“You know, whatever you’re planning to do to me,” Sam said, working hard to keep his voice steady, “I'm not going to be using it for you."
He didn’t know where he was, other than someplace he didn’t want to be. All he could see was the floor underneath him, square white tiles like a bathroom. They'd strapped his head securely into a face rest, his arms out to the sides and his legs shoulder-width apart on a big metal operating table. No give in any of the straps — he couldn't move so much as a centimeter in any direction. No reason to strap anyone down like this for torture, so that meant something worse was on the agenda.
He couldn’t help the scared-kid thought running around a wheel inside his head: why, why me, because it was halfway a real question. None of this made sense. Hydra had made an effort on this one, burned one of their deep sleeper agents. Steve had a short list of people he trusted enough to vouch for former SHIELD agents right now — Natasha, Hill, Fury, Clint. He wouldn’t take intel from anyone unless two of those people signed off, and none of them were feeling all that trusting these days. There couldn’t be that many agents left in Hydra’s pocket who could clear that bar.
But even so, Hydra had traded Gladell’s cover just to sucker him and Steve into that ambush. Sam could’ve understood if they’d been trying to take Steve out, but they hadn’t had enough firepower for that. As far as Sam could tell, their actual objective had been to pin Steve down, and then bag him, and that — well, that was enough to freak him the fuck out if he thought about it too hard.
“No offense, and I’ll admit you’ve got a pretty badass logo,” Sam said, because talking beat hyperventilating, “but I'm not really Hydra material.”
He was just talking to make words, drown out the steel clatter of medical instruments, but the door slid open while he was talking, two pairs of footsteps walking in, and when he finished a sharp voice said, “Indeed he is not, Doctor Kardan. A point worthy of more consideration. I remain uncomfortable with the — order of operations.”
“Hey, me too,” Sam put in. “Maybe you all should go talk it over.”
“You have reopened this discussion four times now, Major,” the doctor answered; weird voice, dreamy, like she was talking about something far off. “That must be sufficient.” She came closer and patted Sam’s shoulder with a thin clammy hand. Sam would have flinched, if he’d been able to. “Do not concern yourself, Samuel. While your — metamorphosis will require the exercise of your independent will, I assure you that your future service to Hydra will not. And we have made significant improvements to the process of its eradication.”
Funny how much that didn’t make Sam feel better. The doctor was walking around the table now: shiny flat black shoes going click click click on the shiny tile floor, the sound of water running in a sink while she washed her hands. “We had quite given up, you know—we thought the wing program was a failure. All the prototype operators had failed one trial or another — we wrote you yourself off after you left the program. But then Captain Rogers recruits you, and behold! In crisis, you outperform all our required metrics. I must say it truly seems to me the hand of Providence moving.”
“Yeah?” Sam said. “How exactly do you square that with us blowing the hell out of your helicarriers?” He flinched hard: someone else was wiping something cold and wet over his back, up and down his spine and across the shoulderblades.
“Ah, well,” the doctor said, coming back to the table, “not all of us thought Insight the wisest program. So wasteful! Slaughtering twenty million people because they were dangerous to Hydra? But the danger of today may be the weapon of tomorrow. As you yourself will demonstrate.”
“Is there any reason for further delay?” the other voice broke in, impatient.
“None at all,” the doctor said. “Nurse, let us begin with the L5 lumbar nerves.” The needles started going in.
Sam lost control of his body little by little. Feet below the knee went first, then the rest of the legs, then everything below the waist, the neck down, and then they were feeding a tube into his mouth and a machine was breathing for him, and he couldn’t do anything but blink. He could still feel everything, all the impersonal hands on his body, like the input was coming in fine and it was just output that wasn’t working.
Any time now, man, Sam thought in Steve's direction. Any time at all. He knew that wasn't fair, knew it wasn't going to happen. He let himself imagine it anyway, trying to hold off the panic gnawing at his gut: doors busting open, Hydra goons splattered around the room, Steve's hands ripping the restraints off. His breath hissed Vader-style in and out of his lungs, regular and even.
“How is the subject doing?” That was Doctor Kardan again.
“All vital signs acceptable, doctor,” another voice said. “Pulse elevated but within expected tolerances.”
“Very well,” Kardan said. There was a small click, and a blue light started shining overhead, bright enough to stain the tiles, tint the whole world. “Then let us begin.”
That was when it started to hurt.
Sam didn’t exactly wake up, because he hadn’t been asleep for any of it. But at some point the pain eased back enough that he was a human being again, not just a bunch of nerve cells shrieking. They were taking the needles out, drops of blood spattering on the floor. Kardan’s shoes came around into Sam’s view. They weren’t shiny anymore, blood streaked across the leather. “Congratulations, Samuel,” she said. “You have survived. Do not try to move yet, however. You have emerged from the cocoon, but your wings will still need some time to unfold.”
More of the needles were sliding out now, and Sam was starting to get his body back. Except it didn’t feel like his body anymore. Everything gone all wrong. His arms and legs were sore like he’d been working out for five hours straight, but at the same time they felt lighter than air, like they would’ve floated right off the table except for the restraints. His back was hard and tight as if someone had wrapped steel bands around him a couple inches too small to fit. Steel bands holding something in. Something his brain couldn’t make sense out of, but that was part of him, something they’d put inside him—
“Jesus,” Sam whispered, sick. He tried to jerk against the restraints again, involuntarily, desperate to reach around and touch and find out—
Pain fired all along his back, the thing inside him trying to move, too, like another arm reaching back. “Jesus!” Sam said, his voice rising, what did they put in me—
“Perhaps some sedative,” Doctor Kardan was saying thoughtfully. “A little midozolam, nurse, if you please—” The world went soft and fuzzy and faded out into static.
Sam had been on midozolam before. He hadn’t been hurt himself, watching Riley go down: he’d landed without so much as a scrape. The doctors had cleared him, he’d been in the air two days later. But he couldn’t close his eyes without seeing it again, the pillar of smoke and fire trailing down to the earth. After a week without sleep, he’d started hallucinating, and it had gone downhill from there for a while. They’d had to go through a bunch of stuff, trying to get him to sleep. Even after he’d called it quits and gone home, it had been a long, hard year before he’d been able to get off the drugs.
So the dose Hydra gave him wore off pretty quick. When it did, he was still on the table, but the room was quiet and empty, most of the lights turned off. The pain in his back had subsided, though he ached all over. He lay still this time and did 7-11 breathing until his head cleared up and his chest stopped heaving. Whatever they’d done to him, whatever they’d stuck inside him, there’d be a way to get it out, or turn it off; there’d be something, he told himself. They hadn’t fucked with his brain yet, anyway. Sam worked very hard not to think about the chair he and Steve had found down in the bowels of that Hydra base, the place where they’d kept the Winter Soldier. He was real sorry right now he’d ever watched the videotapes from that place.
He tried to wiggle his fingers around towards the wrist restraint. They didn’t work right, fingers bumping up against each other, but after three tries he managed to get two fingertips around the snap buckle and squeeze them enough to pop it loose. He got the forearm straps and the elbows, too. Then his arms were loose and he was in business, except the next place to go was the straps across his back, and Sam didn’t really want to put his hands anywhere around there.
First he popped the straps holding down his neck and around his waist. It took a while, his arms shaky and strange. He hit himself in the head a couple of times, painfully jarring. Then there was no more putting it off. He reached up towards the small of his back, slow and careful, walking his fingers around his sides. His shoulders let him know they were not happy, but they’d cut him some slack under the circumstances, and then his fingers brushed against something weirdly smooth. A shock ran up his whole spine straight to the skull, because he could feel it from the other side, too: he felt his fingers touching his— touching his—
They were pushing against the straps now, and Sam bit down on a strap end between his teeth, pressing his forehead hard against the headrest and keeping in the scream that wanted to rip out of his throat. The straps were snapping one after another, plastic buckles flying in pieces scattered over the floor. Soon as they were all loose, his body started to curl up fetal, nothing he could do about it: pulling him in tight towards his strapped-down legs. The thigh straps were busting open too. He was crouched in on himself, kneeling atop the operating table, and the shadow was spreading out over the floor. The shadow of opened wings.
“Well, shit,” Sam said, trying to make it sound pissed off, fed up, but his voice cracked coming out, and he pressed his head down against the table.
He let himself have ten breaths, and then he popped open the last straps on his legs and climbed down from the table. He landed off-balance, staggering across the room. The edge of one half-spread wing hit the wall, and his back exploded with pain. The wings jerked back in — he jerked the wings back in — and that hurt like fuck too, sent him reeling the other way. He grabbed hold of the table and held on shivering until the pain let up again.
He kept the wings close against his body and moved towards the door, cautious as a man on a ledge, trying to figure out how his body worked now. There was a weird bounce to his step, like his legs had been switched up for pogo sticks. They held him up, though, and they got him to the door. Sam put both hands flat on the surface and leaned against it to catch his breath. There was going to be at least one guard out there, and a long way to the exit. His best bet was going to be getting some directions from whoever was out there. Assuming they didn’t give him one good swat and knock him over like a bunch of tinkertoys.
“Not going to get any easier if you wait for them all to come back,” Sam murmured to himself, and then he gripped the door handle and shoved it open.
There were two guards. They turned, slow, and Sam punched the first one in the throat, hard as he could. His feet tried to rise up from the ground onto tip-toe with the movement, but the trachea split open against his knuckles. The guy dropped like a rock, choking up blood. Sam and the other guy both stared down at him a moment, and then Sam jolted back into action, grabbed the other man’s arm with both his hands and swung him — bad fucking idea, his back howled. Sam screamed more than the guard did as the man came flying off his feet and into the wall head-first, wet melon-crack of his skull against the concrete.
Sam dropped him and collapsed to his knees in the hallway, muscles of his belly knotted around every breath. “What the fuck, what the actual fuck,” Sam said out loud, making noise instead of just sobbing.
He scrabbled one of the machine guns back towards him. He took hold of the strap in both hands and snapped it — on purpose this time, watching himself. His hands hurt, doing it — his skin and his flesh ached. But underneath that, the bones — they’d done something to his bones. What would you build a man out of, if you wanted him to fly? Fuck. Sam pressed his forehead against the concrete wall in front of him. He had to get moving. More of them were going to show up anytime now. There had to have been an alarm on the door. His hands curled around the gun like it was a teddy bear, shaking so bad he couldn’t have pulled the trigger. He couldn’t get himself going.
There was a clang somewhere down the hallway, around a corner out of sight—a door sliding open, and footsteps coming. Just one set. Sam kept breathing, told himself he’d get up before the man came around the corner. Right when he came around the corner. But the footsteps were running fast now, pounding on the floor, heavy, a big guy. Sam closed his eyes as he recognized them, so glad he didn’t have to move, as Steve came skidding to the floor right next to him.
“Sam,” Steve said, his voice raw and hoarse, smoke-rough. He reached out but didn’t touch, hands hesitating, wavering. There was a stink of gasoline fumes and gunpowder coming off him. It was the most beautiful thing Sam had ever smelled. Steve finally figured out how to get his hands on Sam’s sides: under his armpits, out of the way of the wings, ready to help him up. “Sam. Can you stand?”
“Yeah,” Sam said, not moving. “Sure, anytime.”
“How about now?” Steve said.
“Maybe later,” Sam said.
“The thing is, I’m pretty sure this building’s about to fall down,” Steve said. “So—” He was already gently, inexorably easing Sam up, easier than he should’ve been able to, like Sam weighed nothing in his hands.
“Yeah, okay,” Sam said. He let Steve duck under his arm. There was smoke filtering into the hallway, getting thicker as they moved farther along it. But Steve was warm and solid all along his side, arm wrapped around his waist, so good. “Listen, though, let’s get something clear right now.”
“What?” Steve said.
“Not one angel joke,” Sam said. “I’m serious, I will drop your ass off a bridge.”
“Okay,” Steve said.
“No pigeon jokes, either,” Sam said.
“Whatever you say,” Steve said.
Steve showed up in the hospital room that night with a giant get-well-soon basket made up like a nest, full of chocolate eggs he had to have dug up from some Walgreens discount Easter shelf. “Fuck you, Rogers, you bring me stale-ass chocolate,” Sam said, lifting his head off the pillow to glare up at him.
“I just thought it might make you feel more at home,” Steve said, wide-eyed innocence. He put the basket down by the bedside and took one of the eggs.
“Oh, and now you’re stealing my stale chocolate,” Sam said. He propped himself up on an elbow and reached out to get another egg for himself: slow and careful, watching his fingers moving through the air and curling around it. He’d already clocked one of the doctors by accident, before he’d quit trying to shake hands. “Listen, man, can you get me a straight answer? I’ve had twenty-six people in and out of here already, and none of them felt like it was necessary to share anything with me. All they’ll say is I should lie on my stomach and try not to move.”
Steve didn’t answer right away, head bent down over the chocolate egg, as though turquoise aluminum foil covered with bunnies posed a serious challenge for Captain America, and Sam got it: they’d sent him in here to deliver the bad news.
“They tried to do a bone scan,” Steve said. “Problem is—”
“I haven’t got any left?” Sam said.
Turned out Hydra had swapped most of his bones for carbon fiber and titanium. How, nobody really had a clue, and they had even fewer ideas how to switch them back. As for the wings—
“The doctors can’t take them out,” Steve said. “The operation hooked them directly into your spinal cord. They said they can clip them off—”
“Like hell they can,” Sam said, sharp. His gut had clenched up instinctively, as hard as if somebody had suggested cutting off his arm; on his back the wings were curling tighter against his body. He took a deep breath, tried to make it sound normal, sound easy. “No way, man, I can feel these things. Besides, I might as well get something for my trouble. The wings stay.” There wasn’t any sense making it hard. There weren’t any better options.
Steve nodded, going along with him. But neither of them talked a lot, after that. He reached out silently and took the egg Sam still hadn’t managed to unwrap, and opened it up for him. They ate all the rest of the chocolate together, one foil-wrapped egg at a time.