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Wing and a Prayer

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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.

Search grid.

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 useful."

"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.

Chapter Text

They followed the stream on the general principle that streams run downhill and therefore tend to lead to rivers and ports. Besides, it was going in the right general direction, and it was a water source. All of these considerations paled in comparison to HYDRA sending ground troops after them, but if they survived HYDRA, the everyday matters of survival would still be an issue.

Possibly as an oblique "fuck you" to Sam's stubbornness -- over keeping the wings, not splitting up, or both -- Bucky set a pace that Sam had trouble keeping up with. He swung along grimly on his injured leg, leaving Sam scrambling along behind. They walked in the stream when they could, disguising their trail, but the footing was slippery and unstable, and they were terribly exposed. Under the trees they could move faster, but it was nearly impossible to avoid leaving a trail when they did.

Without more pressing distractions, it was increasingly difficult for Sam to ignore his physical discomfort. The SHIELD body armor was light and flexible, not much more intrusive than the stiff fabric it resembled, but he was still sweating under the vest, soaking through the ragged remains of his shirt. The wings seemed to get heavier by the step, dragging him down and sending bolts of pain stabbing through his shoulder when he moved wrong. And all the while he couldn't shake the constant awareness of danger nearby, just out of sight in the calm and quiet woodland.

Evasion. Sam had forgotten what this felt like, except in his nightmares, but now it came rushing back: the hyper-vigilance, the prickle of phantom eyes on the back of his neck, the constantly running mental loop of danger-strategy-preparation. This was the thing that all too many former soldiers had trouble coming back from, as much as (or more than) the loss of friends and comrades. It got under your skin, made you reach for weapons you weren't carrying, or hit the ground when someone dropped a plate in the apartment next door. You learned to think like a hunted animal, to ride that narrow line between predator and prey, and it took a lot of effort to start thinking like a human being again.

For Bucky, of course, it had to be worse: he didn't necessarily have the promise of human to come back to. Other soldiers had the memory of home and safety to reel them in and ground them; they had family, spouses, children, a familiar world to fall back into. Sam's eyes were drawn to the back of Bucky's neck, the tense shoulders and body like a coiled spring. He'd long ago traded in his black Winter Soldier leathers for the dark-gray SHIELD armor and fatigues, but he was still a human-shaped blade of darkness, cutting through the serene, sun-dappled greenery of the wilderness meadows. Though he should have been completely out of place, he still had a way of blending into shadows, moving in a fluid way that made it harder than it ought to have been to notice him.

Sam wondered how far Bucky had come back from that predator-prey mental place, or if he had at all.

The stream they were following wound down the middle of a broad, scoop-shaped valley. Glacier-made, Sam guessed. Mountains raked the sky around them, not the hump-backed Appalachians that Sam had grown up hiking in, but raw wild mountains with steep rocky peaks and snow glazing their heights even on this sunny summer day. Water flowed downhill, so the presence of the stream implied that it had to go somewhere, but the direction they were headed wasn't visibly less mountainous than anywhere else.

The going became rougher as they went along, the slope of the ground growing steeper and the streambed choked with boulders dislodged by past floods. Ahead, the ground seemed to drop away sharply, and Sam could glimpse the far edge of a lower, broader valley. The roar of a waterfall was audible from here. The helicopters must be getting low on fuel; they'd have to desist in their search soon, which might give him and Bucky a window to climb down without having to worry about being seen --

The strike came out of nowhere, and it came from above.

They were following the streambank, Sam with his left hand resting on the butt of his SSP, Bucky a few yards in front of him. The first warning they got was the sudden crackle of small-caliber weapons fire. Bucky flung up his left arm, so fast that Sam didn't even realize what was happening until Bucky had his left arm over his head in a shower of noise and sparks -- bullets, pinging off his metal arm. Sam dived away and drew the SSP.

Something partly human, but not entirely, dropped out of the tree on top of Bucky.

The spider-guys on the plane had been bad enough. This one not only had four metal tentacles but also a pair of grasping arms mounted on his shoulders. He was holding four mini-Uzis -- two in the graspers, two in his actual hands -- and hung onto the tree with one pair of tentacles, while reaching for Bucky with the other two and bringing the weapons to bear on him.

Bucky backflipped away. Sam didn't miss the spasm of pain that crossed his face as he landed, although he'd had the presence of mind to take the impact on his good leg. Tentacle-guy opened fire with all four Uzis at once, and Bucky allowed his momentum to carry him in a graceful side-roll behind a stand of trees. The bullets chewed up the bark rather than his body. Bucky drew one of his pistols and spun around in a smooth fluid motion, firing not at his own assailant, but into the treetops above Sam.

Well shit.

Sam had his SSP out in his left hand, braced with the right. He was more accurate with his right hand but could aim reasonably well with the left, and he didn't want to know what the recoil would do to his broken collarbone. He fired above him and got a satisfying scream, before another augmented HYDRA soldier scuttled down from the treetops with inhuman speed, firing as he came.

Luckily the HYDRA guy's aim was absolutely lousy -- either the grasping arms weren't good at manipulating things, or fine motor control was impossible while simultaneously coordinating eight limbs. Still, a lucky stray bullet would be just as deadly as a carefully aimed shot. Sam scrambled out of the kill zone, his shoulder stinging where he'd been grazed and his heart trying to pound its way out of his chest.

The HYDRA commando hit the ground, jerked, and fell over in a red spray cascading from his unarmored neck. Sam looked over his shoulder to see Bucky with a pistol in his metal hand. Bucky's opponent was sprawled in the edge of the stream, metal limbs trailing limply in the water.

"Waste of an expensive asset," Bucky said, his expression flat.

"They must think we're worth it." Sam lowered the SSP slowly. His shoulder throbbed. He wondered if Bucky saw himself in these guys.

"I'm worth it," Bucky said absently. "They know that bringing me in isn't going to be -- Down!" Before he'd finished speaking, Bucky tackled Sam in a flying leap, throwing them both some fifteen feet. Sam didn't have a chance to ask why before the ground where they'd been erupted in a cascade of dirt and flying rocks.

Lying on his back, half-stunned from the pain of the impact, Sam squinted against the sky's glare as a long dark shape cruised whale-like into his field of vision. Helicopter. The fucking things had missiles and they were now taking fire from above. Apparently the modified HYDRA guys had called in their location.

"Call me crazy," Sam managed breathlessly, "but I don't think bringing you in is what they're trying to do here."

Another missile ripped through the trees above them and hit the water, kicking up a tremendous gout of steam and water droplets hurled so hard they tore through brush and leaves like shrapnel. It was clear that the gunner didn't have an actual visual on them, just an approximate location.

"Dead, captured, it's the same thing in the end." Bucky, still flat on top of Sam, sounded darkly amused. He rolled off and stood up with something in his metal hand.

The chopper circled around, its belly just above the trees -- trying to get a visual rather than waste missiles firing them into the underbrush. As its dark shape cruised over them, shadow flickering across the ground, Bucky popped a grenade pin with his teeth and threw it.

Hurled by the considerable force of his metal arm, the grenade arced into the air and through the helicopter's open side door. The timing was perfect: the muffled whump of an explosion shivered the air, and the helo listed steeply to one side, trailing smoke and spinning in an uncontrolled arc out of sight. An instant later there was a tremendous, gratifying crunch of impact, and smoke billowed over the trees.

Bucky had already turned without bothering to watch it fall, and extended a hand down to Sam.

"You are a fucking one-man army," Sam said, getting his feet under him. He was still woozy enough that it wasn't easy; nothing helped with broken ribs like having two hundred plus pounds of heavily armed assassin land on them. Not that he didn't appreciate not being blown up.

"I was made to be," Bucky said matter-of-factly, looking up at the sky. The shudder of the other helicopter's rotors set up a sympathetic ache in Sam's rib cage. It was out there somewhere, above the trees, but seeing the first one go down had been a useful life lesson to the pilot -- it didn't seem to be approaching too closely.

No, they'll just wait 'til we come out in the open and paste us --

Then Bucky's eyes flicked left at the same time Sam caught the rustling in the underbrush, and they were both already diving in opposite directions as they started taking fire. The rest of the HYDRA ground troops had arrived. Sam took cover behind a jumble of boulders beside the creek; Bucky ended up with his back to the knotted root ball of an overturned tree, a few dozen yards away.

If Sam were to venture a guess, the second helo had probably been picking up the troops and dropping them in the right location while the first one pinned them down. Crouching with the creek at his heels, snapping fire over the boulders when he dared risk it, Sam tried to get a head count -- four, five, six ...? Maybe as many as a dozen in total, spread out in a pincer formation. There couldn't be too many more of them, unless they'd been packed into the Black Hawk like sardines. As far as he could tell, these were regular guys, Rumlow's sort, not the modified cyborg soldiers. Still, given the choice, he was pretty sure he'd rather go up against a badly trained cyborg that relied too much on metal augmentations than a squad of trained mercs with assault rifles.

Bucky threw a grenade, and Sam took advantage of the distraction to snap another clip into the SSP. One more after this, and he'd be out. He tried not to think about that.

There were no more shots from Bucky's direction. Sam risked a glance and found that, while the dust settled from the grenade, Bucky had vanished. Okay, I think I can see where this is going ... His hunch was confirmed by a sudden scream somewhere in the bushes, choked off in a gurgle.

Bucky must really be off his game if the guy had a chance to scream.

Really glad you're on our side, man -- sure do hope you stay there.

The gunfire had fallen silent now, and the woods were too quiet, really, with just the white noise of the creek and the wind hissing through leafy branches to cover the subtler noises of men moving among the trees. Sam had forgotten this part of combat, too -- how bursts of frantic activity interspersed with long periods of tense waiting. He risked a glance over his shoulder. The creek covered the sound of anyone sneaking up behind him. So far, the woods were clear that way, but he crouched lower behind the boulders, making himself less of a target.

He couldn't hear the helicopter at all, so maybe it had fallen back to refuel. If so, this was the best opening they were going to get. Sam glanced downstream where the trees thinned out and the ground dropped off in a slope or cliff -- it was impossible to tell how steep it was. There might be shelter down below. On the other hand, there might be nothing but a gravel-strewn plain where they could be picked off easily.

Off to his left, unseen in the underbrush, there was a sudden crackle of branches, a grunt and the hiss of breath escaping through a perforation not designed by nature. Sam's smile was grim. He wouldn't want to be those HYDRA guys right now. Even with a broken leg (and, damn, Sam was trying not to think too hard about that), Bucky was fast, deadly, and had more reason than most to hate them.

He traded fire with someone else in the woods, hoping Bucky was still somewhere to his left and not getting into his line of fire. Then everything fell silent again. In the hush he could hear -- or, more accurately, feel the dull thump of rotor blades. The helicopter was coming back.

Or ... wait. The low thump throbbing behind his breastbone -- That wasn't just one other helicopter. That was a lot more than one.

Reinforcements.

Fuck.

An even worse idea occurred to him, and he risked half-rising from his boulder foxhole. No one shot at him. He was pretty sure they hadn't wiped out all the HYDRA guys, which meant they were falling back, which meant ...

"Bucky!" he called, voice pitched as loud as he dared.

Bucky materialized out of nowhere. His forearms and torso were liberally blood-splattered. There was a knife in his metal hand, and the hand with the broken wrist was tucked into his belt.

"You get 'em all?" Sam asked. "Or they pull back?"

"Pulled back," Bucky said, and glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the incoming helicopters. Sam stood up all the way. He could see them now, a half dozen dark specks strung out across the backdrop of the mountains. Coming in low, coming in fast.

Sam met Bucky's eyes, and for once Bucky's expression was unguarded -- Sam saw his own bleak thoughts reflected back at him. HYDRA was about to light this place up.

Still, they'd come too far not to go down without a fight.

"Hey, Bucky. Got a smoke grenade in there somewhere?"

Dark, sardonic humor flashed in the depths of Bucky's eyes. "Do you even have to ask?" He sheathed the knife in a single quick motion and reached into one of his belt pouches. "Got a plan?"

Sam jerked his chin at the straps supporting his wings. "Not much of one, but I've still got a little juice and one thruster. On my mark, give me cover."

Bucky didn't say anything, just freed the hand with the broken wrist from his belt -- his teeth clenched as he did it -- and drew two fat canisters from his belt pouches.

"We gotta go over the cliff," Sam said, and started in that direction, then remembered Bucky would have to run on a broken leg, and turned back. It was too late anyway; the helos were almost on top of them. The helo noise shivered the air. How far out would they risk firing?

Apparently Bucky was having similar thoughts, because he didn't wait for Sam's mark. He snapped out both hands, flinging the smoke grenades in opposite directions. As they popped, Sam lunged in his direction and caught him with an arm around his body. Bucky made an involuntary, startled sound. Sam was already firing up his one remaining thruster as the smoke rolled over them. They half jumped, half fell, almost hit a boulder and two trees, and then went over the edge just as the world lit up in smoke, fire, and noise.

He'd meant to take an erratic course to make it less likely they'd be noticed coming out of the smoke. Turned out "erratic" was his only option. Flying with a broken collarbone and broken ribs -- plus a passenger -- sucked even more than he thought it would, and he couldn't properly compensate for the missing thruster. All he could manage was a wild, spinning, uncontrolled sideways descent, half-flying and half-falling. The air was full of dust and tumbling rocks the size of cars. Bucky's metal fingers dug into Sam's back just under the wings, hard enough that he'd probably have bruises if not more broken ribs -- but Bucky used that leverage to twist suddenly when they finally collided with the ground, taking most of the impact on his own back and shoulders. Sam tumbled free, rolled over and ended up curled in a ball, waiting for the pain to subside enough that he could slowly uncurl and look around.

They'd come a lot farther than he was expecting to get on a few seconds of dying thruster. The helicopters gave him an instant point of reference; they were high above and to the right, still bombarding the top of the cliff. He and Bucky had tumbled down into yet another ravine. From his present location, Sam couldn't see much other than sky and mountaintops, but he figured staying where they were was probably safest for the time being. They'd flown something like a half-mile, and while he'd love to put a lot more distance between himself and HYDRA (a couple thousand miles would probably do it) the helicopters' failure to pursue them was a clear indicator that they had not been noticed. Yet.

A choking pall of dust and smoke drifted across them. Sam closed his eyes briefly on a flare of heat desert shimmer-haze smoke blood RILEY. He pressed his fingertips to his eyelids until red patterns bloomed behind them, temporarily erasing the flickering after-images of smoke-borne ghosts, and then opened his eyes to see Bucky drag himself into a sitting position with a grimace.

"You okay?" Sam asked.

Bucky gave him a dark look. His right arm was curled against his chest. He laid his metal hand on his broken leg -- not where the break was, but below, on the knee. Sam recognized that, the urge to rub out the hurt warring against the knowledge that touching was not actually going to help. Bucky's body language said Fuck off more clearly than words, so Sam let him be, and instead worked on getting the wing pack off with only one hand.

Whatever drugs Bucky had given him back at the crash site seemed to have worn off. He was feeling every bruise now, and his hands were shaking, his whole body weak from pain and residual drug-drop. He couldn't lift his right arm at all.

After watching him struggle with it for a few minutes, Bucky got a mild exasperated look, rose stiffly and hopped the couple of steps over to Sam. He hooked two metal fingers through the strap Sam couldn't get undone -- the buckle had bent in the crash -- and popped it loose effortlessly, then dropped the wing pack to the ground.

"Hey," Sam protested, but he couldn't muster the energy to mind. Much. It definitely wasn't going to be flying anywhere ever again.

Bucky didn't say anything, just reached for Sam's face with a look of concentration. Sam flinched away and then, when Bucky steadied him with an impatient hand on his forehead, realized that the bandage around his head had come undone in their crash landing. Bucky tightened it and tucked the ends in, then let him go. Sam sat down in a sort of vaguely controlled fall, and Bucky joined him on the ground.

A low rumble grew slowly in Sam's perception, gathered strength and filled their ears and then died away slowly. Landslide. There were some little skittering aftershocks, and then another explosion from the top of the cliff. He could smell a reek like burning garbage and hoped the bastards weren't persistent enough to set the forest on fire.

"We should probably move while they're occupied," Bucky said after a moment. He sounded exhausted.

"Better to lay low, let 'em lose interest," Sam countered. "They didn't see where we went or they'd already be searching. The deader they think we are, the safer we are."

Bucky didn't argue, which was probably a measure of how bad he was feeling. Instead he flopped on his back, face turned to the sky, and closed his eyes.

Sam didn't want to move, but he forced himself to get up and try to cover up any signs of their second crash landing of the day. There wasn't much this time. They'd gone more or less straight down into the ravine, and most of what they'd disturbed was brush rather than trees. He pushed some bent bushes more or less back into shape, then rejoined Bucky at the bottom of the ravine.

The aerial bombardment had finally stopped, and now it was weirdly peaceful down here. The helicopters were still flying around -- Sam could glimpse them through a screen of trees when he stood up -- but it was clear from their search pattern that they had no idea their quarry had escaped. They were mostly flying a tight grid at the top of the cliff.

Bucky was either asleep or doing a good job of faking it. Sam forced his aching body upright again, and limped down the ravine a little ways to see if he could get an idea of the lay of the land. It was hard going; the ravine was narrow and twisting, choked with brush. Sam had to hop back and forth across the rushing stream winding down the ravine's throat. Movement kept jarring his broken collarbone agonizingly until he tucked his right hand into his shirt, which helped a little. It wasn't going to be easy for Bucky to navigate this obstacle course with his broken leg. Right now, though, Sam was glad of the cover; it would be nearly impossible for anyone to spot him from the air. His body armor was battered from the fight and the fall, but still doing its anti-IR thing, he assumed, judging by the lack of helicopters converging on his location.

He came eventually to a point where the narrow walls of the ravine opened up and gave him a view out across the valley floor. They'd come to rest in a huge bowl-shaped valley ringed by mountains on all sides. There was a lake at the valley's lowest point, long and narrow, giving over eventually to a series of stair-stepped smaller lakes that were probably beaver dams.

It was beautiful and serene and terribly, terribly wild. There was not even the slightest hint of civilization anywhere: no roads, no cabins, no sound at all except the low chop of the helicopters searching for their bodies high on the smoke-shrouded mountain flanks.

Sam stared in dismay. Finally he sat on a boulder and looked out across the valley for a while as the smoke slowly began to die away, the bird songs came back, the helicopters grew more distant.

He slowly became aware that something, some tiny incongruous fact about the whole situation, was kicking at the back of his subconscious. Something about what had happened earlier. He was overlooking a clue, sidestepping some "aha!" moment that he was going to kick himself for later.

It didn't come to him, though. The HYDRA helicopters continued to circle, ever farther. The valley lay quiescent in the sunlight, beautiful and deadly in its high mountain loneliness.

Assuming they could manage to avoid getting caught, following the outflow from the lake was probably their best bet. It had to run out of the valley at some point -- he hoped. It was possible that the angle of the mountains was hiding a pass. And if not ... well, they'd just have to go up and over. There was no other choice.

Steve, I really hope you're looking for us, because this'd be a good time for the cavalry to show up.

He retraced his steps and found Bucky sitting up, body armor unbuckled and shirt hiked up, prodding at his ribs. Sam got a brief glimpse of amazing technicolor bruises covering nearly Bucky's entire torso before Bucky yanked his shirt down again.

"Any idea if there's internal damage, or were you planning on bleeding out in silence?" Sam said before he could help himself.

Bucky gave him an unfriendly look. "Nothing that won't heal."

"And you know that how?"

Sam thought for a moment that he wouldn't get an answer, but then Bucky said, "If it were that bad, there'd be some signs by now. There aren't, so it's not."

"Signs," Sam said, unwilling to let this go, because goddammit, being stuck in the wilderness and hunted by HYDRA was bad enough without knowing that his teammate and sole backup had no fucking sense of self-preservation whatsoever. "Like bleeding to death internally. Like going into shock and dropping dead."

Bucky met his eyes with the dark glimmer of self-deprecating humor that Sam, God help him, was starting to appreciate. "Yeah," Bucky said. "Like that. Look, there's nothing you can actually do, so what's the point of saying anything?"

"I'm certified for field surgery." Or he had once been. "Pararescue, remember?"

"And you're going to perform surgery on me with what, a knife and a pine cone?"

"Fuck you, man," Sam said. He sank down beside the stream. "Gimme your canteen."

In their earlier equipment inventory, they'd found that they only had one canteen between the two of them, and it was Bucky's. Sam wasn't sure why, after two tours in Afghanistan, he'd never noticed that a canteen wasn't part of his SHIELD survival kit. Probably because he hadn't yet been stranded anywhere since he went back into the field, and therefore "light and portable" seemed like a useful packing goal, rather than actually having all the stuff he'd need to survive. Maybe there was supposed to be some kind of high-tech, collapsible canteen made out of space blanket material and he'd gotten a defective kit that didn't include it.

In any case, it was balanced out by the fact that Sam had water purification tablets and Bucky didn't. No doubt dysentery knew better than to fuck around with supersoldier immune systems. Sam briefly contemplated the wisdom of drinking the water unfiltered -- mountain stream, looked clean, more likely to be okay than the swampier water farther downhill -- versus the risk of running out of the limited supply of tablets in his field kit. He eventually decided to go for the tablet and hope they got back to something resembling civilization before he ran out. After treating the water, he drank and passed the canteen to Bucky.

Bucky took it, then reached out and placed a hand lightly on Sam's chest, body language tense and alert. Sam went still, and a few seconds later a helicopter cruised over the ravine some ways farther down, its black belly a couple hundred feet above the trees. It had to be a random sweep, since it didn't pause and it didn't come back.

Even after it was gone, they were both quiet for a moment, gazing after it.

"So what's down there?" Bucky asked at last. "I know you went on recon."

"Mountains," Sam said. "And more mountains." He used a stick to scratch a quick map of the valley in the dirt. "It's possible the lake outflow leads to a place we can get through. If not, I guess we go over." Unless Steve and Natasha show up, he didn't say. Dwelling on rescue would do neither of them any good. "Cover's not good, especially below the lake. It's mostly all swamp down there." He stopped, and whistled softly. He'd figured out what it was that had been nagging at his subconscious earlier.

Bucky didn't ask, but he cocked his head and looked curious.

"Where'd the helicopters come from?" Sam said. Bucky looked blank. "The first two, I mean. The reinforcements, okay, they could've flown out here from wherever's close enough to have your nearest friendly neighborhood HYDRA base. Maybe all the way from the Vancouver area or across the border from Montana, who knows. But those first two were on the scene fast."

"You think there's a HYDRA outpost around here somewhere." It wasn't a question.

"Has to be," Sam said. "Unless they were running some kind of maneuver out here and we had the shit luck to stumble into it. Which I guess is possible too."

"If there is a base, it'd explain why they're so determined to kill us," Bucky said, his gaze distant. "I'm special but not that special."

"Do you know about any HYDRA bases in this area?"

"No," Bucky said. "Doesn't mean there aren't any." He shook his head sharply, like he was shaking off a memory, or maybe the clinging cobwebs of the past. "And it doesn't change anything. Not yet, anyway. We still gotta move."

The sun sets early in mountain valleys -- a bit of wisdom that came back to Sam from his Afghanistan days, in his old staff sergeant's voice. It was probably about six or seven o'clock, and the sun rested on the tip of the mountain peak across the valley. "Evening light," he said. "Long shadows will make us harder to pick up on that flat country down there. Maybe rest another half hour or so, give them a chance to clear the area, then go."

Bucky nodded.

They both settled into a tired but watchful silence until Bucky made a sudden sound, a soft laugh so unexpected it took Sam a moment to realize that was what it had been. When Sam glanced at him, though, his face had gone solemn again.

"What's funny?"

Bucky shook his head, a guarded tightness to his jaw. "I don't think it would be funny to anyone but me."

"I could sure use a laugh right now."

Bucky hesitated. Then he said, "I never used to notice being hungry. I guess I was trained out of it, or conditioned, or -- whatever you want to call it, until it just wasn't a thing I thought about, ever. The feelings didn't make any sense to me anymore." He stopped for a minute, not looking at Sam, who was realizing belatedly that this was the first time Bucky had ever openly talked about being the Winter Soldier in his presence, beyond occasional references and bleak jokes. He was so sure Bucky was going to stop there that he had to suppress a startled reaction when Bucky started talking again in the same low tone. "When I stopped being -- that -- I had to learn to notice it again. And it took awhile. I'd go for two or three days without eating. The feelings just didn't mean anything. Steve -- used to hate that. But I was just thinking ..." His smile flashed, sudden and sharp. "It would be useful right now, not being able to notice being hungry."

Sam considered a number of different responses to that. Eventually he took out an energy bar and broke it in half.

"That wasn't a hint," Bucky said, with considerably more animation in his voice, most of it negative. "It was a comment."

"I know." Sam passed him the larger half of the bar. "But you brought up a good point. There's no use in saving what little food we have 'til we're weak from hunger. And Steve tends to eat a lot -- I mean, he's not real obvious about it, but I figure it's a metabolism thing, a supersoldier thing. You've been doing a lot of fighting and healing."

Sam wasn't actually hungry; his stomach was a tight knot of pain and stress and what he was fairly sure was residual queasiness from the drugs. He made himself eat anyway. He'd need the strength. Then he struggled to his feet -- there wasn't a part of his body that didn't hurt -- and held out his good hand. Bucky studied it for a moment before taking it.

Once he was on his feet, Bucky tilted his head at the wings in a silent question.

"Leave 'em," Sam said. It stung, but ... "Like you said before, they're deadweight now. They did what they needed to do."

Bucky smiled slightly. "Stark will appreciate the chance to build you another set."

"God knows what new things he'll add this time," Sam said. "Though I think I'll have a few suggestions for safety features."

Chapter Text

The progress they made down the ravine was torturously slow. Bucky cut himself a new walking stick, but there was still a lot of scrambling involved. However, it gave the helicopters a chance to clear out. By the time they reached the mouth of the ravine where the ground leveled off and opened up, the only helicopter in sight was high up on the mountainside above their crash point, doggedly running a search grid. By this point the sun had settled behind the mountains.

"They are fucking stubborn," Sam murmured, taking a visual bearing on the lake and checking it against his compass while they still had light.

Bucky didn't say anything. His face was drawn, white, and determined.

They set off through the relatively open forest of the valley. Darkness fell on them, though they were far enough north that it wasn't complete; there was a streak of light along the rim of the world, and Sam could still see, though dimly. Clouds of mosquitoes rose to torment them. It was some small comfort to Sam to notice Bucky's Winter Soldier stoic calm cracking slightly under the winged onslaught.

Sam couldn't help wondering how long Bucky was going to hold up. He was basically walking on a broken leg, and he had to be in excruciating pain, but he hadn't said anything and once he'd found a pace that worked for him, he moved steadily without slowing or pausing to rest.

Under that gently humming not-quite-darkness, they reached the edge of the lake. Sam didn't realize it until the ground began to squish under his boots, growing wet and unstable. Through the darker slashes of the tree trunks, the lake was faintly luminous under the sky.

Sam touched Bucky's arm to get his attention, felt the startled flinch. "Rest here," he said, and Bucky didn't disagree, just dropped to the damp ground like his strings had been cut.

Sam sat on the knotted roots of a tree by the lakeshore, leaned his head back against the trunk, and closed his eyes. He wasn't sure how much more movement he had in him.

Something brushed his arm. Sam stifled a yelp before he consciously registered Bucky's dark-clad presence beside him, nearly invisible in the night. It would never stop surprising him how quietly Bucky could move with a broken leg.

Once he had Sam's attention, Bucky murmured, "See that?"

Sam followed Bucky's pointing finger toward the rolling dark foothills on the far side of the lake, a few miles distant across the expanse of the valley. He opened his mouth and got out "What --" before he caught it: a flicker of light in the black mass of the hills. One light -- two -- a whole line of them. His "what" became "What the hell?"

Bucky, predictably, didn't answer. Sam stood for a better look and Bucky rose along with him; they watched the lights for a few minutes. At first the lights seemed to flicker, but Sam decided after awhile that it was the trees moving in the wind, concealing and revealing them at random.

"Could be cabins or a ranger station, maybe," Sam murmured at last.

"Could be," Bucky conceded. "Doesn't account for the red ones, though."

"Red ones?"

"You don't see them?"

Sam strained his eyes. Maybe there was a dim red glow. Maybe not. He missed the flight goggles, which had magnification capability as well.

"Wavelength might be too short for you to see from here," Bucky said thoughtfully. "Here." He pressed something into Sam's hand.

The object was small and flat -- a credit card, he thought at first, and it was probably designed to look like one, but a paper-thin layer of plastic had been peeled up to reveal a single card-thin lens at its center. Sam held it up to his eye and realized he was holding some form of binoculars (or, more accurately, a monocular) -- high-powered, too. SHIELD spy tech, he presumed.

Even with magnification, he couldn't make out much else at this distance, by this light. Still, he could distinguish the red lights Bucky had mentioned -- they were at one end of the string of white ones -- and he could see the white lights reflecting off nearby trees. The lights, red and white, were strung out at even intervals in a straight line angled across the mountain's flank. It made him think somewhat of a ski lift. Or ...

"Landing strip," Sam said aloud. His brain raced onward, added two and two, got the same result every time. "Guess we found our HYDRA facility."

"Could be a ranger station," Bucky said. "Lots of bears need to be counted at two in the morning."

"Anyone ever tell you you're kind of a dick?"

The faint luminosity of sky and lake was just enough to illuminate Bucky's trace of a smile.

They were still watching the lights when a helicopter scudded up the valley, low and fast, its running lights blinking above the trees. Sam drew back against the tree trunk, but he didn't need to, because it was making a beeline for that string of white lights. It settled behind the trees, out of sight. And, well, if they'd needed proof, there it was.

After the helicopter disappeared, there was a long moment of stillness broken only by the swishing of the trees in the wind, and then the lights went out, one by one. Sam tried to fix their position in his head as best he could.

Bucky lowered himself to the ground by way of a discreet metal-handed grip on the nearest tree. Sam settled beside him and handed back the binoc card.

"If we stick to the original plan, we have to walk right by that place in order to get out," Sam said. "Leaving aside the part where we're not entirely sure that the direction we're going is taking us to roads, hospitals, and other useful aspects of civilization."

"You think we should break in," Bucky said. His face was turned toward the shadows now, his voice neutral.

"I honestly think it's our best shot," Sam said. "Maybe our only shot. The alternative is fighting our way through them at every step, right past their front door."

"So we walk up and knock on the door instead." Same neutral tone, same hidden expression.

"Well, actually, no, at first I was thinking we blow the shit out of the front door with everything you've got in your magic bag of tricks, and put the fuckers down," Sam said. "Then I realized, as satisfying as that would be, we've got maybe two ammo clips and four working limbs between us, so it makes a whole lot more sense to sneak in the back door, find a phone and call home. Then Steve and Nat and Fury can blow the place up for us, while we chill with showers, dinner, and painkillers."

There was only silence from Bucky.

"Look, man," Sam said, softer. "I know what this means for you --"

"No, you sure as shit don't." All the expression that had been missing from Bucky's voice was suddenly there, and all of it was negative. But this wasn't the Winter Soldier at all. This was a hot flare of very human frustration. "And I've raided HYDRA before. You fucking know that; you've been there. So stop acting like I'm going to break if you mention words like 'torture' or 'prisoner' around me. I don't take it from Steve and no way in hell I'm taking it from you."

It was maybe the most honesty about his situation that Sam had gotten out of Bucky since he'd known him. That, not the anger, was what startled Sam into temporary silence. Bucky was breathing hard, like he'd just run a race. They sat like that for a moment.

Then Bucky began, cautiously and not entirely sounding like he meant it, "Sor --"

"Man, the next time you apologize when I'm the one being a dick, I'll pop you in the mouth."

Bucky snorted.

"And," Sam said, "you're right. I don't know. So how about you tell me what you want to do."

There was a tense silence before Bucky let his breath out on a long sigh.

"I don't know," he said, and he sounded tired to the point of cracking -- a young, war-weary soldier, very far from home. "There's one part of me that knows I can do it, evade them and get back to ... civilization." There was the slightest hesitation on the last word, and Sam thought he might've heard the start of another "s" word there -- Steve? SHIELD? "-- but," Bucky went on, "then there's the part that tells me flat-out that thinking I can do it and actually being able to do it are two different things. And that's also the part of me that says you're right, everything we need just might be right up there, within easy walking distance and a hell of a lot easier to get to. And ..."

He hesitated again, and Sam said, "Buddy, if you tell me there's not a side of you that likes the idea of marching in there and ripping the place apart with your bare hands, then you're either lying to me or yourself."

This time he might've caught the gleam of Bucky's teeth in the darkness. Maybe.

"Yeah," Bucky said. It sounded like a confession. "But ... tonight's not the best night for that."

Laughing hurt. Sam did anyway. "Not really, no."

"And yeah," Bucky said, low. "Yeah, I know what'll happen if they -- Yeah, I know there's a risk." His voice was calm again, but a taut line of strain ran through it. Which, given his usual impassiveness, probably translated to fucking terrified.

At least, Sam was pretty sure he would have been, in Bucky's shoes.

And he made a decision.

"We talked about splitting up before," he said. "I think it might be time to revisit that decision. Bucky, you said you think you can make it back through the wilderness. I ... don't. Not now that I've seen what we're up against, HYDRA and all that. I'm not like you and Steve. I'm a handsome devil with wings and attitude, but I know my limits, and I believe my best shot, maybe my only shot out of here is up there, where the lights are.

"But that's me, right? Maybe not you." He leaned forward and cautiously touched Bucky's good leg. Bucky's head turned, looking at him in the dark.

"I still think our chances are better together than apart," Sam said. "But -- I know my limits, and you know yours. If going in there with a broken leg and a broken wrist and God knows what else you're not telling me about is -- if it'd be --" He couldn't quite find the right word, so he reversed direction. "-- if going back the long way is easier, man, do that. I know this is just words, but I swear to you, no hard feelings. None. Hell, maybe you were right from the start -- you could get over those hills in double-time without me slowing you down, pick up Steve and a mess of SHIELD agents, and come back to save my ass from the trouble I'm about to get myself into." He smiled. Bucky, as far as Sam could tell in the darkness under the trees, didn't. "The point is, though, I'm not going to drag you along if you don't want to come. Do what you gotta do. Whatever that is."

There was a very long silence, broken only by the whining of mosquitoes and the lapping of water on the lakeshore. Sam realized he hadn't taken his hand off Bucky's knee. Decided to leave it there.

Finally Bucky said, very quietly, "Steve --"

"Isn't here," Sam said firmly. "Just us. And whatever decision you make -- whatever decision you have to make -- I will defend to the death your right to make it."

More silence, then Bucky said in a more normal tone, "To the death? A little extreme, don't you think?"

"Cut me some slack, man. I'm tired, hungry, and in pain. Hyperbole is my coping mechanism."

Bucky's quiet laugh had a razor edge, but it was also genuine. "So tell me," he said after another little while. "Do you actually have a plan, or is it just 'sneak in somehow and wing it from there'? Because that's a Steve plan, and I expect better from you."

***

It was mostly "sneak in and wing it". But it wasn't like they could make better plans without seeing what they were up against (Sam rationalized).

They rested at the lake for another half-hour or so, long enough to eat the last two energy bars and check their arsenal ... such as it was. Sam had a clip and a half for the SSP; Bucky had three full clips to split between his two handguns, and a much reduced array of explosives and knives. Sam's field kit contained a small packet of aspirin, the only painkillers he had. Bucky waved off Sam's attempt to split them. "It'd be wasted on me. Out of my system as fast as it goes in."

Sam swallowed two of them with a certain amount of guilt, saving the other two for later. If it mattered; a few aspirin didn't seem to make much of a dent in his headache or the spike jabbing him in the neck.

Still, he was surprised how much it helped to have a tangible goal, nearby and concrete and real. It might be a stupid goal, one very likely to get them both killed, but somehow it was easier to deal with that immediate peril than with the long-term uncertainty of the vast, HYDRA-filled wilderness.

Neither of them suggested not pushing on tonight. They were both exhausted, in need of sleep -- hell, in need of a lot more than that; sleep was the least of it -- and navigating through the dark woods would be slower and more difficult than waiting for daylight. But daylight would also expose them to HYDRA and make breaking into a secure facility exponentially more difficult. Not to mention that the longer they waited, the weaker they'd get.

They skirted the marshy edge of the lake in chill, mosquito-infested semi-darkness. Even in summer, there was a damp undercurrent to the air that hinted at snow, but it helped to keep moving. Sam led the way and Bucky let him, which Sam suspected was another warning sign of Bucky's physical deterioration.

He still seemed basically all right, which had to mean that he wasn't; he couldn't be. At least, Steve wouldn't have been. Sam had been fighting alongside Steve Rogers for long enough now to have a decent idea of his physical limitations, at least in the sense of how much punishment he could take and how fast he healed. Unless Bucky's version of the supersoldier serum was a hell of a lot more effective than Steve's -- and Sam doubted it -- then Bucky's broken bones could not possibly have knit yet.

What Bucky could do, and almost certainly was doing if Sam's experience with Steve could be used as a guide, was relying on his body's healing factor to keep himself going far past the point he should have collapsed. Sam wasn't in great shape himself: bruised, battered, exhausted; headache spiking behind his eyes; broken collarbone and ribs a constant misery that flared into white-hot agony every time he incautiously twisted to avoid a mud hole or used his right hand to push a branch out of the way. Bucky, however, should've long since been down from shock. Supersoldier or not, you couldn't just walk around on a broken leg without paying for it. The fact that he was still going, at more or less a normal hiking speed, meant that his accelerated healing was cushioning him from the nervous system overload and circulatory system collapse that he should have been experiencing. But there had to be a limit to how long he could keep it up, and God only knew to what extent it was taxing his body, and in what ways.

The trouble with having paramedic and field-surgeon training was that Sam knew just enough to be worried, but not enough to anticipate what, specifically, he should be worried about. When (not if) he got back to the land of hot showers and non-bootleg painkillers, he was damn well reading every scrap of information SHIELD had on Erskine's formula and how it did what it did, on a basic physical level. If the biochemistry was over his head, he'd get Banner to dumb it down for him.

In the meantime all he could do was hope Bucky didn't have a heart attack or go into total organ failure, at least not before they got back to somewhere that had medical facilities and non-evil doctors.

When they reached the far side of the lake, Sam paused to get his bearings again. Bucky, noticing his hesitation, pointed silently uphill. Sam decided to assume that either supersoldiery came with a better-than-usual sense of direction, or that Bucky was just that damn good at land navigation. He'd tried to fix the direction before they'd started moving, but there was precious little to fix it against. Mountains had a deceptive way of changing shape as you moved around in them -- something he remembered from Afghanistan, also -- and the stars, dimly visible in the not-quite-dark sky, were predictable in their movements, but not fixed relative to the land. Even knowing the absolute compass direction wasn't much help when they kept having to detour around obstacles like the lake and various impassible bog holes.

Still, Bucky seemed to know which way to go, so they went. The landscape was similar to what they'd already come through, forested slopes cut with ravines and gullies. This side of the valley was marshier than the other, but they managed to leave most of that behind, along with the worst of the mosquitoes and torturous snarls of brush, by climbing higher on the mountains' steep flanks. They had a lot less cover up here, but took advantage of the darkness -- fading now, the stars vanishing one by one -- to move more swiftly than they could manage among the trees.

A helicopter prowled up the valley at one point, lights blinking steadily in the dark, but otherwise the search seemed to have died down. Sam guessed it had to do with the hazardous nature of flying in mountain country at night. You certainly could, especially with modern instruments, but it was orders of magnitude more dangerous than flying during the day in clear weather. After the bombardment yesterday afternoon, HYDRA might actually think they were dead.

... yeah, okay, that was pushing the edge of optimism, but at the very least, they seemed to have dropped from top priority to a relatively minor problem. Sam hoped this meant Steve and company were giving them hell at some other location. A guy could always hope.

In a clear gray dawn, they came upon their destination from above and to the side. It was well hidden; if not for the now-extinguished landing lights, Sam doubted it would have been easily spotted even on a flyover. The landing strip was steep and rocky, the sort of pilot's nightmare that was too short for a proper takeoff or landing, and therefore relied on its steep upward slope to stop incoming planes before they got their wings ripped off on the rocks (and similarly gave them a boost going the other way). Even so, you couldn't have landed anything large there, and Sam figured it'd take guts to land anything bigger than a Piper Cub. But it did a credible job of masquerading as a relatively open patch of mountainside, at least until you looked closer and noticed how the boulders were all moved out of the main drag, the trees trimmed down to brush size at the approach.

The strip leveled off in a suspiciously flat area that still would probably not have been recognizable as a helipad if not for no less than four helicopters filling it to near capacity, three Black Hawks and a much smaller civilian-model Bell Ranger. Tiny figures moved among them.

Of course, once a suspicious observer did start looking closer, it was impossible for the illusion to be maintained. Even an organization with HYDRA's far-reaching contacts couldn't build and maintain a top-secret facility without leaving some traces. Oil drums were visible at the edge of the trees along the airstrip, and a tangle of camouflage netting covered several large vehicles -- bulldozers mostly, plus a couple of all-terrain tracked vehicles. Upslope from the airstrip, an antenna array was moored to iron tiedown rings behind a cluster of boulders; they must get a lot of wind in this high mountain country.

Behind the helipad was what Sam assumed to be the facility's main entrance, a pair of concrete double doors in the mountainside, concealed by a rock overhang that would, presumably, hide them from satellite imagery. However, they were easily visible from Sam and Bucky's vantage point. Several guards prowled around outside.

"Still got your mini magnifier thing?"

Bucky passed it over and Sam took a more careful look around. With magnification it was clear that at least one of the helos was being refueled and undergoing a preflight mechanical checkup. Sam swept the area, locating more hidden equipment and some activity around another antenna array -- workers fixing a broken cable, it looked like. He swept the field of view down the mountainside. This end of the valley was narrower, steeper, dotted with small lakes strung out from the big one. One of those lakes, a typical steep-sided little mountain lake, butted up against the bluff under the double doors leading into the facility. Sam frowned at that and swept the binocs up and down, gauging the distance. "Makes sense they get their water from the lake," he said. "Has to come from somewhere. I wonder if we could get in that way."

"It won't be that easy," Bucky said. "They'll have thought of that. At the very least we'll have to deal with whatever filtering equipment they have set up, or go upstream against the outflow."

"Possible?"

"Possible," Bucky conceded. "Last resort, though."

The kitten-gray softness of the dawnlight did nothing to ease the sharp lines of Bucky's haggard face. Bruises and scrapes, half-healed, stood out starkly against his chalky pallor. His eyes were sunk in smoky shadows, his mouth drawn in a taut line. He looked like he'd visibly lost weight since the crash.

Sam wondered all over again what Bucky's body was cannibalizing to keep itself going. He jerked his eyes away and looked back down at the valley, forcibly dragging his brain back to the problem of breaking and entering with that many guards around. Not to mention the helicopters, which amounted to flying gunships.

The sun was rising, stroking the mountain peaks with pink and gold light. As the light crept down the mountains each rock acquired its own clear shadow, and the bombed-out area across the valley was thrown into sudden sharp relief. Seeing it in overview, Sam couldn't believe they'd survived, wings or no wings. From the middle of the bombardment, he hadn't been fully aware of the scope of it. HYDRA had completely reshaped the topography of that side of the valley. Sam couldn't even find their crash site anymore. A new, steeper cliff had been scooped out of the mountain's side. The forest above it was a great scar, trees blasted to splinters or charred to swatches of black. The silver threads of waterfalls coursed down the cliff, putting the scale of the devastation into perspective.

No wonder HYDRA's search efforts had dropped off.

"There'll be weapon emplacements," Bucky said. "Around the perimeter."

Sam wrenched himself away from the scenery to glance over at Bucky, whose eyes were focused on nothing. "You see them?"

"No," Bucky said. "Hidden. Automated. Standard for a facility like this."

Sam tried sweeping the perimeter with the binocs, but if there really were emplacements, he couldn't find them. He did notice movement: a foot patrol, dressed in dark gray and black camo like the guys they'd fought on the other side of the valley. They rendezvoused with the guys at the door, and Sam kept swinging the binocs around to the lower antenna array again. He was just in time to see the workers vanish into a hidden hatch somewhere near the base of the thing.

Sam checked the nearer array, the one above the airstrip. From here he couldn't tell if that one had its own dedicated access as well, but it stood to reason that it did. In the winter, deep snow and wind must make moving around above-ground dangerous and difficult.

"If there are perimeter defenses, how do they work?" he asked, passing the binocs back to Bucky.

"Motion sensitive," Bucky said. "Might be cameras too."

Great.

"Better than swimming," Sam said, and flashed a quick smile. Bucky didn't return it. He looked tense enough to snap in two; his metal hand was flexing spasmodically, opening and closing in a nervous rhythm. As soon as he noticed Sam looking at it, his hand stilled and clenched into a fist on his thigh.

Too many of Sam's thoughts must have shown on his face, because Bucky said, low and fierce, "Do not say it."

And Sam didn't, though his head log-jammed with things he knew he should have said -- You look like fifty miles of bad road and You don't have to go in there and, maybe, You've got nothing to prove to me. In the end he accepted it -- had to accept it -- as Bucky's decision, even if it went against every damn one of his instincts as a soldier and a counselor. Sam was the one who hadn't wanted to split up, after all. How does it feel to win an argument that involves sending an injured POW back to the people who tortured him, Wilson?

Except that wasn't fair, to Bucky most of all. Sam had told Steve, back in the early days when everything was still terribly uncertain, how important it was not to strip Bucky of his freedom to choose, in any area of his life, from the big decisions about, say, whether or not to go to therapy, to the little ones like whether he preferred syrup or jam on his pancakes. Bucky had spent the last 70 years having his choices systematically taken away from him. Sam had reminded Steve that Bucky's choices were his to make, had to be, even if he made bad ones, even if he chose things Steve wouldn't want him to.

So he said, "Best plan I can come up with is to watch the guard patrol pattern and then use that as a guide to where the emplacements don't cover. You got anything better?"

There was a pause, like Bucky was having to drag himself back from wherever he'd gone in his head to reach a point where he could answer questions. Then he shook his head.

"Guns or guards," Sam sighed. "Devil or the deep blue sea. If we go where the guns aren't, we might have to tangle with some of the guards."

Bucky's lips drew back from his teeth in something tight and hard, something that definitely was not a smile. "Good."

***

They slipped from boulder to boulder in the morning sunshine. The sudden escalating whine of the helicopter's rotors, out of sight on the helipad below, alerted them to its impending takeoff, and they took shelter in a clump of boulders and brush until it cleared the area. Sam had a moment's panicked concern that it might sweep the area around the facility, but it flew across the valley instead.

The pause gave them more opportunity to observe the foot patrols, which were sporadic and concentrated in a few areas: around the runway and the doors, mostly, but also some long loops out through the brush. Sam assumed that security had been heightened due to the possibility of intruders; they couldn't possibly be this conscientious all the time. He'd been stationed in enough remote locations to know how boring and routine that kind of duty could be ... not that he wanted to empathize with HYDRA, but it must really stink being stuck in the mountains a hundred miles from anywhere. The local HYDRA personnel would have jumped on any break from routine.

Still, alert and cautious, they reached the antenna array without running into guards or tripping any wires. The antennas were mounted on a mast like a cell phone tower, about fifteen feet high. Steel cables moored it securely to metal rings pounded into the rock, testament to the winter storms it was built to withstand. Sam had no idea what any of the various dishes and little spiky antennas were intended for. Radar? Communication? His own technical training had never been focused on that end of things. He thought about trying to hack these antennas to send a message, in Morse code maybe, but discarded the idea as soon as it crossed his mind. Stark could have done it, or Natasha. Sam didn't even know where to begin. All he'd do was set off alarms.

The access hatch was about three feet across, a square metal plate set into the ground. Bucky crouched down, bad leg thrust out awkwardly, to examine it. From the outside there was no visible means of opening it, nor was it evident how it was secured.

"Can you open it?" Sam asked softly, crouching with him. "Metal arm -- good for that kind of thing, right?"

Bucky flexed his metal fingers, then brushed a little dirt and sand away from the edge of the hatch, revealing the glint of wires. Alarms, Sam thought. Maybe booby traps.

"So I take it this means we need a plan B."

Bucky didn't answer, tilting his head to one side. Then he reached carefully under one edge of the hatch with his metal hand. Something clicked, and the hatch jolted and popped up a few inches, propelled by hidden springs.

"How'd you know that was there?"

The only answer was a slight shake of Bucky's head, and Sam felt the pit of his stomach drop like swooping down on his wings. Bucky, however, was already drawing his pistol with his metal hand; he used his elbow to swing back the hatch and swung the weapon in a lightning-fast movement to point into the dimness inside. Sam drew his SSP, but despite the tension in Bucky's posture, nothing indicated he'd seen anyone; he didn't shoot or go any deeper into what Sam thought of as his battle mode. Instead he peered down the shaft beneath the hatch, and Sam leaned over his shoulder to see.

A ladder led down for about eight or ten feet. Dimly Sam could make out the block of distance-attenuated daylight at the foot of the shaft, illuminating a stone or concrete floor. Even as he leaned farther to see better, lights began to come in in the shaft. Sam jerked back, but no one came up from below, and he heard nothing. It seemed to be an automated system responding to their movement.

Sam braced himself. This was where they'd trip a sensor, if they were going to. There was no wailing of alarms, no pounding of footsteps converging on their position. Still, this didn't mean they hadn't set an intruder-alert light blinking somewhere under their feet.

Bucky put the pistol away and swung his good leg onto the first rung of the ladder.

"How are you going to climb down a ladder with a broken leg and a broken wrist?" Sam whispered. Having the hatch open made him all too aware that they were atop a hive of HYDRA, like sitting on a fire-ant hill knowing any vibration could draw them out.

Bucky didn't acknowledge the question. He was moving fast, and by the time Sam realized what he was up to, it was too late to stop him: he caught the lip of the shaft with his metal hand, swung his legs off the ladder, then let go. Sam strangled a yelp.

Bucky landed about as well as he could have, catching his weight on his good leg. Still, he made a soft, involuntary sound and caught himself on the wall. Sam clenched his teeth on a number of warnings along the lines of Stop being an idiot, you have a broken leg, dumbass.

There was still no sign of danger or alarms, so Sam turned his attention to climbing down. He might have two good legs, but it still wasn't going to be much fun with his broken collarbone and ribs. The ladder turned out not to be as awful to navigate as he was expecting, even one-handed; the bigger problem was closing the hatch. He had to brace himself with his legs and lean out, unsecured, to reach for it with his good hand. Not fun. But possible.

By the time he reached the bottom, Bucky had cleared the area and was standing on high alert. His face was a cold mask, his body locked tight with tension.

"Just to make sure we're on the same page." Sam still wasn't sure if whispering was strictly necessary, but he wasn't sure how far sound carried in the tunnel, and no sense taking chances. "We find comm equipment, send a mayday, then hole up out of sight and wait for the cavalry to arrive. Yeah?"

He had to repeat the question before Bucky's head jerked in a tight nod. His eyes were focused a million miles away.

The tunnel was on the uncomfortable side of cool, and curved gently before ending in a door. After listening carefully and hearing nothing, Sam poked his head cautiously out into an empty corridor. It was only slightly bigger than the tunnel, bare and utilitarian with white-painted concrete walls.

Sam glanced back at Bucky and signaled all clear. Bucky stayed in place, frozen, white-faced -- then moved forward in an explosion of tense energy, shoving Sam out of the way and unceremoniously taking point. No hesitation, no pause to choose which direction to go.

"You know where we're going, don't you?" Sam whispered. The unpleasant suspicion he'd had back at the shaft had grown into something akin to fear. "You been here before?"

He was expecting more non-answers or monosyllables, but this time Bucky took a slow, shuddering breath, and said, "I didn't ... recognize it from the outside." His voice was flat, his face expressionless. "A lot of these places are built along similar lines. It might not have been this exact one."

Well, they were too deep to back out, at least not easily. Sam didn't ask what had been done here -- what Bucky had done, what was done to him. Instead, he pushed on as if he was having a normal conversation, trying to tease out a little more of a response before Bucky could sink even deeper into whatever place he'd gone in his head. Sam was pretty sure it wasn't a good place. "Think you can find their communications room in here? Place is like a maze."

He might as well not have spoken for all the answer he got, so all he could do was keep following Bucky. Bucky, who, Sam noticed, had adopted a peculiar side-twist gait that presumably hurt less than walking straight, but had to be hell on his hips and back. He was no longer using a walking stick; he'd abandoned it during their scramble among the boulders. Sam would feel better about that if he thought it meant Bucky's leg was knitting, but he figured it had more to do with Bucky needing his good hand free for fighting, compartmentalizing the pain and any additional physical damage he might be doing to himself as pointless distractions.

Bucky hadn't exactly been prioritizing his physical well-being at any point, but Sam got the uncomfortable feeling that Bucky's more psychologically healthy side -- inasmuch as he had one -- was wearing away under pain and stress: retreating, now, sliding back into old habits, letting his brain protect itself in the only way it knew how.

And I fucking brought him into this. Steve's gonna kill me, and I'll deserve it.

Bucky stopped at a door that turned out not to belong to a comm room after all: it was a restroom -- unisex, three stalls and two sinks, with a locking door. Bucky, not one to stand on ceremony, thrust his head under the sink tap and let the water run through his hair. Sam drank his fill of the slightly metallic-tasting water from the other tap and splashed some on his face, trying to wash off a little of the crusted blood and dirt. He wasn't entirely successful, but he felt a little better after drying his face and hands on a wad of paper towels. More human, maybe.

Bucky spent most of that time leaning on the sink, gazing at nothing while his wet hair slowly soaked his shoulders. His eyes were fixed more or less in the vicinity of his reflection, but Sam was pretty sure he wasn't seeing it.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this out of his depth, as either a counselor or a friend. It surprised him a little to realize that he wasn't afraid of Bucky, not even as much as he might have been twenty-four hours ago. It was fear for Bucky that twisted his stomach, concern that Bucky might be sliding into a place that he'd have a lot of trouble coming back from.

And Sam wasn't even sure if trying to pull him out of it was the right thing to do. He'd been in combat; he knew that sometimes you couldn't be all the way there inside your skin, and he didn't want to do more damage by trying to pull Bucky back from behind whatever walls his brain had thrown up to protect itself.

Except ...

Except Bucky was opening and closing the fingers of his hand, a similar tic to what he'd been doing back on the mountainside, but this time it was his right hand, the one with the broken wrist. That's a self-invented grounding technique, I think. Maybe it was unconscious, maybe he had no idea he was even doing it -- but it was something to fight back against the loss of self, something to stop him getting completely lost in his own head.

It felt a little safer here, behind a locked door, just the two of them in an island of relative peace, even if they were in the middle of what had to be Bucky's worst nightmare. "Hey, man," Sam said quietly. "Hey. Bucky?"

He didn't get a reaction until he actually touched Bucky's arm. Bucky flinched explosively, reaching toward the nearest weapon to hand.

"Hey," Sam said. He took a couple quick steps back, getting out of Bucky's personal space and holding up his hands. "No threat here."

"What do you want," Bucky said between clenched teeth.

Sam had no idea what he wanted, except to really, really not be here. "Sit," he said, and slid down the wall to sit on the floor.

"Why?"

"Because we're both worn to the bone, and I think sitting here for a minute would do us some good."

Bucky stared at him through the damp tendrils of hair hanging in his face, then copied him, sliding down the wall with his broken leg thrust forward until he was leaning against the wall too, side by side, an arm's length and seventy years away.

"You wanna talk about it?" Sam said.

The look that Bucky gave him was exhausted, but he was also ... there, present behind his eyes in a way he hadn't been a few minutes ago. "Fuck no."

"I didn't think so," Sam said. He rubbed his eyes. Tried to think what to say. What he could say. In the end, what came out was, "I won't let them take you back."

Bucky's mouth twisted. "You really think you can stop them?"

"I know I can't," Sam said. In for a dollar, in for a dime, like his grandpa used to say ... "But I can promise you this. No matter what happens, I'll make sure I have one bullet left." And he knew as the words left his mouth it was probably all shades of the wrong thing to say; his only excuse was that he, too, was tired and hurt, with a head injury to boot.

There was a still, waiting moment when Bucky didn't react at all .... and then he grinned slowly, with a kind of bleak, bitter humor. "Do you know what Steve would do if he heard you talking that way?"

"He'd never forgive me," Sam said. He felt the corners of his mouth curve up a little. "I'd never forgive me either. But you know what? Steve, as we've already established, isn't here. Just us. And I mean it."

"Like Steve 'I'll just crash this plane in the Arctic Ocean' Rogers has a leg to stand on," Bucky muttered. He tipped his head back against the wall and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, the balance of sardonic bitterness vs. warmth in his smile had slid a little closer to the warm end of the spectrum.

"You and Steve," he sighed, amused and resigned. "Neither one of you know when to back down." He shook his head, and then very carefully circled Sam's wrist with his metal hand and gave him a little tug. In the entire time they'd known each other, it was the first time Sam could remember Bucky touching him that wasn't directly related to some kind of practical consideration: adjusting a strap on his body armor, pushing him out of the line of fire, touching him to send a silent warning when words were too dangerous. Necessary touches, no more contact than needed.

Bucky's metal fingers were cool to the touch, but not cold.

"Ready to go call our ride?" Sam asked.

"Yeah," Bucky said. "Let's do that."

Chapter Text

Whatever Bucky remembered about this place, he seemed confident as he led Sam to the end of the corridor and up a flight of stairs. They had to hide in the stairwell as two combat-armed guards passed by -- Bucky thrumming with tension, his breathing staccato-sharp against Sam's ear -- and then slipped out and down another hall. Bucky paused, reflecting. More stairs. More corridors. The place was big and had the brutally industrial look that Sam associated with Cold War-era government facilities. He wondered if it had been strictly a HYDRA project, or something SHIELD built that had then been co-opted for HYDRA purposes. If the facility had been built forty or fifty years ago, it was possible that it could have been a SHIELD project that had been quietly pushed off the radar over the years. Paperwork could go missing, people associated with the original construction would retire, and eventually HYDRA had itself a nice little off-the-books hideout in the middle of nowhere, to incubate and eventually grow another head.

They ended up in an area that looked distinctly residential. Most of the doors were open to reveal tiny rooms with double bunks, sized somewhere between "dorm room" and "nuclear submarine". Each looked like it slept anywhere from two to four people, and there were a handful of personal items scattered around -- a couple of pictures, maybe a magazine. Not as much as he'd expect if people lived here long-term, though. All the beds were made with military precision. Sam wasn't sure whether workers served very short tours of duty out here in HYDRA hell, or whether there were rules in place to make sure that HYDRA's personnel never forgot they were small cogs in a big machine. Dehumanization and interchangeability of staff seemed to be hallmarks of HYDRA from what he'd seen.

Still, the residential area was probably the worst place they could be -- the odds of running into someone here were very high.

As they passed by one of the open doors, Sam's visual sweep for occupants paused on a handful of granola bars on a desk. He ducked in and grabbed them. There were five. Sam wordlessly offered three to Bucky and tore into one of the remaining two.

Bucky took them and stuffed them into a belt pouch without looking at them. He'd stopped at a door labeled EMPLOYEE COMPUTER LOUNGE. The door had a card reader, the first they'd run into. Sam started to turn back to check and see if anyone might have left a badge in one of the open rooms -- it was a long shot, but people did stupider things -- but then the door swished open, revealing a woman in HYDRA fatigues. Her eyes widened and her mouth opened as she reached for the weapon at her hip.

Bucky reacted with lightning speed, snapping her neck in a single efficient movement. He lowered her to the floor as she shuddered in death throes, and pushed the body inside. Sam followed him into a small, stuffy, too-warm room lined with computer terminals. Closing the door behind them, he said carefully, "We don't have to kill everyone we meet."

"We do if it's us or them," Bucky said. He leaned over to unclip the security badge hanging from the woman's shirt and confiscate her weapon. His face was white and taut.

Sam forced himself to close off that line of conversation. The hell of it was, Bucky was right and Sam knew it, but it still didn't sit well with him. He looked for a way of locking or jamming the door, but couldn't see any option that wouldn't make it impossible to get out of the room; there were no other exits and there was no card reader on the inside of the door, just a plate in the wall at the right height to push to open it. He rolled a couple of chairs in front of the door to at least slow an intruder down, and went to join Bucky, who had dragged himself to his feet by clinging to a worktable and was now leaning over the nearest computer terminal without doing anything to it.

Sam could see why. The machines were old -- command line interface, CRT monitors -- and Bucky's machine had nothing but a blinking username prompt. Sam tapped the keyboard of the one next to it and got a prompt there, too.

"Oh, come on! Don't they have phones here?"

"Not for staff," Bucky said. "No private lines to the outside. It's this or the main ops center, and that'll be heavily guarded."

Sam clenched his teeth on comments about the usefulness of keeping prisoners alive as opposed to executing them, and tapped more keyboards, getting more username prompts. "I don't suppose you know any HYDRA logins?"

Bucky's smile was tight and grim and wholly lacking in humor. "The Winter Soldier wasn't in the habit of emailing people."

Sam chewed his lip. Then he picked up the keyboard of the nearest computer and turned it upside down. HYDRA might be an evil Nazi organization bent on world domination, but people were people everywhere, and Sam had worked in a few different offices. Some things were universal, even in high-security installations. He didn't see why HYDRA would be any different.

Bucky looked mildly puzzled as Sam quickly checked that keyboard, then the one next to it. There was nothing taped to the back of either of them, and there were no mousepads, just the bare worktable, so nowhere to hide anything there. Sam dropped into a crouch and peeked underneath the worktable, and grinned as he found what he was looking for: a purple sticky note with the username "agent01" and a string of letters and numbers.

"Oh yeah baby, come to Papa." He typed it in, and the password prompt obligingly vanished to be replaced by ... another command line prompt, waiting expectantly for input. "Un-fucking-believable. You'd think if HYDRA can spring for a top-secret base in the middle of nowhere, they could upgrade from DOS." Well, it actually looked more like some older flavor of UNIX, not that he was that great with either one. He could use it inasmuch as he had to -- a training seminar here, a little work-related experience there. When he was a freshman, some of the older computer labs at his alma mater still had command-line UNIX terminals. It had been over fifteen years, though, and he couldn't remember a single command having to do with email or any other form of communication. Sam chewed on the second of his stolen granola bars while he stared at the blinking prompt.

Bucky had drifted to the door. His injured hand rested on the butt of the HYDRA agent's confiscated weapon and he had a knife in his metal hand. "Is it going to be much --"

"You know what would help here? If the person who literally predates UNIX would shut up. And eat the damn granola bars I stole for you."

Bucky rolled his eyes, but got one out.

Sam did remember the command to pull up the UNIX user manual, even if it was just about the only thing he recalled off the top of his head. You typed "man" followed by whatever you wanted information on. He tried "man mail". Apparently "mail" was indeed a valid UNIX command, because the screen filled helpfully with its user-manual page. Naturally, because it was UNIX, there was a ton of stupid syntax which would be hard enough to remember even if he wasn't injured and trying to send a mayday under pressure in a top-secret HYDRA facility --

The door hissed open.

Sam scrambled to his feet, reaching for his weapon, but he didn't even manage to draw before Bucky slashed the throat of the startled HYDRA agent in the doorway, and, in the same fluid move, stabbed the one behind him. Bucky hauled the dying man into the room, kicked the other body out of the way without the slightest apparent concern for his broken leg, and closed the door. The entire thing took seconds, no more. He still had half a granola bar clenched in his teeth.

Sam sank back into the chair and let himself breathe again.

Bucky closed his metal hand on something at the second victim's belt. There was a tiny metallic pop, and Bucky dropped a mangled bit of electronics on the floor. He bit the granola bar in half and said, a bit indistinctly, "Emergency beacon."

"Did he set it off?"

Bucky nodded and wiped the blade of his knife on his victim's uniform leg. "I've got this. You get a message out. Gonna be last stand at the OK Corral in a minute."

"I would have said Butch and Sundance." Sam's first attempt to type Steve's email address ended in gibberish: his fingers were on the wrong keys. He took a stabilizing breath, reset his fingers, cleared his mind. Then he typed Steve's address and Hill's -- and what the hell, Fury and Stark too, why not? His attempt at a message ended up doing away with small niceties like punctuation or capitalization; he was all too aware HYDRA could come through that door at any minute.

guys its sam & bucky help mayday sos trapped in underground hydra base in mts -- shit, where was he supposed to tell Steve they were? -- probably near BC-Alberta border big valley runs E-W looks like someone used for target range. hydra base across valley from big burn scar --

The door started to open again. This time, Bucky jammed his metal hand into the mechanism. There was a metallic grinding and the door reversed direction. Somebody screamed, a horrible tortured sound.

Sam's train of thought derailed. He forced himself to focus on the screen, not whatever was happening at the doorway. You shithead, your partner on this op has got it, so do YOUR fucking job and get a message out. He typed hastily:

-- look for runway & helos & comm towers, landing lights @ night. we're hurt but mobile. nat & sharon maybe in trouble too. MAYDAY SOS

He hit send -- technically control-D -- before he had a chance to think too hard about whether the message was truly outbound at all, or whether it was just going to be flagged as suspicious and trapped by some HYDRA firewall. Or even worse, if it'd be shunted to Steve's spam filter and discovered weeks later by a guilty, grieving Steve.

Which left him staring at a command prompt, inside HYDRA's computer system. There had to be something else he could do here -- retrieve data, or screw up their defenses somehow --

There was a loud crunch and a rattle of gunfire from the doorway, and Bucky yelled, "Duck!"

Sam hit the floor on reflex, and bullets sprayed the screen he'd just been staring at. Dazed with pain -- fast movement, he thought resignedly, was strongly counter-indicated with a broken collarbone and possibly broken ribs -- he scuttled under the limited protection of the worktable and drew his weapon.

But the melee at the door was already over, leaving bodies scattered on the floor. Sam glimpsed several more bodies in the hallway outside before Bucky gripped the door with his metal hand and dragged it the rest of the way shut. He then stabbed a knife with metal-arm strength between the door and its frame, not only wedging the door shut but leaving the knife handle sticking out as if to send a warning message to the rest of the furniture in the room.

"You okay?" Sam called from under the table.

"Acceptable," Bucky said. "You?"

"No new bullet holes, so I'll live." Sam dragged himself stiffly out from under the table. "I got a message off -- I hope."

Bucky jerked his head in a short nod. He was systematically stripping weapons off the bodies. Various knives vanished without a trace into his clothing. He tossed a pistol to Sam without looking up. It was some kind of weird-caliber Eastern European semiauto.

As Sam caught it, awkwardly as he tried not to jostle his side too much, the lights dimmed and a voice spoke suddenly from an unseen PA. "Intruders on level four. All available security units to level four."

"Fuck," Sam muttered. The close confines of the too-warm room, and the powerful awareness of being trapped, were awakening a hitherto latent claustrophobia. "So, now that we've turned out to be shitty infiltrators, how do we get out of here?"

"Utility conduits," Bucky said, still engrossed in his rapid, systematic inventory of the bodies. He underhanded a couple clips of ammo in Sam's direction.

The only vents in sight were narrow ones at the top of the walls, about six inches high. "Yeah, I hate to break it to you, but I don't think we'll fit."

"We will in a minute." Bucky straightened up with some difficulty and limped to the wall.

Sam had meant not to say anything about it, but fuck this. "Stop walking on the broken leg, man. You're gonna do some serious damage. Possibly fatal damage. There's a shitload of blood vessels in and around the femur."

"It'll be fine," Bucky murmured, tapping the wall with his metal fingertips. He'd started using the other hand more, the one with the broken wrist, but now he had it tucked into his belt. Sam thought he'd probably messed it up again in the fight.

"No," Sam said. "No, speaking as the paramedic in the room, no you will not. You think I want to explain to Steve how I let you bleed out from a completely treatable injury?"

"Stand back." Bucky drew back his metal arm and punched the wall. Cheap drywall splintered under the force of a fist that could dent concrete. Another punch tore the 4x8 sheet of drywall completely off its studs, twisting it sideways while it clung on by a handful of remaining drywall screws. Bucky pushed it out of the way.

Behind the splintered opening was a dark space dense with pipes and cables. Bucky produced a small flashlight from one of his belt pouches and shone it around inside. Sam leaned past his shoulder to look too. It was going to be difficult moving around in there, especially in their present condition, but it looked like the utility space behind the wall continued onward for a ways -- to the extent of the flashlight's beam in both directions, anyway. It also went up out of sight.

"Where does this go?" Sam asked.

"Not sure, but it's better than here."

As if to underscore his words, muffled small-arms fire rattled against the door, followed the dull thump of some sort of battering ram. Dust sifted down from the ceiling.

"Right. Clearing out." Sam glanced into the cramped, dusty space behind the wall again. "I guess we better figure out the next part of our plan, rather than wandering aimlessly 'til HYDRA catches up."

Bucky turned to look at him, and Sam was struck all over again by how worn-down and exhausted he looked. "Do you think your message got through?"

"I don't know," Sam admitted. "I sent an email. It'll get there or or it won't. Smart thing, I guess, is to hole up somewhere --" The door shook again. "-- somewhere preferably nowhere near this base, 'til we find out if backup's coming."

Bucky gave a small, noncommittal nod.

Sam checked the load in his new semiauto, and sighted it on one of the computers. "Or, since we're here anyway, we could fuck their shit up."

Bucky grinned.

 

***

 

They used a little bit of plastic explosive from Bucky's pouches o' tricks to blow up their exit behind them. (Sam was perversely glad, in retrospect, that he hadn't known just how much explosive Bucky was carrying every time they'd gone into combat with him. Definitely something to keep in mind for the future.)

When it went off, dust settled on them from the dark reaches of the utility space above, and there was a high-pitched whistle of steam escaping from damaged pipes. It was going to be tricky for anyone to follow them through that.

However, they'd be sitting ducks as soon as HYDRA figured out where they were. Sam's damned fertile imagination supplied no end of possibilities for how HYDRA might eliminate human-sized rats in the walls: flood the area with poison gas, fill it with water, blow it up and collapse it on them ...

"So where in here can we do the most damage as quickly as possible?" he asked, to take his mind off all the various ways they might die in the immediate future.

"Generator room," Bucky replied promptly.

"Think you can get us there?"

Bucky pointed wordlessly to the fat bundle of electrical cables he was following. "Even you could get us there," he added as an afterthought, with a trace of a smirk.

Sam flipped him off, making sure to get his hand in the flashlight beam so it could be seen.

What followed was a relatively brief but nerve-wracking game of cat and mouse in the dark. It couldn't have been more than half an hour, probably more like twenty minutes, but to Sam it felt like years, adrenaline slowing his time perception to a crawl. They wove in and out of the utilidors and the regular parts of the facility, mostly storage areas and other disused parts of the complex. Sam opted not to ask for details on Bucky's obvious familiarity with the place -- in part because Bucky had perked up now that he had a goal. He was more mission-focused now than robotic, and Sam didn't want to risk doing anything to disrupt that.

More than once, Bucky's hyper-acute danger sense saved them both -- he'd pull Sam through a utility closet door an instant before a HYDRA patrol came around a corner, or urge him to duck just as a flashlight beam swung through the spot where their heads had been. Sam had noticed the same thing when he'd been out in the field with Steve. He wasn't sure if it was some kind of super-soldier sixth sense, or sharper sight and hearing making threat identification easier.

But climbing around in the ductwork was every bit as miserable as Sam had expected. It wrenched and twisted every cracked bone and strained muscle. The only thing that kept him from complaining was the fact that Bucky, who had to be in a hell of a lot more pain, was managing in a stiff silence. So many painkillers when we get out of here, he promised himself as he managed, somehow, to go one-handed down a ladder Bucky had just managed to descend with one leg. SO many.

"What are the odds we could find the medical wing of the facility?" he asked, looking down at Bucky below him.

By now Sam had become adept enough at reading Bucky's body language that the overall tensing was unmistakable. "Why?" Bucky asked, his voice tight.

Sam had to blame his concussion for the fact that he hadn't realized, until it hit him like the proverbial ton of bricks, what the medical part of a HYDRA facility meant for Bucky. "Never mind." When this didn't make Bucky any less tense: "Look, shutting off their power is the top priority no matter what."

This, as he'd hoped, got them moving again. But in addition to their need for medical equipment, he wondered if there were other victims of HYDRA experiments in this facility who needed to be helped -- to be freed. He went back and forth with himself on whether pursuing that possibility would be worth the cost to Bucky. Eventually he decided, with grim determination, to keep his mouth shut. If this place was used for that kind of thing, then Steve and the others could handle that end of it -- when (not if) they got here. Bucky was holding it together pretty well, but Sam didn't want to risk pushing him over any unseen mental cliffs. They were walking a tightrope as it was.

Lost in contemplation, he almost bumped into Bucky, who had paused with a hand on the wall. "We've got to be close," Bucky whispered. "Starting to look like we won't be able to get in through the utility ducts, though."

"What kind of defenses can we expect?"

Bucky shrugged, one-shouldered. "There'll definitely be a guard. But the power plants in most of these places aren't designed for defense. They're built more for employee access."

"HYDRA doesn't expect saboteurs?"

Bucky's smile was grim. "They're the ones doing the sabotage, not the targets of it. Far as I can tell, SHIELD thought the same way."

He had a point. All paranoia aside, the simple fact was that anyplace people worked, from a secret underground bad-guy base to a regular office building, had to allow enough freedom of movement for its employees to do their jobs. If the people who worked there couldn't be trusted, then it wasn't like extra security was going to help all that much. Particularly sensitive targets might receive extra protection, but for the most part, it was the perimeter defenses that were relied upon to keep the rest of the facility safe.

And for somewhere like this, its key point of defense was its remoteness. Sam knew from experience how easily, even in active war zones, isolated and bored soldiers could start ignoring basic safety protocols and drills. On top of that, in the military as Sam knew it, this kind of remote posting didn't exactly select for the best and brightest. No wonder HYDRA was having trouble mustering a capable defense against the two saboteurs slipping around inside their facility.

Which didn't mean they wouldn't fight like cornered wolverines if said saboteurs were foolish enough to go up against them head-on. Sam had seen Bucky, on a good day, cut a swath through several dozen HYDRA troops. Right now they'd be lucky to outfight a couple of geriatric security guards.

"You were complaining about my plans earlier, but I hope you have a better plan than 'shoot 'em in the face and pray'."

"I do. I --"

He stopped speaking, wobbled, and fell.

Sam lunged to catch him. The flashlight slipped out of Bucky's fingers and bounced on the dusty floor, dancing crazily across the tangle of conduits and pipes around them. As it rolled to a stop and stabilized, Sam eased Bucky down to the ground. His skin was alarmingly cold to the touch, his pulse weak and rapid.

"I told you walking on a broken leg was fucking stupid." Damn it, he should've listened to his instincts and gone for the HYDRA medbay instead of the power plant.

Bucky's eyelashes fluttered as he blinked. He wet his lips with the tip of his tongue. "I'm --"

"Fine? Fuck that, you're in shock. For all I know, you're bleeding internally."

"I don't think so," Bucky said, but his voice was weak and he remained crumpled in the awkward position where Sam had dumped him, propped against the wall. He didn't even squirm away as Sam loosened his body armor.

"Oh? HYDRA give you MRI vision too? That must be useful." He was pissed -- at Bucky, and at himself. Why the hell had he thought they could run around playing commandos in this condition? They should've just gone to ground somewhere and waited for backup to find them.

Yeah, and if backup isn't coming? If Steve didn't get your call? You've got a whole base full of pissed-off HYDRA looking for you. Inside or outside, you can't hide forever. Your time is limited either way.

He knew that, but it didn't make him feel less like he'd failed. Not just failed Steve, not just failed his own responsibilities as a medic. He'd let a fucking friend run around in a condition that Sam knew was likely to worsen an already serious injury. Hell, he'd encouraged him.

Bucky's metal fingers caught his wrist as Sam started pulling away the body armor so he could get a better look at the state of Bucky's chest and ribcage. "No," Bucky murmured. "Look, gimme a minute. I'll be back up, soon as I can pull it together."

"Yeah, no. This time you're staying down if I have to sit on you."

"Listen," Bucky said, his eyes pools of darkness in the dim light. "All we can do here is sit around and wait for them to find us. Because that's what's gonna happen. You thought it felt like a last stand back in the computer room? Wait'll they trap us down here. We can sit and wait for it, or we can take the fight to them."

The worst part about it was that his thoughts had gone down similar lines. If they didn't go on the offensive, the best they could do was run from hiding place to hiding place, while their ammo ran out and their physical condition deteriorated.

Sam sat back on his heels and heaved a sigh. "You got any more of those Russian fastball specials?"

The corner of Bucky's mouth twitched. "I wish."

"Me too." Sam ran his hand across his face. His fingers brushed the edge of the bandage; it was coming undone again. He tucked it back into place and tried to ignore the stabbing pain in his head, in his chest and ribs -- basically everywhere. "All right, I'll make you a deal. I'll help you take out that generator, if and only if you let me do as much as I can to make sure you're not going to drop dead in the middle of whatever stupid, suicidal plan you've come up with."

Bucky was clearly trying to think of valid objections, but finally he said, "Deal."

"Good." Sam commenced unbuckling the body armor. "So, do you have a plan?"

"Yes." Bucky hissed as Sam probed at the patchwork of bruises covering his torso, and paused a minute before resuming. "Blow it up. Regardless of its design, some well-placed C-4 is going to give them problems it'll take awhile to fix."

"I like a simple plan," Sam said, which got a small grin out of Bucky. "What kind of backup systems are they likely to have?" He'd participated in other raids on HYDRA, but always as air support. This was the kind of thing he'd never needed to know. He had rarely even been inside a HYDRA facility before today.

"Most likely they'll have a battery bank. It'll be enough to power vital systems for a short while -- life support, elevators, some of the sensors and perimeter weaponry. Basic stuff only. Almost everything will be down."

"What are the odds they'll have an entire redundant power system?"

"No reason to. Lots of cost for minimal benefit. They'll have spare parts in the plant itself, but as far as having another one somewhere else in the complex ... I doubt it, not somewhere this far off the beaten path. It's not worth it."

"Which just leaves getting through the guards," Sam said. Having ascertained that Bucky didn't seem to be bleeding out into his abdominal cavity, he was now prying off Bucky's left boot to make sure his foot still had circulation. There had to be something in the utility corridors they could improvise a better splint out of ...

"Not through," Bucky said through gritted teeth. "Around. Or, more accurately, through the wall."

"So, just to clarify here, punching through walls is a thing you do. Regularly."

"You make it sound like I go down to the bar on Friday nights and punch a wall for fun," Bucky said. "I think you have me mixed up with Steve --" He broke off and tipped his head to the side. "What's that?"

Sam froze in the act of putting the boot back on. "What's what?"

"I don't know." Bucky's metal hand was now wrapped around a knife. Sam hadn't even seen him draw it. "It's not HYDRA -- I don't think it's even ..."

He exploded into sudden motion, shoving Sam aside (using the hand with the broken wrist) and bringing up his metal arm, with his unbuckled body armor flapping against the ragged remains of his shirt. Sam went down hard and saw stars. The flashlight rolled away. There was a shrill yelp and a hot spray of blood splattered Sam's neck and shoulders.

Sam rolled away, drawing his pistol, then waited out a rush of pain before sitting up cautiously.

The fight seemed to be over. Bucky was stabbing the living daylights out of something that looked like the bastard offspring of a wolf and one of Stark's robot toys.

"The fuck?" was all Sam could say. He picked up the flashlight to get a better look at it. The creature was now thoroughly dead, or at least, most of the blood that had been inside it was now all over the walls, cables, conduits, and Bucky.

It was a wolf, or a big dog, that had been thoroughly cyborg-ized. Like Bucky, Sam thought, sick, staring at the gleam of metal limbs fused with scarred flesh. There was also something metal wrapped around the back of its skull, with stubby antennae sticking off it. Bucky had stabbed the hell out of that, too; there were smashed electrical components dangling everywhere.

"Hounds," Bucky said breathlessly. "I thought these were all decommissioned years ago."

"They hunt by smell?"

Bucky nodded. "Worse, what they see, their controller can see." He tapped the metal unit on the animal's head with the butt of his knife.

"Great. So HYDRA knows where we are."

Bucky nodded again. After his burst of activity fighting the creature, he'd collapsed back into a sitting position, propped against the wall with his bad leg thrust out in front of him. Sam wasn't sure if Bucky could even stand up anymore.

"Man," Sam said, because he couldn't think of anything else to say, "we are total shit as saboteurs."

"Speak for yourself."

"Right, I forgot. You're a ghost. In and out before they knew what hit them."

Bucky's right hand, lying in his lap like a dead thing, didn't move except to very slowly raise the middle finger. Then his head whipped around, and Sam brought up the pistol.

At least this time he saw them coming, lunging out of the darkness with steel fangs flashing. There were three of them, huge bodies knotted with muscle under their mangy coats, ragged and patchy in a way that made him think of moth-eaten taxidermy specimens. And there was something undead about them, as if they'd died years ago and the control units in their brains were the only things that still kept them moving.

Sam shot the first one in the throat. It tumbled into a tangle of electrical wires, and then began struggling to free itself, snapping at the wires even as blood pumped from its injured neck. Then it was a chaotic scramble to survive. The cramped confines of the utilidor made it difficult to fight, but at least they weren't the only ones who were hampered.

"You said something about punching walls!" Sam gasped, kicking the one he'd shot and knocking it down. He'd managed to get a bullet in another one's head and it still wouldn't stay down. "Now might be a good time!"

Bucky drew back his metal fist, but it wasn't the wall he punched. It was the floor. Boards splintered and sheet metal tore away, and Sam didn't even have time to tell Bucky Fuck you, next time warn a guy before they were falling.

He fell into water, hitting it with a cold shock. It was so completely unexpected that he didn't even have a chance to try to hold his breath. Cold water flooded his mouth and nose. Sam kicked and flailed in desperate panic until his head broke the surface.

Coughing, treading water, he looked around.

They'd fallen into a large room that was mostly taken up with what appeared to be an enormous, concrete-lined swimming pool. The room was brilliantly lit -- and occupied. Around the edges, people were turning from banks of equipment to stare.

Bucky had surfaced nearby and was grimly knifing one of the hounds to death, clinging to it as the two of them thrashed in the water. The canine cyborgs seemed to be having more trouble in the water than the humans -- one was crawling out of the pool's edge, and the other had vanished below the surface, crushed beneath falling debris from the ceiling, and hadn't come up. Apparently their augmentation made them heavy.

HYDRA guards began converging on their location, while the techs fled. Bucky let the Hound's body sink into the water in spreading dark ripples of blood, and coolly began to shoot them, one by one.

Sam discovered that he'd managed to hold onto his gun through nothing more than sheer force of habit. His first couple of shots missed; he couldn't aim accurately while also treading water, and on top of that, there was a fairly strong current, pulling him along. Carried by the current, he drifted up against a catwalk that crossed the narrow axis of the pool to a wide concrete platform in the center.

Sam pulled himself out onto it and took out the last two guards that Bucky hadn't dropped yet. This, at least, was familiar. Combat. Kill or be killed. The eventual reaction would set in later. Right now he barely even felt the pain of his injuries. Exhaustion and stress had all dropped away. He sighted down the barrel, looking for more enemies. Something dark broke the surface of the water -- the last remaining Hound, badly injured but still moving, trying to climb onto the catwalk. Sam shot it in the head until it sank, twitching, into the water.

Now that no one was actively trying to kill them, at least for the moment, he looked around with an eye for more detail than spotting enemies before they spotted him. He was standing on one of several metal catwalks converging on the platform in the center of the pool. Whatever was on the platform was big and complicated and Sam had no idea what it was. A central pillar ran all the way up the ceiling, surrounded by densely massed equipment and pipes going everywhere. At the heart of that tangle of pipes and wires and control panels, something glowed blue, reflecting across the water.

After staring at it for a minute, Sam realized he was looking at the target he and Bucky had been going for in the first place. He had been expecting a typical power plant, something huge and noisy with diesel generators or water-powered turbines. But that blue light -- he'd seen that particular shade of blue in news footage and classified SHIELD files, if never in person.

They're running this facility off Tesseract power.

But the key priority right now wasn't shutting it down so much as preventing the room from filling up with every HYDRA goon in this part of the mountains. The first wave was down, thanks largely to Bucky, but there were more running in all the time. No one was shooting at Sam just now because, he realized, they had the sense not to fire directly at the generator. Thank goodness for small favors. But Bucky had no such protection.

He was, however, still Bucky. A grenade bounced across the floor and went off, scattering bleeding goons and delicate electrical components. This was followed by some kind of smoke bomb, filling half the room with a dense gray pall. Sam was pretty sure Bucky would've yelled a warning if he needed to hold his breath, so he decided to not to worry about it, too much.

"Sam!" Bucky swam up to the edge of the catwalk. He was more graceful in the water than on land, his bad leg trailing. "Cover me."

"Wait --" But Bucky had already ducked underwater and vanished. "Cover you where, doing what?" Sam snapped at the spreading ripples.

For a tense minute or two, Sam picked off disoriented HYDRA soldiers as they stumbled out of the smoke. Then a shockwave jolted the catwalk under him, and sent a HYDRA soldier tumbling into the pool, where Sam shot him. This was followed by a low rumbling and then a choking cloud of dust, adding to the smoke and general confusion.

By the time the smoke and dust cleared, people had stopped trying to shoot him, presumably because they were all dead. Sam located Bucky leaning against the wall. This end of the room now terminated in floor-to-ceiling wreckage; the ceiling itself had partly collapsed. Rubble spilled over the floor into the pool.

"I take the door used to be around here somewhere."

"Past tense," Bucky said. "And to think I didn't used to be a demolitions guy. You do anything about the generator?"

"Not yet."

"Slacker," Bucky said.

Sam offered him a shoulder to lean on. Bucky, with a long-suffering look, accepted without complaint -- a tangible demonstration of how lousy he felt -- and they crossed the floor at a slow hobble.

"How long you think it'll be 'til they figure out they can get in through that hole you punched in the ceiling?"

"Hopefully a few minutes, at least." Bucky sounded unutterably weary.

They replenished their weapons from the HYDRA corpses on their way. Closer to the generator, Sam thought he could feel a light frisson of static electricity, raising the hair on his arms and scalp. He'd been too distracted to notice it before.

"Did you know they had one of those here?" he asked.

Bucky shook his head. "No, usually these facilities use more conventional power sources. It doesn't change the plan, though."

"Never said it did." Except, if it had been a diesel generator, at least he wouldn't have to worry about disrupting the fabric of spacetime or leveling half of Canada if they pushed the wrong button.

Up close, Sam could see that the HYDRA energy cell was contained in a silvery mesh cage. Inside, it appeared to be floating. The static-electric feeling was even stronger here. The HYDRA techs had been coming and going without protective gear, but it was difficult for Sam to convince himself that the blue glow, unpleasantly reminiscent of Cherenkov radiation, wasn't irradiating him. Not that he could do anything about it if it was. Well, he hadn't had his heart set on having kids anyway.

"This might date all the way back to the second world war," he said aloud. "I don't know if HYDRA's been able to make anything like this since they lost their glowy cube thingie." Steve would probably know, or Stark for sure. All Sam knew about it was the bare minimum he'd gotten from secondhand information and thirdhand SHIELD files. "How do you shut down something like this?"

"I'm out of explosives," Bucky said. "Used it all on the door. I've got one grenade left, but I'm saving it for emergencies."

Sam wondered what Bucky considered an emergency, if this wasn't. "Can we get it to overload? Blow it up that way?"

"Maybe. Depends on how much of Canada you want to make a crater out of."

"I was afraid of that." Sam turned his attention back to the generator. "If they can build things like this, why haven't they just, God, made a bomb out of one and dropped it on the Avengers tower, or on DC?"

But he could answer the question himself. Whether the energy cell that powered the generator dated back to Zola's experiments during World War II, or whether it was something that had been stolen from Stark Industries at a later date, HYDRA couldn't possibly have very many of them. And all the ones they had were probably serving various functions, powering bases like this one or being studied in HYDRA labs. They weren't willing to squander them ... yet.

It probably depended on how desperate they got, though.

"This is intel we need to take back," he murmured, gazing at the blue glow. "If they have one here, they could have more elsewhere. Hell, they could be building a bunch of bombs and gearing up for Armageddon like they tried to do back in your time. We have to get out of here alive so we can tell everyone about it."

And here they were at the very bottom of a secret underground lair full of HYDRA, having collapsed the exit. Wonderful.

"I guess the water is for cooling," Bucky said. His weary gaze traced the pipes up to the ceiling. "Wastewater would be used to heat the place. Any extra can be discharged into the lake."

"Shut off the flow and let it overheat, maybe?"

"There's still the kaboom problem." Then Bucky gave a sudden faint grin. He'd been hanging onto the safety railing to keep himself upright; now he took a lurching step forward, and caught himself on the housing around the nearest control panel. "Or we could find the off switch."

"You cover me. I'll do it."

Clearly realizing that "cover me" was code for "go sit down", Bucky shot him a tired glare and obstinately began poking at the switches and dials in front of him. Sam sighed and examined his own side of the pillar. Here, again, the tech was decades out of date. It looked like something out of a Cold War spy movie.

However, this meant that rather than trying to navigate an impossibly complicated StarkTech interface, turning it off should be a simple matter of flipping the switches currently turned on to their "off" setting. Sam experimentally flipped a few. Nothing exploded. Heartened, he flipped some more.

"Hey, Bucky, see anything around here that looks like a breaker box?"

Bucky grunted, which could mean "working, leave me alone" or "trying not to pass out, stop distracting me". The blue glow of the HYDRA energy device made his pallor even more ghastly, like a week-old submerged corpse.

There was a hollow, muffled thump on the other side of the heap of rubble. It shook the floor and set ripples traveling back and forth in the pool. Sam glanced nervously from the rubble field to the dark ceiling. Minutes, Bucky had suggested.

He crossed the catwalk to the banks of equipment along the wall. It looked like pretty standard stuff: gauges, indicator lights, dials for adjusting voltage and temperature. Some of it had been damaged or destroyed in the firefight, but apparently not enough to cause any serious harm, since the lights were still on. Sam started turning down all the dials. He thought there was a slight change in the feeling of latent energy quivering in the air, but it was hard to tell.

"This is taking too long," Bucky snapped hoarsely, materializing at Sam's elbow in that strangely quiet way he still had, even in his current state.

"Ready to use that grenade yet?"

"Don't need it." He gripped the edge of the nearest equipment panel with his metal hand and ripped it off, then rammed it full force into the middle of the exposed electronics.

Sam stepped back and watched as a brief but efficient orgy of destruction followed. Bucky should've barely had the energy to stand up at this point, but sheer hatred kept him going. While he was doing that, Sam got out of the way of flying bits of electronics and finally, finally found the master breaker switch he'd been looking for. He threw it.

They were plunged into sudden darkness, lit only by the eerie blue glow of the energy cell, glittering across the black water.

After a moment, a white light mounted on the wall flickered to life. All else remained dark.

"So I guess the emergency system kicked in," Sam said. "Hey, could you come here and rip off this handle for me?"

"Glad to." Bucky limped over -- when he walked, he corkscrewed his whole body as he instinctively tried to keep weight off his leg -- and wrapped his metal fingers around the breaker handle. With a wrench, he tore it off the wall and flung it over his shoulder into the pool. Ripples glimmered blue and silver in the light of the glowing pillar.

"The power generation unit still works," Sam said, tipping his head back to follow the pillar up to the ink-blot darkness of the ceiling. "No matter how much damage we do, they'll still be able to fix --"

Glint of light up above. Reflection off a rifle barrel. Sniper.

He rolled to the side, wrapped an arm around Bucky, and took them both down. The rifle's sharp report reached him in the same instant, echoes rolling off the walls. Sam landed half on top of Bucky. He felt like he'd been punched. He couldn't get a breath.

Bucky kicked Sam off him with his good leg. He had the grenade in his metal hand and pulled the pin with his teeth. His inhuman strength sent the grenade arcing up, up, winking in the blue and white light. There was a flash and a whomp! from somewhere high above them, and then a cascade of dust and pieces of ceiling and a couple of screaming HYDRA snipers.

Bucky shot them on the way down.

Now you're just showing off, Sam thought. He still couldn't move. Lying where he was seemed like a good plan.

Bucky was very still for a moment, sitting like a statue -- his face a blue and white profile, framed against darkness, looking up. Then he dropped the gun and pivoted from the hips to lean over Sam. "What did you do that for?" he demanded furiously, ripping open Sam's body armor with his metal hand. The other one seemed to be useless; it was curled against his chest.

"Oh," Sam managed to say. "I'm shot, aren't I."

"Yes, you are fucking shot," Bucky said between his teeth.

"Did it hit the armor?" He kept thinking if he'd been shot, he should taste blood -- which was probably stupid, and anyway, his mouth and nose had been full of the stink of smoke and metal and blood ever since the crash, so it wasn't like he could tell if something new had been added to the mix.

"I don't know. Trying to figure that out." Bucky made a hissing sound between his teeth. Sam caught a glimpse of fresh blood smeared on his metal fingers. "Lucky fucking bastard. He was aiming for me, wasn't he?"

"I don't know. Just -- wasn't going to stand there --"

"You could have said 'down' like a sensible person!"

"No time." He still couldn't take a breath. Bucky, in his anxiety, jostled Sam's broken collarbone. He made a sound that was almost a sob.

"Sorry, sorry." Bucky took a deep breath. "So, he got you between two plates of the armor. Your side. I can't tell what, where, or how bad."

Sam swallowed and resolutely didn't panic. It didn't seem to hurt much more than everything else did. Shouldn't he be in excruciating pain? Oh wait. I kinda already am. "Below the ribs? Between the ribs? It might've glanced off."

"I don't know. There's a lot of blood. Shit, there is a lot of blood."

Sam squinted up at him. "Is this what it looks like when you panic?"

"Fuck you!"

"That's better." Oh. Now it was starting to hurt. Shit. "Look, just ... bind it with something, I don't care. You gotta stop me losing blood. And you'll have to do it, since I kinda can't move my arms."

Bucky used Sam's shirt as a pad and his belt to cinch it down, which was actually a good idea that he'd have appreciated more if it hadn't been for his ribs because Jesus Christ.

Then Bucky flopped down beside him. Or fell. Possibly a controlled collapse, really.

They both lay there for a minute in silence. Bucky was still breathing. Sam thought he was still conscious. Hoped so. One of them ought to be. Sam felt cold as ice, and he needed to say something to Bucky about body heat -- conserving it, covering him up with something, that'd be good first aid.

Instead he said, "No more goons yet."

Bucky stirred slightly. "Grenade did some damage above us. They'll be having trouble getting in that way."

A sustained rumbling came from the general direction of the rubble field blocking the doors.

"Resourceful," Sam murmured. "Is there any other way out of here that you noticed?"

"I didn't see any other doors." After a moment during which they both listened to the sound of HYDRA tunneling into the generator room, Bucky said, "You know what you said outside, about getting in through the lake?"

Sam tried to kick-start his brain. His thoughts were syrup-slow, oozing around instead his head. We can't die here. Have to tell the others. Tell them ... something. It's important. "There's a current in the pool. The water is moving. So it's coming in from somewhere."

He flinched when Bucky's hand touched his. Bucky was wrapping Sam's hands, both of them, around a pretty good-sized pistol. "I'm gonna reconnoiter, okay? You wait here."

"All I can see is ceiling," Sam pointed out.

"God. Complain, complain." Bucky hauled him into a half-sitting position and propped him against the wall. "I won't be gone long. Stay awake."

With that, he slid to the pool -- not bothering to stand up, just dragging himself along with his injured leg trailing. He went over the side into the water and vanished from sight.

Sam rested his head against the wall and closed his eyes.

A sudden splash made him raise his head groggily. Sam had no idea how much time had gone by -- he'd slipped it somehow, maybe fallen asleep, maybe passed out.

Bucky had surfaced, sleek as a seal. He pulled himself out of the water and sat on the edge without trying to stand up.

"It's possible to get out," he said. "That's the good news." He hesitated for a long moment, looking at Sam with an expression Sam couldn't read, before he said, "How long can you hold your breath?"

Pararescue training was intense, not quite Navy SEAL intense, but pretty hardcore. Still, it had been years, and he was out of shape now compared to how he'd been back then. Not to mention everything he was currently dealing with, physically, but he tried not to think about how much of a problem that was going to be. "Probably about a minute while swimming."

Bucky shook his head. "Won't work. It's a lot longer than that." He wet his lips. Hesitated. "If you're not moving, how long? Two, two and a half minutes? Maybe three? Is that possible?"

"I don't know," Sam said honestly. Another muffled explosion shook the floor, and dust sifted down from the ceiling. "Guess I'm gonna have to try."

He started to get up, fell back, and pushed himself over to the edge of the water on his ass, like Bucky had done. The blood loss was bad. Real bad. And that would affect how long he could hold his breath, because less blood volume could carry less oxygen.

He belly-flopped into the water. It didn't feel as cold as it had before. Sam kept a hand hooked onto the side, not sure he was capable of treading water in his current condition.

Bucky moved up beside him. With the weight off his bad leg, he glided along like a dolphin. His hair straggled around his face, loose and wet.

"I think I can do it in about two and a half minutes," he said. "It took three before, but I was figuring out the way. We'll be under the whole way. It'll be dark."

"All right," Sam said. Tried to keep his voice even.

Bucky swam around behind him, touched his back lightly -- just to let Sam know he was there, Sam was pretty sure -- and then hooked his metal hand under Sam's arm and applied firm but steady pressure. Sam was pulled away from the edge and found himself free-floating on his back. It was a feeling he hadn't had since he was eight years old and learning to swim at summer camp. Panic swarmed up over him. He had to fight down the urge to start kicking and flip himself upright.

"Relax," Bucky said, towing him deeper in the water. "The less you move --"

"I know." The reality of what he was going to have to do was really hitting him now. He'd have to go completely limp, relying on Bucky to move him through the water. To get him out before he had to breathe. He was fucking terrified and that didn't make it any easier to make his body relax, to give in to Bucky pulling him along in the water.

"You're gonna have to trust me," Bucky said, and then there was a pause as he seemed to rewind what he'd said, and gave a small, bitter laugh. "I mean, trust me for this --"

"I do trust you," Sam said. It wasn't until the words were out that he realized it was completely true. If someone had to tow him down to a watery grave, the only person he trusted more to get him out the other side -- or die trying -- was Steve, and that was mainly because Steve was Steve.

Bucky stilled completely for an instant, not quite long enough to start sinking. "Okay," he said. His voice sounded strange. Choked, a little. "I, uh. You should probably get ready. Might be easier if you pinch your nose shut."

Sam breathed deep, trying to oxygen-load his body while he relaxed as much as possible. He wasn't doing anything at all to keep himself afloat now, dependent on Bucky to hold him up.

Another thump shivered the water around them, and this time something, somewhere, broke through the debris blocking the door. Smoke billowed into the room.

"Now," Bucky said, and drew a deep breath himself. Sam was already breathing in, as deep as he could, trying to ignore the red-hot knives driving into his side. He flashed a thumbs-up that he wasn't sure if Bucky saw, then clamped his good hand over his mouth and nose, and closed his eyes just before the water closed over his face.

With his eyes shut, there was strangely little awareness they were moving. He could feel water fluttering against his body, rippling his clothing. It pressed against him all over, a squeezing sensation that was strangely comforting and alarming all at the same time. Sounds were muffled. His body flowed with the current, limp as a water-weed. Slow, he thought, trying to calm himself, to keep his pulse rate low. You don't have to do anything at all. Just float.

The water was so cold, numbing his limbs, aching in his bones. His lungs burned.

He opened his eyes. The cold water stung his eyeballs, but there was nothing to see. Nothing but darkness. The only real thing in the world was the pressure of Bucky's hand under his arm, the occasional light touches of Bucky's body against Sam's as he swam. Once they bumped lightly into something slippery -- an algae-slimed wall of whatever tunnel they were in, most likely -- but it was gone before he could determine exactly what it was.

The ache in his lungs was now a vise clamped on his chest. How long had it been? At least a minute, maybe a minute and a half ... or maybe it only seemed that way. He hadn't even thought to start counting when they went under. Now he began to count, if only to give himself something to focus on other than the growing pain in his chest and the urgency of drawing in air.

Five mississippi ... six mississippi ... seven ... ten ... twenty ...

By the time he reached thirty, he lost count again; he couldn't think of anything but the pain and pressure in his chest, the struggle to keep his lips clamped shut. He couldn't open his mouth with his hand sealing off his mouth and nose, and so he poured all his force of will into keeping the muscles of that hand locked in place.

He had to let it out. Had to. Had to ...

The muscles of his diaphragm spasmed. He didn't have a choice. Bubbles escaped between his fingers -- he could feel them, not see them. He wasn't sure if his eyes were open or closed. Colors swirled in the darkness, blooming into great blots of yellow, red, green. He didn't know if Bucky still had hold of him. Couldn't feel Bucky's hands, or his own. Couldn't feel anything.

He didn't realize he'd opened his mouth until the shock of cold water on his tongue, spilling over his teeth, filling his throat. Which made his throat spasm, and he gave a choking, retching cough that hurt -- no air to cough with -- and then he tried to breath again, and --

-- and it was air, blessed air -- his face was above water and he gasped for breath, choking and coughing. His mouth tasted like mud.

"Easy," Bucky was saying in his ear, and he realized he was struggling, instinctively trying to straighten himself out in the water. "Just float. Breathe."

So he did, with Bucky behind and half under him, propping him up. He could feel Bucky gasping against him, not with the same desperation as Sam, but greedily sucking air into oxygen-starved lungs. What he could see above him was mostly blue sky and looming rock wall. Daytime. They'd been underground long enough that it was weirdly disconcerting to realize it hadn't really been that long at all. The sun was shining, illuminating the peaks of the mountains.

When he finally stopped coughing and retching enough to get his bearings and look at something other than the sky, he found that they were floating on the lake's surface beneath an overhanging rock wall. The water came right up to the base of a low cliff that leaned forward so steeply it looked like it was going to topple over on them. The water was very deep here, so deep it looked black. HYDRA might have blasted this out of the hillside when they built their base, or maybe they'd taken advantage of a naturally deep, water-filled cleft.

"How long?" Sam asked. His voice rasped through his sore throat.

"Three minutes," Bucky said. He backstroked slowly under the cliff face, towing Sam.

"We don't have long," Sam said. He kicked a little, trying to help. "They'll know this is where we went. They're going to scramble teams here."

Bucky didn't bother answering. They dragged themselves out on the wet, marshy shore -- or rather, Bucky dragged Sam and then collapsed next to him. With his head turned to the side, all Sam could see was shoreline weeds and Bucky's wet, matted hair spread out in a soggy halo.

"Thanks," Sam said.

Bucky waved it off without raising his head.

But Sam twisted his head so he could see the sky, because he'd heard ... something. He couldn't quite put his finger on it. A shiver in the air, a feeling more than a sound. Out of the clear blue sky, something was slowly resolving itself. Something big. At first he thought Oh Lord, what has HYDRA done now? but then --

"Bucky," he said. "Hey. Bucky?"

Bucky grunted but didn't move.

"I need to know if I'm hallucinating. Throw me a line, man."

This got Bucky moving enough to roll over and look up. There was a silence, as the blessed, glorious, impossible shape of the helicarrier descended, casting a long shadow on the mountainside.

"I guess it depends on what you're seeing," Bucky rasped at last.

"I thought they blew up all those things."

"C'mon, man, it's Fury. 'course he's got one squirreled away somewhere."

They both watched the helicarrier glide gracefully down. It was dropping shuttles, or quinjets, or whatever the latest thing was.

"Think I might pass out now," Sam said. His vision was telescoping in, like looking down a long tunnel.

"Great, abandon me to -- Wilson -- You fucker."

 

***

 

Between his time in the military and with the Avengers, Sam had been injured enough to recognize the blurred feeling of coming back to consciousness under the influence of heavy painkillers.

After a little while he decided the bed was really moving; it wasn't just him. Which meant he was probably on the helicarrier, assuming he hadn't hallucinated that.

He blinked his gummy eyes open, and took in his surroundings. White and chrome. The lights were dim. He was in a curtained alcove with two beds and a chair between them, though he was the only resident at the moment. He could hear quiet voices, too low to make out who it was or what they were saying, coming from somewhere beyond the curtain. There was an IV in his arm -- plasma and fluids, he found, squinting at the bags. Also, he hadn't had a shower; turning his hand over, he discovered there was still dirt and blood crusted under the fingernails, and he itched all over. He was pretty sure he hadn't actually been out very long. He was buried under too many blankets to tell what he was wearing, although it seemed to be some sort of hospital gown. He hoped they'd burned his clothes.

The curtain drew back slightly. "Sam? You awake in there?" Steve's soft voice called.

"C'mon in." His throat burned, and it sounded like he was on the tail end of a nine-day cold.

Before he'd even finished the invitation, though, Steve was through the curtain and into the alcove; maybe it was the drugs making it seem like he teleported to the chair between the two beds. He was dressed for work, his dark blue "stealth" Captain America uniform splattered with mud -- at least, Sam decided to assume it was mud -- and he smelled like smoke. It was clear he'd just come in from the field.

"Where are we?" Sam asked.

"Helicarrier. Headed for Vancouver." Steve dropped a hand onto his shoulder and -- there was no other word for it -- clung. There was a muffled sense that if he wasn't drugged to the eyeballs, that should probably have hurt. Sam didn't try to shrug him off, though.

"How's Barnes?"

Steve tipped a head at the curtain. "Got his own room. You two are the only patients, so you get the place to yourselves."

"What about Natasha and Sharon?"

Steve looked briefly baffled; then his face cleared. "They're fine. In fact, they're mopping up the mess you left us." He gave Sam a shove that was only half playful. "You're the ones everyone's been worried about."

"Hey, we softened them up for you," Sam murmured. "Don't say I never gave you anything."

Steve made a slightly choked sound, and Sam darted a quick look at his face, but Steve had managed to get himself locked down. The big, warm hand on Sam's shoulder clamped down again.

"Don't move too much. You haven't had surgery yet. Since we're this close to Vancouver -- as the helicarrier flies -- we figured we'd hold off and do it in a hospital, where the facilities are better."

Sam made an acknowledging "mmm", then asked, "Do I want to know what the damage is? To me, I mean."

Steve started to rise. "I can get a doctor in here --"

"No worries as long as I'm not gonna bleed out."

Steve's fast, concerned gaze flicked to the monitors above him. "I don't think so."

"Then don't worry about it. Guess I'll find out eventually."

"Well, from what I hear, you've got a broken collarbone, five cracked ribs, a concussion with possible skull fracture, and there's a bullet lodged in your ribs," Steve said, settling back into the chair. "Plus dehydration and hypothermia."

"Oh," Sam said sleepily. "Is that all."

A series of thumps made them both look up. It turned out to be Bucky, pushing back the curtain and clumping into the room on a single crutch gripped in his metal hand. He was dragging an IV pole with his right arm hooked loosely around it. The wrist had been put in a splint.

As soon as he saw who it was, Steve's voice rose in irritation. "What part of 'stay in bed' is too complicated for you?"

Bucky plunked down on the edge of the bed next to Sam's and smirked at Steve. "I'm sitting. Is that good enough?"

Sam wasn't sure whether to be amused or depressed that Bucky hadn't changed out of his ragged, filthy dark-gray combat fatigues. Woe betide the medic who tried to strip him against his will.

He was, however, on some kind of drugs. He was too loose and cheerful not to be. With some difficulty and experimentation, SHIELD had found painkillers that worked on Steve. They must work on Bucky as well.

"Lying down," Steve said. "You're supposed to be lying down. The minute my back is turned --"

Bucky leaned the crutch against the bed and, with obvious difficulty and dogged determination, swung his legs up onto it. "Lying down now."

"Under blankets, you jerk," Steve snapped. "You're as hypothermic as he is."

"Get me some, then," Bucky said, his eyelids fluttering shut.

He really was different with Steve, but ... not as much as Sam had always thought. It was more like everything that was always there under the surface was a little closer to the surface when he was around Steve, and therefore easier to see.

"I'm getting blankets," Steve said. He pointed a finger at Bucky. "Stay. Sam, keep him there."

"Because I'm totally going to be able to stop him if he wants to go somewhere," Sam said from under his own blanket-mound. "And no, you can't have any of mine. If you wanted blankets, Barnes, you should have stayed where you were."

Bucky, his eyes still closed, raised a metal finger and flipped him off.

Steve stared at both of them and then backed out of the alcove, through the curtain, and disappeared.

"I think we broke Steve," Sam said.

Bucky cracked an eye open -- just the uppermost one, since the other side of his face was buried in a pillow. "Speak for yourself. Did he try to hug you yet?"

"No," Sam said, alarmed. "Is that a danger?"

"It is a danger. Take it from me."

"I can fend him off with my IV pole."

"You can borrow mine if one isn't enough. He's large."

Steve returned just then, his arms heaped with warmed blankets which he proceeded to drape over Bucky, who lay there without moving and let him do it.

"Do I look as bad as he does?" Sam asked. He wrinkled his nose. "Do I smell as bad as he does?"

"Worse," Bucky said without opening his eyes.

"I think I need to hear about the last couple of days," Steve said. "In detail."

"First, someone needs to feed me," Sam said. "If you can get him blankets, you can bring me a steak."

"Sorry, no can do. No food for people who are going to have surgery." Steve settled back in the chair between the beds. One hand went out, automatically it seemed, to where Bucky's splinted arm was lying with the palm up. When Steve's hand settled on his, Bucky's fingers curled around it. Steve's other hand went back to Sam's shoulder, or more like his upper arm this time, mindful of his broken collarbone.

"Well, that sucks, Rogers. Some rescue this is."

Steve gave his arm a light squeeze. "If all you're going to do is complain, we could put you back."

"Fine, we left a few HYDRA for you guys so you'd have something to do, but if you don't want 'em ..."

"Gotta give 'em another chance to shoot at you, you mean," Bucky mumbled from under his heap of blankets. "I think a few bullets missed you the first time."

"Hey!" Sam protested. "A guy gets shot one time, saving your ass ..."

"Wait, what?" Steve said.

"Yeah, and I saved your ass how many times down there?" Bucky shot back.

"Punching the floor doesn't count as a save, for the record."

"Okay, guys," Steve said, almost plaintively. "I really need to hear this story."

"No," Bucky mumbled into the pillow. "It's more fun this way. Sam, don't tell him anything."

"You are so high," Sam said, and laughed.

"Look who's talking. Steve, someone needs to turn off Wilson's drugs."

"Are we to Vancouver yet?" Sam asked.

"Still a ways out," Steve said. "Why? Are you in pain? I can get the doctor --"

"No, the problem is some fuckup hospital admin gave me a roommate who won't shut up."

This time he had to glance Bucky's way to make sure he hadn't genuinely crossed a line, but Bucky, though his eyes were still closed and he looked asleep, was smiling.

"I ... don't think that's an accusation you get very often, Buck," Steve said, curling his fingers tighter around Bucky's hand.

"Yeah, well," Sam said. "Guess they just don't know him like we do."