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Crash and Burn

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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.

“Mama—mama!”

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.

“I know.”

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.” 

“Come again?” 

“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.”

“No.”

“No?”

“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.

Chapter Text

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?”

“I’m fine.”

“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?”

“Frostbite.”

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.”

“I'm fine.”

“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.

“Yeah.”

“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.