They stepped out of the bar onto the greasy-wet pavement, the neon sign buzzing above them.
Steve wasn’t drunk, but only thanks to his crazy serum-amplified metabolism, not Steve’s self-restraint. He done a fine approximation of a man getting himself thoroughly smashed, right down to the sluggish speech and flushed cheeks.
Sam, on the other hand, was earnestly, genuinely drunk.
“Shouldn’t have let myself go,” he lamented belatedly, just tipsy enough to have impaired judgment, but not quite tipsy enough to have drowned all sense of responsibility.
“I’m sober,” Steve pointed out. “S’fine.”
“Dude. Listen to yourself. You sure about that? You’re sure you can’t get drunk?”
“’Course I am. When…when I lost Bucky, I tried, ‘n tried, and—” Steve broke off, finishing simply: “I didn’t get drunk—I don’t getdrunk.”
It was clear Steve knew this information not just as a theoretical question, but as a fact. Sam believed him, too—right up until the part where Steve promptly stumbled on air.
Thank God they didn’t have a car to drive back to their hotel, because Steve didn’t look fit to be the designated pedestrian, let alone driver.
Sam had the nagging suspicion that Steve’s state of impairment had something to do with the exhaustion of only weeks ago having been at death’s door, and also the fact that he seemed to have given up on the idea of sleeping lately (and Sam had heard him wake up from the nightmares, so it was hard to judge him for it).
Nearly dying, and not sleeping, had to take something out of a guy.
But, regardless, Steve seemed happy now. Or at least contented, in a not-unhappy way. Sam didn’t make a habit of poking at unhealed scars just to confirm that they still hurt, so he left it alone for the time being.
“This was a good idea, Sam.” Steve stuffed his hands into pockets, lifting his face to the cool night air. “I’ve always wanted to just…take in some sights with a friend. You know, in this century.” He paused, let out a breath. “People are awfully busy these days. But I guess they were pretty busy back then, too.” He glanced at Sam, his shoulders slumped—relaxed. “This is nice. Just to walk without any place to be.”
Sam smiled. He only wished this could last, but he knew these few days—a whirlwind “vacation,” that included a stop in St. Louis to see the Arch, one of the items on Steve’s sights-to-see list—would be over in a blink, and then Steve would be back on his mission to find Bucky.
But Sam knew how to make the most of a moment. Drink it in, and don’t ruin it with worrying about tomorrow.
He’d dwell on today, because today had been good.
“Thanks for coming with me, Sam.”
“Sure. Never got to see the view from the top of the Arch before.” He chuckled, because while the view had been spectacular it was hardly the most memorable part of the day. “You should’ve seen yourself, man—trying to cram your freakishly huge self into that tiny little tram car. You really had to crouch down and go sideways to get in there? Y’big show-off.”
“Hey, it was a tight fit.”
“Uh huh. And you weren’t flexing your muscles just for the benefit of the pretty lady employee watching, either, right? Because I’m pretty sure the only thing she was thinkin’ about was whether or not she was going to need to go get a crowbar and a couple of pro wrestlers to pry you and your ridiculously skinny butt and broad shoulders back outta there.”
And, on second thought—as if he was just now catching a vision of how he’d looked trying to fit himself into the tram—he laughed, deeply and without restraint.
Sam recognized the sound of exhaustion and emotional release—the all-too-willing-to-laugh desperation of someone who hadn’t laughed for real nearly enough in a long, long time. He was glad to be Steve’s excuse to let it all out.
The dim lighting was forgiving. He looked younger, and Sam felt younger just for listening to him laugh. Steve—just Steve, and not Captain Rogers, or Captain America—was an easygoing, fun-loving guy, and Sam couldn’t help but think it was all a shame sometimes. The ruination (the necessary “waste”) of a good man, to have thrown him into the position of representing a country’s indomitability. He couldn’t imagine bearing up under that kind of expectation—and Steve was still just a kid, really.
Steve was doubled over at the waist, now, still laughing. Between chuckles, Sam slapped him on the back.
“Deep breaths, Steve. In, out.”
When Steve finally came back up for air, his face was still animated with amusement, eyes bright with tears of laughter, sparkling like an actual kid. The sight almost set Sam off, himself. They were both of them teetering on the edge of the kind of excessive hysteria that was dangerous to hold in.
So they didn’t hold it in.
That night, Steve all but passed out on top of the hotel bed, hardly taking the time to remove his shoes. Sam, responsible parent that was, kept his eyes open long enough to have another chuckle at the sight of Captain America looking like a toddler. Then he grabbed the duvet off the other bed (because there was no way he was going to try to get any of the blankets out from under Steve’s ridiculously heavy dead weight), tucked the Cap in, and collapsed onto his own bed with a self-satisfied sigh.
The hangover was totally worth it.
The next evening, with Steve sitting on the bed immersed in an I Love Lucy marathon, Sam volunteered to step around the block and get them some pizza.
He knew he was willfully staving off the inevitable. They’d exhausted the main attractions of the city, and Steve was sobering again, sliding back into that deeply inward-focused place that Sam knew heralded a change of regimen. There’d be no “Next stop, Grand Canyon,” like Sam had joked about. No cross-country road trip, with a dozen in-between stops, and the lazy enjoyment of a journey without purpose. Steve had looked wistful at the idea, but it wasn’t going to happen. Not yet.
They’d be off to search the dark corners of the earth. Off chasing a ghost. The points of interest would go by in a blur, and Sam had a feeling it would be awhile before Steve laughed again like he had last night.
Not that Sam was going to stop trying. Success was sweet.
He was cutting across through an alleyway when a hand, hard as iron, grabbed him by the shoulder, spun him around, and slammed him into the wall. In the process, Sam hit a trashcan, and the lid went flying with a clatter.
The Winter Soldier’s eyes were shadowed beneath the brim of a baseball cap, but the malevolence of his intent burned through Sam like a red-hot poker.
“You think you’re really funny, don’t you?” the Soldier demanded without preamble.
Sam stared, caught off-guard, and then caught off-guard again. “I have my moments.”
It was definitely the wrong answer. The Soldier’s face twisted with hate. The growl could’ve been words, but Sam couldn’t decipher any particular curse or promise of death.
“Hey—hey. Easy. Humor’s a subjective thing, I get that. Somethin’ I said not your cuppa tea? That’s cool. I can respect that.”
He tried to think of what he could possibly have said—what the Soldier could possibly have overheard—to send him into a rage like this. With no history, no knowledge of the way the man’s mind worked, Sam was at a complete loss.
“You’re not funny,” the Soldier said, definitively.
“Okay,” Sam agreed, convinced by the pressure of the man’s metal fist digging into his sternum as the Soldier leaned in close enough that their faces were only a few inches apart.
After a minute of silence, with the cold bricks behind him leaching cold into Sam’s skin, Sam attempted to reason with the impassive brick wall in front of him. “There somethin’ I can do for you? Besides ditching the stand-up comedy routine, obviously. We’ve settled that. That career is over.”
“This isn’t a joke.”
“I gathered that, too.”
“You need to leave. Get away from Rogers.”
Sam studied the far side of the alley, because studying the turbulent emotion in those cold eyes was unsettling in more ways than one. “I can’t do that,” he answered as calmly as he could, still expecting to have his teeth knocked out for it.
But the Soldier just growled again. There was some kind of self-restraint, there. Something that kept the Soldier from disregarding Sam’s life.
That self-restraint, Sam felt sure, suspended violet impulse by a slender thread. He was struck by how childish the whole display was. Whatever the Soldier was trying to express, in his current state of shadow-memory and blank-slate-confusion he simply didn’t have the tools—an adult’s range of vocabulary and capacity for emotional self-control—to deal with it in a rational and straightforward manner.
A guessing game it’d be, then.
“You could come talk to him, yourself,” Sam tried. “Steve, I mean. He’d like to see you.” The understatement of the century.
The Soldier’s eyes went a little wide and his grip loosened a faction. But in a blink he’d recovered from his surprise. “No,” he said tersely, and again, “No.”
“There some kind of message you wanna send?”
“Alright—alright. Just a thought. Because, y’know, he misses you.”
The Soldier clearly didn’t know what to say in response to that. Instead, he reiterated darkly: “You need to leave.”
Sam said, as mildly as he could manage: “He’s going to keep looking for you until he finds you. And I can’t leave him to do it alone.”
Sam didn’t know what the Soldier’s designs were—what this whole confrontation was about—but it only hardened his resolve not to leave Steve to face it on his own. The Soldier had almost killed him before, and there was no reason to believe he wouldn’t try again, no matter what Steve said about Barnes having dragged him from the Potomac because he’d remembered who Steve was.
“You tell him to stop,” the Soldier persisted.
Sam shook his head. “He won’t listen to me.”
“He might,” the Soldier said, only belligerent and annoyed, now, which seemed like a step in the right direction. If Sam didn’t know better, he’d have said there was even something close to jealousy hidden somewhere in that comment.
Sam waited, because there was no way he was answer that statement with anything that would give the guy hope, because Sam knew there was no hope for getting Steve to give up.
“Just…” The Soldier stopped himself short with a growl of frustration, and finished warningly, “You think you can be his friend? You can’t. Trying’s only going to get you killed.”
The Soldier let Sam go, and promptly vanished.
Sam got the pizza, anyway, even though the simple act of picking up a pizza seemed faintly ridiculous after that encounter. He needed the time to clear his head and pull his act together. To try and think through what he was going to tell Steve.
He waited for Steve to eat a few slices of pepperoni before he even attempted it.
“Steve…” he began, and something in his tone tipped him off, because Steve’s eyes snapped to his. “I’ve got something to tell you, but you need to promise me you’re not going to do anything crazy, or—“
“—You saw him, didn’t you?”
“I talked to him.” Practically got mugged by him.
Steve took the news with incredible (outward) calm. “What did he say?”
“He doesn’t want to be found. Wants me to convince you not to look.”
“Not going to happen.”
Sam sighed. “Yeah. I told him as much.”
“What else did he say?” The hope on Steve’s face made Sam wish he had something to give him. Anything hopeful.
“I don’t even know, man,” Sam confessed, “he growled a lot, and told me to stop being funny.”
“Stop being funny?”
“That’s what the man said.”
Sam met Steve’s gaze, and he knew they were both thinking over last night. Out on the town, side-by-side, laughing it up the way friends did.
“He was watching us,” Steve realized. “He was watching you crack jokes.” A smile softened his face. “Just like he used to crack jokes. Always knew how to make me laugh...”
Sam saw with sudden clarity. He scrubbed a hand over his face. “Deep waters” didn’t even begin to describe what he was getting into, here. Maybe the Soldier hadn’t killed him because he had realized that he was connected to Steve. He’d realized that he was Steve’s friend, and as Steve’s friend he couldn’t just snap his neck without the collateral affecting Steve.
But he’d also set out the clear challenge that being Steve’s friend meant following a certain set of invisible parameters. Sam thought he understood, now: the jealousy, at war with the less selfish desire to see Steve be okay. The Soldier didn’t even know what he wanted, but Sam had better figure it out.
The knowledge that they had some kind of invisible assassin-chaperone following them around, judging Sam on his worthiness as friend, was unsettling to say the least.
Worst of all, Sam got it. He got how the Soldier, having rediscovered his best friend in the whole world (and the only friend that he even kind-of knew), would struggle with the idea of being replaced by an interloper.
“Look, Steve,” Sam said, slowly, “I’m coming with you, no matter what. But, how, exactly, am I supposed to do this? Deadpan is so not my thing.”
Steve didn’t laugh this time. “He didn’t hurt you, did he?”
“Only my pride.”
“He’s dangerous, though. He could’ve hurt you.”
Sam wanted to answer that with a resounding “amen.” But he could see where this was going. Steve might be willing to stand there and let his friend beat him to death, rather than fight, but he placed more weight on other people’s lives.
The big hypocrite.
So, instead, Sam said, “Sure, he could’ve. But he didn’t.” He grinned. “Frankly, I think he likes me. It was in the way he didn’t kill me on the spot.”
Steve raised an eyebrow. “He assaulted you in a dark alley. He threatened you.”
“Well, yeah. But I repeat, he didn’t kill me, or even injure me. I call that a win.”
“Sam… This isn’t right. I can’t let you take the risk.”
“Who said anything about you letting me take the risk? You’re Captain America, not God Almighty. Granted, you may be His right-hand man. But if I choose to do somethin’ stupid, that’s just my prerogative as a U.S. Citizen. My civil liberty. Freedom, baby.” He put his head to one side, defiantly. “That’s the American Way: the right for each man to do stupid yet legal things in as willful and pig-headed a way he sees fit, disregarding all common sense and good judgment. You should know that, Cap.”
“Of course, how could I forget,” Steve said dryly, “’the right to do anything stupid yet legal.’ My favorite line in the Constitution.”
Sam gave him a sloppy salute. “The stuff that makes this country great. Should we ever lose that great constitutional right, AFV would be out of a job.”
Sam chuckled. “Only the world’s most highbrow comedy show. Put it on the list, Steve. We’ll get around to it, later.”
“I don’t know long it’ll be until later,” Steve said quietly. “It could take a while. I don’t have a timetable for this, Sam. There’s no itinerary. No schedule.”
Sam grinned. He’d always been one for jumping when others stayed put. A real adrenaline junkie. A risk-taker. A sky-diver.
“Let’s do this thing.”