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at the gates

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Something groans overhead—groans all around him, really, deafeningly loud. The whole building sways above and around him. Bucky keeps crashing into things, walls and heavy industrial equipment, as he can barely see through a haze of concrete dust raining steadily from the ceiling; no pun intended, he’d tell Sam if he were here, but this isn’t looking good, birdy

It’s a very good thing, he thinks, that Sam is not here.

Metal shrieks above him, followed by the sort of rumble that can only precede imminent destruction. The door, the goddamn door in front of him, is blocked by a hunk of machinery, and even as Bucky grabs one edge to hoist it up he knows there won’t be time to make it out of this building. 

“Sam,” he blurts, sort of instinctively, and the commlink in his ear chirrups, registering the sound of one of his teammate’s names.

Now wind whistles in his ears instead, almost drowning out the earth-shattering rumble above. Bucky feels vaguely thankful for this, that Sam is somewhere above, still alive and flying. 

“I’m a little busy,” Sam says, his tone strained. “Call Rhodes or—”

“Sam,” Bucky says, “I’m still inside.”

“What?” Sam says. “Then get out!”

Bucky shoves the mass of metal aside, creating enough space for him to slip through the open doorway into the stairwell beyond. “Yeah, roger that,” he says, “but it’s coming down, and I—”

A burst of gunfire over the comms. Sam sounds even more harried now, his voice going tinny through the earpiece. “Stop talking and run, Barnes!”

Bucky opens his mouth to speak and coughs on dust. “Sam,” he manages, “Sam, listen to me—”

The first slab of concrete overhead falls, slamming into his right shoulder; Bucky drops to his knees with a grunt. “Sam,” he says. “I love you. D’you hear me?”

Everything gets very dark and very loud suddenly, but Bucky can still hear Sam, somewhere in the sky. He doesn’t much like the idea of dying alone, but at least Sam isn’t here, thank God Sam isn’t down here—

Things begin to quieten down. There’s a ringing in his ears.

Sam again, fainter now. “Barnes? Barnes, do you copy? Answer me, goddamnit, say something—”

Bucky passes an unknowable amount of time in a gray-black haze, kept there for a while by pain. He’s familiar with the burning, itchy torment of bones attempting to knit back together, the serum’s effects felt in real time. It’s difficult to breathe. The stabbing pain as he inhales and the whistling rattle as he exhales can’t be good, but he can’t bring himself to care.

At some point, breathing becomes easier. The haze changes colors after time, going from black to gray to a paler gray, tinged with white. When he comes out of it enough to open his eyes, Bucky realizes why—the ceiling above him is white, lit by the wan light of dawn streaming in through a few large windows on the wall to his left. 

It’s early, still time for sleep; Sam should be gone for his morning run. They must be on a mission, Bucky thinks. They’re always on a mission, somehow.

He wakes again when the light of day becomes unignorable, brighter now, the morning sun cresting over the skyline visible through the bank of windows. He’s unmistakably in a hospital room, small and off-white, mercifully dim except for the natural light. He’s aware of other things now, sensations he hadn’t noticed before. A thick blanket covers him from the chest down. It still hurts to breathe, an achy sort of pain that spikes slightly with every inhale. His left leg and right arm feel heavy, strangely immobilized. His upper lip itches. 

It’s the upper lip that does it; he shifts one arm out from under the blanket, his left—the vibranium, at least, has held up—and tugs gently at the oxygen cannula he finds at his nose.

“Stop that,” Sam says.

Bucky had been vaguely aware of a presence to his right, but is—judging by the way the whole room seems to tilt slightly as he turns his head—perhaps too doped up to have bothered to pay much attention to it. “Tickles,” he croaks.

“Yeah, well,” Sam says, leaning forward in his seat, the plastic creaking under him, “you start moving around, everything else is going to do a lot worse than tickle.” 

Bucky looks Sam over for a moment, searching first and foremost for signs of injury. Nothing visible, at least. He’s wearing a long-sleeved green shirt, flattering on him, and gray sweats—curious, as Sam rarely wears sweatpants out in public if he’s not exercising. His face, though, is where the real wear and tear shows. He looks tired, his color washed out. His eyes are bloodshot. Whether from exhaustion or something else, Bucky can’t be sure.

Sam is still talking. “Of course, they’ve got you on an opioid drip strong enough to knock out a bull elephant.” He raises his eyebrows. “But you, like the common bull elephant, apparently, just don’t know when to quit.”  

Bucky smiles at that, more to appease Sam than out of actual amusement; his feelings are sort of muffled right now, blanketed by what must be a truly impressive amount of drugs. Sam deserves a smile, though, and looks like he could use one. 

Sam’s mouth twitches a bit, just at the corners, sort of tiredly. “I know you’re not going to ask how bad it is,” he says. “Your left leg’s broken, got a couple of fancy screws in it now. The doctor didn’t believe me when I said you’d probably be back on your feet within a week or two, but, well, I know how you are.”

Bucky would ordinarily protest this—an accelerated healing factor is not exactly his fault—but deems it best to let Sam get it all out. “Two fractures in your right arm. Dislocated and fractured right shoulder. Multiple fractured ribs. Your collapsed lung’s doing okay now, though. Got contusions over every inch of you and you’re damn lucky you didn’t rupture any organs—but they’re still watching your spleen.”

“Who needs a spleen, anyway,” Bucky says.

Sam gives him a quelling look. “Don’t even start with me right now.” 

Bucky sighs, then winces. “How long have I been out?”

Sam checks his watch. “Almost thirty-six hours even,” he says. “Not including the six hours you spent buried under concrete.” 

He looks at Bucky again, his expression difficult to parse, brow furrowed and gaze serious. Bucky looks at the bags under Sam’s eyes and something twinges in his chest that has nothing to do with a few busted ribs. 

“It was Banner that dug you out, actually. Do you remember any of that?” Sam asks. 

Bucky shakes his head, his hair scritching softly against the pillowcase. “No,” he says. He’s sort of glad he wasn’t conscious, given the level of pain he probably would’ve been in, not to mention the general embarrassment of it all. God forbid someone got a crappy cell phone video of Banner lifting his limp body from some rubble—the news’ll have it on a loop all day. 

“What, no fossil joke?” Bucky prompts, when Sam just looks at him.

Sam’s jaw clenches. “Sorry, Barnes, it’s an off day.”

Bucky swallows, or at least attempts to; his mouth and throat are uncomfortably dry. When he opens his mouth to speak, he coughs hoarsely, an involuntary action that sends a blaze of pain up through his chest, severe enough that even the medication can’t tamp it down. 

The sharp look in Sam’s eyes softens immediately, and he fumbles down by his feet before lifting up a bottle, the fancy metal one he totes around that makes one hell of a racket any time it so much as bumps something. He rises from the chair and moves closer, holding the bottle carefully to Bucky’s mouth. This isn’t strictly necessary, as Bucky’s left arm, at least, is fully functional; nevertheless, Bucky drinks the cool water eagerly. Something in his chest clenches again, almost painlessly this time, when Sam murmurs, “Hey, take it easy.”

Sam withdraws the bottle after a moment, and Bucky wipes clumsily at his mouth with the back of his hand. “Thanks,” he says, and then, “Are you mad at me?”

Sam looks up at him, movements hitching very slightly as he screws the lid back on the flask. “No,” he says. “I’m not mad at you.”

“Really?” Bucky says. “Because it feels like you are.”

Sam’s jaw tenses again; he looks like he’s chewing something over. He doesn’t sit back down in the chair and now he won’t look Bucky in the eye. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Really. It’s been a long couple of days.”

“I bet,” Bucky says softly, looking at Sam, taking in the tense set of his shoulders, the inelegant clasp of his fingers around the neck of the water bottle. He wishes he could sit up without either hurting himself or being told to lie back down. He’s seized by the fiercest urge to pull Sam close, to kiss his face; it’s the only feeling other than pain strong enough to pierce the fog.

But he couldn’t do that no matter how badly he wanted it, of course, because they don’t do that sort of thing. They touch each other, sure, but only in short bursts, just to get each other off, to blow off some steam; everything else is just an accidental brush of hands over schematics, the gentle bump of knees under a cramped table. But he craves touch from Sam and has no idea, really, if Sam notices, if Sam has any fucking idea; he’s been starving for months now, it feels like, sustaining himself on whatever Sam gives him.  

“You want to try raising the head of the bed a little bit?” Sam asks, less briskly than he might normally, plunking the bottle down on the rolling table standing near the foot of the bed. “You’re not really a pneumonia risk, but still—”

“Sam,” Bucky says. 

Sam stops talking. This is something of a surprise. Bucky seizes the opportunity, asking, “Did you hear what I said? Before.”

“What you said before a building fell on you?” Sam asks, fixing Bucky with a tired look. “Yeah. I did.”

Bucky swallows, ignoring a stab of pain in his achy throat. “I hope that’s not why you’re upset,” he says, watching Sam, determined not to look away even if this hurts, too. “I understand if you don’t—feel that way. But you can’t expect me to go to my grave without saying how I feel, Sam.”

Sam fidgets, sort of compulsively, with a snarl in the IV line that winds under the sheets, where it presumably connects to the back of Bucky’s hand, as the crook of his elbow seems to be encased in plaster. “You think I’m upset,” he says, glancing up at Bucky’s face, “on account of what you said? Nah, baby, that ain’t it.” 

Bucky blinks, befuddled by this, but Sam carries on, “You scared the hell out of me, Barnes. It’s not your fault. But I don’t like being scared.”

His voice doesn’t waver, but he blinks a couple of times, too quickly, and Bucky is abruptly, horribly aware that Sam is about to start crying. He’s never seen Sam cry before—not really, and certainly not because of him. “Sam,” he says, shifting, getting his left elbow under him; the right refuses to cooperate. “Sam, it’s alright.” 

“Don’t sit up,” Sam says, his hands twitching toward Bucky’s chest instinctively.

Bucky lies back against the bed again, but not before he reaches out and catches one of Sam’s hands, quick, and pins it gently to his chest before Sam has the chance to pull away. He wonders if Sam can feel the thud of his heart, knocking around in there like it is just for the thrill of having Sam close. “Yeah, I got a little banged up. But I’m going to be okay,” Bucky says. “Really, I am.”

Sam blinks a few more times, then nods. His fingers flex slightly against the thin fabric of Bucky’s hospital get-up. “Yeah. I know.”

“And I wasn’t just saying what I said because a building was about to fall on me,” Bucky says. Then: “Although that might’ve lit a fire under my ass, not gonna lie.”

To his surprise—and immense pleasure—Sam half-smiles at this. “Yeah,” he says. “I know.”

Bucky holds onto Sam’s hand for a moment longer, then twitches his head towards the left side of the room. “Get around here, Wilson, so I can hang onto you for a minute.”

Sam rolls his eyes, but he obliges, dragging the chair around the foot of the bed so that he can sit on the other side. Bucky lets his left hand rest, palm-up, on top of the covers. He bites back a smile, a little worried of scaring Sam off, when Sam takes him up on the offer. 

There’s quiet for a few moments, save for the hustle and bustle of a busy unit just outside the door, raised voices and shoes squeaking on waxed tiles. Bucky might push the button for more medicine soon; a dull ache has begun to make itself known in his leg, although it’s manageable for now. He thinks Sam might be persuaded to get him food from somewhere other than the hospital kitchens. 

Sam still looks a little misty-eyed, so Bucky stays quiet, letting him calm down a little. He tangles their fingers up and Sam smiles.

“So,” Bucky says, after a while, “you gonna say it back?”

Sam raises his eyebrows, then grins, familiar and gap-toothed and sweet. “I’ll think about it.”