AN: This takes place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe just after "Captain America: Civil War."
Sam Wilson sank back into the couch and tried to focus on the music streaming through his headphones. Marvin Gaye's music had the ability to transport him. Take him somewhere else on an emotional and spiritual plane.
Sam just felt tired. And lost. He wanted more than anything for the music to speak to him, but he had been alone with his own thoughts for too long on the Raft and now the thoughts were persistent. Nothing makes you introspective like being secreted away in a top-secret military prison. He had had a lot of time to review the choices he had made in the past few years. While he didn't regret any of them, it was as if he could for the first time see how damaging they could have been.
He had assisted Steve and Natasha when they were on the run. He barely knew Steve, having only met him recently. And he didn't know Natasha at all. He certainly didn't know anything about S.H.I.E.L.D. And yet he had thrown himself into the fight with alarming alacrity.
He spent years helping Steve track down Bucky. Again, he didn't even know Bucky — all of his experiences with the Winter Soldier had been the man trying to kill him. Yet he quickly opted to put his life on hold to help Steve. Even when Steve left to help the Avengers fight Ultron, Sam had stayed focused on finding Bucky.
As he sat in his prison cell, all he could ask himself was "why?" Why had he put Steve and then Bucky ahead of himself when he didn't even know them? Did he truly value Steve that much or did he value himself that little? He had never really stopped to look at his actions and weigh them.
He knew there was nothing he could have done to help Rhodie. After Vision shot that beam of whatever into the sky and hit War Machine, Sam had tried to reach his fallen friend. But he could only watch in horror as Rhodie fell toward the earth. And then he saw Tony, crouching over his best friend, whose body was now broken … and Tony hated him for it. After all, wasn't it his fault? That shot had been meant for him. But Rhodie was hit instead. Rhodie was nearly killed.
Sam didn't even try to continue fighting when he was taken into custody. He was frozen — numb even. He felt shattered as if he too had fallen.
It all came back to Riley. It turns out it always had; Sam had just never allowed himself to realize it. Seeing Rhodie fall like that? It brought back the painful memories of his wingman being shot out of the sky by an RPG. So much of his service was a blur, but that moment remained forever vivid — horrifyingly vivid. The RPG came out of nowhere, hitting Riley. The flash was too bright and the air smelled of fire; most people don't know that fire has a smell, but it does, and it haunts Sam. He didn't hear the explosion or screaming — not even his own; all he could hear was the air rushing past. And then Riley was falling. Sam tried to reach him. But he was a few seconds too late … again. He held what was left of Riley, as if he could bring him back by sheer will power.
But he couldn't. And it had crushed him.
He had once told Nick Fury that he was a soldier, not a spy. But he had lied. He was a connoisseur of deceit. He had everyone fooled that he was OK. That he was fine. He wasn't. He went home and immediately got to work helping fellow soldiers who suffered from PTSD. And yet he never acknowledged the fact that he too had seen too much, done too much. He helped others face their trauma and learn to live despite it. Yet he just pushed down everything he felt, concealed it, pretended it didn't exist.
He had run away. So when Steve asked him to help find Bucky, of course he had agreed. It was a way for him to keep running.
But sitting in that jail cell, he knew that, somewhere deep down in his mind, he had hoped that rescuing Bucky would somehow allow him to reverse time and rescue Riley. Riley hadn't just been his wingman; he had been his best friend. He wanted that back. He didn't want to feel guilty anymore.
But instead of bringing Riley back, his quest for Bucky had just hurt Rhodie.
"Hey," Steve said, leaning into the room. "Bucky and I are going with T'Challa. He has a way to help Bucky. You coming?"
The silence was oppressive. Sam didn't know what to say. He wanted to go. Steve was his best friend, but was it still just running? Was it still a hopeless attempt to turn back time?
"I can't," Sam said, pulling off his headphones and staring at Steve's feet.
"You OK?" asked Steve, his brow knitted in concern.
After taking a deep breath, Sam finally told the truth: "No."
Steve fully entered the room, clearly ready to sit beside his friend and listen. But that wasn't what Sam needed.
"You should go," Sam said. "I've got some stuff to work through. On my own."
Steve nodded once, slowly. If anyone could understand struggling with past decisions and past traumas, it was Captain America. "If you change your mind and want someone to help, I'll be here," Steve said before leaving the room.
"I know," said Sam quietly, putting his headphones back on.