Sam was 20,000 feet in the air, somewhere over Canada, and dropping. Luckily he was in a plane, since this was well above the height that he could safely fly without an oxygen mask. Unluckily the plane was in the hands of cybernetically modified HYDRA terrorists and Natasha was currently grappling with the pilot while a patchwork of distance-blued scenery flashed in and out of visibility through the open door to the cockpit.
How was this his life?
A tentacle whipped past his head and raked down the bulkhead with a teeth-grinding shriek that announced he'd better pay attention to what he was doing. HYDRA was up to its usual messing-with-things-man-was-never-meant-to-know tricks, and several of the enemy operatives had been modified into -- well, Sam had decided to think of them as giant metal spiders for lack of anything better, though the closely jointed legs (each of them had four) were more like octopus arms. In any case they were absolute hell to fight in the enclosed space of the cargo hold, where he was afraid to fire a weapon for fear of shooting an ally or decompressing the plane and killing everyone.
The HYDRA goons had no such compunctions.
And they'd managed to take down Sharon, who was unconscious on the floor. Bucky was still up and doing his patented "whirlwind of death" impression -- actually, Bucky was probably the most useful of all of them right now, since his skill set translated pretty well to close-quarters combat against preternaturally strong opponents. (Natasha too, but she was a little busy right now.)
Sam had gone through hardcore training for pararescue, and if he was forced to admit it he'd have to confess that he'd always kind of felt like a badass compared to most people. But there wasn't much that had happened to him since he'd met Steve that didn't make him feel seriously outclassed.
The steep downward tilt of the deck changed suddenly, rolling to one side and throwing them all off balance. The straps and cargo netting holding down crates of HYDRA weapons kept snapping under the strain of g-forces and/or the impact of bodies, which meant they had to deal with unsecured cargo on top of everything else. Sam managed to save Sharon from being crushed by a tumbling crate, then felt the startling sensation of a metal tentacle wrapping around his ankle, dragging him around to face the pissed-off HYDRA mook that he'd just bludgeoned into semi-consciousness a few moments ago.
"Stay down already," Sam snarled. At least with unsecured items bouncing all over the cargo bay, blunt weapons weren't hard to get hold of. He snagged a large wrench, heavy enough that he had to grasp it with both hands, and brought it down on the tentacle holding him in place. Sparks flew and it went slack just in time for Sam to roll to the side and avoid getting a knife in the throat.
From behind a stack of crates, a tremendous crash and a scream indicated that Bucky was still giving them hell.
Sam kicked his opponent in the face and swung the wrench, cracking his opponent's wrist and knocking the knife out of his hand. Unfortunately the blow didn't break any bones because the spider-guys were also augmented with some kind of overlapping metal-scale armor. It was clear that whatever had been done to them probably came out of the same development program that resulted in Bucky's arm, and wasn't that a lovely thought.
The plane leveled off at last. Casting a quick glance into the cockpit, Sam saw that the pilot was down and Natasha had the controls. Finally, something was going their way.
However, this fact had not escaped the remaining HYDRA agents in the back. Sam's opponent batted him into a corner with a casual backhand tentacle swipe that felt like being slammed in the head with an aluminum baseball bat. While Sam picked himself up, blood dripping into his eyes, the HYDRA agent braced himself with tentacles wedged against the bulkheads and drew a mini Uzi, which he pointed at the back of Natasha's head.
Bucky appeared on top of a pile of crates, crouching and disheveled. He leaped with super-soldier speed across the cargo bay and plowed into the goon with the Uzi. The two of them slammed into the cargo-loading door, and their combined weight and momentum -- those metal-augmented soldier-things were unbelievably heavy, and Bucky was no lightweight himself -- snapped the door off its hinges.
The plane tilted wildly and wind screamed through the cargo bay. Bucky and the HYDRA agent vanished out the door into the wide blue sky.
Sam staggered to his feet and threw himself after them.
Wind caught him and he engaged his thrusters and plunged like a stooping eagle. He'd never dared fly this high before -- the world a blue blur, its wide arcing curve spanning the horizon. In seconds the plane was a dwindling speck high above him. Sam could only hope that Natasha and Sharon could handle things on their own, because there was no way in hell he could ever catch up.
Catching up to Bucky's plummeting form was enough of a problem, especially since he was still dazed from the blow he'd taken. Adrenaline was doing a remarkable job of clearing his head, though. With thrusters engaged, he could beat terminal velocity -- otherwise one falling body would have no chance of catching up with a second one -- and he fixed his wind-blurred gaze on the dwindling dot below him. He reached for his HUD goggles and -- they weren't there. Musta got knocked off in the fight. Great. Some days it didn't pay to get out of bed.
He was able to close with Bucky's tiny falling shape, only to discover another problem: Bucky was still locked in combat with the HYDRA agent he'd knocked out of the plane. Sam couldn't tell if they were actually fighting or if it was more like panicked flailing, but they were little more than a ball of thrashing tentacles and leather-clad killer-cyborg limbs. He was able to match velocity, but couldn't get close enough to grab either one of them.
Fuck it. Even without the HUD giving him altitude he knew they had less than a minute from that height, at terminal velocity, before they'd hit the ground. There was no time. He yanked a collapsible SSP submachinegun from its vest clip and dived beneath the falling tangle of bodies, then rolled onto his back. The wing thrusters shrieked protest. Sam sent up a quiet prayer that he wasn't about to put a bullet through Bucky's skull and fired short bursts, aiming for the periphery as much as possible. From below it was easier to aim, but harder to gauge speed and distance. A lashing tentacle clipped his arm. That was gonna hurt later. Someone -- he hoped it wasn't Bucky -- screamed in pain or rage. More gunshots -- not his own. He felt the burn of a bullet skimming his arm. Another caught his wing -- he felt the stutter through the metal frame, spun and straightened -- damn it, he couldn't get straight, the wing pulling to the side --
There was a high-pitched shriek and the two struggling bodies broke apart, Bucky with knives in both hands, streaming blood. This might be the one chance Sam was gonna get and he braked hard, rolling underneath Bucky. They collided and he hoped Bucky had the presence of mind not to stab him as Sam wrapped his arms around him. There was a sharp crack and they rolled, rolled again -- they were going into a spin, and the damaged wing wasn't letting him pull out. At some point he'd dropped the weapon, but that was the least of his problems right now.
He wished he had the HUD. The ground was coming up fast. If he pulled the 'chute while spinning, it could tangle them up in the lines and tear off limbs or heads -- or just burn through the lines with the thrusters. And he wasn't sure how it'd handle the extra weight. If he didn't pull it, though, they were as good as dead.
"Hold onto me!" he yelled into Bucky's wind-whipped hair, and shut down the right thruster. The sudden side-kick put spin on them the other way -- the g-forces hurt, but for a beautiful instant they weren't spinning and he tripped the 'chute while shutting the thrusters off completely.
The wrench as the 'chute deployed and his harness took both their combined weights made him scream. Then they hit trees and things were up and down and something connected with his ribs, and he screamed again.
Everything didn't go dark, but it went fuzzy.
When the fuzziness began to fade, he was lying on his back, tangled in parachute cord. Leafy branches lazily drew patterns across the sky in his limited field of vision.
Sam took a slow, deep breath. It really hurt. Everything hurt. Some part of the EXO-7 apparatus was digging into his spine agonizingly.
A good landing is one you walk away from.
The walking away part was still debatable. If he were responding to the scene of his own crash, he'd tell himself not to move -- neck or back damage was a very real possibility. Too bad he didn't have that luxury.
"Barnes?" he called. His voice came out quiet and breathy. That wasn't good either. "Barnes! Hey -- Bucky!"
He pushed himself up slowly and carefully, propping himself on his hands and waited for the world to stop spinning. After one attempt to extricate himself from his harness, he gave up and let the world stabilize again. His light SHIELD-issue body armor had probably protected him from being impaled, but there was still blunt force trauma to contend with. He'd definitely cracked some ribs, possibly broken his collarbone as well, and had a splitting headache that hinted at some sort of head injury. Awesome.
"Bucky!" he shouted. No response except for rustling branches.
Sam got up with some effort. At least his legs worked okay, even if he couldn't move his right arm. That was going to be a problem. He drew a knife with his left hand and awkwardly cut the parachute cords, which improved the moving situation somewhat.
Barnes had better be unconscious rather than dead, because Sam hadn't just jumped out of a DC-3 to bring a corpse back to Steve. Besides, it was impossible not to like the kid, weird neurotic mess that he was. Sam had ended up working with Bucky more and more often, falling into a kind of easy partnership even if he did ninety percent of the talking for both of them.
Bucky was very hard to kill, Sam reminded himself. The alternative didn't bear thinking about.
They'd torn a swath of destruction through the trees, which at least made it easy to figure out which direction to go. Sam didn't have to go far -- about a hundred yards, and then he glimpsed motion in a ravine up ahead. He put his good hand on the butt of his remaining SSP and approached with caution.
Bucky was sitting up in a tangle of broken branches and pine needles, extricating himself slowly and with care. From the way he was moving, it looked like he hurt as much as Sam did, but at least he was moving.
"Hey!" Sam said. "Didn't you hear me calling you?"
"Yeah," Bucky said. "It's how I knew you were okay." He glanced up at Sam, and a frown creased his forehead. "Basically."
"Pro tip," Sam said. "When people holler your name after you just fell out of an airplane, it's polite to answer back rather than letting them think you're dead."
"Oh," Bucky said. "Okay."
Something about the way he was moving, the slow languid motions, set off Sam's warning bells. "How bad are you hurt?"
Bucky didn't answer; he pushed a good-sized branch off his lap and then used a boulder for assistance in slowly walking his way to his feet.
Sam considered scrambling down into the ravine with him, then considered the state of his shoulder. "I think you might be going into shock. You shouldn't stand up."
"Your entire face is covered in blood," Bucky pointed out. "I don't think you should stand up either, but what choice do we have?"
Watching Bucky struggle his slow way out of the ravine, using his left leg and metal arm almost exclusively, made Sam realize something he would probably have realized earlier if he hadn't had half his brains walloped out of his head. "Is your leg broken?"
"I think so. It'll heal."
"Anything else broken I should know about?" Sam demanded.
"My wrist," Bucky said. "It got caught under one of the parachute lines."
"Shit, man, I'm sorry."
Bucky gave him a look of mild, slightly shocky disbelief. "It was a good save. I don't blame you. Uh -- thanks."
"You're welcome." Sam held out a hand to help hoist him out of the ravine, and then almost passed out when Bucky's weight put unexpected stress on his ribs and shoulder. They ended up leaning on each other, a three-legged tripod of wrecked humanity.
"I think we should sit down," Sam said firmly, and Bucky didn't argue this time as Sam dragged him to the ground.
The ground beneath them sloped steeply and was wooded with a forest of mixed spruce, pine and aspen. It was really peaceful here. Quiet. Sam couldn't hear the airplane at all, which might mean it was too far away now, or might mean -- no, he wasn't thinking about anything else that it could mean. Natasha and Sharon could handle things. Hell, the plane had parachutes; he'd seen 'em in the back. They could jettison if they had to.
Bucky didn't say anything; his face was very pale, but his fast, harsh breathing began to even out after a moment or two. He kept glancing at Sam.
"Do I look that bad?" Sam asked.
"You're bleeding a lot," Bucky said.
Sam touched his forehead; his fingers came away sticky. "And you were just walking on a broken leg. Glass houses, my friend."
He was startled when Bucky smiled, a quick sideways tug of his mouth. Bucky didn't smile often, and usually just for Steve.
Then Bucky's face went still and his head tilted, a pose that reminded Sam of nothing so much as a hunting cat, listening for prey.
Or for another predator.
Sam listened too, and he heard what Bucky had heard: a low throb that he knew well from his pararescue days. Back then, it has usually been good news, the sound of rescue. Now it was anything but.
There were helicopters headed their way.
"Could be friendlies," Sam said. "Natasha. Fury. Hell, could be some park ranger out looking for forest fires."
Bucky's face twisted into a sarcastic expression that was, Sam suspected, pure 1940s Bucky Barnes. "You want to bet on it?"
"Not a chance, brother." Sam struggled to his feet. It took him more than one try; his ribs and shoulder had stiffened up while he was sitting, and the rest of his body seemed to be one giant bruise. He turned to see if Bucky needed a hand up.
Bucky was fumbling with his metal hand in one of his belt pouches. He extracted a slim black tube, popped the cap off with his teeth, and before Sam could say anything, plunged it into his thigh.
"What's in that?"
"Narcotic painkillers," Bucky said around the cap still clenched in his teeth. "Amphetamines too, I think." He had more of them tucked into his palm, and as Sam watched, he flipped out another and stabbed himself with that too. Then a third.
"That is a really bad idea," Sam said.
"But necessary." Bucky looked up at him, hesitated for a fraction of a second, and then opened his hand and extended it. A fourth and final black cylinder rested in the palm. "Use this one. It's the last."
This was a terrible idea, but Sam took it anyway. The black tube was labeled in small white Cyrillic letters. Sam had no idea what it said. USE IN CASE OF EMERGENCY? WARNING: RISK OF DEATH? However, he could barely think through his blinding headache. He couldn't move his arm or twist his upper body, and probably couldn't fight.
"If this kills me, I hope Steve kicks your ass," he muttered, and injected himself.
Bucky smirked faintly as he deftly, one-handed, recapped and stowed the used ampoules in his belt pouch. The motion seemed to be automatic, despite the single-use nature of the device: leaving no trace for others to find.
A ghost, he'd been.
The hard thump of rotors was suddenly on top of them. Sam gripped Bucky's metal forearm and pulled him up. Bucky staggered, catching his breath with something just shy of a moan. Without giving himself a chance to stop and regret it, Sam slung Bucky's arm over his shoulders -- ow, shit, ow -- and hauled him the few hopping steps that it took them to retreat under the canopy of trees.
Just in time, as the belly of a Black Hawk helicopter flashed through gaps in the branches above them. It was sleek, black, and unmarked. Another followed immediately after. Although they'd vanished from view, Sam could tell by the change in the tenor of the rotors that they were banking and turning. He looked back along the trail of torn branches and dislodged leaves and bits of pine tree that he and Bucky had left in their crash landing, not to mention the white expanse of parachute silk stretching out like a giant sun-dappled arrow pointing to their landing site. Good enough if these guys were SHIELD -- except, Sam and the rest of the team hadn't even known which way the cargo plane was headed when they boarded it back in Vancouver, so what were the odds that one of SHIELD's splinter cells just happened to be in the area?
Odds were pretty good this was HYDRA.
From the way Bucky pressed against the bole of the tree, it was clear that he'd come to similar conclusions. Or maybe he didn't trust any black helicopters, which was probably a wise life choice.
Sam wondered, warily, what kind of sensors HYDRA was using to scan for them. Even your average municipal police had infrared cameras these days. He and Bucky were both wearing state-of-the-art SHIELD body armor -- light but flexible Kevlar-like plates on torso, upper arms and thighs -- which, according to Hill, was capable of confusing infrared sensors. Something to do with IR scattering that made the wearer appear to blend into the background. Sam hadn't been planning to do a field test under live-fire conditions.
The helicopters circled again, but the world didn't explode in weaponsfire, which probably meant either the armor worked or they were friendlies. They stabilized in a holding pattern above the general vicinity of Sam's parachute. Sam leaned around the tree, trying to see what they were doing. He could only see one of them, and it was partly hidden by trees, but he was able to see a door slide open in the side, through which he caught a glint of -- shit. Definitely not friendlies.
A hard hand closed on his shoulder -- his bad shoulder, owshitfuck -- and hauled him behind the tree just as the helicopter began strafing the area around the parachute. Sam couldn't see much because a) trees and b) pain, but the noise was deafening, accompanied by a patter of leaves, twigs, and bullet-riddled bark raining down on the forest floor.
The only good thing about the whole situation was that Bucky had gotten him out of the way, so he wasn't right in the kill zone. Yet.
Bucky pulled him along a stumbling couple of steps until Sam managed to get his feet under him. Switching to Bucky's other side with a muttered curse, Sam slung Bucky's arm over his good shoulder, across the broken wing apparatus, taking as much of Bucky's weight as he could. "Do the words compound fracture mean anything to you?" he hissed in Bucky's ear, and got a huffed sound in response that might have been a laugh.
They were on a gently sloping hillside, heavily forested, with the ravine that Bucky had fallen into cutting through the middle of it. As they went downhill, scrambling and sliding, the ravine to their left got deeper. It was more like a gorge now. Sam could hear water rushing in its depths.
The injection seemed to have taken effect, at least. He no longer felt like he was about to pass out from pain. Instead he felt jittery, light-headed, and generally weird. The pain was still there, but muffled and distant, a distraction rather than a scream. Colors were too bright, and the world wavered sometimes, like it was underwater.
Above and behind them, the shooting had stopped. Sam hoped that didn't mean the black helicopters had noticed their escape and were currently getting into position for a more accurately targeted fusillade of death.
Bucky jerked them both to a stop and then redirected their trajectory under a dense cluster of pines. Seconds later, rotors thumped heavily overhead as one of the helicopters skimmed past at treetop level. Sam could still hear the other one, though he couldn't identify exactly where it was; the sound echoed from hills and valleys, making it sound first near, then far away. The first helicopter flashed briefly into visibility below them and then passed over, flying at right angles to the hillside.
It didn't take a Stark-caliber genius to figure out what they were looking for.
Sam glanced sideways at Bucky. In the shade of the pines' prickly branches, Bucky looked drawn and gray. A bruise was purpling on the side of his face, along the jawline. Sam wondered how fast Bucky's healing factor really worked, and how long it would take a broken bone to knit. Steve would probably know, but then again, Steve's version of supersoldier was a different kind than Bucky's, and it might not work the same way.
Of the two of them, though, broken leg or not, Sam would lay odds on Bucky's survival over his own. He could all too easily imagine Bucky walking out of the woods a week or two later, mostly healed, probably wearing a bearskin or some such shit.
Sam was no slouch in the wilderness survival sweepstakes himself -- he'd had SERE training, and he'd done it for real a couple of times in the mountains of Afghanistan, though never for more than a few hours at a stretch. Still, Bucky was in a class all his own.
If Bucky left him here, Sam wondered how good his chances were, with one functional arm and a head injury that might be messing him up worse than he knew.
But Bucky hadn't. Bucky had shared his Russian drugs, and Bucky had taken Sam with him under the shelter of the pines.
Right now Bucky was gazing off through sun-spotted tree trunks with a thousand-yard stare.
"We need a plan," Sam whispered. One of the helicopters passed very close and very low; they both instinctively flattened, drawing back under the pines until the noise had receded somewhat. "All I got right now is 'get away from the crash site', because if we stay here, they'll find us for sure. You got anything better?"
Bucky shook his head, long hair falling into his eyes. He'd had it tied back, but most of it had escaped in the fight with the HYDRA guys even before he'd fallen out of the plane, and now it was a snarled mess full of leaves and twigs. Sam would have snapped a picture to show Steve, except he probably looked even worse, and --
"Phones," he said, scraping his scattered wits together.
He had a feeling the news wouldn't be good even before he got it out. It wasn't. The sleek, high-tech little StarkPhone, which Tony had assured him would work even on the top of a mountain or the bottom of a deep sea trench, apparently had not been skydiver-tested, because it was a cracked and mangled mess. Maybe Tony could have made it work again, but Sam's technical skills were more strictly engineering-related and focused on field wing repairs.
"You?" he asked Bucky.
"I don't have one," Bucky said.
"You don't have a phone? Radio? Anything?"
Bucky lifted his metal shoulder in a half-shrug. "Not on me."
Okay, when they got out of this, they definitely needed to have a team meeting about communications in the field. Not that it helped right now. There was an emergency beacon built into the StarkPhone -- secure and uncrackable, according to Tony, but right now Sam thought it was mostly a good object lesson in not keeping all your eggs in one basket. He thumbed the phone's emergency toggle just on the off chance that the beacon still worked even if the rest of it didn't. Nothing lit up to let him know it was working, but if a shot in the dark was all he had, Sam would take it.
They waited out another pass of the helicopter, and then Sam offered Bucky his shoulder again. This time there was less urgency to their descent and more furtiveness, making their way from tree to tree and trying not to get caught out in the open. The forest was dense enough to make this relatively unproblematic, at least so far. Having to fight their way through tangles of underbrush was more of a problem, especially when they were having to move like a couple of guys in a three-legged race.
"Wait," Bucky said, breathless. Sam thought it was the pain getting to him, but Bucky didn't wait longer than the span of a few short, panted breaths before he gripped a young sapling with his metal hand and ripped it out of the ground. After snapping off the roots and the top of the tree with his hand, then a few quick passes with the absolutely enormous commando knife he carried at his belt, he had a sturdy, if somewhat non-ergonomic, crutch.
"Oh, I see," Sam said. "My personal crutch services don't meet your high standards."
Bucky gave him a sharp look, laced with pain and a shadow of angry suspicion, which then relaxed into an amused, narrow-eyed promise of future retribution.
There had been a time, early on, when Sam had thought Bucky had no sense of humor. It took him awhile to figure out that this was the furthest thing from the truth. Bucky just didn't quite have the social acuity, yet, to participate fully in the trash-talking that went on around him. He didn't always catch jokes, and had trouble coming up with responses in realtime. If he caught something in time, if his brain was keeping all the social balls in the air for once, he could dish out shit with the best of them. Though often with a somewhat dark undercurrent.
Sam had gone back and forth on how to handle it, and had finally decided that if he were in Bucky's shoes, the last thing he'd want would be people treating him like glass. So he went ahead and mocked him like he would any teammate. Sam knew how to give somebody crap without being mean about it. He thought Bucky appreciated it. Probably.
It was always possible Bucky was just waiting for an opportunity to stab him when Steve wasn't around.
Sam didn't think so seriously, not anymore, but -- he hadn't gotten around to being able to joke about it yet. Not to Bucky. Not really to himself, either; there was too much of an edge of truth to it.
I guess we'll know you're okay when I can tease you about trying to kill me. Weirdly enough, Steve and Bucky already seemed to have gotten there, although Sam still couldn't read Bucky quite well enough to tell how it was received even when Steve did it.
"Coming?" Bucky said over his shoulder, and Sam pulled himself back together. The damn drugs. He was floaty, easily disconnected from reality. At the same time, he wanted to move, wanted to do something. When he held perfectly still, his teeth chattered.
"Next time I let you shoot me up with a weird Russian drug cocktail, I'm demanding to see the owner's manual first," Sam told him, falling into step alongside him. He couldn't help taking a careful sideways look at Bucky's leg for signs of deformation or sharp ends of bone sticking through the fabric of his pants leg .... subtle little warning signs like that. There didn't seem to be any. Bucky was holding it stiffly, swinging it along, not putting weight on it and mostly just using it to stabilize himself while the crutch gripped in his metal hand served as an extra leg. Muscle tension might be keeping the bone reasonably straight as long as it didn't get torqued too much. Hell, maybe it really was knitting already.
Fucking supersoldier speed healing. It was weird, man.
"You could see it, but you couldn't read it," Bucky said. Now it was Sam's turn to look blank. "The manual. Because it would be in Russian."
Sam flipped him off. Bucky smiled another of those little there-and-gone grins.
They stopped after fifteen minutes or so where the ravine flattened out and the little mountain cataract became a winding stream twisting between boulders and sandbars. The forest here was more open and parklike, with hardwoods largely replacing the pines and stretches of grass and wildflowers between them. Pretty, but not the best area for two guys who were being hunted by HYDRA helicopters.
From the department of small favors, the black helicopters seemed to have moved away for now, working the next valley over. Sam wondered if they were looking for the HYDRA agent who'd fallen out of the plane -- yeah, good luck with that, guys; hope you got a small box to put him in -- or if they'd guessed wrong about the direction of Sam and Bucky's travel from the crash site. Actually, come to think of it, they might not realize he and Bucky had come down together; one parachute implied one escapee rather than two.
In any case, Sam and Bucky took the opportunity to sit (collapse, really) for a few minutes and take stock of their resources. Sam had one remaining submachinegun with a few spare clips; a combat knife; a mini survival kit that included matches, compass, fishing line, and water purification tablets; and some energy bars. And his nonfunctional wings, which Bucky had to help him remove -- he hadn't figured out what to do with those yet.
Bucky, for his part, had a truly alarming number of knives, a couple of pistols, and a rather impressive array of gear for killing people in other ways. If they needed to poison or garrote anybody, or blow up a building -- hey, they were set.
"You must have fun going through airport security checkpoints."
"I usually try to avoid it," Bucky said, either perfectly serious or perfectly deadpan.
They also had some minimal first-aid supplies, and exactly one pressure bandage between them. After some arguing, Bucky acknowledged that stabilizing his broken wrist was probably important, so Sam wrapped it for him. Then Sam tilted his head back so Bucky could clean his head wound with antiseptic wipes. Sam had some qualms about letting Bucky poke around at his face considering that a) Bucky had one broken wrist and one hand that could sever tree limbs, while also being b) hopped up on God only knew what sort of drugs, assuming they hadn't processed out of his system by now. However, Bucky was surprisingly -- well, gentle definitely wasn't the right word, but at the very least he was brisk and efficient and not inclined to cause unnecessary pain.
Sam's head wound mostly stopped bleeding by now, but his left eye was gummed nearly shut and there was clotted and dried blood all down the side of his face, his neck, and his shoulder. "God damn," Sam said as he began to appreciate what he must look like. "No wonder you were looking at me like that earlier."
"It might put a damper on your social life," Bucky agreed.
They improvised a bandage out of a piece of Bucky's shirt and a strap from Sam's wing harness. Sam had the eerie feeling that the bandage was holding his head together, keeping it from exploding all over everything. Which was probably the drugs talking. Somewhere underneath the fuzziness, pain lurked. He had a feeling it wasn't going to be much fun when Bucky's Russian special wore off. Still, for now he could use both hands -- the one on the side with the injured ribs and collarbone had to be moved with care, but it worked. Bucky seemed to be using the hand with the broken wrist almost like normal. Fucking supersoldiers.
"I need to look at your leg now," Sam said.
"It's --" Bucky began.
"Don't say fine."
"I wasn't going to," Bucky said in a tone which suggested he was totally going to. "It's just that there's not much you can do."
"Who's the paramedic here? Oh right, not you."
Bucky kind of had a point, though. He must have hit that ravine with one hell of a lot of speed, or at a really bad angle, or both, because despite his supersoldier resilience he'd managed to break his femur, the biggest weight-bearing bone in the body. By now his leg was so swollen that they were going to have to cut off his pants and the thigh plates of his body armor in order for Sam to examine him. And as much as he hated leaving it alone, Sam figured that both of these things, the body armor in particular, were probably helping keep the swelling down and the broken leg stabilized. If they had to spend more than a few more hours out here, he was going to have to move beyond basic first aid into more advanced medical treatment, which would mean doing something about Bucky's leg before they both found out if supersoldiers were susceptible to gangrene. For now, though, Sam suspected that messing with it would just make things worse, since it seemed to be more or less stable at the moment.
"If nothing else, we need to splint it," Sam told him. "Because somehow you seem to have magically avoided a compound fracture so far, and I'd really not like to find out how far we can push that luck."
Bucky casually reached out with his metal hand, grasped a branch about two inches in diameter, and pinched it off, much as he'd done to create his makeshift crutch earlier. "Is this a good size?"
"Did I mention lately that I'm glad you're on our side?"
Bucky didn't exactly smile, but a sardonic spark lit his eyes for a moment.
Sam cannibalized the wing rigging for more straps to bind Bucky's leg to a pair of green tree limbs, padded with scraps of their by-now shredded shirts. Bucky endured this with a tight, pinched expression. If his body worked anything like Steve's, he'd probably metabolized the drugs already, which meant he was bearing up under sheer willpower by now.
Sam was still fuzzy-headed and dry-mouthed and really not feeling any pain, or at least not really caring about the pain he did feel. He supposed he should be grateful that Bucky's Emergency Painkiller Surprise hadn't just killed him.
.... The wings, though. The wings were a problem. Sam knew just from looking that he couldn't fix them, at least not in a field situation with minimal tools and no replacement parts. And they were heavy. But they were also -- well, his wings for one thing, and even leaving that aside, it seemed like giving up any assets in their current situation would be a bad idea, especially assets like thrusters powered with rocket fuel.
"Give me a hand," Sam said, trying to get what was left of the wing rig over his shoulders one-handed.
"Ditch 'em," Bucky said. "You're just putting extra weight on yourself."
"It's a liability."
They glared at each other. Sam made another attempt to drag the wing rig over the shoulder with the broken collarbone. That turned out to feel ... not so good, even with the drugs.
Since Sam was now involuntarily sitting down, Bucky -- with a very resigned expression on his face, as if dealing with unbearably stubborn people was his personal cross to bear -- scooted closer and began helping him do up the straps. Sam let him.
"Do you think you can get it working again?" Bucky asked after a moment.
"Probably not, but I think we can get a small burst of flight from the working thruster if we need it. I might not be able to control it very well, but it could come in handy." Sam started to shrug, by habit, then desisted a moment too late as he remembered why it was a terrible idea. "It's not much of a plan, but it's something."
More than anything else we've got so far.
Because they were screwed. They were fucked. They hadn't talked about it yet, and it wasn't like they couldn't still pull out of this spin, but it was going to be rough and they might not both walk out. The low thunder of HYDRA helos, still running search grids that swung near them and then farther away, underscored that point.
And then he thought, hell -- he'd been tiptoeing around it because he was a little bit afraid of how the conversation was going to go; he and Bucky each had their own wilderness survival skill sets, acquired in totally different ways with (probably) very different goals aside from the basic "survive". But they were going to have to talk about this sooner or later.
"So now what," he said.
With little expression on his face, Bucky said, "Walk out, I guess."
On a broken leg. Still, it wouldn't surprise Sam to find out he'd done it before.
"We know Natasha and Sharon will be looking for us." And Steve, he didn't say. Steve was a given. And Steve had a way of dragging the Avengers behind him.
"We don't know that." There was a sharp edge in Bucky's voice, the darkest hint of a long Russian winter's cold.
Sam didn't know exactly which demons from Bucky's past had twisted the knife this time -- although it was an easy guess that "leave no man behind" had nothing to do with the way the Winter Soldier's handlers related to him -- but he had to admit that Bucky was right. If things had gone wrong -- if Natasha and Sharon hadn't made a safe landing .... well, no one had a clue where any of them were. They'd all disappeared somewhere east of Vancouver. And "east of Vancouver" was one unholy hell of a lot of space.
Steve would look, and being Steve, he might actually find them. But they couldn't count on it.
"Any idea where we are?"
Bucky's face twisted in a spasm of annoyance, which was oddly reassuring. Bucky being prickly and snappish was infinitely preferable to Bucky being cold and goal-driven, especially in a situation like this. "I don't have a map of Canada in my head, and I wasn't exactly paying attention to the in-flight GPS."
According to the flight plan filed at the Vancouver airport, the plane had been headed for Edmonton. They hadn't stuck to their scheduled flight path, Sam did know that much, but he didn't think they were necessarily that far off it.
"Wherever we are," he said, "we know if we head south -- south and west -- we'll start getting back to civilization. I mean, it's Canada, not fucking Mars. There are people here, and if we go far enough, we'll start to hit highways and towns."
"Could be two hundred miles before that happens," Bucky said.
There were a lot of things he could say to that. He settled for, "How much of a problem is that going to be?" with a glance at Bucky's leg.
And this drew a look of genuine surprise followed by dark amusement, which reaffirmed something Sam had already figured out: that, between the two of them, Bucky expected Sam to be the liability. Either that, or it had been so long since anyone had worried about his physical state (well, Steve obviously did all the time, but Steve was in a category by himself) that he just assumed he'd be expected to keep up. Sam was pretty sure that if he'd asked directly, Bucky would confirm neither of those options -- might not even be aware of it himself.
"I'll manage," was all he said.
Sam had no doubt of that. Actually, the main doubt nagging at the back of his mind, the worry he couldn't shake, was that he actually was the liability. He'd seen some of the things Bucky could do, and even more of the things Steve could do, which Bucky was no doubt capable of. Left to his own devices, Sam suspected Bucky would move three times as fast, elude HYDRA by any means necessary, probably not bother with food or water, and in all likelihood come out of the forest a few days later -- gaunt, cold-faced, but alive and mostly healed.
Sam had every expectation the Winter Soldier had done it before.
But this time Bucky was with Sam, and Sam had no idea how that changed things -- how much of a monkey wrench, if any, it threw into Bucky's no doubt finely tuned survival mechanisms. One thing Sam knew, through his own admittedly more limited experience, was how automatic, how ingrained those habits could become. In Sam's case, his survival training included aspects like "take care of people weaker than you" and "don't leave anyone behind" and "don't kill anyone who's not trying to kill you". Bucky was, of course, a different story.
And yet there was another aspect to it too, and that was the pinch of pain around Bucky's eyes, the exhaustion that was already evident in the way he moved. Sam might be the one of them less suited to an all-out fight for survival, he might be the one with ordinary reflexes and fragile, un-augmented muscles and bones, but Bucky was hurt worse. And Sam had a suspicion that Bucky was actually hurt even worse than he was letting on. The broken leg and wrist were impossible to hide, but from Bucky's deliberately slow movements and the set of his jaw, he was hurting in other places too. God only knew what could make someone with Bucky's toughness and pain resistance look like that. Internal injuries? Broken ribs? Broken everything?
What it came down to was that Sam didn't truly know if he had what it took to keep up with a supersoldier in full survival mode, especially in his current physical state, but he also didn't think Bucky realized how much easier it would be with someone to watch his back and share the workload.
... or maybe Sam was overthinking it and Bucky knew it just fine. He had, after all, been part of a team once upon a time. It was strangely easy to forget -- considering that every American schoolchild learned it in history class -- that Bucky had been one of the Howling Commandos, a lifetime ago. It was easy to think of Bucky as someone who had been shaped primarily by his years as the Winter Soldier, because those were the aspects of him that were always on top and visible: the predatory grace and lethal efficiency, the cool silences, the blankness when confronted with an unexpected social situation.
But of course there was more to him than that, a lot more, and when Sam thought about it he supposed he thought of him as the Bucky Barnes Steve used to know, the one Steve talked about, with that whole brutal mess of seventy years of war and death laid over him like a shroud that flattened everything. He'd never realized until now how much more complicated than that it actually was. Bucky was Steve's childhood friend and he was the Howling Commandos' sniper and he was the Soldier, and any one of those things could come to the fore at any time, old memories and old reflexes bubbling up from beneath.
What Sam didn't think he'd ever really wanted to believe, because it sounded too much like wishful thinking on Steve's part, was that the Winter Soldier side of Bucky was really the least of these. It shouldn't have been. It was seventy years of his life. But it was also seventy years of memory wipes and abuse and torture and cryofreeze, amounting in the end to a nightmare stretching through seventy years of objective time but also compressed into probably no more than a couple of years from Bucky's point of view. And yeah, those couple of years had probably been seventy subjective years (seventy, seven hundred ... Sam had been through just enough hell in his life to know how that worked) but Sam was starting to think that the integrated version of Bucky, the person that all of the Bucky Barnes parts and the Winter Soldier parts were starting to shuffle into, was actually pretty close to the Howling Commandos version of Bucky from 1944.
Which, if so, was pretty good news for him, because that would be a Bucky who knew how to work with his team and willingly threw himself between other people and danger -- a Bucky Barnes who was, from all accounts, a really great guy.
The more alarming possibility was that Sam was stranded out here with someone who was still about 90% Winter Soldier, who might or might not decide that throwing Sam to HYDRA was a good escape strategy. Sam didn't want to think that way -- he liked Bucky, and on good days he was pretty sure that Bucky liked him too, or at least tolerated him in a more or less friendly way because Bucky knew he was important to Steve. But he didn't want to find out how far Bucky was willing to go to avoid falling back into HYDRA's hands.
Hopefully it wouldn't come to that.
"Incoming," Bucky murmured, and stood up. The motion would probably seem effortless to an observer who didn't know how graceful his normal movements were.
The helicopters were on their way back. Sam tensed to move, but this time, rather than doing another grid pass, they settled into hovering just above treetop level. One was over the area where he and Bucky had crash-landed -- or at least he thought so; it was hard to tell from down here -- while the other was a few hundred yards higher up the mountainside.
A ladder snaked down from the belly of the first. The other had found an open, relatively flat area and seemed to be landing, the rotor tone changing as it settled, becoming deeper with resonant overtones.
Well, that was the next logical step. Come check out the area in person. Sam wondered how well HYDRA's run-of-the-mill goons could track people. Neither he nor Bucky had been making much effort to conceal their trail, and HYDRA's troops were well trained, many with a military background. They wouldn't be slouches and they wouldn't be dumb.
Bucky was perfectly still, only his eyes moving as he watched the helicopters. When he caught Sam's gaze on him, he said, "Split up."
"Stay together," Sam countered immediately.
Bucky gave him a level look. "It's me they want."
Sam hadn't thought either of them would actually say it. Hadn't been sure, really, until Bucky brought it out into the open. So he dragged out the other uncomfortable truth as well. "You want to make sure I don't get caught -- or make sure I don't slow you down so you get caught?"
Silence. Still that even, cool look. Then Bucky said, "Both."
"Together," Sam said. "To start. We can see how it goes from there."
Bucky hesitated, then gave a tight nod.
As they turned away, Sam glimpsed a quick silver spark flash between the nearer helicopter and the ground. He was too far away to tell exactly what shape it was, but its motion had been too deliberate to be a vehicle. Something had jumped. More augmented HYDRA agents? Something robotic?
He didn't mention it to Bucky. There was little chance the former Winter Soldier hadn't noticed it, and they'd find out what it was soon enough.