful calm.
“Yes.” By that point, he wasn’t exactly feeling his charming, witty self.
“I’ve heard good things about you.”
“Thanks.” That wasn’t unnerving at all. “And you are…?”
“Phil Coulson.” He turned towards the bed, and was silent for a long moment, holding the shield reverently in both hands. “I came to return this to the Captain.”
He had “SHIELD” stamped all over him from the suit, to the inscrutable expressions, to the way he seemed to know all about Sam, as if he’d known he’d be there all along.
But, somehow, Sam couldn’t doubt that he was there to do exactly what he claimed. Couldn’t doubt that he was essentially trustworthy. There was too much respect—even awe—in the way he looked at Steve for him to have ulterior motives.
“I’m sure he’ll appreciate having it back.”
“Yes. They belong together.” Quietly, he set the shield down next to the bed within Steve’s reach. “That’s one thing right with the world again,” he murmured, so quietly Sam almost missed it. Then he returned his attention to Sam, buoyantly efficient once more. “Is there anything I can do to make your wait more comfortable?”
Sam hadn’t really thought about it until then, but the first word to make out of his mouth was automatically: “Coffee.” In an attempt to sound more civilized, he amended, “Coffee would be great.”
The man left silently, and if it hadn’t been for the shield sitting next to the bed Sam might’ve doubted he’d really been there at all. Also, there was the coffee and deli sandwiches—which were definitely not hospital fare—that arrived for him twenty minutes later. That put some life back into him, even if the coffee didn’t do much to keep him awake. He hadn’t realized just how hungry he’d been.
Natasha made another reappearance some time in the night, but she was gone by the time the morning light began to filter in—and beside Sam’s chair had been deposited a duffel bag full of a miscellany of items. A neatly folded change of clothes. A bottle of ibuprofen. Another plastic-wrapped deli sandwich. An assortment of magazines and paperback novels. His cell phone, charger cable, and a portable speaker stand he’d forgotten he owned.
It occurred to him briefly that he had a right to be irritated at the invasion of privacy—irritated by the idea of Natasha rummaging through his house. It also occurred to him that the Black Widow had just taken the time to pack him an overnight bag, and the better part of wisdom would be to just accept it for the rather touching gesture that it was.
As soft golden light filled the room, he watched Steve’s chest rise and fall under the covers. The bruising was still brutal-looking, but the color was back in his face, and his shield waited by the side of the bed, ready for him.
With the room no longer feeling like Grand Central Station (or at least Grand Avengers Station), it was almost restful. Phil Coulson, whoever he was, had been right. Sentimentally symbolic or not, there was some reassurance in the simple fact that Captain America had his shield back.
Sam fished the speaker out from the duffel bag, setting it up on the adjustable tray-table over Steve’s bed. He settled his cell into the cradle and found the album he wanted.
The music played, and it wasn’t long before the Captain stirred beside him.