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Follow the Leader

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There are some days when Sam rethinks his whole ‘I go where Cap goes’ mentality. Mostly on days like today. They’re in the middle of nowhere Russia, trying to track down the Winter Soldier, (Sam still can’t bring himself to call the assassin ‘Bucky,’ as it seems rather personal and he isn’t ready to be friends yet) and things have gone to complete hell.

It actually started out okay. Barton had tagged along for this latest endeavor (though Sam doesn’t know why; he suspects either a sense of loyalty to Steve or boredom) and they’d found a promising lead. Sam still doesn’t know where it went wrong, just that it did, and it had ended up with people shooting at them and their car plunging into a river. A cold river.

And, of course, with SHIELD out of commission, they’re on their own to straggle their way out of Russia. Barton’s just behind him, limping badly with a cut to his right thigh and a bullet hole just above his hip. Sam’s pretty sure his own collarbone or shoulder (or both) is screwed up, probably badly by the feel of it. Steve’s got a gash above his eye and a rattle in his lungs that’s almost certainly a direct result of water inhalation. He’s trying to play it off like nothing, but Sam isn’t sure that even the super-serum can take care of secondary drowning.

“We’re screwed,” he mutters, then hisses as he missteps and jars his shoulder.

“Easy,” Barton says. “I’ve been through worse and so has Cap. We’ll get out of this.”

“Yeah,” Sam says. He wants to believe that, but as he watches Rogers struggle forward, he can feel his hope dimming.

They’re definitely screwed.

His shoes squish in the mud beneath them. It’s been raining off and on the entire time they’ve been here, and Sam’s starting to feel like he’s permanently waterlogged. It’s a rather “unjoyous” feeling, as Clint would put it.

He doesn’t know how the archer comes up with that stuff.

Sam yanks his foot out of a particularly muddy hole with a loud squeeeelch. The movement jars his shoulder again, and he suppresses a groan. Man, he hates broken bones. The last time he broke something was when he was fifteen. His best bud had triple-dog-dared him into playing chicken with a motorbike, and he broke his leg in two places. Oh, sure, he had been wounded much worse during his tours with Riley, bullets, shrapnel, all manner of sharp pointy things—but for some random reason he never broken a bone. Funny, how fate worked out like that.

Barton grunts behind him. Sam twists as much as he can without hurting himself too badly, (which actually turns out to be not very far at all) and notes with some satisfaction he’s not the only one losing the battle against the brown goop.

Even Rogers is having a rough time of it. The fact in that of itself sets off a few warning bells inside Sam’s head. But everything whites out when he slips and Clint has to grab his bad shoulder to keep him from falling.

When he finally comes back to himself, Steve is staring at him, concerned.

Sam raises his good hand.

Rogers frowns. “What?”

“Can we take a break?”

Clint looks up, relief and hope etched across his face.

Steve nods wearily. “Not here, though,” he says, “This ground doesn’t look safe.”

Sam looks down to proudly note he has sunk down to his ankles. He considers that some weird achievement. He must be high, he determines. Can a guy get high on pain? He nods. “I think so,” he says to no one in particular.

“Huh?”

Talking to himself. Oh yeah. He’s high.

Today sucks.

Barton stumbles again, biting out curses in languages Sam doesn’t think he’s heard until now. Rogers steadies him, slinging Clint’s arm around his own shoulder. Sam stares at them as they trudge forward. Barton isn’t a small man per say, but next to Steve he looks tiny. They make a comical pair, Sam thinks.

They only make it three steps before the ground gives out underneath them.

Steve stumbles and gives a cry. And keeps falling. Clint swears in Mandarin (or Chinese. Or Japanese. Or Korean. They all sound the same) as they both go down. Sam lunges forward and latches onto the first thing his hands touch, which happens to be Barton’s jacket. His vision blackens around the edges as the action ignites a fire inside his shoulder, but he doesn’t let go. He’s yanks Barton backward, vaguely aware of the archer’s cry of, “Steve!”

He glances frantically around, before spotting Steve tumbling down the small hill like a dirty slip n’ slide. He finally comes to a stop at the bottom with a soft thump.

He lies in the mud with a strange look on his face; a mixture of confusion, surprise, and a little bit of something else.

For a moment, Sam and Clint just stand in stunned silence, taken completely by surprise by the sudden turn of events. Sam finally jerks into action, after a second too long. Gingerly, he starts his way down the muddy slope. “Steve!” He calls. “You okay, man?”

No answer.

Sam is just about to panic when Clint says, “His eyes are open. He must have just gotten the wind knocked out of him.”

How in hell Barton can see that far, Sam doesn’t know, but for the shortest span of time possible he thinks Steve might be okay. Then Steve starts coughing. And he doesn’t stop. Sam can see that unnamed emotion swell into full blown terror.

Shit.

“Cap!” Barton is struggling behind him, his blue eyes wide with concern and fear.

Sam scrambles down the incline, ignoring the sudden bolts of pain exploding down his abused body. All of his attention is focused on Steve. The rough coughing wracks his frame, his face screwing in agony. Steve can’t seem to catch his breath at all. Each breath sounds more painful, more shallow, than the last, and Sam notes with horror that his lips were turning blue. This wasn’t just a coughing fit, it was a goddamn panic attack.

“Steve! Calm down! Just breathe!” he grasps Steve’s shoulders and start to roll him onto his back.

“Wait,” Clint’s deceptively calm voice punctuates the haze of fear that has started to envelope Sam. “We need to get his head between his knees. He needs air.”

Sam nods. Together, wincing and fighting against their various injuries, they manage to get Steve positioned properly. The hacking doesn’t seem to get any better. Steve is still shaking under Sam’s grip, and Barton’s eyes are still wide and worried. “Hey, Steve, can you hear me?” Sam asks as he grips Steve’s shoulders a little tighter. He doesn’t wait for an answer before continuing. “I need you to calm down, dude. We’ve got to get your breathing to even out. So just try to breath for a sec, okay?”

“H-hurts,” Steve gasps out.

Sam nods. Okay, so cracked, maybe broken ribs. Fantastic. “Just try breathing with me, buddy, okay?” he suggests.“Ready? In…”

Steve sucks in a rattling breath, then cries out as another bout of harsh coughing jostles his ribs. He rasps and coughs even harder, barely able to catch a breath between irregular wheezes. His eyes are screwed shut and his entire body shakes, but not just from gasping. “C-c-can-n’t. Br-br-reath-the.”

His voice is small and terrified.

“It’ll help if you just follow us, okay?” Clint looks back at Sam before continuing. “Come on, Cap, you’ll beat this.”

Sam nods. “Just breath with us. Ready?”

Steve jerks his head in what Sam assumes to be a nod. “In…”

Steve manages to suck in a rasping breath.

“…and out.”

A harsh, barking cough follows.

“In…”

One more rough breath.

“…out…”

Clint is chanting along with him. This goes on for maybe ten minutes. Slowly Steve’s breathing evens out, and his lips gradually lose their bluish tinge. Finally he lifts his head, blinking blearily at Sam. His lungs still rattle and rasp like he’s got asthma, but it’s decidedly less pronounced than earlier that day.

“You okay?” Sam asks incredulously.

Steve continues to breathe experimentally for a bit. He nods. Sam glances at Clint, who’s eyes mirror his own disbelief. Meanwhile, Steve takes a deep breath, grimacing, and releases it in a huff.

“Sorry,” he mutters, staring shamefully at the ground.

Sam snorts sarcastically. “Enough of that, you idiot. There’s nothing to be sorry about,” he says at the same time Barton whispers, “Bullshit.”

Steve shakes his head, clearly not listening. He still has a faraway look in his eyes, and Sam can’t help but wonder what is going on in that brain of his. He shifts a little, resting his chin on his knees while his arms wrap around his legs. Sam suddenly remembers when his five-year-old brother scraped his knee. He had sat in almost the same position, cradling the bloody appendage with tears in his eyes but bravely refusing to let them fall.

Clint scoots (Never in his lifetime did Sam think he would ever use that word, let alone see a fully qualified Avenger—for God’s sake—scooting across the ground) closer, barely suppressing a groan.

Unfortunately, Steve notices. If at all possible, his face falls even more, and Sam can see the shame and guilt literally dripping off of him. “I’m sorry for dragging you into this,” he practically whispers. “I never wanted this to happen.”

“In case you never noticed, Cap,” Clint reminds him, “Things kind of have a habit of getting out of hand. It’s in the job description.”

“Besides,” Sam offers, “You didn’t drag us anywhere. We volunteered. You can at least save us a little dignity.”

Steve doesn’t look convinced. He continues to stare at the ground, avoiding all eye contact, which Sam finds a little disconcerting. “What if…” Steve starts. He pauses, for fear of a reaction or something else, Sam isn’t sure.

“What if we can’t find him?”

It’s a whisper, so quiet Sam has to strain to hear it, but still there nonetheless. And suddenly he doesn’t know what to do. This is Captain America, the world’s first superhero, defender of the weak, protector of the righteous. He doesn’t feel fear. He most certainly doesn’t doubt. He stands strong in his beliefs, and nothing can shake him.

But now, Sam finally knows why he saw his little brother. “That doesn’t mean we’re not gonna try.”

Steve looks at him, his face full of confusion and guilt and fear and so many other emotions that shouldn’t be there. Steve was always an open book, but now it was like someone had ripped open that book, tossed the pages all over the ground and trampled over them with mud-ridden boots.

Sam feels his chest knot at the sight.

Sam leans in, slinging an arm around Steve’s shoulder and suddenly Steve’s not Captain America he’s Sam’s little brother who’s scared of the dark and can’t find his teddy bear so Sam is the next best thing.

“Don’t you dare think this isn’t worth it, Steven Rogers,” he says, with all the authority he can muster, “Because I know what it feels like to lose a brother and if there’s any chance of getting yours back then dammit,” He pauses. “That’s what we’re gonna do.”

Clint mimes raising a glass. “Hear, hear.”

Steve looks away. He still looks like the guilt is driving him into the ground, but his eyes are clearer and more focused. He glances back up at Sam, relief flooding his features, and Sam is struck in the face with damn-Steve’s-like-five-years-old. “Thanks.”

Sam pats his shoulder wearily. “Anytime.”

Barton’s staring at him with that stupid blank look on his face. “Dude, I think you’re the most non-therapisty therapist I’ve ever met,” he says.

Sam isn’t sure if that’s a compliment or an insult, so he goes with, “Uh, thanks?”

Steve chuckles hoarsely.

Sam grins. Suddenly he feels like he could sleep standing up, despite the animal gnawing on his shoulder.

Barton groans, apparently just remembering his many injuries too. “Can we just sit here forever?” He flops back onto the ground. “Ow.”

Steve cracks up.

Clint scowls deeper. “What?”

Sam’s chuckling too, even though the movement sets a fire in his shoulder, but at this point he’s so high on pain and exhaustion he couldn’t care less. Clint rolls his eyes, although a grin is tugging unabashedly at his lips. Sam leans back and closes his eyes even as Steve settles down to a soft chuckle. For a moment, everything is good in the world. Then that moment ends.

“We’ve got incoming,” Barton comments. Sam snaps his eyes open.

“How many?” Steve asks, the laughter disappearing from his face instantly.

“One, but I can’t get a good read on it.” Barton squints at a tiny screen in his hand. “Definitely not one of ours. The signature is all weird.”

Barton and Rogers share a look; one that screams “This is bad” and a million different things at the same time.

Sam gulps. “Do you think they’ll just fly over us?”

Barton sighs. It was a stupid question—Sam knows this—but like his momma always told him, “If nothing else, stay optimistic, Sammie.”

“No chance,” Clint replies. “Too low. They know we’re here.”

“Right.” Steve grabs his shield, and Sam literally watches him pull himself together, stepping once more into the character of Captain America. It’s both amazing and a little heartbreaking how easily he does it. Rogers staggers to his feet. His breathing still shallow and quick, but Sam sees a hardness and determination in his eyes that far outweighs the many abuses done to his body. He glances down at Sam. “You ready for this?”

“Hell no,” Sam groans painfully, before grasping Roger’s waiting hand and heaving himself to his feet.

Barton swears obscenely as Rogers pulls him upright. “I hate getting shot,” he whines.

“You’ll live,” Rogers all but orders.

Barton scowls, but puts on his brave face and staggers forward with the rest of them.

They only make it to the edge of the clearing before shit gets real. Barton cries out and stumbles, falling to the ground and almost dragging Steve with him. Thankfully, Steve hauls them both upright again.

Suddenly, bright lights hit them from behind, and their ears are assaulted with the dull roar of repulsor engines. The jet circles around the clearing, throwing up grass and leaves which, combined with the glaring spotlights, all but blind Sam and the others. It hovers above them for a moment, before the back hatch opens and something (someone?) falls (jumps?) out.

Barton’s bleary eyes follow the falling figure. “Shit,” he mumbles hoarsely, sagging against Rogers.

“What?” Sam glances between him and the four small lights that look suspiciously like RPG’s. A flash of memory punches him in the face—one of wind and sky and a brother vaporizing into a ball of fire. He’s alarmed to find Steve has lowered his shield. The missiles are getting closer.

“Guys…” he starts, but before he can say anything else, there’s a muffled clank! in front of them.

“Hey fellas, fancy meeting you here!” The cheery voice behind the mask sounds familiar. “Well, not really,” the voice continues absently. “See I was in the neighborhood. Just gallivanting around, minding my own business, when lo and behold Mr. Star Spangled Man With A Plan pops up on the viewscreen. And he’s practically sticking out his proverbial red-white-and-blue thumb so I thought, ‘What the hell? I’ll give him a ride’.”

Rogers sighs, although with relief or annoyance Sam can’t tell. “Stark.”

Iron Man throws his hands in the air. “He speaks!” he crows. “Did you know, I’ve just spent the entire year renovating the tower? Top twenty floors completely redone. And I’ve got three floors with your names on them. I’m not kidding,” He adds quickly. “They literally have your names on the doors. In gold lettering. You know the guys who did those didn’t show up until a month after I ordered them?” Stark shrugs and continues, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this is entirely a one-way conversation. “Something about their warehouses being almost completely destroyed because some helicarrier mistook them for a landing strip.”

“Yeah, sorry about that.” Steve didn’t sound at all apologetic. Beside him, Clint snorts.

Apparently Stark picked up on that, “No, you aren’t,” he corrects with vigor. “You’re about as sorry for that little incident as I was when I broke my grandmother’s favorite candlestick.” Something in Roger’s expression must have warranted an explanation because Stark adds somewhat irritatedly, “She was a bitch.”

In the awkward silence that follows, Sam glances from Steve to Stark to Clint to Stark and back to Steve again. Their faces are completely expressionless, a testament to the agency they had once been a part of.

“Ah, fuck this,” Clint finally huffs. “I don’t know about you guys, but an entire floor in Stark Tower, all to myself, sounds like a piece of heaven.” He hobbles forward, toward the now-grounded jet in the distance.

“Attaboy, Birdbrain!” Stark cheers smugly, raising a hand for a high five as Barton passes. Clint completely ignores him. Stark shrugs, and focuses back on Rogers expectantly.

Steve sighs, long and deep, and glances at Sam. It’s not a gesture of to go or not to go, because they’re all tired, aching, and in need of rest. Steve knows this, but leaving now means they’re losing Bucky’s trail. And if there’s anything about him that Sam truly understands it’s the need to have something to distract himself from the pain.

He claps a hand on Steve’s shoulder, but then turns to Stark. “So, Cap just…happened to pop up on your radar?” he wonders, maybe not so subtly. “Completely out of the blue?”

“Fine,” Stark raises his hands in mock-surrender. “I might have been looking for you guys since you disappeared a couple months ago. Surprisingly, not as easy as I thought it would be.”

Sam glances at Steve, and there’s something like hope and grudging acceptance in his eyes.

Sam smiles knowingly. “Come on, Steve. Let’s go.”


Steve nods, exhaustion written all across his face.

They turn towards the jet (“It’s a quinjet,” Stark supplies later. “First of it’s kind. S.H.I.E.L.D. had something similar, but this baby is about one hundred million miles out of their league.”). Barton is out of sight now, probably passed out on the floor. As they walk—well, Iron Man walks. Steve and Sam stagger—Stark sticks his gloved hand out. “Tony Stark.”

Sam nods. “I kinda noticed,” he mentions as he shakes the outstretched hand. “Sam Wilson.”

“Saw you flying around DC with those wings of yours. Or should I say mine, considering I developed them. Anyways, I’ve been working on a new prototype…”


 

There are some days when Sam rethinks his whole ‘I go where Cap goes’ mentality. It’s mostly on days like today, when everything has gone to complete and utter hell and they are most definitely screwed. When pain and helplessness swirl their vision until they can’t see two feet in front of them. When even Captain America feels the doubt pulling at him like an impatient child, does Sam entertain the notion that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

It’s on nights like tonight, however, when Sam is reminded he’s where he’s supposed to be. Because when days like today come along, he knows Steve needs him there more than ever.

Sam glances across the aisle. Steve is collapsed against the reclined leather seat. He looks so much younger than twenty-six, Sam notes. Most people never knew Steve was only twenty-three when he became the Captain, fought and died in the most horrific war in history, and woke seventy years later to find everything he had ever known and loved was just a couple thousand words separated into nine different files. All people saw was Captain America. They focused so much on the shield and the uniform they forgot about the lost young man wearing it.

Steve’s eyebrows knit together in his sleep. Sam doesn’t have to ask to know the nightmares are back again. He swivels his own chair around and nudges Cap with his foot. “Hey, Steve,” he says.

Rogers’ face scrunches into a slight grimace as he brushes awareness. Suddenly, his eyes shoot open. Blue eyes frantically scan the cabin, finally coming to a rest on Sam’s brown ones.

Sam snorts and shifts himself deeper into the cushions of his chair. Man, this thing is comfortable. “Go back to sleep, grandpa. It was just a dream,” he grumbles, not ungently.

Steve gives him the barest of nods, yawning, and Sam notes the small quirk of a smile on his lips before his own eyes close from exhaustion.

On days like today, Sam Wilson makes good his promise and follows Captain America into the jaws of death and out the other side.