I opened my eyes to the dim gray light of morning. Suppressing a yawn, I shifted ever so slightly, trying to relieve the soreness in my arms and shoulders. The boss may have been smaller than I was, but he was no lightweight, even in his emaciated condition, and my entire upper body ached. Still, despite the pain, I didn't want to put him down. Not yet. Not only did I not want to wake him, but I also knew I would never get another chance to hold him in my arms like this. I wasn't willing to give this moment up just yet. Certainly not for something as trivial as sore muscles.
Instead, I raised my head slightly to look at him and smiled. He looked so relaxed the way he was, his breathing soft and even, his face peaceful and untroubled. He looked like he felt…safe. And my vision blurred slightly as I looked at him, knowing that I had given him something no one else ever had…and something I had only just come to understand that he had always wanted.
I blinked the tears back, having no intention of repeating last night's watershow, and instead tightened my arms around him, cradling him close to me, resting his head softly against my neck. At that moment, I think I loved him more than anyone had ever loved anything.
I promise I'll always protect you, I swore to him, although I didn't even dare to whisper the words aloud for fear of waking him. I promise I'll stay by your side and keep you safe for as long as you need me.
Which wouldn't be very much longer at all, I reminded myself sadly. In the state he was in, he probably only had a day or two left. I felt a powerful stirring of grief, much stronger than any of my previous worries, at the thought. After coming to realize what I had last night, and even more, finding out that not only had he not rejected me for it, but actually…appreciated it, the thought of watching him die seemed almost unbearable.
But still…it was what he wanted. And since that was the case, the only thing I could do was make sure I stayed by his side and gave him whatever comfort I could during his final few days of life.
I sighed softly and held him close, wishing I could change the inevitable and knowing I couldn't.
I felt him stir slightly in my arms and I looked down at him. A moment later his eyes flickered open. Still blinking a bit sleepily, he raised his head to look at me.
"'Morning, Boss," was all I said. I yawned.
He looked at me for a moment more, then laid his head back down against my chest. "What time is it?" he muttered.
I turned my head slightly to glance at the clock on the nightstand. "Almost seven," I told him, suppressing a grimace. That meant the others would be waking up soon, if they weren't up already. Mother Night would probably be coming in here to check on him. "I suppose I should get up," I said.
He reached out and placed a hand on my arm. "Wait," he said, his voice almost…hesitant.
I looked a silent question at him.
"Not yet," he said, so softly I could barely hear. "Just…..a little longer," he said, looking away from me in quiet humiliation.
I blinked in surprise, then felt a rush of tenderness as I looked at his vulnerable expression. He didn't want it to end either. He probably thought the same thing I thought….that as much as we both enjoyed it, it was something we could never, ever do again. Therefore, he was reluctant to end it.
"Whatever you say, Boss," I told him, rubbing his back. "But if someone comes in here and sees us, YOU get to be the one to explain it, okay?" I mugged at him slightly.
He chuckled softly, the tension in his face gone. His eyes slid shut once more.
"You know…" I said hesitantly, unsure of how exactly to say this without sounding ridiculous. I cleared my throat and tried anyway. "You know I'm your most loyal man, Boss. I'd…I'd do anything for you. So…if you need me, you know I'm always here." I felt myself blushing behind my mask, quite aware of how schmaltzy that sounded. But after last night's events, I supposed I no longer needed to pussyfoot around. If he wanted me to comfort him in the future, I wanted him to know that I would. He didn't have to be afraid to ask.
He didn't reply-in fact, he gave no indication that he had even heard me. Knowing this was embarrassing for him too, I didn't press the issue. He knew. That was what was important.
There was silence between us for a long while as we lay there together, watching the light in the room turn from gray to pink as the sun peeked over the horizon. A few birds started twittering in the bushes outside.
"Noisy buggers," I grumped softly, as a few more joined in. "Don't know what's so important they got to talk about it this early in the morning."
The boss smiled, and surprisingly, I saw a bit of wistfulness on his eyes. "I've never minded," he said softly. "I wonder what kind they are."
"Beats me," I said with a shrug. I didn't know shit about wildlife. "Yellow-bellied sapsuckers or something."
He chuckled. "I don't think we had that kind in Bavaria," he said, still smiling.
"Maybe they're titmice," I said, feeling a bit mischievous.
A laugh burst past the boss's lips before he could stifle it. "Stop," he told me. But he was still grinning.
"Or boobies!" I went on. I think I would have even considered sticking my tongue out at him, if I hadn't still been wearing my mask.
The boss snickered like a naughty schoolboy. "Act your age," he mock-scolded me. "I'm trying to tell you something, you know."
I tried to force myself to sober up. "Go right ahead then, Boss," I told him. "I'm your captive audience."
That made him laugh again. "Quiet," he told me, almost affectionately. He cleared his throat slightly. "Anyway, as I was trying to say, this is actually my favorite time of the day. Do you know why?"
I shook my head. Hell, it hadn't even occurred to me that the boss could have a favorite anything. He didn't seem like the type who cared about sentimental shit like that. Then again, as I had been reminded last night, he was just as human as anyone else. I suppose that meant he could have sentimental moments just as much as he could have moments of fear or pain. They were all moments of vulnerability. Sentimentality was just a different type of vulnerability. One he felt comfortable enough revealing to me. I listened.
"When I was a little boy growing up in Germany, my life was very…" he hesitated, as if trying to find the right words. "…difficult," he finally finished. "I grew up in an orphanage, and later, on the streets. As a common thief, if you can believe that." He chuckled softly, but it stuck in his throat. I reached up and gently placed a hand on his shoulder.
After a slight pause, he continued. "It wasn't a happy life," he said. "The caretakers at the orphanage weren't terribly…compassionate. They certainly believed in discipline. Apparently, little boys needed quite a bit of it if they were to have a chance of growing up to be proper young men. Even the slightest mistake might jeopardize that future…unless it was swiftly corrected." He winced at the memory.
I kept my hand on his shoulder and didn't move it, despite my desire to comfort him. There was a fine line between showing support and showing pity, and I didn't want to cross it.
"The streets were worse," he went on. "My whole life was consumed with finding enough to eat, a place to sleep, and avoiding trouble with other criminals. And the police."
I could definitely relate to that. His old life didn't sound that much different than my younger life. Except that I at least had the protection of being in gangs most of the time. Strange that the two of us actually had such similar beginnings. I didn't say any of that though. I wasn't sure the boss would appreciate me comparing myself to him. He had risen much further than me, after all, and it was possible his lowly past was a source of embarrassment for him.
"So my days were unpleasant to say the least" he said. "And my nights…" He almost cringed.
"Boss?" I said anxiously, beginning to worry about him. I didn't want him to tell me all of this if it was going to upset him.
He shook his head almost stubbornly and went on. "My nights were filled with terror. At the orphanage, it was only nightmares, but once I was on the streets….I learned what danger really was. Back in those days, Germany was full of desperate people. Crime was everywhere, and a little boy wouldn't have lasted long alone at night on the street….unless he was good at hiding... Which I was." He shook his head sadly. "But I was still afraid. Afraid that that night's hiding spot wouldn't be as good as the last. That that night was the night when someone would discover me. There were nights when I didn't sleep at all, I was so afraid. I always lay down at night wondering if I was going to live to see the morning."
I nodded, once again feeling a touch of companionship with him. I had long since grown accustomed to the night and the night's ills…but when I was younger and far more unused to the life I now led, I could remember being terrified. The boss's time at the orphanage must have been truly terrible indeed if such a life was preferable.
"But the mornings…" the boss went on. "The mornings were different. The dangers of the night were over, but the misery of the day had not yet begun. It was peaceful, and it was safe. Sometimes I would get up from wherever I had hidden myself and sit and watch the sun rise over the mountains. And listen to the birds sing," he added with a chuckle, glancing toward the window. "It always amused me how it sounded like they didn't have a care in the world. You'd think I'd be jealous, given how hard my own life was, but I wasn't. Maybe I simply wasn't willing to stoop so low as to be jealous of a bunch of mindless animals."
"You always were a proud guy," I teased, patting him on the back.
The boss smiled. "Sometimes I still like to have my coffee and watch the sun rise," he told me. "There are no mountains here, but…the sunrises are still quite beautiful."
I almost gaped at him. That last sentence was something I could never have imagined coming out of his mouth, and yet…..at the same time, it seemed so utterly characteristic of the man I had come to understand so much more in the past few hours. It was strange how much better I felt like I knew him after such a simple conversation. But then, as long as I'd served him, we'd never really had a conversation like this before. In fact, I wondered if the boss had ever had a conversation like this with anyone. Maybe he hadn't. Maybe I was the only other person in the world who knew the Red Skull liked to have coffee while he watched the sunrise. The thought actually made me grin.
The boss yawned and rested his head against my shoulder contentedly. "Perhaps I'll invite you to join me someday," he said, almost warmly.
I blinked in surprise. And it wasn't just because of the invite either. No, it was the reference to the future that did it. If he wanted me to join him some morning in the future, that meant that he anticipated having a future.
Was he planning to live?
He looked up at me, still gaping at him, and raised an eyebrow. "Well?" he said, looking slightly put out. "Is my invite not good enough? Do I have to offer you breakfast too?"
"No!" I said, embarrassed that I'd forgotten he had been waiting for an answer. "No, I'd be happy to, Boss! Just say the word and I'll be there, okay?"
He nodded, seemingly satisfied, and raised his head to glance toward the nightstand. "Is there any more water?" he asked me
I looked at the empty cup on the nightstand. "Nah, I'm afraid you drank it all last night," I told him. "But I can get up and get you some more, if you're thirsty."
He hesitated a moment more, then finally nodded. "All right." There was a touch of regret in his voice.
I pretended I didn't notice and sat up. Every muscle in my body protested as I gathered the boss in my arms once again and set him down beside me. I slipped the blankets back over him, then sat on the edge of the bed and stretched, trying to work the kinks in my aching muscles.
Beside me, the boss discretely did the same. I supposed he was just as stiff and sore as I was. "Do we have any breakfast?" he asked me with another yawn.
I almost fell over in the process of reaching for my boots. He wanted food?
"S-sure Boss," I said, trying to hide my surprise as I pulled the boots back on. "You want anything in particular? I don't think we have any food here, but I can go out and get you whatever you want."
He thought for a moment. "Weißwurst and brezen," he said.
I blinked. What-wurst and what?
He laughed. "It's the quintessential Bavarian breakfast. You've never had it?"
"No, Boss, I don't even know what that is," I admitted as I put my belt back on.
He laughed again. "It's white sausage and….I suppose you'd call them soft pretzels. With sweet mustard."
I finished buckling my belt and holsters and looked back over at the boss, hoping I'd managed to keep my expression neutral. Mustard-covered pretzels for breakfast? What ever happened to good, old-fashioned corn flakes? "I'll do my best, Boss, but I'm guessing they don't have that down at the 7-11. I don't suppose I can talk you into doughnuts instead?"
He shook his head. "My mind's made up. And get enough for two," he said. He raised an eyebrow when I looked back at him. "It would be a shame for you to go through life never having tried such a delicacy."
Somehow, I didn't think I was missing out on much. Pretzels with mustard didn't exactly get my mouth watering. And I still didn't know where I was going to get all this. But then….I would personally fly to Bumfuck, Bavaria and hunt it down if it meant the boss would get some food in him.
"Will do, Boss," I said, pulling the ammo-holders back over my wrists. Once again fully dressed, I got to my feet and headed for the door.
"Oh, and Crossbones?" came his voice from behind me.
I turned my head and looked back at him.
"I don't need to see Captain America anymore," he said. He laid his head back down on the pillow.
I smiled. Maybe things really were going to be all right. "Okay, if you're sure," I said. When he nodded, I added: "But if that's the case, I think we should take you back to base. We haven't exactly been…discreet about being here, and if we stay here much longer, you may end up seeing Cappy whether you want to or not."
He hesitated, then nodded. "All right. We'll go as soon as you've gotten transportation ready." Then he glanced up at me in amusement. "It's not even eight in the morning and already I've given you quite the 'to-do' list. Do you think you can manage all that?"
"Hey, you can count on me," I told him. I gently reached down and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Always."
Then I hurried out of the bedroom to go find the others and get started on the day's tasks.
/ / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /
I like to think that Crossbones stormed into the nearest German restaurant with an AK-47 and demanded they hand over all their weißwurst and pretzels. It wouldn't be the weirdest thing he's had to do as Red Skull's henchman :P
Anyway, thanks for reading! And I'd also like to give a big thanks to rockofmarduck, The Authy, rodeoCLOWNgirl, Jasperblood, and Blueblade18 for the wonderful reviews and messages you sent me, and neonalbatross13 on Deviantart for the very sweet fanart you drew. Thank you all so much :D