The serum inside Bucky’s veins was supposed to make him unstoppable. Regardless of who he was facing, he was built to always come out on top. No amount of pain, whether it was a slap to the face or a gunshot wound, was meant to faze him.
In short, it should’ve taken more than one punch to send him down.
As Bucky’s back collided with the ground, he was thrown into a rough coughing fit. His eyes watered as he tried to catch his breath, his shaky hands hovering near his throat. It felt like he wasn’t getting any air in at all.
Two days before his and Sam’s planned mission, he woke up feeling… off. He did everything he could to try and chase it away, but none of his efforts worked. When he met up with his partner, his head was swimming. Comprehending what Sam was saying took an immense amount of energy.
Bucky hoped it wasn’t obvious, but ten minutes into the flight, Sam asked if he was getting enough sleep. If he was feeling okay. If he wanted to postpone. His concern would’ve been cute if his voice wasn’t so obnoxiously loud.
Somehow, Bucky managed to convince him he was fine. They had an important job to do; he wasn’t going to let a stubborn cold get in the way of it.
To his benefit, some of his prior training kicked in. Back when he was considered nothing more than an asset, HYDRA made sure he didn’t show any emotions. If he felt pain, no one was supposed to know but him. He knew falling into old patterns wasn’t exactly ideal, but it was the only way to keep Sam off his back.
It worked without a fault until he got blindsided. Hiding everything had taken so much out of him. It was only the second guy who’d approached him, and Bucky wasn’t sure if he was strong enough to get up and hit back.
He attempted to stand up, but his head spun. His eyes flickered shut as he hit the ground again. Nothing quite said super soldier like passing out in the middle of a fight.
Sam called out for him. Bucky tried to say something, but his brain shut down before he could.
When he woke up, the first person Bucky heard was Sam.
“Buck? Hey, you with me?” His voice was soft and concerned. The only reason he’d be using that tone was if something was wrong.
It took Bucky a second to remember what happened. The mission, the punch, the complete loss of consciousness…
He wasn’t ready to speak yet, so he lifted his hand and offered a shaky thumbs-up.
His response managed to get a short laugh out of Sam. It would probably be the last time he’d hear it for a while, so he did his best to memorize it.
“I didn’t see what happened,” Sam stated quietly. “Are you hurt?”
Bucky tensed up. The last thing he wanted to do was admit he’d lied. They promised to tell each other the truth, especially when it affected their missions.
He hadn’t wanted to let Sam down. Through that effort, he ended up doing just that.
Sam gently moved Bucky’s head, trying to get a better look at the bruise forming by his temple. Bucky could write it off – say his dizziness started after the punch – but the idea of lying to Sam again made him feel even sicker.
With a shaky breath, Bucky forced his eyes opened. He tried focusing on Sam, but everything was still spinning. To keep the sudden nausea at bay, he let them fall shut again.
“Not hurt,” he mumbled. “Think I’m sick.”
A warm hand rested against his forehead and Sam cursed under his breath. “You’re burning up,” he concluded. All Bucky could hear was concern, but he knew frustration had to be there too.
“I can still fight.” Bucky reached out, weakly patting Sam’s chest before attempting to sit up.
He got maybe a centimeter off the ground before Sam pressed a hand to his chest. “Like hell you can.” If he was able to keep his eyes open, Bucky would’ve rolled them. “Besides, we’re all set here. I already handled it.”
Right. Sam wouldn’t have been able to approach him until after everyone was taken care of.
The realization made his stomach twist. Right before he collapsed, there had to be at least seven of them left. He shouldn’t have had to fight them on his own. Bucky should’ve been helping him; they were partners.
“You’re quick,” Bucky murmured, doing his best to hide his guilt.
It took Sam a moment to speak up. “You were out for ten minutes. You scared the shit out of me, Buck.”
Despite already feeling like someone ran him over with a semi, Sam’s admission managed to make him feel worse. It wasn’t the first time an injury knocked him out, but he was usually up within a few seconds. Ten minutes was a long time for him.
After tapping his leg, Sam slid an arm underneath his knees. His other arm looped around his waist. Bucky thought about pushing him away, but the thought of possibly hurting him made his ears ring.
By the time Sam had him in his arms, he was out again.
Instead of waking up on the ground like before, Bucky woke up in a warm bed.
He blinked his eyes open, swiftly taking in his surroundings. It was the hotel room they’d slept in the night before. Sam must’ve taken them back.
His head was still spinning, but he didn’t feel like he was on fire anymore. Glancing down, he realized he wasn’t wearing the clothes he had on earlier. His hefty leather combat outfit had been replaced with a white t-shirt and a pair of pajama shorts. Neither thing was his.
After adjusting his pillows, he managed to sit up a little. He felt so stupid. Sam shouldn’t have had to take care of him. It wasn’t anyone’s job, let alone his.
Before he could wind himself up too much, the front door opened. Sam walked in with a couple of plastic bags hanging from his arm. When he figured out Bucky was awake, he offered a small smile. By the time he returned it, Sam’s was already gone.
For some reason, it hurt more than it should’ve. Bucky knew he screwed up, but he didn’t want Sam to be mad at him. Sam was all he had. What if this was enough for him to jump ship? What if they stopped taking on missions together?
He didn’t realize he zoned out until Sam’s hand moved to his forehead. Bucky jumped a little, but he quickly calmed himself down as he looked towards his partner.
Sam’s lips curved into a worried frown. “Why are you crying, Buck?”
His question threw Bucky off. Confused, he lifted his right hand and wiped his cheek. Sam wasn’t lying. Bucky never would’ve noticed if he didn’t point it out.
He offered a small shrug. “I don’t know,” he whispered.
With a short sigh, Sam walked over to the dresser. He searched through the bags, then pulled out a Gatorade and a box of Tylenol.
When the open bottle and pills were put into his hands, Bucky hesitantly swallowed them down. He doubted the medicine would do him any good, but he wasn’t going to object. Not when Sam clearly wasn’t happy with him.
He didn’t know he was whispering his thoughts until Sam spoke up again. “I just don’t understand why you lied to me.” Bucky stared down at the blankets. “The situation wasn’t time-sensitive, and you knew that. Waiting a few days wouldn’t have made a difference.”
When they went over the details of the mission, it was mentioned to them that it wasn’t top priority. It needed to be handled, but the group had been holed up for weeks. According to their intel, they weren’t planning on leaving anytime soon either.
Bucky took a shaky breath, trying to rationalize his decision. Considering what went down, coming up with sufficient reasoning felt impossible. What would’ve happened if Sam had been overpowered?
Sam was waiting for an answer, but Bucky didn’t have one. With a short sigh, Sam took the Gatorade from him. He moved away from the bed, seeming to be too irritated to stay near him.
“It was important,” Bucky eventually murmured, his voice small. He didn’t know what else to say. “They needed to be stopped.”
He watched as Sam shook his head. “You know what’s important?” He walked a little closer, but he was still set on keeping his distance. “You. If you’re not okay to fight, then you don’t fight.”
Bucky could feel his eyes burning this time. “That’s not how I was trained, Sam.” If he was more coherent, he never would’ve let something so personal slip out. He sank back into the pillow, averting his gaze.
HYDRA put so much effort into Bucky’s memories, but their method was hastily built and never perfected. He wasn’t supposed to have any recollection of his prior missions, but he carried bits and pieces from all of them.
During one of his most brutal assassinations, Bucky distinctively remembered having a fever. In another, the moment the last person fell, he’d ripped off his mask and expelled the little he had in his system. Being sick never stopped his handlers from throwing him into the battlefield.
He was physically free from their grasp, but so many parts of his mind were still with them. Bucky was trying his best to get them all back, but he spent seventy years under their hands. Seventy years believing he was nothing more than a machine, built only to follow their orders.
A gentle hand on his leg pulled him back. Bucky blinked into focus, quickly realizing Sam wasn’t so far away anymore. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, his concern yet again overshadowing his anger.
Sam could’ve easily continued their argument, but he didn’t. “You with me?” he asked instead, barely speaking above a whisper.
“I didn’t have sick days,” Bucky answered quietly. He sounded so unsteady, but it didn’t stop him from continuing. Regardless of how Sam was feeling, Bucky knew he could still be trusted. “Between the way they treated me and… the regimen they had me on, I was never one-hundred percent.”
Sam was following him, but his slight confusion was obvious. Bucky already knew what question was forming in his head.
One night, when Steve was still around, Bucky asked him if he ever got sick after taking the serum. He figured he would say yes, considering his own experiences.
Steve told him he hadn’t. Bucky thought it was a joke. He remembered cracking a smile, looking at him and thinking yeah, right. It wasn’t until a look of sadness hit Steve’s features that Bucky realized he was telling the truth. He’d always thought they’d been given the same serum. Turned out, they got different concoctions.
The one Steve took was created to benefit both parties. The United States got a super soldier, and it allowed Steve to pursue his biggest want. The one Bucky was forced to endure was made to help one. HYDRA gained an unstoppable weapon, but their callous decision cost Bucky his freedom and health. It was a cheap knockoff, built with a complete disregard for safety. The only thing they cared about was completing their own objectives.
Bucky didn’t want to bring any of it up. He barely told Steve anything, and Steve knew more about him than anyone else. He didn’t want people to know just how tainted he was.
Sam never pried, but after Bucky’s thoughtless stunt, leaving him in the dark didn’t feel fair. If it made him feel that much more unclean, then it was the price he’d have to pay.
“We didn’t get the same serum,” Bucky continued. He tried to say more, but he couldn’t think of the right words. Every time half a sentence formed, his chest buzzed, and what he had died on his tongue.
With way too much care, Sam squeezed his leg. “You’re sick. We don’t need to be talking about this right now.”
Sam was giving him an out. A fair one too, considering he really wasn’t feeling well. Bucky thought about taking it, but pushing himself too far had always been one of his biggest problems. Once he was in the middle of something, he never backed down. He didn’t know how to.
Bucky shook his head. “They didn’t let me react,” he whispered. “So, when I feel pain now, it’s…” Expected, almost. Just something he had to deal with that would eventually pass. He was never told to slow down and take care of himself. His feelings had never been important to his handlers. All that mattered was what he could do.
“It just is,” Bucky concluded. He wasn’t sure if he was making sense, but he hoped Sam understood. Fighting was easy for him, but serious conversations were another story.
For a moment, neither of them said anything. Bucky wondered if maybe he’d shared too much. They were friends, but they weren’t family.
Before he could overthink it, Sam gently squeezed his leg again. “You don’t fight for me, Buck. You fight with me,” he murmured. “You and me— We’re partners. We go in together and more importantly, we leave together. Always.”
“Why?” The question rang out before Bucky even realized what he was asking. He let his head fall. “We’re not on the same plane, Sam. I almost kil—”
“Stop.” It sounded too much like a command. Bucky immediately shut his mouth, his breath catching in his throat.
With a frown, Sam shook his head. “I’m sorry. Please stop?” he corrected quietly. “I’m asking, not telling.”
The only other person that ever adjusted what they said around him was Steve, and Steve was his best friend. Steve cared for him, and Bucky couldn’t question that. Maybe Sam held more concern for him than he originally thought.
Bucky nodded slightly, waiting for him to continue.
Sam let a small smile reach his lips. “I cut you off because….” It disappeared as quick as it came. “I couldn’t do any of this without you, Buck.”
Bucky couldn’t help but laugh under his breath. “Come on.” Coming from Sam Wilson, the statement sounded ridiculous. He’d be perfectly fine on his own.
Sam glared as he suddenly moved to his feet. “Yeah, well— I don’t want to. I won’t.”
Bucky opened his mouth to object, but Sam cut him off again. “We’re equals, Buck. You’re not expendable. I know you like to act like you are, but if something happened to you… Do you really think I’d be able to move past that?”
He didn’t know what to say. Sam wasn’t wrong— Of course he wasn’t. Steve had the same problem with him. They cared more than Bucky did. He could never repay the debt he’d collected, and that made him feel less than. If he went out fighting, he wouldn’t see it as tragic. To him, it would be deserved.
But Sam… Did he deserve it? Did he deserve to witness another friend lose their life? It wasn’t even a question. All he ever did was try to make things better for the people around him, even if those people were nowhere near good. Someone like that deserved to always be happy and okay.
“I don’t know how to…” Bucky didn’t know what he was trying to say. How to like himself? How to take care of himself? Both felt like such outlandish concepts.
Sam walked over to the other side of the bed, then sat down beside him. “I know,” he answered softly. “I know. Baby steps, Bucky. How about you start with telling me when you shouldn’t be out there?”
Bucky could do that. If he wasn’t feeling one hundred percent, he could let Sam know. Baby steps.
“I shouldn’t have been out there today,” he mumbled, shutting his eyes.
Sam snorted as he rolled his eyes. “No shit. You’re lucky I’m the stronger half.”
Bucky managed to smile. Sam was such an idiot sometimes. “What happened to us being equals?”
Sam slowly laid down beside him. He took Bucky’s hand, slowly intertwining their fingers. It was something they did sometimes. When one of them didn’t feel okay, it was a way for the other to show support. Bucky carefully squeezed his hand.
“Oh, that? Total bullshit. I was just trying to make you feel better.” Sam squeezed his hand back.
“You’re an asshole,” Bucky breathed out. If they were holding hands and joking around, things were okay again. He could sleep again. “Goodnight.”
Sam patted their connected hands, then loosely held onto Bucky’s wrist. “Night, dumbass.”