“I want to thank you for coming in.” Coulson taps his fingers on the polished tabletop. “I understand that the past few months have been...difficult.”
“That’s the understatement of the century,” Tony mutters under his breath. “Hey, by the way, Phil, super job on faking the dead, I think we could all learn a thing or two from you. It’s a technique I might try myself, you know, next time some shadowy government agency decides it just absolutely needs to get its sticky fingers all over my tech, with only the best of intentions, of course. Truth, justice, and the American way.” He shoots a glance at Steve. It’s not entirely friendly, but it’s not entirely hostile, either. Under the circumstances, Steve will take it. “As it were.”
“What can we do for you, Agent?” Steve asks politely.
“We have a situation,” Coulson says, and there’s an odd, cautious note in his voice. “An offshoot of Hydra appears to have resurfaced in Maryland. We’ve sent a number of undercover agents to investigate. Yesterday, they sent one of our agents back. His condition was--” he pauses, glances around the table. “--bad. Very bad. This group does not appear to be overly concerned with secrecy. They consider his return a warning.”
Something unpleasant tickles at the back of Steve’s mind. This is sounding familiar, and not in a good way.
“This is not a new splinter cell, although until recently they operated almost exclusively in Europe. They seem to have crossed over to the U.S. in an attempt to fill the power void left when Project Insight was destroyed. They call themselves Die Lachenden Männer--”
“The Laughing Men,” Steve finishes quietly. Damn it. Damn it. He’d hoped--well, never mind what he’d hoped. “What’s our mission? Contain, destroy, or--”
Coulson blinks at him. “Ah. No, actually. Or not yet. Sergeant Dusquene reported that there were still a number of hostages alive. They’re all high-ranking agents with access to sensitive information, for one thing; for another this group is--” he pauses again, looking away. “They don’t abide by the Geneva Conventions or any other law of warfare. I won’t leave my people in their power unless we have no other choice.”
That’s an understatement if Steve ever heard one. The Laughing Men--what they did to prisoners, most of the ones they didn’t kill outright didn’t survive all that long after rescue. He calls up the file on his tablet and scrolls through; the clinical descriptions of Sgt. Dusquene’s injuries are dispassionate and oblique, but he can read between the lines just fine. It’s a testament to modern medicine that the man is still breathing at all. And not like they really need a detailed run-down of rape and brutality, but it’s uncharacteristic for Coulson to dance around a subject like this.
For a moment he wonders if it’s for Tony’s benefit--after what he went through in Afghanistan, captivity and torture have got to be sore spots--but Tony is reading through the files on his tablet with no noticeable distress other than a furrow between his brows, and anyway, if what Steve read is true, Tony didn’t exactly get the same treatment that these bastards like to dish out.
Of course, things like that have a way of not making it into the reports. He knows that only too well.
“If they haven’t already killed the rest of the hostages,” he says out loud. Back in the day, they wouldn’t bother keeping more than one guy alive.
“We’re fairly sure they’re still alive,” Coulson says.
Bruce clears his throat. “Do we think the rest of them are getting the same--treatment?” he asks. Steve looks up in time to see Bruce’s gaze flicker toward him, and then away.
“It seems likely,” Coulson says, and he’s avoiding Steve’s gaze too, and all of a sudden Steve gets it. It isn’t Tony they’re worried about. It’s him.
It really isn’t funny, but there’s a part of him that wants to laugh anyway. He leans forward onto his elbows instead, puts on his best Captain America face, and says, “Alright, lets run through the intel on these guys.” Coulson and Bruce exchange glances--Tony seems mercifully oblivious, Natasha and Sam are both concentrating on their tablets--and Steve manages to keep from rolling his eyes. “I want specifics on the base before we try to formulate a plan of attack.”
Coulson doesn’t breathe out a sigh of relief, but Steve can see it in his eyes all the same. “Their base is located outside of Baltimore in an abandoned shipping yard…”
“Where are the others?”
“No others, sir. He was alone.”
He came awake shivering, shirtless and barefoot, curled uncomfortably on his side with most of his weight on his left shoulder. His arms were twisted painfully behind him, and it was only when he tried to move them that he realized there were handcuffs on his wrists. The metal bit into his flesh, and his fingers felt swollen and stiff. He flexed them and grunted involuntarily at the sting of pins and needles. The left hand was entirely numb, the right nearly so.
“Ah.” Footsteps, above him, and he blinked hard to clear his vision as tall, shiny black boots came into view. “Captain Rogers. So kind of you to join us.”
He struggled to his knees, bared his teeth in a smile. “Can’t say much for your hospitality, but the pleasure’s all mine.”
“And you came alone, I see. That was very confidant of you.”
The others hadn’t been found, then. It was all he could do to keep his relief from showing on his face. He channeled it into a wider smile, the brash cockiness that had always been catnip for bullies back in Brooklyn. “You didn’t seem like much of a challenge.”
“You wound me,” the man said. Steve looked up, and up, but all he could see was darkness. “Still. I expect you’ll learn better.”
“Sir?” asked one of the other men. “Should we--”
“This one will do,” the man said. He leaned down and stroked one gloved hand down Steve’s cheekbone, curled hard fingers under his jaw to lift his head up. Steve blinked hard and met his gaze; the face was bland, bureaucratic, but there was an avid gleam about the eyes that turned his stomach. “Yes. This one will do nicely. Don’t damage him too badly. He needs makes it home in once piece. Strap his shield to him when you’re done. I want the Americans to know who he is.”
He patted Steve’s cheek once, mockingly, then stood up and walked away.
Steve was still trying to get his feet under him when the first blow landed.
He was dizzy with pain by the time they stopped, gasping with it, so he didn’t understand right away what was happening when thick fingers fumbled his belt open, when his trousers were shoved down around his knees.
By the time he did get it, it was too late to struggle. Someone was kneeling on his back, and without his hands under him he couldn’t get the leverage to heave them off. A gun at his temple, his face pressed into the cold dirt, the smell of stale sweat and rancid sausage and cigarette smoke thick in the air.
“Beg, Captain,” said a voice in his ear. There were hands on his skin, the clink of another belt buckle, someone dropping to their knees behind him, and he wasn’t as wide-eyed and innocent as Bucky still sometimes seemed to think; he knew what this was. “Beg us to stop.”
“Go to Hell,” Steve spat.
The pistol cracked hard across his temple, and the whole world turned to blinding pain and starry darkness.
He woke to pressure and pain, the sick, humiliating weight of another body on him and in him, fast grunting breaths in his ear.
It didn’t hurt as much as it should have. Either they’d used slick--not likely--or this wasn’t the first one. Who knew how long he’d been out, how many-- “Pretty boy,” the man said thickly. “Pretty American boy--”
Steve flung his head backwards. There was a satisfying crack, and the man swore in German. Laughter overhead, and someone said, “Can’t you handle even one American soldier, Axel?”
“Fick Dich ans Knie.” The man tangled his fingers in Steve’s hair and shoved his face back in the dirt. There was blood dripping from his broken nose, but he hadn’t stopped, hadn’t even slowed down. ”Pretty fucking boy--”
He shuddered and went still, panting and twitching, and then he just stayed there, letting his dick soften inside of Steve while the other men laughed and jeered and called for their turn. When he finally pulled out, it didn’t hurt at all. That made it worse, somehow.
Steve tried to push up onto his knees, but the pistol was in his face, pushing into his cheek hard enough to hurt. “Hold still, American.”
For a bleak instant, he considered kicking out, lunging forward, taking the bullet--anything so Bucky and the rest of his men didn’t have to find him like this, anything--then he turned his face away, pressed his cheek to the dirt floor.
They were going to let him go. They said so, and there was no reason not to believe them. Fear and humiliation were much more potent tools than a dead body on the floor; that was why they wanted to keep his shield. He could see it in a corner, gleaming faintly. They wanted to send him back broken, a warning to the Commandos.
They didn’t know how fast he healed these days. The bruises were already fading; the beating that would have half-killed anyone else had only left him dazed and sore. There were no broken bones. He could move, if he had to; all he needed was his hands free.
The left cuff was slightly looser than the right. Careless. Steve shifted, testing the strength of it. The metal wouldn’t give, not without more leverage than he currently had. The metal wouldn’t give, but the bones in his hand would.
The cuffs bit into his skin, and there were hands on his bare hips, laughter above his head. The next man was rutting against him, not really penetrating, not yet. Steve closed his eyes, twisted his hand against the metal, and pulled.
The joint of his left thumb gave way with a bright, sharp pain that reverberated up his arm and made him gasp. It hurt worse when he angled his other hand and dragged at the cuff with all his strength--it was still tight over his too-broad palm, the metal scraping his skin, grinding agonizingly at the broken bone.
It came loose, and he was free.
There was an instant in which none of the laughing men were aware--none of them had seen--and Steve dropped his broken hand to the floor, braced, and shoved himself up. Whoever had been kneeling on his back fell with a cry, and the man with the gun rocked back on his heels, startled into immobility an instant too long. Steve swung with all his strength, felt bone crunch beneath his knuckles. The gunman fell without a sound and didn’t get back up.
Someone else was lunging at him, and Steve sidestepped neatly as he stood, smooth as a dance, and broke his neck with a single hard blow. He kicked out of his trousers before they could hobble him, bent to scoop up the gun, and fired two rounds into the skull of a third man before he could get his own weapon up. Two other gunmen; two bullets, and they both dropped like stones.
There had been seven men in the room with him. The door was swinging shut behind one of them as he fled, but Steve couldn’t think about him now. There were other gunshots in the compound, further off, or maybe that was just the thunder of his heart.
He turned. The last man was frantically buttoning up his trousers. He was young, about Steve’s age. He had blue eyes and a weak chin, and his lower lip wobbled when he met Steve’s gaze. ”Bitte--
It was the same voice that had been jeering laughingly at Axel, moments before. Steve pulled the trigger. Then again, and again, until the young man’s face was a mess of blood and bone and the hammer clicked on empty.
Then he fell to his knees and threw up until there was nothing left in his stomach.
He didn’t know how long he knelt there, hair hanging in his face and the taste of vomit and blood thick on the back of his throat. Long enough for the gunshots and shouts from outside to converge, for the door to bang open.
He reached for the gun--empty, though, it was empty--
Booted footsteps, and then a low, vehement curse. English. American accent with a hard Brooklyn edge. “Steve?”
Bucky. It was Bucky. He had to get up, he couldn’t just--
--and Bucky was there, he was right there, dropping to his knees in the blood and the filth and cupping Steve’s cheek in one warm palm. “Steve?” he said again. His voice sounded shaky and young, and his face, when Steve managed to look at it, was white as a sheet. “Jesus, Stevie.”
“You came back,” Steve whispered.
“Of course we fucking came back, you dumb punk.”
Steve breathed out something that was almost a laugh. “Bucky, I’m--”
He stopped, breathed in hard through his nose. Bucky was several long miles away from stupid, and it’s not like he couldn’t get a clue what this was. But Steve could hear the panic riding low and strange in the back of his throat, and Bucky settled a little for that. Always was his best in a crisis.
“You’re okay, Stevie,” he said. “You’re just fine. Come on. Let’s get some clothes on you, huh?”
He was rubbing Steve's back, slow, soothing circles like he used to do when they were kids and Steve was having another asthma attack, and it was so damn ridiculous that Steve almost started laughing.
The man with the blue eyes was lying on the floor a couple of feet away. Wasn't much left of his eyes. Wasn't much left of his face, tell the truth, after the four cartridges Steve had put in his skull, and Steve suddenly felt sick in a way that had nothing to do with his aching skull or his busted thumb or the horrible cold slickness on the insides of his thighs.
Bucky stopped. "What is it, Stevie?" he asked. His tone was too gentle, and his hands were careful when he handed Steve his filthy trousers.
"I shot him," Steve said. His fingers felt numb, fumbling with the familiar task of his own belt buckle. "He said 'please', and I just--I shot him, Buck. He didn't even have a gun on him."
Bucky looked down at the body, eyes lingering for a moment on the loose belt and unbuttoned trousers. "Good," he said finally. His voice was savage.
"If you hadn't done it, I would have."
“Bucky,” Steve said again, and almost laughed. It was shaky and awful and he was pretty sure if he let it out he’d end up having a fit of hysteria right there, but even so. Even so.
The furious set of Bucky’s mouth softened a little at that, and he handed Steve his shirt. It was bloody and the seam was torn at the shoulders. Steve pulled it on anyway. His boots were with the pile of armor next to his shield and he shoved his bare feet into them, picked up his shield and strapped it on. It felt better than a sidearm--comfortable and familiar. “Let’s go.”
“You want the rest of this?” Bucky asked, jerking his chin at the leather armor.
Steve stared at it for a moment. It was bloody and covered with mud, but that was nothing he couldn’t fix. There were knife-marks, deep vicious slashes in the leather, and it took him a moment to realize that they must have shucked him out of it like an oyster while he was unconscious, by simple dint of slicing through the straps that held it together. Even that was probably fixable--easier than getting Stark to make him a whole new set of armor, anyway--but he shook his head, revulsion twisting in the pit of his belly. “Leave it,” he said. “Too damn heavy to carry anyway.”
Bucky looked at the armor, then looked at Steve, then nodded. “Sure thing, Steve. Come on. Let’s get you out of here.”
“Hey,” Natasha says in a low tone as they’re loading up the Helicarrier, under the cover of heavy crates being shifted and Tony and Bruce having an argument that seems to consist mostly of unfinished sentences and animated hand gestures. “Are you okay?”
Steve glances down at her. He’s wearing his uniform, but the cowl is down; his blond hair is tousled and his face is drawn. There’s a moment--just a moment--when she thinks he might give her a truthful answer, and then Sam bumps him with the edge of his harness as he passes.
Steve thumps him on the shoulder, and when he looks back to Natasha, his face has closed up into that blandly pleasant Captain America smile that he uses on intrusive reporters and annoying CO’s. “I’m fine. Just want to get this done, you know?”
He turns away from her before she can say anything else, hoisting his shield onto his shoulder and striding up the ramp. She looks after him, watching his long stride and the tense set of his broad shoulders, and sighs. “Sure,” she mutters under her breath. “You’re just fine.”
She could mention something to Coulson, but Steve will be furious if she does, and at any rate, he’s upset but not irrational; he’s not compromised, and they’re going to need him for this.
That, and he’s her friend. She doesn’t have many of those.
“Idiot,” she murmurs, shifting her gun belts to settle them properly on her hips, and she’s not quite sure if she’s talking about Steve or herself.
“So,” Tony says when they’ve been in the air for almost half an hour and Steve is still frowning at his tablet. “What’s the plan, Cap? Do we have a plan, or is this one of those times where we throw ourselves blithely into the jaws of death? Because you know I’m all about the flashy heroics, but if that’s the case I think we should have brought a missile launcher. And--”
“They have hostages, Tony,” Steve interrupts. “We have to assume that at least some of them are still alive.” He sets the tablet down, takes a deep breath and lets it out. “No. I wanna do this quietly.”
“For a change.”
Steve’s smile is so brief that it’s almost not there at all. “For a change. I’ll go in alone, draw them out. Hawkeye, Widow, you two have the most stealth experience--do you think you can get the prisoners out quietly if I distract the guards?”
Clint opens his mouth, brow furrowing, but Natasha cuts him off before he can say anything. Her expression is cool and unreadable. “Yes.”
“Good. Falcon, Iron Man, you’re air support. I want you to keep an eye out for reinforcements; we do not need any surprises here.”
“But--” Sam starts.
Steve doesn’t let him finish. “Bruce, you steer clear for now. Like I said, this needs to be quiet.”
“And the Other Guy...isn’t,” Bruce says dryly. “Right. Have you considered that walking into the middle of their lair all by yourself could go very badly for you?”
Steve raises his eyebrows. “I’m not exactly helpless. Anyway, nothing they can do to me that won’t heal. Short of a bullet to the head, I guess, but I don’t think they’re gonna go that far.”
The silence in the Quinjet sounds very loud and very, very awkward. Tony looks around. Sam is chewing on his lip and Clint is fiddling with his bowstring. Bruce opens his mouth, then shuts it again. Natasha looks perfectly calm, but then, she would. None of them are going to say anything, he realizes.
It’s on him, then. Awesome. What is the world coming to when Tony Stark is required to be the voice of common sense? “I hate to state the obvious, Cap, but you do know what these guys do to their prisoners, right?”
Steve glances at him. “It’s nothing I can’t handle.”
And that--yeah. Even after that mess of a debriefing, he was kind of hoping he wouldn’t have to spell it out. Steve is old-fashioned and idealistic and sometimes hilariously naive, but he isn’t actually stupid, so Tony’s not sure why he doesn’t seem to grasp the situation here. His own time as a guest of the Ten Rings wasn’t exactly a bucket of roses, but they needed him alive and sane and in reasonably good physical condition; all things considered, he got off easy. It could have been a lot worse. He’s read enough on the topic to know exactly how much worse it could have been.
People that this cell captures don’t get off easy, and yeah, maybe the reports were a little hazy on the details, but it’s not that hard to read between the lines. “I don’t think you get it. We’re not just talking about a beating here. They--”
“They kill all but one member of a squad,” Steve says. His voice is flat. “The ranking officer by preference--the higher-profile, the better. That lucky fella is gang-raped and tortured before being released back to his people as a warning.” He unholsters his service sidearm and tries the action of the slide, calm and methodical, the same way he always checks his equipment before a mission. “I know, Tony. They’ve been at this a very long time. We went after them once during the war.”
Tony blinks at him, a horrible suspicion uncoiling slowly in the pit of his stomach. There’s no record of any mission involving Captain America in the files. He’s read them very thoroughly. There’s no reason to keep it out of the files unless-- “And?”
Steve shrugs. “Our cover was blown during recon. They grabbed me in the retreat. Had me for a day or so before the Commandos could get in to bust me out.” He drops the magazine and holds it in one broad palm, like he’s testing the weight of it. His hair is loose across his forehead, falling into his eyes. His thumb rolls across the metal jacket of the exposed bullet, and Tony abruptly realizes that he’s fidgeting, that he’s looking for a reason not to meet their eyes, and that’s so uncharacteristic of Cap that it makes the back of his throat ache. “So, yeah, I’ve got a pretty good idea what they do to prisoners. If you think I’m gonna put any of you in that position, you’re out of your damn mind.”
There’s another long, awful silence. Tony can’t even bring himself to look at any of the others. He can hear Bruce breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth, deliberately calm.
“That wasn’t in any of the reports,” he says finally, stupidly.
“A lot of stuff never made it into the reports,” Steve says impatiently, slapping the magazine back into place and holstering his gun. “Anyway, it didn’t exactly go according to plan.”
“Meaning what, exactly?”
Steve runs a hand through his hair, then finally looks up. There’s a hard, unfamiliar set to his mouth. “Meaning they were careless. Drunk, maybe, or just stupid, I don’t know. They were counting on the beating to keep me under control. Didn’t tighten the cuffs enough. I got loose. By the time Bucky found me, they were all--” he breaks off, shrugs tightly. “Like I said, it never made it into the report.”
“No one else knew.” That’s Natasha, as bland and expressionless as ever.
“No need to report it to the docs. I heal fast. Bucky never said anything.”
“You didn’t talk to anybody,” Sam says quietly.
“No.” There’s a stubborn set to his jaw, and that is familiar. That’s Steve all over. “It was a war. I wasn’t the first guy that happened to and I sure as hell wasn’t the last.”
“Doesn’t mean it wasn’t traumatic.”
“It was a war,” Steve says again, like it’s an explanation. Maybe it is. “Anybody got a better idea? Because if so, I’m all ears, but I’m not risking civilian casualties just to keep myself out of trouble. If things go wrong, I can take a lot more punishment than the rest of you.”
“Except me,” Bruce says. It’s quiet, but Tony can hear the harshness of his voice, the rumble of the Hulk underneath.
Steve tilts his head, and then, incredibly, smiles. “Tell you what, once the hostages are clear, you can get as angry as you want. Until then, though--” he looks up, meeting each of their eyes in turn. “Keep a lid on it.”
The whine of the Quinjet’s engines drops to a low hum as they approach the facility. It’s well-hidden in plain sight, one of those abandoned factory complexes that litters the Rust Belt: four vast, crumbling brick buildings surrounding a courtyard of cracked pavement and tangled weeds. It looks just like the places that Sam and his boys used to break into in high school, well-buzzed on cheap malt liquor and playing at being urban explorers--like a piece of Americana abandoned to the elements. It doesn’t look like anyone’s set foot in here in years.
Coulson’s intel is usually good, though, and he has to admit it makes a damn good disguise.
Steve is standing, strapping into his parachute. His hands are quick and sure, and Sam’s pretty sure he’s not using it as an excuse not to look at them. Or not only that. He hasn’t said much after that little revelation he dropped on them, and Steve is usually quiet before missions, focused and turned inwards, but not like this.
“Steve,” he says quietly as the hatch opens up, and he knows the words, he knows his lines--he’s a professional, and it’s not like he’s never seen a case like this--but then Steve looks up at him, tense like he’s braced for a blow, and Sam can’t make himself say them.
“Be careful,” he says instead, and Steve relaxes enough to give him a tiny smile.
“Always am,” he says, and actually grins at Sam’s disbelieving bark of laughter. And then he’s stepping smoothly out onto thin air, twisting like an acrobat into the breeze, and it’s too late to say anything else.
“I hope like hell he knows what he’s doing,” Hawkeye mutters as the hatch closes.
“He’s an idiot.” Stark is standing too, fully armored with his faceplate up. There’s a muscle jumping in his jaw. “When the hell does he ever know what he’s doing?”
“He has us,” Hawkeye says, and Stark snorts.
“My point exactly.”
Banner is hunched over his tablet and doesn’t say anything. It’s hard to tell, from Sam’s angle, what he’s reading. If he’s reading anything at all, and not just avoiding the conversation. Natasha is the only one who looks calm.
“He’ll be fine.” Her tone is even, brooking no disagreement. “Sit down, Stark.”
He turns on her. “Don’t--”
Stark doesn’t sit. He leans against the bulkhead, folding his arms. In the armor, it looks faintly ridiculous. “I suppose you knew about this.”
“No. I didn’t.”
“But you guessed.”
“I--” She pauses, looks down briefly. When she looks up again, there’s no apology in her face. “I had my suspicions. It wasn’t any of my business, so I didn’t ask.”
“But you would have used it,” Stark says. “Wouldn’t you.”
She lifts a shoulder. “If I had to, yes. So far, I haven’t.”
For some reason, that’s what makes Stark relax. “Fine. That’s just fine, you’re always such a pleasure to work with, Natasha.” He glances at Sam. “You ready to play, Icarus?”
His voice is sharp, mocking and brittle. He’s angry, Sam realizes--angrier than he’s letting on, and worried too. Sam puts on his most disarming smile as the hatch opens again. “Hope you can keep up,” he says.
”You hope I can--” Stark snorts, flips the faceplate up. “Very funny. Let’s do this.”
The surface of the tablet is smooth and cool under Bruce’s fingertips. He focuses on that, on the curve of the bench he’s sitting on, metal warm to his body. The shape of his shoes around his feet, the tangle of too-long hair on the back of his neck. Physical things, grounding him in his body.
It’s easy to think of himself and the Hulk as opposites. The Hulk is all emotion, physicality, unthinking rage; Bruce is calm, contained intellectualism. It’s easy to think that way, but it’s dangerous. Too easy to get caught up in his own head, which has never been quite as calm as he’d like to pretend.
Focusing on the physical is important. Maintain control. Fingers relaxed, spine loose, breathing easy, because that’s Steve’s voice on the comms, and listening to Steve’s voice isn’t really doing much for his calm, right now.
He could just take his comm out. He’s strictly backup on this one, and none of them would blame him. He knows that.
“East building is clear,” Steve says. His voice is pitched low, quiet enough that a less sensitive mic would have trouble picking it up. “Looks like labs or something. Nobody’s home right now.”
“Copy,” Natasha says curtly. There’s the muffled percussive noise of a suppressed pistol, and she adds, “West building’s guarded. Or it was.”
"This has got to be the place," Clint adds. "Poor bastards. Christ, what a stench."
“Widow, Hawkeye, check it out.” Steve pauses, then adds, “Be careful. Do not engage unless you have to.”
“We know what we’re doing, Cap.”
“Be careful,” Steve repeats flatly, and cuts his comm.
There’s silence on the comms for several long minutes. Bruce pages through his report, comes back to the same page three times before accepting that none of it is going to sink into his brain anytime soon and setting his tablet down.
It’s not like this is the first time he’s had to wait on the sidelines for the possibility of something going horribly wrong. It’s not even the most dangerous--not by a long shot, actually.
It’s not fear that’s twisting his gut into knots, anyway.
There’s a crash, someone cursing in German, and then Steve’s voice saying, with more animation than he’s shown since this whole thing started, “Afternoon, fellas. Am I interrupting something?”
Two more crashes and a yelp. A door bangs open, and there’s the sound of boots on concrete, and apparently they’re done with quiet and subtle. Bruce feels his hands curl into fists, and consciously relaxes them. This is nothing new. This is nothing they haven’t done a thousand times. Much as Steve might try to deny it, he’s always liked a good brawl.
And if anyone deserves to get their asses kicked halfway across the state by Captain America, it’s these guys.
“Steve?" asks Natasha tensely.
“Well, that got their attention,” Steve says. He sounds slightly out of breath. “Widow, you two are good to go."
“Give us a little warning next time, will you?” Clint asks.
There are voices in the background, quiet and desperate, and Bruce can hear Natasha shushing them sharply, telling them in the flat, no-nonsense voice she uses on the battlefield that they’re there to help. “Shut up and come with us, we’re going to get you out of here."
It’s almost over, it’s going exactly to plan, and then Bruce hears Tony’s voice on the comm. “Hey, guys, we may have a slight problem here."
Right on the tail of that is Sam. “We got incoming. You guys need to get out of there, now.”
The first three guys Steve put down almost without breaking his stride, but the fourth is a big, brawny bastard with a long-bladed knife that he wields like he knows what he’s doing. The armor won’t stop a knife, not at this range, and the corridor’s too narrow for him to use the shield as anything other than, well, a shield.
He ducks a piledriver of a punch, gets his hand around the forearm of the guy’s knife hand and twists hard. The feel of snapping bone beneath his his fingers and the guy goes down with a scream, his head connecting hard with the concrete floor. His eyes roll back in his head and the knife clatters away. Blood is singing in Steve’s ears and he can feel his lips peeled back in a grin; he shakes his hand out, relishing the sting, and that’s when he hears Sam’s worried voice on the comm. Incoming.
Time to go. He slaps his comm on. “Widow, Hawkeye, what’s our status?”
“Give us two minutes,” Natasha replies. Her voice is crisp, emotionless; in the background, he can hear someone sobbing.
“We don’t have two minutes,” Tony says. “Hurry the hell up.”
“These people are in rough shape,” Clint says tightly. “We’re going as fast as we can.”
Steve cuts in before Tony can finish his retort. “Falcon, what have we got?”
Sam, bless his military training, is right on it. “Troop transports. Looks like eight APC’s, one .50 cal apiece. Maybe a mile out.” A brief pause, then he adds, “They got a Lincoln town-car with them.”
Great. “Sounds like the bigwigs are on their way in.”
“Copy,” Sam says tightly. “Sick bastards wanted in on the party. Do you think--”
“Focus,” Steve snaps. “Iron Man, you take point. Make sure the hostages get out okay.”
“What about you?” Sam asks.
“I’m on my way.” He kicks the sprawled goon’s hand out of the way and scoops the knife up, snapping the shield to his back as he turns. “Just don’t--”
The door at the end of the hall bangs open.
Steve is moving on instinct, his reflexes always faster than his conscious mind. He ducks into the narrow alcove of a doorway, unholstering his sidearm. It’s not deep enough to really hide him, not as big as he is, but the hallway is dark and shadowy, the only illumination coming from a high, narrow window above the door at one end, and if he can manage the element of surprise--
Too late. A shout in German, the sound of a shotgun pump. Steve has his shield up before they can fire, deflecting the slug away, but the noise is deafening, disorienting in the small space. He steps out into the hallway, shield up, firing at the soldiers he can see by outline alone.
The first four fall in seconds, but after that, the others start to get wise. Someone is barking orders in German, too quick for Steve’s limited grasp of the language, but the barrage of machine-gun fire needs no explanation. He drops back, ducking behind the shield, curling his too-long arms and legs in close to his body. It’ll deflect the bullets, but he can’t fire back without exposing himself.
“--Cap? Come in, Cap, what the hell is going on down there?”
Sam’s voice, loud and worried in his ear. “Get the others out of here,” Steve hisses into the comm.
“What about you?”
“Don’t worry about me.” A break to reload; Steve fires four more shots, then ducks back behind his shield. That’s half a magazine, and he’s got one spare. There’s at least two dozen soldiers left on the base. Not great odds, especially since he can’t even make a run for it without exposing himself.
On the other hand, if they’re focused on him, they’re not going after the prisoners. “Get the hostages to the Quinjet, get them stabilized. I’ll be right behind you.”
He ducks out and fires again. Two more bodies fall, but he’s not fast enough this time. The bullet catches him in the upper chest, a fireburst of blinding pain, and all the air leaves his body in a shocked grunt. His knees are folding; he hits the ground hard, the shield falls away from his grasp, and he’s thinking, vaguely surprised, like this, it’s really gonna end like this.
Distantly, he realizes the gunfire has stopped. Booted footsteps approach. A hand fists in his hair, jerking his head up; he blinks tears out of his eyes and a man’s face swims into view. His lips move.
“Hauptmann.” Captain. They know who he is.
Then he’s looking up, barking orders. Rough hands on his arms; Steve tries to twist away, but then they grab him by his injured shoulder and the world goes red, then black.
“Let’s go, let’s go,” Stark is muttering as they usher the survivors onto the Quinjet. Sam wants to tell him to shut the hell up, but he doesn’t waste his breath. They have maybe thirty seconds to takeoff if they want to have time to cloak, and there’s still no sign of Steve.
“I’m gonna have to lift you,” he says instead to the man he’s helping, a skinny Latino kid who has, by the look of him, had his left leg broken in two places. He’s been hopping along on Natasha’s shoulder, but his face is gray with pain and his bare back looks like shredded meat. And for all that, he’s in better shape than most, considering that he’s conscious and can almost move under his own steam.
“Two more,” Natasha says, sliding past him to deposit an unconscious woman on the metal floor. She sounds slightly out of breath.
“I got ‘em,” Stark says, and takes off. A moment later he reappears with two battered, unconscious men clasped against his metal armor. He lays one gently down, and hands the other off to Banner, who is performing triage with the blank, distracted manner that he uses, Sam is beginning to realize, when he’s most upset. “That’s the last. Where the hell is Cap?”
“Get us in the air,” Natasha says, striding up the ramp. Clint nods and heads toward the cockpit without a word, but Stark and Banner both jerk their heads up to stare at her.
“You’re just going to leave him there,” Banner says flatly.
Natasha doesn’t look at him. “Those were his orders, and the prisoners are our priority.”
“You--” Stark begins furiously. Sam cuts him off.
“She’s right, Stark. We don’t know what kind of artillery they have. If they spot us before we cloak--”
“Yeah,” Stark snaps. “All right, fine.”
“We’re not just gonna leave him there,” Sam adds, as Clint raises the ramp and powers up the engines. There’s a slight lurch as they leave the ground. The air is thick in here with too many people breathing, the smell of stale sweat and blood and other, less pleasant, bodily fluids. When they said that the prisoners were in rough shape, they weren’t exaggerating. The idea of Steve going through something like that--the idea that those bastards might have their filthy mitts on him right now-- “As soon as we’re clear, I’m going in after him.”
“Why you?” Banner asks in his quiet voice. He’s leaning over a kid who can’t be more than twenty, broad hands pressing down on a blood-soaked bandage as the semiconscious soldier thrashes and groans.
Sam shrugs. “You’re the only one with any kind of medical expertise. Stark’s got the firepower. I’m expendable.” He makes a face. “More expendable.”
“Don’t be so optimistic, you’re going to make me break out in hives,” Stark grumbles. “What makes you think you can get him out of there by yourself?”
“I’ll figure something out,” Sam says, with more confidence than he's really feeling. There’s the tell-tale shudder of cloaking mechanism activating, and he raps on the bulkhead. “Hey. Hawkeye. Open the hatch, I’m going down after Cap.”
“For the record, I think you’re out of your mind,” Clint calls from the pilot’s chair, but he taps a control and the hatch slides open without further argument. “Be careful.”
Stark is starting to open his mouth again, and rather than wait and see what he has to say, Sam holsters his guns, flexes his shoulders, and flings himself out into the slipstream.
The convoy is assembled around the center of the plaza, so it isn’t hard for Sam to land out of sight behind a tangle of dead shrubbery. There are a couple of white guys in suits standing in the sea of camo. Too far away to see anybody’s face, but their heads snap up when a door bangs open and a man comes jogging out. There’s blood all down his side and he has a noticeable limp. Steve’s work, probably. Good.
He still manages to make a sharp salute to the shorter of the suited men. They’re speaking German, so Sam can’t understand what they’re saying, but the situation becomes pretty damn clear when one of the soldiers flanking the suited man pulls out his sidearm, as calm as can be, and shoots the injured man in the head.
Sam flinches, biting back a curse. The man crumples to the ground, and the suit steps over him, barking orders. The rest of the soldiers scurry in his wake as he climbs the steps of the nearest building and marches inside. Within moments, there’s nobody to be seen but the dead guy lying in a pool of his own blood and brain matter in the dust.
Freaking Nazis. Steve is inside that building. He’s alive--he has to be, because Sam won’t accept any other alternative. Beyond that, though--
He saw the prisoners. He read the files. He heard the way Steve’s voice sounded when he shut down their questions on the Quinjet earlier, and he has more than enough imagination to fill in the gaps there.
Which is why he’s down here by himself with two spare guns and less than ten percent of a viable plan. Supersoldier or no, he’s not leaving Steve to deal with this one on his own.
He’s just beginning to stand when the cold muzzle of a gun nudges the back of his neck, and it’s like a needle of ice dropping into the pit of his stomach. Sam freezes. He didn’t even hear them coming up behind him. Even as wired as he is, he didn't hear them. No normal human is that quiet.
“Drop the guns,” says a thickly accented voice, “and put your hands up. Do not try anything stupid.”
They tear the wings from his back, two guys in full body armor holding guns on him while two more go to work on the harness with rough hands, and even looking down the barrel of an M16 it takes everything Sam’s got not to turn and take a swing.
The full kit is a good sixty pounds, and when they lift it away from his body the shirt beneath it is sticking to his skin with sweat. He feels light and suddenly, horribly vulnerable without it, even moreso than when they took his guns. Without his guns, he can still fight. Without his wings, though--
“Move,” says the guy that Sam has mentally designated Asshole In Charge, on account of the fact that he seems to be the only one capable of speech. “Or we will shoot you.”
“Yeah, I got that loud and clear, thanks,” Sam says and starts walking before they can jab him again with the rifle. He keeps his head down so that they can’t see him looking around, assessing the environment, not that there’s much to see. They’re taking him to a different building than the one where the prisoners were held; the same one the man in the suit disappeared into ten minutes ago. He doesn’t know yet if that’s good or bad.
When the door swings shut behind them, he re-categorizes that to ‘bad’. Very bad.
This building isn’t a rat’s-warren of narrow hallways and locked doors like the other one. Whatever equipment was originally here has long since been torn out, leaving only twisted wall mounts and dangling wires in its wake. The space is vast and echoing, well-lit by old-fashioned industrial hanging lights. There’s a long table at the far end, the man in the suit lounging like a king in--incongruously--a plush leather office chair, uniforms crowded around him.
Kneeling at his feet, naked, and bloody, is Steve. There are three guns trained on him from a safe distance away, but he isn’t trying to fight. His spine is curved, his head hanging.
“What the hell,” Sam says, and he’s yanking his hand away from his captors without even thinking about it. “What the hell did you do to him--”
The butt of a pistol cracks across his face, and he stumbles back, reeling. It takes him a long, dizzy moment to find his feet, and when he does, Steve’s head is up. He’s staring at Sam with an expression of unadulterated horror. It’s too far away to hear his voice, but his lips shape Sam’s name.
He’s in rough shape, Sam observes, stumbling forward under the impetus of rifle jabs, allowing cold, professional training to take over while the rest of him is babbling in panic. Pale, clammy, sweat standing on his skin even though it’s cold as hell in here. No bruising--Steve doesn’t bruise, not for any length of time, no matter how hard you hit him--but that’s definitely a gunshot wound in his upper right pectoral. From this angle, it’s impossible to tell whether it’s a through and through or if the bullet is still lodged inside. Either way, he’s got to be in agony.
His eyes are clear, at least, and there’s no fresh blood-flow, which means he’s probably not going to die of hypovolemic shock in the immediate future. Small blessings.
The look on his face is a whole different story. “Sam,” he says again, once Sam is close enough to hear him. His voice is a thready whisper, and there’s blood on his lips. “Sam--”
“The others are clear,” Sam says, and it’s worth the painful jab in the middle of his shoulders for the ghost of relief on Steve’s face.
“You came back.”
“Yeah, well.” Sam shrugs, or tries to. His muscles feel stiff and cold, and not just from the temperature in here. “More guts than brains, that’s always been my problem.”
Steve closes his eyes, and it looks like his mouth is trying to smile but can’t quite manage it. “I’m sorry, Sam.”
“Well,” says the man in the chair. “This is all very touching, of course.”
Sam looks up at him. He has the soft, bland face of any middle-aged, mid-level bureaucrat, totally unremarkable but for the glint of cruelty in his eyes. Some part of Sam--the part that grew up reading comic books by the dozen, probably--still thinks that monsters ought to have horns and claws, but in his experience they mostly look just like anyone else.
He feels like his heart is going about a million miles an hour, but when he speaks his voice comes out surprisingly calm. “He needs medical attention. If you don’t want him to die--”
“And what makes you think we do not want him to die, falcon-man? The captain has been most troublesome to us.”
“You would have killed him already,” Sam says, hoping like hell it’s true.
“Perhaps,” the man says pleasantly. “Or perhaps we simply wished to see him suffer first.” He reaches down and--oh hell fucking no--digs his fingers into the open wound in Steve’s shoulder.
Steve’s back arches, his face coming apart in a silent scream, and Sam is moving without conscious intention, with no thought of the consequences, there is nothing in him that can watch this and not move--
There is a gun in the man’s hand. He doesn’t point it at Sam; instead, he rests the muzzle against Steve’s temple.
“You will keep still,” he says, still in that quiet, pleasant voice. “Or I will put a bullet in his brain. I think even his remarkable healing powers will not save him from that.”
“Please,” Sam says, and it’s a strangled whisper of a voice that doesn’t sound anything like his own. “Stop it.”
The man lets go. Steve slumps forward until his head almost cracks on the concrete floor. His breath rattles in his chest. There’s fresh blood seeping from the wound.
“Steve,” Sam says, still in that thick, strangled, unfamiliar voice.
Another shuddering breath, and then Steve lifts his head.
His face is gray with pain and it takes a moment for his eyes to focus. He shakes his head, spits blood. Hopefully, he just bit the inside of his mouth. Hopefully, it’s not a punctured lung. His breathing sounds okay, but with Steve, it’s hard to guess how much internal damage there is.
Steve is speaking, low and raspy. Not to Sam. To their captor. “You don’t need him,” he says. “You already got me.”
The man strokes the gun down the side of Steve’s face. His expression is curious, interested, like a child with a new toy. “And what would you offer, Captain, if we promised to let him leave unmolested?”
Unmolested, in this case, being maybe a little too accurate. And then Sam sees Steve’s face, the stubborn jut of his jaw, and he knows, he knows what that dumb asshole is going to say even before he opens his mouth.
“Anything,” Steve says, and yeah, they’re gonna be having a talk about this when they make it out of here. Not if. When. They will be making it out of here, if only so Sam can share a piece of his mind about dumbass captains and their high-handed, self-destructive, presumptuous-- “Anything you want. Let him go and I’ll do anything you want.”
“An interesting proposition. However, the last time you were in our custody, if I recall correctly, you killed six men in the process of escaping. I think I would prefer to keep--how would you say it? An insurance policy.” The man’s eyes flicker to Sam; he’s smiling in a way that turns Sam’s stomach. “Behave yourself, and when we are done I will not put a bullet in his head.”
Steve closes his eyes. “Fine. Just take him outside. He doesn’t need to see this.”
“Steve--” Sam starts, furious, but the man is already shaking his head. He looks amused.
“No. He stays. If you are both very lucky, he will not be required to participate.”
Required to--Jesus. Sam’s stomach flops over.
The man is no longer looking at him. He drags the muzzle of the gun over Steve’s face, up over his temple and down the bridge of his nose to his mouth, catching and pulling at his lower lip. Steve’s jaw is clenched, and he’s staring at a fixed point somewhere in the distance, and the thing is, Sam knows that look, it’s a look he’s seen more than once in the field, and at the VA. That thousand-yard stare.
Steve has gone through this before.
“Open your mouth,” the man says softly. Steve hesitates, his eyes flicking toward Sam, and Sam feels the cold muzzle of a gun push against his cheek. He keeps his expression as still and calm as he can. He might not have much leverage here, but he’ll be damned if he’ll let the bastards know how scared he is; he’ll be damned if he lets them use that as one more weapon against his captain. His friend, damn it, and when the hell did his life get so fucked that he’s sitting here, watching this happen to a friend? At least in Afghanistan, the insurgents would just have killed them both. This is some fucked-up white people shit.
Steve opens his mouth. The man slides the barrel of the gun past his lips, slowly, and begins pumping it like a grotesque parody of a phallus.
“Oh, you are pretty,” he says softly, the fingers of his free hand sifting through Steve’s blood-caked hair. “Even as injured as you are. I wonder how long you could last, before you succumbed? An hour? Two? Imagine what we could do to you in an hour.”
Sam can imagine. He doesn’t want to, but he can. Steve shows no reaction. His gaze has returned to that fixed, distant point, and Sam can almost see him dissociating, distancing himself from what’s going on. From what’s about to happen.
Sam doesn’t have that luxury, but nobody other than the guy holding a gun to his head seems to be paying him any attention. He’s got a knife in his boot that nobody thought to check for. Realistically, he is not gonna be able to take down twenty armed guys in body armor with his boot knife, but it’s a start. If he can get one of their guns while they’re distracted--
If he can get the knife to Steve, maybe. If it were anybody else, he wouldn’t even think about trying this, but he’s seen how fast Steve heals. He’s in rough shape, but what Sam knows--what these guys apparently don’t--is that if Steve’s still conscious, he’s capable of fighting.
They’re gonna learn that, though, and if Sam has anything to say about it, it’ll be the last thing any of them learn.
There’s the sound of a zipper being pulled down, and Sam’s gut clenches. Somehow, even after everything, he didn’t really believe that they’d--that he’d--
He looks away as the man grabs a handful of Steve’s hair and drags him up, but he can’t block out the wet, obscene noises or the way the man groans in the back of his throat. The worst part of it is, Steve’s hands aren’t even cuffed. Even with a bullet in him, he could fight--but he won’t, because Sam is here. Because he doesn’t want Sam to get killed.
They’ll be having a talk about that once they get out of here, but for now Sam shifts his weight, as quietly as he can, and lets his hand drift toward the hidden knife.
His knees are on the floor, and the floor is cold.
There are other things he could focus on. The sick, burning pain in his injured shoulder, the rough hand tangled in his hair, the ache of his jaw, the way his lips are cracking at the corners, stretched tight--
--and this is new, isn’t it, they didn’t do this last time, at least not while he was awake--
--Sam, kneeling just inside the range of his periphery vision. Better not to think about that. It was bad enough having Bucky know, last time. Bucky--
His thoughts are coming in fractured bursts, and he feels like he’s only tenuously connected to his body. That’s not--he can’t--
His knees are on the cold floor. The man--the leader--he has a small gun in his left pocket, which is just about at a level with Steve’s face. There are two men holding guns on Sam, and another fifteen men in the room, not counting the bastard who’s currently trying to shove his dick down Steve’s throat.
It feels like--
Sam is moving, just slightly. Steve lets his eyes droop--he doesn’t have to feign the way they’re watering, and can only partly attribute it to the fact that his hair is being yanked out by the root--and glances over. Not at Sam’s face, he can’t bear to see that right now, but at the flicker of movement.
His hand, moving slowly, almost casually, toward his left boot.
Or, more accurately, his boot knife. He’s always kept one there, as long as Steve has known him. Wears it with civvies, half the time. And none of these dumb Nazi bastards thought to check for it. It’s liable to get them both killed, of course, but he can’t help the fierce surge of satisfaction.
The head of the man’s cock hits the back of his throat and he gags--or tries to--his whole mouth full of thick, pulsating flesh and the urge to bite down is so strong that he almost can’t resist it, and never mind that it’ll just mean a bullet in the head for him and Sam both--
And God, the taste of it on his tongue, thick and salty, the fingers yanking his hair so hard he half-expects his scalp to come loose--
--and suddenly, there’s an echoing, distant boom.
The man pulls back, releasing Steve’s hair, and Steve turns his face away and spits, scrapes his tongue against his teeth and spits again. There’s no laughter, not like last time. The gunmen are as silent as statues; the man in the suit is turning away, tucking himself back into his trousers, barking orders. It’s all bizarrely mechanical, actually, like out of all of them the man in the suit is the only one who’s actually alive.
“Go find out what that was. Now, you idiots--”
Out of the corner of his eye, Steve sees Sam’s hand move with sudden speed, and he reaches up on pure instinct to catch the blade that comes spinning toward him.
There’s a frozen instant in which none of the other men have noticed--he can see Sam’s fierce, wide-eyed face like the afterimage of an explosion--and then Steve flips the blade neatly in his hand and drives it up into the man’s gut.
Blood gushes, and the man lets out a cracked scream, and Steve is still moving--he’s on his feet, yanking the knife free, reaching with his other hand for the gun. It’s tiny, a silver-chased derringer that disappears into Steve’s palm. The grip feels slick in his hand, but that doesn’t matter; he shoots one of the men standing next to Sam, and Sam takes care of the other before he can aim. One quick, practiced strike to the throat and he’s twisting the assault rifle out of the guard’s hand, and now it’s them, one knife, and two guns against a room full of armed men.
“You crazy son of a bitch,” Steve breathes out, admiring, and that’s when the guards start shooting.
The first bullet whistles past his face close enough that he swears he can feel the burn of it on his cheek as dives for his shield. Another three bullets ricochet off just as he gets it up--they’re focusing mostly on him, thank God, even though Sam’s the one with the machine gun--and it’s awkward to have to hold it like this, naked, without the magnetic grips on his sleeves and with his injured shoulder taking the full weight. He shoots two more guards, and that’s it--the tiny pistol is out of bullets.
A three-shot burst from his left, a pause, and then another: Sam always shoots like something straight out of an Army training manual, and he’s a good shot but this is a goddamn kill box. They’re not getting out of here alive unless they get out now.
There’s too much space to throw the shield and he’s not even sure he could, the way his shoulder feels right now, but he still has the knife and he remembers Bucky’s relentless drilling with a blade very like this one. He flips it in his hand and throws it at the closest guy who’s just turning his gun on Sam like he only just now realized who the real threat here is.
“We gotta get out of here,” he pants, close enough now that his shoulder’s brushing Sam’s, bringing the shield up to cover both of them.
“You think?” Sam retorts.
Steve’s opening his mouth to answer when there’s the echoing boom of a gun much bigger than the guards’ M-16’s, and the world comes crashing down in grit and dust around them.
The first thing Sam is aware of is the silence, the kind of terrible silence that follows in the wake of an explosion, that moment of painless awareness before you notice that your leg has been blown off or you’re leaking guts all over the ground, like the whole world has been stuffed with cotton.
Then he’s gasping in a breath that tastes like gunsmoke and metal, and the pain hits. Left arm. The pain is deep and awful--broken, at the very least; he hopes it’s just broken--and he can’t get enough breath to make a noise because it feels like a house has landed on his chest.
Not a house. A body. Warm and bare and way too damn close, and he’s about to start freaking out for real when he realizes that it’s Steve, curled around him like a seed pod, shield up around their heads to create a little pocket of space. He’s breathing, but he doesn’t seem to be conscious.
“Steve,” Sam says. Tries to say. It comes out a thready whisper, and he clears his throat, tries again. “Hey. Steve.”
A grunt, and then Steve’s eyes blink open; it’s so dark that the only reason Sam can see that much is that they’re practically nose to nose. “Sam.”
“Yeah.” Sam rolls the shoulder of his uninjured arm, flexes his fingers, trying to loosen the rubble pressing in around him. Something shifts ominously, then settles. He tries the same on his injured arm, but that sends a silvery jolt of pain up his arm that has him biting out a low curse.
Steve’s eyes look clearer now, concerned. “You okay?”
“My arm,” Sam grits out. He can feel his fingertips now, resting on something smooth and cold, so it’s still attached. He hopes it’s still attached, and he really doesn’t need his mind filling in everything he’s ever read or heard about phantom limbs. It’s just broken. He’s fine. Steve’s the one he should be worried about, considering that he just had a building land on him on top of everything else. “You?”
“I’m okay,” Steve says immediately, unconvincingly.
“Right,” Sam mutters. He can hear gunfire, the stomp of boots. It’s distant, for now--the odds that anybody else could have survived that cave-in without a supersoldier literally holding the roof up over them seem pretty slim--but it is imperative that they get the hell out of here.
Easier said than done. He flexes his fingers. It hurts like hell. “Can you move at all?”
Steve grunts, and something shifts ominously overhead, and then some of the weight leaves Sam’s chest. He sucks in a deep breath out of instinct, and has to clamp his jaw shut to keep from coughing. Throat and eyes burning, he turns to squint toward the sliver of light that he can see now somewhere overhead. Steve’s bare shoulder is sticky where it’s pressed to Sam’s jaw; he’s leaking blood again, which isn’t surprising, all things considered, but doesn’t make Sam any more optimistic about their chances.
“So what do you think the chances are that was the good guys?” Steve asks breathlessly. There’s a worrying whistle under his words, but not a damn thing Sam can do about it right now.
A huff of laughter. “I’ll take those odds.”
Steve shifts again, makes a low, pained sound, and then, incredibly, he’s standing, shoulders bowed under the weight of a massive steel beam, arms outstretched to hold it steady. Rubble and debris showers over Sam, and something shifts agonizingly against his broken arm, but he almost doesn’t notice.
Steve heaves the beam aside and reaches down to give Sam a hand up. After a moment, Sam takes it. His legs still work, surprisingly. The arm is attached, although it dangles at a strange angle that he doesn’t really want to examine in any detail right now. Be a while before he can use his wings again, that’s for sure.
“Sometimes,” he says, “I forget how fucking strong you are.”
Steve wheezes a laugh, bending over at the midsection. Blood is flowing from the bullet hole again, mixing with the gray dust coating his chest. He’s holding the shield at an angle that hides his groin, and although Sam is almost certain that’s not intentional, it still makes him wince. Steve’s clothes--and Sam’s gun, now that he thinks about it--are almost certainly buried under that mess. No time to go looking for them. Priorities. Get clear, wait for a rescue, hope like hell it shows up in time.
They’re not behind enemy lines, at least. This is America; if they can make it out onto the main road in one piece, their odds will improve drastically. “Can you walk?”
“Yeah,” Steve says, but it’s a long moment before he straightens, painfully. Sam slips under his shoulder without waiting for him to ask--he wouldn’t--and ignores the protest of, “Sam, your arm--”
It hurts like a motherfucker, but it’s not gonna kill him. And the shouting is getting closer. “Let’s go,” he says.
The dust is beginning to clear by the time they pick their way down to the flat, and Sam gradually becomes aware of the sound of engines overhead. Not choppers. He looks up, squinting and unsteady, into the blue and--
It’s the Quinjet, silhouetted against the pale autumn sky. High up, out of reach of the .50 cals. As he looks, a small dark figure drops from the rear hatch.
No parachute. The figure tumbles helplessly, caught in the slipstream, and then it’s falling, getting bigger, and bigger faster than gravity can account for--
The Hulk hits the ground with an earth-shattering roar. Sam can hear automatic weapons fire, and screaming, and a weird, punch-drunk noise that’s almost a laugh escapes his mouth. “Well,” he says. “It looks like it was the good guys after all.”
It’s done. It’s over. The cavalry’s here.
Against his side, Steve makes a low, breathless noise and stumbles hard, too overbalanced for Sam to catch him before he hits the ground.
The hands that lift him are massive, hot as a volcano and big enough to hold the whole damn world. He’s cradled against a massive frame, too big to be real, too big to be human--
“--gentle,” says someone overhead. “I’m pretty sure he has a punctured lung, be careful--”
A woman’s voice, brisk and cool. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” says the voice tightly. Sam. It’s Sam. “Take care of Cap.”
Sam is not fine. His arm is broken, at the very least, not to mention whatever they did to him before he got to Steve. Steve opens his mouth to say as much, but then the arms holding him shift position and the pain whites out his vision.
It’s a long time before he’s aware of anything at all.
He wakes in the hospital. He can tell that much by the smell, before he even opens his eyes--the smell, and the distant sound of beeping and footsteps. The space immediately around him is as quiet as a tomb, but he can hear someone breathing. He opens his eyes.
Sam is sleeping in the chair next to him. Or--no. He’s not sleeping, he’s moving, putting up an arm to rub his eyes--the other is in a cast resting across his lap--and Steve closes his eyes quickly. He doesn’t feel prepared for anything Sam might want to say. Bucky--
It was different with Bucky. Bucky knew him well enough not to bring the subject up again, and anyway, he might have seen enough to figure out what happened, but that’s not the same thing as actually watching it. The memory of Sam’s horrified expression is not something he can go anywhere near, not yet.
“Hey,” Sam says quietly. His voice is raspy. “I know you’re awake. You don’t have to say anything. I’m not gonna--I’m not gonna ask where your head’s at right now. Just, can you open your eyes? Please?”
Steve clenches his jaw, but there’s nothing in him that is capable of denying the request, not when Sam sounds like he’s holding himself together with chewing gum and bits of string. He opens his eyes. For a long moment, he can only stare at the gray-tan drop ceiling directly above his head, but he finally manages to roll his head toward Sam. “Hey.”
“Morning,” Sam says, with a pretty good imitation of a smile. “You’ve been out for two days. The hostages all survived and they should make a full recovery. And every last one of those fuckers is either dead or in jail, just so you know.”
Steve licks his lips. “Your arm?”
“Compound fracture,” Sam says, “but they don’t think there’s gonna be any nerve damage. I’m on medical leave for the duration. Natasha and Bruce already signed my cast, and don’t think you ain’t next.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve says, closing his eyes.
Across the room, he hears the chair creak as Sam stands. “Not your fault a building fell on me. If you want to blame anyone, blame Tony and Clint. They’re the ones who were blowing shit up.”
“You came after me.”
“Yeah, I’m a heroic kind of dude,” Sam says seriously, and that’s enough to startle a laugh out of Steve. It makes his chest ache in a sharp, distant way, but nothing seems to be shifting in ways it shouldn’t. He’s been hurt a lot worse than this and walked away. He’s fine.
His mouth tastes morning-sour and metallic from the IV. He scrapes his tongue against his teeth, wishing he had a toothbrush. “You didn’t have to stay here.”
“I’m just hanging around to steal your food and flirt with the nurses,” Sam says. “Also, I kind of had a feeling you might want to bust out of here AMA and I figured I’d bring you some pants just in case.”
And yeah, there’s that. He’s wearing a hospital gown right now, but he remembers enough to know that he was bare-ass naked when the rest of his team found them, and there’s not a one of them who couldn’t put the pieces together to figure out what happened. It makes a blinding, helpless rage rise up to choke him, because he’s done this dance already, he knows the steps by heart, he didn’t think he’d have to do it again. Not with his team, not with people he needs to respect him, to trust his decisions in the field. Not with his friends.
But none of that is Sam’s fault. Steve swallows it all down, and manages to say, “Thanks.”
“Yeah, no problem,” Sam says, subdued. “So do you want out? I can wait outside while you change. Or not. I’m not trying to talk you into skipping out early, and they did have to dig a slug out of your shoulder. That definitely earns you a nice, long stay in a hospital bed if that’s what you want.”
“I’m fine,” Steve says, which might be a slight exaggeration but isn’t actually a lie. His whole body feels like he’s been beaten with hammers, but at this point it’s nothing that won’t heal just as easily in his own bed, and being in this hospital bed, in the soft, stuffy quiet of this room, makes him feel like he’s being smothered. Sam called that one right enough. “I’ll take the clothes.”
Sam sets a backpack on the edge of the bed. “I’ll wait outside.”
Getting dressed is slow going, but Steve manages it. He slings the empty backpack over his good shoulder and makes his slow, hobbling way toward the door.
Natasha is leaning against the wall next to Sam when he gets outside, her expression cool and unreadable. “Steve.”
Steve inclines his head. “Natasha.”
She presses her lips together like she’s trying to find the appropriate words, and finally comes up with, “I’m glad you’re not dead. Do you want to get out of here?”
“Your bedside manner could use some work,” Steve points out, but he can’t help the smile that twitches the corners of his mouth.
“I’m bad at this,” she agrees, without rancor. “But I really am glad you’re alive.”
“Yeah,” Sam says. “What she said.”
“And you’re--you guys are okay?”
“We’re fine,” Natasha says. Sam nods. He’s pretty sure neither of them is being completely honest--Sam’s arm is in a cast, for Chrissake, and there’s the memory of what he saw, which Steve isn’t even going to go near; Natasha’s face is pale and bruised and there are deep shadows under her eyes that she hasn’t bothered to cover with makeup. It gives her an appearance of vulnerability that’s almost certainly calculated, because everything Natasha does is calculated, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
On the other hand, he’s walking out of the hospital with a fresh bullet-hole in his shoulder, so it’s not like he has a leg to stand on. “Thanks,” he says. “For coming back for me.”
Natasha lifts one shoulder and smiles like a sphynx. “Anytime.”
She’s not going to ask, Steve realizes. She’s not going to make him talk about it. That’s probably a grace period with an expiration date, but she’s not going to ask now, not when he feels thin-skinned and raw, not when his mouth is still bitter with the remembered taste and his kneecaps still ache from the concrete floor. “Thank you,” he says again, more seriously.
Sam claps him on the shoulder, and the warmth and pressure of his grip is good; familiar, like an anchor. “I have a car down in the lot. You ready to get out of here?”
“Am I ever,” Steve says with feeling. “Let’s go.”