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Iter Criminis

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I

 

The next time he went on a mission, he did not wear the armor.

He was stripped of the Captain America mantle, stripped of his shield.

After the events of the Triskelion, Steve's head had experienced an unusual clarity. The lifting of a thick fog that blurred his criteria. All the SHIELD fiasco made him realize that what he once died for was a joke.

He'd find Bucky, he'd burn every lasting bit of HYDRA to the ground, even if it meant taking his reputation down with him. He'd protect the one constant in his life.

Natasha had disappeared after facing the court. She wouldn't allow for Steve or Sam to know her location, but a coded message made its way one morning through Steve's mail. It held the coordinates to a warehouse near South Hackensack. They followed through, carrying nothing but pistols and intercom to communicate. And Sam had insisted they went back to get some armor, his wings, Steve's shield. But time was ticking away painfully, and every moment gone decreased the possibilities of finding the HYDRA agents. They drove for hours along Balt-Wash Parkway in a stolen sedan.

Bucky had saved his life, had dragged his body out of the water before he drowned. Steve knew that much, but there were no records of his location whatsoever after the fall in the Potomac. Bucky was a trained assassin, a KGB spy, a fucking myth . There was no doubt he could get away, hide from his captors, take another name, he had the tools needed to get rid of the ghost of The Winter Soldier. That's what Steve hoped for, even if it was infantile, or selfish. It was a better option that the idea of the new members of the terrorist organization getting him and continue to use him as their attack dog. It was unbearable.

They had gone in, cautious of open fire or any sign of distress that might put them in danger. And it came storming through the doors right behind them.

Somehow, the federals had gotten the coordinates for the warehouse as well and had decided to go inside at the same time that Steve and Sam.

"FBI, drop your weapons!"

It was a SWAT team. A squad began registering the place in detail as a second pointed guns at their heads and sent them to their knees. Sam and Steve dropped their guns and raised their hands above their heads, facing surrender.

Until the enemy came out of their holes like rats.

They moved to take cover. 

HYDRA made the late SHIELD's weapons look like toys. As Steve rolled and pistol whipped one of Sam's attackers, he realized that was by design. One of HYDRA's operatives had a weapon that didn't fire bullets and it was bigger than any firearm Steve had ever seen. He looked, helpless, as he fired it and a it deployed a device that attached itself to the floor, Steve heard the unmistakable sound of an electromagnetic field being powered on and watched as the guns of three SWAT members were snached from their hands by the device and pinned to its surface.

When he found a moment to look back, his breath caught painfully, like it hadn't done in decades.

There was Rumlow, covered in heavy armor. Standing behind the handrail of the facility's emergency stairs, holding a metal baton, hiding his face behind a mask.

And Bucky curled by his feet.

The SWAT team was still holding down the other HYDRA agents, gunshots could be heard over the ringing of his ears.

"Got visual on Rumlow!" Steve shouted over the intercom, even though he knew he was not getting backup.

For a moment, Steve felt every piece of his self crumbling as Rumlow started to strike Bucky's head with the baton, knowing Steve was watching. A blunt noise echoed in his head and he had no way to stop him, had nothing to do but run towards them and hope it wasn't futile.

HYDRA agents clogged the path, blocking his vision but not the sound. God, the sound. Steve plucked a man from the ground like weeds but it was inefficient, slow . He heard the crack of electricity behind him, without looking he snached the gun from the hands of the man behind him and fired. The device attached itself to the chest of the agent in front of him and the guns of his assailants--some still strapped to their backs--hit the man and knocked him to the floor. The chaos ensuing was enough for Steve to clear the remaining  feet to get to Bucky. 

He heard Romlow growl as he approached but Steve had no time for him, he hated him, but had not time for him. Steve had never punched someone so hard in his life.

Steve sank to his knees next to Bucky. He watched his blood seeping through his dark clothes over his sternum, and was pooling underneath his limp body. Steve couldn't see Bucky's face behind long strands of his hair covering it, wet and plastered with sweat and blood.

He's dead.

"Bucky," Steve breathed, kneeling in front of the gore that was his body. Since the Triskelion, Steve had several dreams-- nightmares-- of Bucky shooting bullets through his flesh, of Bucky breaking his bones with the metal arm like sticks, of Pierce slitting Bucky's throat in a fluid movement. This had just to be another nightmare to wake up screaming to. Steve snapped his eyes shut and a choked sob escaped him, suddenly feeling his mouth wet with tears and snot. Before he could hold Bucky's face a voice called to him and held him back.

"Don't move him, the paramedics are coming," It was Sam, grabbing Steve's elbow with a punishing grip.

He didn't understand.

He's dead, he wanted to tell Sam, yell at him for trying to keep him away.

But the next thing he knew, he was being dragged away from Bucky and the medical team was crowding his friend, hollering frantic commands and words he couldn't make out. Something drowned his hearing as he watched the paramedics cut through his clothes and squeeze his flesh with their fingers to plug Bucky's veins with lines.

"240 we're stabilizing, any further units can reduce code , " a female voice said over the radio. "The base has been taken down, eight subjects under arrest, one of them requires urgent medical care."

"Step back, please."

"240 to 376, you were broken. Repeat."

"GCS 4, let's bag him."

A paramedic inserted a tube down Bucky's throat with the help of a large, curve blade. He attached a bag with a bulb to it and started pumping. Sam put his hands on Steve's shoulders and turned him around to look at him.

"Steve? Listen to me," he pleaded, his eyes focused and severe. "They're taking Rumlow in custody, I will overlook the detention process and I'll meet you at the hospital, okay?" Steve didn't know what he answered.

The ambulance reeked of chemicals that made Steve's head and stomach swim. The paramedics took turns to bag Bucky. The drips and equipment rattled with every bump on the road and Steve waited for them to arrive into the nearest hospital, staring with sick awe at the fluid leaking out of Bucky's ears and nostrils, yellowish and merged with small blood clots.

 


 

"Incoming!" A medic hollered. They rushed the stretcher through the double doors of the ER. Steve followed close, the superserum making everything painfully brighter: the fluorescent lights, the blood.

"What do we got?"

"Male in his thirties, frontotemporal depressed skull fracture, a punctured lung and several lacerations due to instrumental violence. Initial GCS of 4 decreased to 3 en route, extensor response."

A team of medics and nurses gathered, eyes focused with purpose and worry. Their expressions changed when they caught a glimpse of the metal arm. Steve saw the instant they understood whose life was in their hands and hesitated. Those precious couple of seconds felt like a kick in the gut-- BuckysomeonepleasebuckyBUCKY --they exchanged stares and nodded finally, regaining their initial determination.

"Let's move to trauma 2," The medics rolled the stretcher into a small room with white hot lights. "BP?"

"50 over 35. Heart rate at 39."

"Ready? On my count. One, two, three." Bucky was all dead weight and rigid muscles, and the medics grunted as they transferred him into the examination table.

"Put in a groin line."

"Diminished breath sounds on the left side."

"His lung collapsed, he needs a chest tube now."

"Nonresponsive."

"Sir, I'm going to ask you to step away," a nurse said although he couldn't focus on anything but someone dabbing iodine on Bucky's side before digging a scalpel between his ribs to stick a plastic tube inside. "Captain Rogers, please. Step this way."

She stepped on his personal space, making him desist and take a step back.

"Wait," Steve said, or thought he said.

"Stabilizing."

"Tell radiology we're on our way for a CT scan, then up to the OR."

"Captain, Agent Madani is here to talk to you," said the nurse that drove him away.

She extended her hand for Steve and if his grip wasn't good or his hand was shaking, she didn't mention it. He attempted to speak but was at a loss of words.

"Captain Rogers, I'm willing to let go the fact that you and Wilson entered a HYDRA base without authorization," she addressed but the look on her face suggested the opposite. "Due to the fact that there is a more important matter at hand."

They both turned their heads at Bucky on a gurney being rolled into a wide corridor, followed by screaming medics and nurses holding IV bags above him.

"I will be responsible of the legal proceedings of this case," Madani continued.

"W… What do you mean?"

"The crimes of the Winter Soldier."

Steve couldn't hold back a wince. "You are talking about locking him up?"

She placed her hands on her hips, under her blazer. "He will face a trial and be held accountable for his actions if found guilty by the jury, if I may remind you that there's enough evidence to process him for the crimes he committed as a member of HYDRA."

Steve's mouth was dry, he rubbed a hand on his forehead, wiping sweat, looking away from the agent.

If he makes it. The missing piece of that sentence, if.

She must be kidding, or didn't see Bucky up close.

Didn't see his brains leaking from his nose.

A blur came into Steve's vision. A woman in her fifties wearing a striped pantsuit approached them, seemingly undignified and nauseated. "Foremost, Agent, he is my patient, and as such the priority right now is to provide him with the adequate medical attention," she said before pressing a thin line on her lips. "I'd appreciate it if you waited until he was conscious to begin pestering my patient's relative with paperwork, Madani." She approached Steve and held her hand out. "Kirsten Anderson, I'm the Director of the Hospital. Nice to meet you, Captain."

"Pleasure's mine," Steve mumbled, thrown off at Anderson's contrasting amiability, especially when Steve knew Bucky's public image was that of a prolific murderer. Also, he wasn't expecting to be called Bucky's relative, even though it wasn't a secret they had been friends since they were kids, it stated that Anderson knew Bucky had no one in the world but Steve.

"I would like to inform you that my team is taking Sergeant Barnes to get a CT scan, we need to assess the extent of the brain injury before operating," she said.  "We've alerted neurosurgery to prep him immediately." She shifted on her feet. "We will file the medic legal case as soon as possible, which will allow the federal agents to make decisions about your relative's procedures."

No. That couldn't be, no federals, no overpowering, no more people taking decisions about his body, his life, his fate. "I need to see him," he stated firmly, the only coherent thought that came out of his mouth through the brainstorm.

"We understand how you--" Anderson began but Steve cut her off with aggression in his voice.

" No- - You couldn't possibly begin to understand."

Anderson swallowed and continued. "No relatives are allowed at the OR complex, Captain. You need to step aside and let my people do their work."

"Your people? Why would I trust your people when federal institutions all around are known to be soiled with neo-Nazis? Let me be very clear, Director. Sergeant James Barnes was drafted to serve his country and went M.I.A. not to die, but to become a war prisoner and get confined and used to HYDRA's twisted desires for seventy years. I will not let that happen again."

Anderson shot a glance through Steve, conveying sternness and acerbity, and Steve could only clench his jaw to stand his ground.

"That is a very serious accusation for you to assert," said Madani, breaking the silence.

Finally, Anderson sighed. "No," she looked away, giving up the tight expression. "I understand his position. After the exposed files last month I took some measures within my own personnel. If we are done here, Agent Madani, I'd like both of you to follow me."

Anderson showed them the way through the first floor, passing many patients in stretchers and wheelchairs that didn't spare a glance and medics that turned their heads to see the three of them and nod at the Director. There was an old lady laying down on a gurney, she had a blue shower cap over her head and a nurse was reassuring her. Eventually, they went through a long corridor that lead to the operating room complex. They walked beside rows of occupied operating rooms and doctors and nurses wearing scrubs and cloth caps walked by hurriedly.

They stepped along a taped area on the floor through a door leading to an operating theater with stage seating and a glass window. For a moment, Steve hesitated to step forward, while Madani and Anderson approached to see the OR. He had just seen Bucky with his head blown, spinal fluid coming out of his ears, nose, and blood covering all his facial features. The images from his recent memory mixed up with those in the HYDRA files. Off focus pictures of Bucky tied to operating tables, bounds over his middle, wrists, ankles, his forehead. His friend in a state of total defenselessness and subject to the handling of others. Which was exactly the image that he was about to see. He did not know if he was ready for that, if he'd ever be ready for that.

"Call the blood bank. I need two units of B neg and keep two units ahead , " a hoarse, measured voice took him out of his musings

"ICP's still 45," another doctor stated, her voice muffled by the surgical mask.

Madani turned his head slightly to catch Steve on her peripheral vision and then looked back to the front. Steve then took a step closer, crossing his arms to keep himself steady.

Bucky was on his back, a soft blue fabric covered most of his body. A large gauze was secured over his nose, his eyelids taped closed. He had been intubated and connected to a ventilator and his arms were extended horizontally and tied to the operating table. The layers of skin and muscle of his head were peeled away and secured. They were removing a piece of his skull. There were screens and other machines all around him and two doctors stayed by his head, one of them using a small drill that whirred quietly, drowned by the sound of a loud and urgent beeping.

"He's bleeding too much," said another doctor, and Steve felt a rush like ice travelling inside his veins. "I need vascular clips."

He fixed his eyes on the screen they were using to operate and though the image was unclear a wave of nausea hit Steve. All he could see was the photographs from the HYDRA files, the vivisections, Bucky's bones exposed and held open by tools, and the doctors above him staring like one would to a broken car engine. He rubbed his face with one hand and attempted to drive away the knot on his stomach.

Anderson cleared her throat, noticing his reaction. "I would like to assure you, Captain," she said with a gentler voice that seemed off with the bold exterior she radiated. "That your friend is in good hands."

Friend.

Steve turned to look at her, and she gave with a comforting smile, one that went past the limits of their strict relation.

The operation seemed to last too long. It was exhausting to see. Funny, the neurosurgeon asked to get his brow wiped just twice. His hands were as steady as a rock, and his touch gentle. It seemed almost impossible for the team to continue working, while Steve felt his energy drain out of him. His vision blurred from time to time and there was nothing the serum could do. The shooting at the HYDRA warehouse, days of restless searching, endless driving, sleeping in sketchy motels. Nightmares waking him up in the middle of the night. Sam sitting by his side in silence.

Madani excused herself, the fact that she was starting to get bored more likely than being tired from standing still. The sounds were already becoming familiar to Steve, drilling, high pitched beeping, the splattering sound of a tube suctioning fluids.

"Captain, I must attend some business at my office, can I escort you back to the waiting room? The surgeon will give you the report as soon as they're done."

The anaesthesiologist had settled down by Bucky's right side. He kept his gaze up, focused on his vitals while he rubbed a gloved hand over Bucky's naked shoulder absentmindedly.

"Can I take a look at the pre-op scans?"

"Of course, Doctor."

"We'll need an MRI," a surgeon stated and added, lowering his voice, "We'll have to wait and see."

"Captain?" Anderson asked.

Another wave of nausea. He wanted to be right there by Bucky's side, saying reassuring words, holding his hand, rubbing his shoulder, waiting until they were finished with him. Instead, he nodded at Anderson and turned away.

 


 

When Steve was a kid, Steve's mom would pray with him at night, thanking God for another day, another plate of hot soup at the table. After the war and waking up alienated from everything and everyone, Steve had stopped believing in the Supreme Good that God offered. Although, as he sat at the waiting room, head on his hands, Steve's thoughts circled over and over for the possibility of someone listening to his pleads. Anger and dread pulsed through his veins waiting for the surgery to be over.

"Captain Rogers?" said a low and husky voice. Steve looked up to find a slim and tall man in dark blue scrubs, brow furrowed. He got on his feet and hated the rush of his heart against his chest. "Doctor Stephen Strange, neurosurgeon."

"Nice meeting you," Steve cleaned the sweat off his hand before shaking the Doctor's, as firmly as he could manage. "How's he?"

Strange took a short breath before explaining. "We performed a left frontotemporal craniectomy, it's a procedure that involves the removal of a portion of the skull to repair the bleeding vessels and remove the damaged tissue caused by the trauma. The bone that was removed from the skull was not replaced to create room for the brain to swell and not cause other complications. We froze that section of his skull so the tissue doesn't die, and stitched the dura and scalp over the exposed brain. We'll perform a cranioplasty in a couple of weeks to reconstruct the skull.

"We also placed an intraventricular catheter by a hole drilled on the skull to drain the cerebrospinal fluid that could cause the pressure to increase. Right now he's being transferred to the ICU. He's in a coma, and we'll make sure he stays that way until his brain heals. He's on antibiotics and an antiepileptic, even then he might have seizures, it's expected after brain surgery."

Coma, drilled, bleeding, damaged, remove, pressure, replace, procedure, die.

Steve let out a breath and looked away, flooded by the information. "Whe- When is he waking up?"

"We want to wait for his brain to decompress, if he wakes up sooner we'll have to induce a medical coma."

"The serum... Makes him heal faster."

"We do not know what to  expect, we don't have any clear records on the matter."

"Can I see him?"

"Sure, please follow me."

 


 

They had taken an elevator to the sixth floor when Strange's beeper alerted him he was being required, so he apologized and left Steve at the entrance of the ICU, reiterating he'd be overlooking Bucky's recovery and that they'd be in contact. He thanked the Doctor, sincere in his gratefulness, Strange nodded and attempted to smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. The floor had a sign in front of the elevator, reading: Welcome To The Trauma/Neurosciences Intensive Care Unit .

A guard sat by the entrance, reading a paperback that seemed to had seen better days. She eyed Steve up and down, with an unimpressed expression.

"ID, please," she ordered, putting her book down.

Steve dug a hand in his jeans pockets, he was almost sure he kept his wallet after the FBI agent climbed on him and started registering him. He finally found it in his back pocket and handed the guard his driving license. She read it and raised and eyebrow.

"Go ahead," she said with an air of petulance.

The flooring was wooden linoleum and light gray. Steve walked towards the main desk, a station with computers, a couple of chairs and a green plant that was probably not real.

Behind him someone asked, "Sir? Can I help you?" A lady with a messy ponytail and huge brown eyes stood, holding a metallic clipboard, she wore a pink shirt underneath her blue scrubs.

"Ah- yes," Steve said, being caught off ward and the nurse raised her eyebrows and smiled nervously. "I'm looking for James Barnes."

"Right, the Director told me you'd be here any minute," she tucked a strand of her behind her ear. "This way, please."

The floor had a pristine atmosphere and the air was filled with a sickeningly sweet scent. It reminded Steve of endless nights of coughing fits and vomit that seemed to be sucking the life out of him, gasping for air and not being strong enough to squeeze the hand that held him. It reminded him of his own mother. 

Around him, nurses moved in and out of rooms, serene and deliberate. The natural light of the evening did not reach the floor, and there was only fluorescent and warm light. The abstract pictures on the walls and the reminders for the visitors to wear a surgical mask and gloves in the isolation units could only distract Steve enough until the nurse pushed open a light wooden door with the number 16 at eye level. As Steve went inside, he was caught up by different noises, more beeping and bubbling water and air compressing and decompressing. Then, his body went cold.

He couldn't count the monitors and equipment around Bucky. It made him look terribly small, his body sunken on the bed, white sheets draped over his lower half. The metal arm stayed hidden underneath the sheet, while his other hand laid limply, wrapped by tags and cables.

The monitor was too loud. It made Steve's ears ring.

Beep! Beep! Beep!

And stopped for a few seconds.

Beep! Beep! Beep!

Steve shuffled forward, making a fist around the plastic side rail of the hospital bed until his knuckles went white. Like looking into a casket. In front of him there was a ghost. A body of mauled flesh. It was the vessel of a loved one, lost. He had to swallow. 

A bandage was placed to cover the missing portion of his skull, it went around his forehead and nape. Covering the deformity of his head. All his hair had been shaved off, as well as his beard. This was a corpse. Steve couldn't look at his face very well, just his bruised eyelids, bottom lip and chin, crusts of dried blood here and there. He wanted to ask the nurse if this really was Bucky. It was difficult to believe it was. Looking so weak. Barely alive. Gray tinting his skin and bright red bruises visible around the gauze that hid his nose.

There were tubes doing all the work Bucky's organs couldn't. They tangled on the bed, and he couldn't see which connected to his inner arm, or his chest, or his hand. The one coming out of his skull was gray and thicker. Surely, the ventilator was the most evident one. A tube keeping Bucky's mouth open, and going into his trachea, maybe it was too large for his throat. It kept his neck at a weird angle and looked fairly painful.

He would hate this.

It had been seventy years since they shared an apartment after Sarah Rogers died, but for Steve it had only been a blink of an eye. A gap in history that made him estranged to this new era. But Bucky linked everything back to the past, to his childhood and Steve could close his eyes and see Bucky's toothy smile and hear his laughter. Could see him take off his shirt and tank top with grease stains on them, could smell the sweat and smoke on him after a day of work.

Steve hadn't realized the nurse had stayed outside, until soft steps announced her entrance. She carried a plastic container with a kit for a whole new rubber tube. He stepped forward.

"Don't be afraid," she said. "You can get close to him and touch him. Patients in a coma state are able to feel and hear what happens around them." She gave him a small smile, welcoming and sincere. "I'm going to be in charge in the evenings, my name is Claire."

Steve stared at her, putting on latex gloves and decided to sit back on the couch beside the bed. "Thank you, Claire."

"I'm going to place a Foley catheter now," Steve wasn't sure if she was explaining this for him or for Bucky because next she tapped her hand on Bucky's thigh and said, "I'll do this quickly, sweetheart."

 


 

Before leaving, Claire told him the visiting hours for ICU patients. Steve spent the forty minutes he had left before he was escorted out holding his head on his hands. The images of what had happened at the HYDRA base played over and over in his mind. Gunshots, surrender. His heart hammered in his chest, he grabbed his hair. He couldn't do anything for Bucky, even like this. He couldn't even look at him before a fury began to burn in his gut. It felt as if he stared at Bucky a little longer he would storm off to find Rumlow and bash his head until his brain was smeared all over the ground.

Claire made another appearance, this time scribbling down on a clipboard and nodding at Steve.

"You have a friend back in the waiting room," she said. "I guess I'll be seeing you tomorrow." That was her gentle way to shoo him.

"I guess you're right," Steve replied.

A sharp pain screamed on his ribs as he stood up.

"Probably should get that checked up," Claire suggested. He thought he had winced silently.

"Yeah," he breathed out.

"At least consider getting some rest."

One of the machines blared off and Steve jumped.

"Don't worry," Claire moved to the ventilator like a reflex. "Most of the noises these things do are either false alarms or unimportant stuff."

Steve thought he would stand sparing another glance at Bucky before leaving. The yellow light of the lamps by his head created shadows under his eyelashes. He stood over him for a while (don'tyoudareleavemeyoujerk) and took his hand, squeezed lightly, careful not to jostle his IV.

"G'night, Buck," he shushed.

 


 

The waiting room had a whole set of mauve upholstered furniture. Sam was sitting on a chair next to an old woman. He had his elbows on his knees and his head hanging, he typed on his phone with dexterity.

Steve approached him and put a hand on his shoulder to catch his attention.

Sam's head shot up in a startle. "Jesus-- Steve." His left eye was swollen and a nasty gash was on his cheek.

"Sorry," Steve said. "You okay?"

Sam stood up. "Yeah," he croaked. "HYDRA asshole punched me but it's fine, got plenty of time to rot to the bones in max." He scratched the back of his head. "He and the other seven, including Rumlow. Well. He's stepping max surely as long as they're done with him."

Steve nodded and looked down at his shoes.

"How is he?" Sam asked, his voice suddenly softer like he feared a doctor coming out of his room to tell him he hadn't made it.

"Recuperating," Steve said bluntly.

"Surgery went alright?"

Steve sighed. "Yeah," he pressed his lips in a tight line. "He was on the table for four hours."

Sam stayed silent and just watched Steve for a while, waiting for him to say anything else and a pressure began building behind his eyes. Steve swallowed and looked away. The old woman started a game on her phone, it played an melodic song that reminded Steve of an ice cream truck.

"How are you feeling?"

That was the thing about Sam. He was direct and honest and if Steve wanted to tell him how fucked this situation was and how utterly disgusted he felt at himself, he wouldn't give him shit for it. But he couldn't, not now.

"They want him to face trial," Steve said, as if the simple sentence explained his feelings for this fucked up situation.

Sam looked at him for a moment, assessing his reaction. Steve had to shake his head to dissolve the tension on his throat.

"I know."

 


 

It seemed almost as if Steve was working to build an army of remarkable people who would follow him into the gates of hell. He loved trouble as much as it loved him. He would seek the fight or he would start it if he needed to, or at least that's what he had done over the years for Bucky. He had already taken him down with him to a path that fractured them and changed them forever. These were ashes he stood on. Ashes of a past life that could not be. And still he would fight for it, even if it meant giving his own life, we wanted to die knowing Bucky would be safe.

He wanted to tell Sam that he did not have to keep doing this. He had tried to do so before and all he'd gotten was the unending insistence that  Sam wanted to be there with him.

"Go home," Steve pleaded.

"You kidding," Sam simply chided. "I'm not going through the wave of reporters at the gates again."

 


 

At ten past four in the morning, two Federals came through the gates, each holding a long range gun. Anderson walked beside them, now her face seemed contorted with tension. The federals walked straight to Bucky's room and Steve bolted from his seat. Anderson stood in front of him and gestured him to sit back down closing her eyes. She was exhausted.

"FBI requested security."

Sam offered to grab coffee for both of them after they stayed silent for forty minutes. He came back with two plastic cups, talking about the twenty reporters he had to reject on the way.

The old woman who played with her phone offered Sam and Steve a piece of gum.

Claire chatted with the guards at the door of Bucky's room, smiling curtly. 

The Director emerged from the nurse’s station and stood in front of Sam and Steve. 

“I suggest one of the back exits, we’ve called in security to block the entrances, there are reporters trying to sneak in.” 

“Thank you, Director,” Steve croaked. 

 


 

Every time Steve started to calm down, thinking the night would be over any moment and Bucky was still okay, a loud beeping took him out of a make-believe tranquility and his heart rate ricocheted, fearing that was it.

But it wasn't. None of the other relatives at the waiting room even blinked.

“First night’s tough, darling,” said the old lady. 

The ICU was timeless, drowned by fluorescent lights. Steve didn’t realised when it dawned. 

“Nat’s outside, she’s got company,” Sam said, reading a text on his phone.

Steve hesitated visibly, he just had to exit the unit, a few feet from the waiting room, but he felt like he had to stay right where he was. 

“Go, I’m here,” Sam said, reassuring. 

Three figures lingered behind Natasha. She had a grim expression on her face but a small smile was drawn when she saw him. She greeted Steve with a hug. He felt thankful and relieved to see her friend safe again after she exposed herself and SHIELD to the world. 

“Thank you for coming,” Steve said, considering that Nat had disappeared for months and just resurged to help them out. 

“I heard…,” She said softly against his neck. “I’m sorry.” 

Steve held her closer, “He’s with us, thanks to you.” 

The muscles of his back relaxed as Natasha rubbed him affectionately before breaking the hug. 

“I thought we’d need help,” she said, stepping aside to introduce her company. 

A man with blond hair down to his chin cleared his throat. “Captain,” he stepped forward to shake his hand. “My name is Franklin Nelson. These are my associates,  Karen Page and Matthew Murdock.”