Over the course of the next few hours Sam dozed in his chair and watched nurses come and go, checking Steve’s vitals or replacing the cooling packs on his chest.
Already, though, it was easy to wonder if the Soldier had just been a hallucination. Smoke inhalation did funny things to your mind, right? It was just possible that Sam was getting desperate enough—on his own behalf and on Steve’s behalf—that he’d imagined up an end to their quest.
Waking from one of these dozes, he caught a flash of metal out of the corner of his eye and started around to face it.
The Soldier sat perfectly still in the chair he’d pulled into the shadows in the corner of the room, his gloved hands gripping the red white and blue shield like he was afraid Sam would jump up and try to wrest it away from him.
“Dude,” Sam exclaimed to relieve the tension of surprise, “why do you always have to look at nothing with that, that…” the words “creepy, dead-eyed stare” sprang to mind, based on past experiences that had involved guns, and explosions, and near-death. But, under a more current assessment, what came out instead was, “…that sad look.”
That sad look turned on Sam, a little dazed, a lot sooty, and entirely uncomprehending. “What?”
“Never mind,” Sam said—but it was disconcerting to know what to say when the guy couldn’t seem to make up his mind on whether he was kicked puppy or a super-assassin.
Maybe the two weren’t mutually exclusive.
Sam certainly couldn’t decide—he couldn’t seem to get any traction. One minute Barnes was a snarling wild creature, and the next…this happened. If he blinked, he might vanish again, like a skittish, nocturnal animal caught out in blinding daylight. Or he might snap Sam’s neck like a wounded bear protecting its cubs.
But he had to try. Because the way the Barnes was looking at Steve would’ve been enough to soften Nick Fury.
And Sam couldn’t forget the way he’d absolutely-not-hallucinated the Winter Soldier tearing up at the idea of Steve in pain. Or the way he’d carried him ten miles, never flagging, doing his best not to jostle the man in his arms.
Yeah, he couldn’t forget that.
“So you came back,” Sam nodded, “that’s good. That’s a real good thing. And you got his shield back, too.” He indicated it with a nod. “Best kind of get-well-soon gift for the Cap. Nice thinking.”
A flicker of the look from the waiting room—the hungry-for-affirmation look—flickered in the Soldier’s eyes again. He was a man used to taking orders, but maybe not compliments.
“You’re…smoking a bit, again,” Sam remarked, eying a burnt patch on his sleeve through which shone a sliver of silver metal. “Not singed anywhere, are you?”
“Of course y’are.” He didn’t know why he bothered asking.
Then Steve began to stir, and both of them turned together, tensing, hoping he’d settle again.
Sam had made the mistake of watching the nurse checking the dressings on his chest and face—and, God, no. Steve didn’t need to be awake for that. Even Captain America needed more than a few hours to get over burns that deep.
But whatever had knocked him out initially—a concussion, or smoke inhalation, or sheer pain—seemed to have eased off enough for him to drag himself into the realm of the living.
“Steve?” Sam leaned in, preemptively ready to reassure. “It’s Sam. Those boys got out of that building, and so did you. The day has officially been saved. So you just sit tight. You got burnt pretty bad, and I’m sure you’re feelin’ it, but I got your back.”
Steve’s eyelids fluttered. “Sam…”
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s me. Need me to repeat all that? You with me now?”
“M’with you,” Steve stuttered, coherently enough, just blearily not-quite-awake enough to form complete sentences. Sam was becoming familiar with the grogginess of a still-healing, energy-depleted Steve.
But Steve struggled anyways. Always did. He fought to open his eyes a crack, shifted, and cried out in surprised pain.
“Easy, man. Easy. You roasted yourself good.”
“Figured…that out,” Steve choked out tightly. “Funny how…doesn’t feel that much different.”
Sam frowned. “Than what?”
It was Soldier who responded in a gravelly tone. He’d come out of his corner, standing on the other side of Steve’s bed, looking rooted to the spot now that he’d claimed it.
This was it, Sam thought: the moment Steve had been fighting for, tooth and nail, to make happen. He watched apprehensively as Steve blinked owlishly up at the Soldier, and didn’t know what to expect. Maybe Barnes had been right about his presence just hurting Steve more. Maybe he never should’ve encouraged this reunion—not now, with Steve flat on his back, vulnerable and wounded.
“It hurts,” the Soldier explained, eyes flinty, “thawing.”
Which would’ve been a hysterical thing to say—and would’ve demanded some quip about freezer-burn—if it hadn’t also been one of those most pathetic shared-trauma confessions that Sam had ever heard.
He really didn’t want to think about it just then. Steve, being carved out of a chunk of ice. Being taken out of the deep freeze like a slab of meat, and defrosted. He didn’t want to think about what that process had looked like: the serum healing the decades of damage that had preserved him.
He’d take things one version of a hurting Steve at a time. One was plenty, thanks.
He could hardly look at the Soldier, either. Cringed to imagine what had been done to Barnes to turn him into the metal “fist” of HYDRA.
But he watched Steve looking at the Soldier, and there was dawning wonder there—honest, and broken, and childlike.
“Buck?” he croaked. “You're back.”
The Soldier opened his mouth, closed it again, and his eyes darted from Steve to Sam, then back to Steve. And Sam realized he was floundering. The super-assassin was floundering over social niceties. He didn't know what to do in the face of Steve's open affection, and he was searching for a clue about how to respond.
Sam had to give it to him, it wasn't exactly the kind of situation Emily Post had an answer for: how to respond to the unstinting forgiveness of the friend you'd almost killed while you were brainwashed.
“He got you out of that burning building,” Sam said, figuring whatever else Barnes deserved, he deserved that accolade in his resume. “Jumped in right after you, one idiot going after another.” He snorted. “I see it, now. You two really are a matched set.”
“Buck...” Steve said again, the thank-you and, the I-missed-you, and the don't-leave-please-don't-leave were all blindingly evident.
The Soldier flinched at the sound of his own name. He blanched under the attention—the nocturnal animal caught out in blinding mid-day light—and Sam didn't know if he wanted to hug the guy or slap him for making this so complicated.
The truth was, it was complicated. Way more complicated than Sam could adequately wrap his head around. He was an interloper, an intruder, and an integral part of the scene at the same time, like a moderator or a lifeguard. He couldn't look away. Couldn't leave Steve lying there with raw emotion in his eyes, and Barnes staring back at him with something close to petrified fear.
The moment was shattered when Steve took a sharp, stuttering inhale. His eyelids fluttered, and he made a soft choking noise, unmistakably pained.
Sam sat up straighter, words of comfort forming on his lips, but before he could say anything the Soldier stripped the glove from his right hand and reached out. The flesh-and-blood hand hovered for only a second before it rested on Steve's shoulder, stroking it tentatively.
“N-not made of glass,” Steve rasped. “I'm not. I'll be better...in just, just a minute.”
The Soldier didn't answer right away. His thumb kept its rhythmic patter on Steve's shoulder. “Shut up, punk.”
This gruff rebuttal appeared to please Steve no end judging from the way he broke into a smile that eclipsed even the pinched expression of suffering.
But all too soon the suffering took center stage, and even Steve's best attempts at stoicism couldn't keep the occasional sound of distress from escaping.
Even knowing that pain meds would do about as much good as water, Sam's knee-jerk instinct was to call nurses in to up the morphine. To do something. He just didn't do sitting there watching a friend in pain.
Apparently, neither did Barnes.
Wordlessly, gently as a mother, the Soldier calmly turned back the sheets and rearranged the shifted cooling-packs, turning them over so that their cooler “unused” sides were in contact with Steve's bandaged side. With a deft touch, he made sure two out of the three packs neatly covered the bandaged area, and the third he took and gingerly, slowly pressed over the gauze on the side of Steve's face and held it there.
“Better...” Steve breathed after a minute.
Sam smiled, the tension in his muscles easing, and knew he wasn't imagining the answering self-satisfied twitch of the Soldier's mouth.
The Soldier stayed standing where he was long after Steve drifted off back into a healing sleep. He stayed there when the nurses came in and out to replace the cooling packs with fresh ones—allowed them to remove the one he held, but immediately confiscated (snatched) one of the new ones and resumed his new purpose in life, refusing to be budged by any of their demands.
Eventually they left, and Sam and the Soldier remained.
“You good, there?” Sam asked, checking his watch. It seemed like days, not hours, since they'd arrived at the hospital.
The Soldier grunted, and didn't twitch a finger.
“I could help you arrange that so you don't have to actually hold it there.” Sam reached forward to do just that, but stopped at the growl that was now becoming familiar enough to seem less threatening than it once had.
But not devoid of threat, by any means.
“Okay, man. That's cool. Whatever you need.”
But an hour later, Sam was getting tired on Barnes' behalf. Whatever they'd done to make him a super-assassin, standing there like that—bent forward a bit at the waist, hand maintaining steady, gentle pressure—it couldn't be comfortable.
“You want a chair or something? I could bring a chair over.”
“Right, right. I forgot.”
The minutes ticked by. Sam could hardly drop off to sleep, himself, with Barnes stationed there like that. Like his universe had dwindled down to the single mission of standing sentinel between Steve and pain.
“Look, growl at me all you like, but I've got this bad habit of caring about people, and—”
“—Just go to sleep, Sam.”
Sam blinked at the familiar use of his name, as well as at the not-quite-snarled order. He had the strange feeling that the Soldier had observed him a lot more than he'd been observed by them. Perhaps they'd never been on the Soldier's trail at all, so much as he'd been on their trail (and Steve had been right: “He'll come to us.”). Perhaps he was “Sam” and not “Wilson” because the Soldier had already observed someone else calling him that. Someone else named Steve.
It was an unsettling thought. Or it would've been, a few hours ago.
“I've got this,” the Soldier emphasized.
And Sam didn't doubt that he did. He'd watched him tend to Steve with a steady arm and a steady heart. Now that he knew who Steve was, he seemed self-ruinously determined to look out for him. Whatever Barnes was, whatever he'd done, he wasn't a threat to Steve (although definitely a threat to anything that threated Steve). Whatever shadows there were in those sunken eyes, the one spark of hope was this. This link he had to Steve, a loyalty that trumped all other missions.
Sam didn't have too much trouble believing it. These two had been through hell together, as well as individual hells of their own. When they looked at each other, they were looking at the person who knew them better than they knew themselves.
He looked at Steve's peacefully unconscious face, and he slept.
He woke with a crick in his neck, and a pounding headache.
The first thing he noticed was that Steve's eyes were open. His expression was haggard, but not as tense with pain as before.
The second thing he noticed was that the Soldier was gone.
“He stayed a long time. All night,” Steve said, turning his eyes towards the ceiling. “I pretended I was asleep a few times. Don't think it fooled him. But he stayed anyways.”
“That's a good sign.”
Steve grunted. “Maybe. He still left in the end.”
“Only after he was sure you were on the mend,” Sam pointed out.
“He cares, Steve.”
Steve was silent.
“He'll be back,” Sam added, not sure what he was basing his certainty upon.
Steve turned bright eyes on him. “All of him?”
Sam ached for him. But he wouldn't lie to him, placate him, or put a pretty face on an ugly situation. “He'll never be the James Barnes you knew, Steve. You don't need me to tell you that. Doesn't mean he can't be the James Barnes you know now. You've both changed.”
Steve's throat worked. He clenched his jaw, relaxed it. “It's just...for a moment, he was there. I don't care how much he's changed.” His voice became a whisper: “I know I can't fix him, I just want him back.”
Steve said it with conviction, but Sam knew that fixing the damage to Barnes was exactly what Steve wanted to try and do.
However, he did believe that Steve would take Barnes back as a friend in whatever condition he came. And, for the first time since they'd started out on this fool’s errand, Sam believed they just might be able to succeed.
They could leave the question of “rehabilitation” for a later date.
“Then we get him back,” Sam said, even as he groaned inwardly at the over-simplification of his ownstatement. None of this was simple.
Steve's gaze wandered past Sam to rest on the shield-shaped bundle leaning against the chair in the corner, wrapped in waterproofed canvas. He sighed deeply. “Well, we know one way to coax him out of hiding.”
His face was only half joking.
“Nuh uh. No way. No more burning buildings, and almost-dyings. I'm so done with this beside vigil thing. So done. You coax a stray cat out of hiding with a saucer of milk, or a wind-up mouse, or somethin', not by playing damsel in distress.”
“A saucer of milk,” Steve repeated dryly.
“Work with the metaphor, man.”
The smile in Steve's eyes grew. “Damsel in distress?”
“He hauled your super soldier butt over ten miles.”
Steve sobered instantly. “He did?”
“Wouldn't let me take you from him for a minute—for which my back thanks him.” He stretched, felt the vertebrae in his neck creak. “This chair, on the other hand...”
“You don't have to stay, Sam,” Steve said quietly, “I swear, I won't think worse of you if you decide—”
“—Don't say it. Don't even say it.” When Steve opened his mouth anyways, Sam cut him off again: “Not gonna happen. Sure, you don't deserve me—what else is new? You got me.” He grinned. “Deal with it.”
Steve didn't argue.
They left the hospital after another twenty-four hours. Sam had argued against it, but ultimately Steve had won, insisting that they shouldn't stick around long enough for the doctors and nurses to be more bewildered than they already were by Steve's steady rate of healing.
Steve moved stiffly, still pained by quick movement, but determined to get away from the confining room and ugly walls.
There was only one cafe in town, and when Sam dragged Steve in, prepared to dole out whatever it cost to fill up a still-healing super soldier with a ridiculous over-active metabolism, the woman at the counter took a long look at the two of them before asking in thickly-accented English, “You are...Steve, and Sam, yes?”
Against his better judgment Sam had nodded, cautious but curious.
Their “friend”—the one who wanted to buy the two of them breakfast—was anonymous. And a glance around proved that there was no trace of the friend they both automatically suspected, either. Of course not. This was lurk-and-seek, and the Soldier was back to the game.
Although apparently the rules had changed.
Sam didn't know where the Soldier got money from. He didn't want to know. He couldn't fathom how much it cost to leave an open tab that, they were informed, supplied as many plates full of food as they could order, and he couldn't fathom what it all meant.
“Don't suppose we could get a saucer of milk 'round here...” Sam suggested, dead-pan, as he sipped at his coffee.
Steve chuckled and met his eyes across the small table, and there was feverish hope there. Not peace, not by a long shot. But for now it was enough to go on.