Dust floats through the air, coating Sam's skin in layers that build with every motion, filling his lungs with every breath. It's unavoidable, intertwined with the very oxygen in the air, too fine to filter but too thick to safely breathe. With every panicked, gasping breath, Sam suffocates.
"Are both sides ready?"
Blood drips down the walls and collects in pools on the floor, almost black in the low light of the room. Sam strains against the chains on his wrists but he can't move, can't free himself. He can feel the poison surging through his veins, can feel it taking over him. It burns as it travels through his body, and Sam knows that it's far too late to keep the blood from running its course and corrupting him.
"Ready for the People, Your Honor."
Black eyes stare down at Sam as he fights to his feet only to be forced back to his knees. His friends scream his name from across the room, but their voices are barely whispers in his ears, too far away to be of any help. A silver blade comes down on Sam's head, and he merely closes his eyes, accepting his fate.
"Ready for the Defense, Your Honor."
Sam's eyes catch on a head of red hair as a gun is pointed at his forehead. He waits for the deadly shot to come but the weapon disappears, and a hand grabs Sam's head, forcing it into the ground until Sam hears his skull crack. The sharp pain is followed by a dull heat that throbs in time with Sam's heartbeat, then another sharp pain follows, and suddenly there's no pain at all—or anything else.
"Will the jury please stand and raise your right hand?"
The body lying at Sam's feet is far too small, far too young. Sam wants to help, wants to do something, anything to save the child, but they're gone, soul vacant and body dim. Sam is helpless, held back by tendrils of darkness that wrap around his wrists like chains, manacles of shadow that are stronger than Sam could ever hope to be. Pain shoots through Sam's stomach like a dagger, and he gasps, dropping to the ground as the shadows vanish, leaving him alone to die as familiar faces look on in silence, doing nothing to save Sam.
"Sam, are you with me?" A hand touches Sam's shoulder, and he jerks away, blinking rapidly to clear his vision and looking up to see Natasha standing beside him, concern written all over her face—or at least, prevalent enough in her expression that Sam can see it.
"What? Yeah- Yeah, I'm fine." Sam says, shaking his head. "Just... memories." Natasha nods, although she's clearly skeptical—and rightly so. Most of what Sam saw was likely memories, but he's pretty sure the last flash of scattered images was something he hasn't encountered before.
Ever since he fought the Judge last December, Sam has had visions and memories that blur together, flashes of each intertwining into something almost impossible to sort through. Sam doesn't know exactly what's going on—and even though the flashes started over four months ago, he has yet to approach anyone else about them—but he figures that the head injury he received courtesy of the Judge has done something to his vision, cracking them open and leaving them scattered through his brain. It's a pain—literally, Sam's pre-vision headaches are back with a vengeance—but Sam figures it's better his visions were cracked than his skull.
"Court's adjourned for the day," Natasha says, offering Sam a hand and pulling him to his feet. "Steve suggested we grab some lunch."
Sam follows Natasha out of the courtroom, memories of his last appearance in this same room echoing painfully in his ears—cries of "Innocent! Innocent!" and the final announcement of "Not Guilty" are often present in the swirling storm of memories that Sam finds himself caught up in far too often.
When they reach the courthouse door, Sam takes a breath to steady himself and nods to Natasha, who pushes the door open and exposes a sea of cameras.
It's been four and a half months since Sam was exonerated of the deaths in Lebanon, but his popularity—and in some cases infamousy—has yet to face. Whenever Sam goes out in public—which isn't often, for this very reason—he's hounded by cameramen Tony says aren't reporters but paparazzi—people paid to get pictures of Sam and sell them to shitty gas station magazines.
Sam still isn't sure why anyone would want to pay for a picture of him.
Whatever the reason, the public's continued interest in Sam means that the Avengers still aren't letting him off the leash—one of them is almost always with him, and whenever he goes on patrols while the Avengers are on a mission, Matt is rarely too far behind.
Speaking of Matt, Sam is surprised to find him and Foggy sitting at the table when Natasha and Sam arrive at the restaurant Steve picked out—it's a sandwich shop that, Steve quickly explains, Tony said was once recommended to him by a friend. Natasha sits down beside Bucky, who is on Steve's left, and Sam sits down beside Matt, who is on Foggy's right. Everyone orders their food, and the reason for the lawyers' presence at the table is quickly explained when Matt turns his attention to Sam.
"The prosecution wants to call you as a witness in Barnes's trial," Matt says. Sam nods hesitantly—Bucky's trial only officially started today, but the wheels have been turning since long before Sam arrived at Avengers Tower last October—not entirely surprised that the prosecution wants to use him to get to Bucky.
"Why?" Steve asks, looking between Matt and Foggy curiously and then eyeing Bucky, who ducks his head.
Sam was expecting Bucky to be represented by Tony's team of lawyers, so when he learned that Matt and Foggy would be representing Bucky, he assumed that they had volunteered their services. As it turns out, Bucky personally asked for Matt and Foggy to represent them—he later told Sam that they were the only lawyers he trusted, on account of what they did for Sam last year.
"The prosecution wants to associate two people of dubious standing and questionable character," Foggy says. "'Oh, look, Sam and Barnes are all buddy-buddy, so they must both be terrible people.'" The impression of the prosecutor is pitched a good octave above Foggy's usual speaking voice and the rest of the table chuckles, watching with amusement as Foggy gestures overdramatically between Sam and Bucky.
"It might not be that bad of an idea," Sam admits, much to Matt's surprise if the expression on his face is any indication. "I mean, other than Steve, I'm probably one of Bucky's best character witnesses. Plus, my legal standing isn't as dubious as the prosecution seems to think, and most of the public appears to be under the impression that my character isn't that questionable at all." Matt tilts his head to one side for a minute then nods, apparently seeing the point to Sam's words.
"Either way, I'd like to keep you off the stand if we can help it," Matt says after a moment, shaking his head. Steve's name is called, and Natasha and Bucky both stand, letting Steve out of the booth. Steve and Natasha head to the counter to grab everyone's lunch but Bucky slides back into the booth, frowning.
"Why?" He asks, voice low and head ducked—Bucky seldom goes out in public if he can avoid it, and when he does he tends to try to make himself as small as possible. Sam knows that this trial is going to be hard on him, if not because of the unpleasant memories the trial will dredge up then because of the excess media attention.
"We managed to keep Sam from testifying during his own trial," Matt explains, "so we didn't have to worry about him having to lie under oath. But any session on the stand is an opportunity for the prosecution to ask Sam a leading question that forces him to decide between committing perjury or revealing something about his past or even about Darkside." Bucky nods, and Sam smiles sympathetically.
"You'll be fine," Sam says as reassuringly as he can. "Everyone knows that you're innocent. It's just a matter of going through the motions." Sam's words aren't entirely true—he doesn't think there's a single case where everyone agrees—but the sentiment is. Bucky won't go to prison, the Avengers won't allow it. Just like Sam's trial, the trial of the Winter Soldier is less about determining guilt and more about appeasing the people.
Steve and Natasha return with the sandwiches and the conversation lapses into silence, each person absorbed in their own thoughts. In Sam's case, he quickly finds himself stuck on the scenes he saw in his latest episode of visions in the courtroom.
Most of the images are easy enough for Sam to recognize—Lebanon, Sam's months with the demons, and his final fights with the Demon and the Judge—but that last scene is new, even among the many scattered visions Sam has been witnessing as of late. Sam didn't recognize the kid, but he did know the people who were standing around him as he died. It was the Avengers who were gathered there, watching Sam bleed out.
Assuming that what Sam saw was a vision rather than a nightmare—and considering the headache Sam is currently sporting, he's betting on the former—why don't the Avengers try to save Sam?
And what exactly is it that kills him?
The rest of lunch passes uneventfully—when conversation resumes, the topic is the Avengers Compound upstate, where Steve, Bucky, and Natasha have been living since late March. Avengers Tower is still in Tony's possession, and Tony himself still lives there, as does Sam—although he isn't sure how much longer the tower will be available to him after Tony finally joins the rest of the Avengers upstate.
The excitement returns, however, after the group pays for their food and exits the restaurant. Sam isn't surprised to find people waiting outside—between him and the Avengers, there's almost always a crowd waiting when they leave any building but Avengers Tower—but he isn't expecting two men to step directly in the path of the Avengers and their friends.
"Sam Winchester." The blond man says with venom in his tone, and Sam almost groans—just because the court has exonerated him doesn't mean that everyone agrees with the decision, and Sam has just as many protestors following him around at any given time as paparazzi.
"Can we help you?" Steve asks, taking the blond's rude tone as his cue to step directly between the pair and Sam. It's an attempt to defuse the situation—one that fails miserably as the blond curls his hand into a fist and lands a blow directly on Steve's jaw.
Sam watches in mute disbelief as the blond and his brunet friend launch a vigorous attack on Steve and Natasha, able to hold their own through brute force—although they're helped somewhat by the fact that Natasha and Steve are actively trying to avoid hurting them. Bucky is quick to remove himself from the action, grabbing Sam's arm with his metal hand and backing away from the fight. Sam and Bucky back into the wall of the sandwich shop and they're soon joined by Matt, whose head is cocked to one side as he attempts to keep track of the fight. After a minute, Foggy steps directly in front of Sam, Bucky, and Matt, making himself the final barrier.
After a minute, the brunet manages to get past Steve and Natasha, and Sam winces sympathetically when Foggy is removed from the equation by a knee to the groin. Matt takes Foggy's pained grunt as his cue to step forward, likely hoping that the angry men will stop short of assaulting a blind man—even if they won't show the same courtesy to Captain America.
The brunet does actually hesitate when he sees Matt standing in his path, but the issue is quickly resolved by the blond, who pulls a gun out of his jeans and points it between Steve and Natasha—and directly at Sam's chest.
"Stop!" He shouts, and Steve and Natasha—as well as the rapidly gathering crowd of bystanders and cops—fall both still and silent.
"Son, you don't want to do this," Steve says, hands raised placatingly as he looks between Sam and the blond, his expression schooled into one of faux calm. The Avengers, Matt, and Foggy all know that Sam can quickly stop a bullet long before it reaches him, but saving his own life would come at the cost of exposing Darkside to the world.
Sam would almost prefer to take the bullet.
"Yeah, actually, I do." The blond says with a sneer, and Sam grimaces when the brunet draws a weapon as well, directing his at Sam's forehead and gesturing for Sam to raise his hands. Sam obeys hesitantly, looking between the two angry men and trying to decide if his cover identity is worth his life.
A year ago, Sam wouldn't have hesitated to say yes. Darkside was Sam's better half, the hero Sam wanted to be. But now, Sam himself has started to be regarded by some as a hero.
As usual, Sam is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
"Alright, you've got our attention," Natasha asks cooly. "Now what do you want?"
"We want Sam here to pay for what he did." The blond says. "You killed our brother!" The blond's voice cracks on the word 'brother,' and he falls silent, shaking his head.
"He was thirteen." The brunet continues when it becomes evident that the blond can't. "Thirteen years old, and he died that day. Suffocated, buried beneath the remains of his karate studio." Sam closes his eyes at this, unwilling to risk his demon sight making an appearance in conjunction with the wave of emotions that crashes over him.
What Sam said to Matt at lunch wasn't entirely true—Sam's reputation is far from pristine. There are a lot of people who were unhappy with the fact that Sam got off scot-free, none more so than the victims of the Lebanon bombing and their families.
Neither man speaks again, and when Sam opens his eyes, he discovers that neither gun is still being pointed at him.
"You killed our brother." The blond says lamely, all anger gone from his tone, his hand hanging loosely at his side but the gun still in his grip. After a moment, he offers Sam a broken but malicious smile, shaking his head. "You don't deserve to die for it. You deserve to live the rest of your life wishing that you had."
With that, both brothers drop their weapons to the ground, their protest apparently now over. Steve and Natasha have both men on the ground in seconds, ready to be passed off to the police officers who quickly swarm the scene. As the crowd of bystanders begins to become saturated with reporters, Steve and Natasha herd the rest of their small group back into the restaurant and out the back exit, into the alley.
"Well, that was exciting," Matt says, shaking his head. "Sam, I'm thinking that you should maybe stay away from court for the time being."
"Yeah, I had the same feeling." Sam agrees, nodding to Bucky. "I'll be supporting you from the sidelines instead." Bucky returns the nod and adds a soft smile, remaining silent—he's probably a bit shaken thanks to the unexpected attack.
"We should head back to the compound," Steve says with a sharp sigh, rubbing his jaw where the blond attacker's first punch connected—there's no bruise yet, but Sam wouldn't be surprised if one formed in the next few hours. "Car's just around the corner, Buck, come on." Steve, Bucky, and Natasha say their farewells and exit the alley, and as soon as they're gone, Matt turns his attention to Sam, tilting his head to the side.
"Are you alright?" Matt asks. "That can't have been fun."
"What, being reminded of my mistakes, or having two guns pointed at me?" Sam asks rhetorically, shaking his head and offering Matt a smile that probably looks about as fake as it feels. "Been through both before. I'm sure it will happen again, and again."
"Until we find and convict whoever really bombed Lebanon, yeah, probably." Foggy agrees. "The victims of the attack just want someone to blame."
"We should head back to the office and start working on our next steps for Barnes's trial." Matt decides. "Sam, are you good getting home?"
"Tony offered to send a car, but honestly, I think I'm just going to teleport," Sam admits, biting the inside of his cheek.
"See you later, then," Foggy says, heading for the street.
"Patrol tonight?" Sam questions before Matt can leave, and Matt nods.
"I'll meet you at Karen's apartment," Matt says—Karen's roof has quickly become the regular meeting place for the two vigilantes. Sam voices his agreement and Matt walks over to Foggy, only to pause at the entrance to the alley and turn back around. "Stay safe, Sam."
"I'll do my best," Sam replies—it's the only promise he can really make. Matt nods, and he and Foggy disappear into the street.
Sam ducks behind a dumpster to teleport back to Avengers Tower, but the image of Tony waiting for him in the lounge has Sam hesitating, doubt filling his mind.
Between his worrying vision and the attack outside the sandwich shop, Sam is feeling more rattled than he has in several months. Sam knows that there are a lot of people who aren't happy with his freedom—knows that despite that, his friends are steadfast in their support.
But seeing the Avengers in that vision has shaken Sam's confidence. He can't imagine why they would ever abandon him like that, leave him to die, just watching. Waiting.
Sam is confident that his vision was missing pieces—almost everything he's been seeing lately has been—but the chunks that weren't present can't possibly explain the circumstances.
Sam has been betrayed before, by monsters and humans alike. But not once has a friend every watched him die and not even lifted a finger to help. No one has ever broken his trust quite that thoroughly.
Unless Sam did something to break their trust first, Sam realizes, eyes widening in horror as he recalls the opening scene of his fractured vision.
A child, young, vaguely familiar in the way that most faces in Sam's visions are. Dead, bloodied and pale, body twisted. That death is significant, whoever it is.
Unless it's not the kid who's important, but the killer.
Sam teleports back to the tower, and when he finds himself in his bedroom he only makes it two steps before his knees buckle, and he sinks to the floor.
"...call Sir?" JARVIS's voice breaks through the haze descending on Sam's mind, and Sam shakes his head urgently.
"Don't call Tony," Sam says, his voice breaking. "Don't call Tony. I'm fine." Sam doubts he sounds very convincing, but JARVIS is programmed to follow orders and falls silent without protest. Sam fights his way to his feet, metal knee creaking quietly as Sam stands only to collapse onto his bed.
There's only one thing that would make Sam's abandon him like that—that suddenly, that coldly.
And that's if the body lying on the ground was put there by Sam.