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The cage had induced a state of boredom the likes of which I had never experienced before. Hydra agents stopped by now and then to either issue threats or cajole me into talking. I remained in the dead center of my cell just out of reach of their arms, took up a lotus position, and pretended to ignore the world. Conserving energy until the moment they moved from the preliminaries to the real show.

I wouldn't enjoy that part. The bumps and bruises sustained when they'd grabbed me nothing compared to what I knew would be coming in the next few hours. Oh, I'd been prepared, we all had been, trained to resist pretty much any form of torture. The thing of it was that they hadn't been after me, but Captain Rogers. I'd managed to intercept their attempt, ruined their opportunity to grab our fearless leader, and essentially forced them to take me instead.

They hadn't been thrilled at the time, but their boss had seemed satisfied enough with the result.

Not that I knew anything of real importance. Yes, I had received the rank of an avenger. Small a. Until recently I only occasionally saw those who had earned the capital A. I didn't mind being on the b or even c team. We did good work, backed up the Captain, or Falcon, or Widow or any combination thereof. We did support, full tactical units, much like the STRIKE Team had been when Cap had been with SHIELD.

We thought Hydra had been wiped off the map that day, but clearly not. A lot of the higher-ups, the old guard had survived and had closed ranks, going to ground and hiding in plain sight. Even after Agent Romanov had released all the SHIELD files, the names of many of those who had been Hydra remained a mystery.

I'd remember the faces of all I met here and would arrange to hunt them down once I'd been freed.

And I would be freed one way or another. Either I'd break out on my own or someone would come and get me.

But until the opportunity arose I would bide my time and learn all I could.


I felt the shoulder pop out and somehow didn't scream at the excruciating pain that shot through me. I sagged in my bonds, not able to get my feet underneath me. I stared down at the wet floor between my toes, unable to lift my head up at the moment. They had burned out the battery about an hour ago and had moved on to more direct... encouragement. They'd wisely kept their distance and used metal batons to hit me. My right eye had swollen nearly shut, my right ribs were probably broken, and now they'd dislocated my shoulder on that side. The hit just right to force it out.

They wanted codes to get into the computer systems back at the Compound. I had them, not uber high-level ones like Stark, but more than enough clearance to allow them to cause all kinds of trouble. And once in, I doubted they'd have much trouble digging in deeper and the last thing anyone needed was a fledgling Hydra with brand spanking new Stark tech.

Like playing with Loki's scepter hadn't been bad enough.

Or the way screwing with the Chitauri leftovers had ended so well.

Bits and pieces could still be found in the rubble of the fallen city. Some more dangerous than others and the science teams went over every recovered item with a fine-tooth comb. No way in hell I'd help Hydra recover any of that data. Even less chance I'd give them the opportunity to rebuild and make another attempt at world dominance.

I felt harsh hands grasp my hair and lift my head up. "I'll give you credit, you can take the pain, but it's unneeded. Your access code and the pain will end."

I knew that to be a lie. Even if they stopped hitting me I would be in pain for weeks as I recovered. Though why in the name of all that was holy they thought grabbing Cap would do them any good remained far beyond my ability to grasp. My capacity to take some pain had nothing on the sheer stubbornness that had been imbued within the body of one Steven Grant Rogers.

I pulled together what strength I could and drew my head away from him. As unobtrusively as possible I wrapped my good hand about the chain attached to the wrist by a now bloodied cuff. The slickness hand not been enough to permit to slip free sadly. I'd tried, but they'd made certain the metal had been placed snug against my skin.

He gave me a smile, seemingly convinced that I'd decided to give him what he wanted, but instead, I flipped my legs up, locked my ankles behind his head with his neck between my knees, and squeezed tight. With a practiced twist, I heard a satisfying snap and released the body to fall to the floor. I would have to remember to thank Agent Romanov for making certain I had that particular move down. My feet hadn't returned to the floor when the blows began. A lovely combination of batons and cattle prods. I did what I could to protect my head and neck and took the blows.

Still, I had pissed them off by killing the goon with the sweet voice and it only took two hits to my head; one to the back the other to the chin to take what little fight I had left right out of me. Just as the world began to fade I thought I heard distant gunfire, but logged it off to one of the knocks to the head.

After that, I knew only darkness.


I hurt everywhere. Or I would if it weren't for the extraordinarily strong drugs they currently pumped me full of. I could feel my fingers, thankfully, which meant they'd reset my shoulder into place. Those were gonna be some seriously impressive bruises.

My eyes fluttered open to see Sam sitting in one of the chairs, a book in his hands which suggested he'd been there for a while. I tried to drum up the energy to let him know I still lived but instead felt my lids grow heavy and slip shut. I heard a grumble of discontent, realized it came from me, then gave the whole consciousness thing up as a bad job and drifted back into a heavily drug-induced slumber.

I drifted for quite some time. Heard doctors and nurses come and go. Blinked open my eyes to see various members of the Avengers seated in that chair, which I found odd, but I didn't have the ability to complain about or question the whys of it.

I had no clue how much time had passed when a raised voice jerked me back into something vaguely resembling consciousness.

"You little fool," someone groused at full irritated volume.

"She's fine. Or will be in a few weeks."

I recognized both voices and cracked open my eyes to see Sam with a hand pressed to the center of Cap's chest as if he were attempting to hold the man back. Not that he could if Steve really wanted to move forward. He'd roll right over Sam like a Zamboni on the ice.

I snorted at that comparison. Given the Captain had been frozen for the better part of a hundred years an ice rink reference would probably earn me a reprimand from the man himself.

They both went still, heads snapping about to focus on me. "Why 'm I a fool?"

Sam bounced over to me. "You're awake."

"Well, kinda." I felt more aware than I had since... well since I fell unconscious under the tender loving ministrations of those Hydra goons. Using just my left arm I attempted to push myself into a sitting position. Sam quickly moved to assist, a hand on my back supporting me, then adjusting the pillows so that I'd be reasonably comfortable. "Where am I? The Compound?"

"Yeah, kiddo. You took one hell of a beating. Just take it easy, for now, you've earned it."

I looked him in the eyes. "Why are you here?"

"Why shouldn't we be?" Steve grumbled, brows knitting together and his gaze on me a heavy one.

I snickered, regretting it instantly at the pain that shot through my ribs and shoulder. Clearly, they had cut back on my pain meds. "Because Captain America and the Falcon have better things to do than babysitting one injured agent."

Steve's jaw tightened, the muscles visibly popping, then he turned on his heel and strode stiffly from the room.

"Sam, what the hell is going on?" Okay, so maybe the effects of the meds distorted my perceptions, but I could swear the man who had just stalked away from us had been angry... at me.

He tucked the sheets up higher about me, playing either mother hen or distraction for all he was worth. Finally, he said at just above a whisper, "He was worried about you."

"And what? Now he's mad 'cause I'm fine?" That made no sense to me at all.

Sam shook his head. "No. Or not exactly."

"Sam, I've barely spoken a dozen words to that man outside of an op and I have not only him but every first string Avenger hovering over me." I shook my head, thankful to discover the discomfort minimal. "I've been hurt before, what's so different this time?"

A low vibration came from the hallway that I felt more than actually heard. "You got hurt protecting me."

Steve reappeared in the doorway, brows drawn together, corners of his lips turned down in not quite a frown.

I glanced over at Sam whose eyes had gone wide at the dark tone in his friend's voice.

I ignored it. Completely. "Yep, I did. So?"

"So?" Steve echoed at a near shout. "So you could have been killed."

I sighed, shaking my head still not understanding why he'd decided to be mad at me. "Captain Rogers, that's part of the job." His face flushed and he opened his mouth to argue but I ran over the top of him. "They were after you. The whole damn thing a set up so they could grab you." I shrugged, regretted it instantly as my right shoulder screamed it's unhappiness at me, winced but raised my chin in defiance, and kept going. "I overheard their plan and intercepted them. They took me instead."

Sam scrubbed a hand across his face. "They used you as bait," He hooked a thumb at Steve, "to draw him in any way."

"I figured."

"And you just assumed I'd come rescue you?" Steve rumbled out.

"No. Oh, I knew someone would come, just wasn't expecting the A-Team to waste their time on me." True enough. Our glorious leader had enough on his plate to even be bothered with a simple rescue mission. Tier 1 or not.

"Waste my time?" He shot a look at Sam. "Is she really that clueless?"

Sam shrugged. "I doubt it." He gave me a quick grin that only I could see. "In fact, if I recall correctly she's one of the smarter ones."

Steve aimed those blue eyes at me and I resisted the urge to swallow hard in reaction. The man was well and truly pissed off and I had absolutely no idea as to why. "So you didn't hear a single thing said at the prep meeting."

I grinned, noting my left cheek must still be swollen based on the tightness I could feel. I caught Sam's eye and he winked at me. I then proceeded to repeat every single word spoken at that meeting. Including the questions asked by team members. My voice changing to mimic that of the original speaker.

Steve's eyes got rounder and rounder for several minutes, then the glare returned, his face darkening dangerously. Finally, he snapped his hand out in an effort to get me to stop. "You're the one with the eidetic memory."

Sam did everything he could to swallow his laughter. "Better than that but close enough."

Steve's shoulders dropped about half a mile as he gave up his efforts at playing bad cop. "That's how you got them to follow you, you mimicked my voice."

I nodded. "Captain, I'm expendable. You are not. We all go into these missions knowing that. I mean it's not the same as taking a bullet for you, but-" The rest of the sentence choked off at the look he shot me. Not anger this time. More like dismay mixed with worry.

Then he spun about and left the room without a word.

Apparently, something more was going on here. Something I didn't understand. I tossed off the covers causing Sam to squawk at me.

"What are you doing? You can't get up yet."

"Sam, either help me or get out of my way." I proceeded to carefully remove the IV needle from my forearm with my mostly useless right hand. Thankfully, Barton had insisted on making certain I could fake ambidextrous. Only my handwriting not yet up to snuff with my non-dominant hand, and even that damn close.

"Jeez, kid, just..." He found some supplies, slapped a bandage on the bleeding wound then helped me to my feet. The knees only wobbled for a moment, my strength not great, but better than I could have hoped for. Sam found a robe and tossed it over my shoulders, assisting in getting the one arm in, which I appreciated given the decided breeze I'd felt on my backside.

"Take it slow. You break yourself and it'll be embarrassing for all of us."

Not like I had much choice. "FRIDAY, where did Captain Rogers go?"

"He's down the hall, in the lounge area."

Sam stayed right next to me, ready to catch me if I decided being vertical happened to be too much of an effort on my part, but I had little trouble other than my toes wanting to curl into my feet to get away from the icy cold tiles.

Steve stood at parade rest, kind of. Hands together behind his back, but instead of straight and tall, his shoulders slumped and curved inward. His entire posture not that of anger and pride, but defeat. The sunlight that hit his blond hair practically created a halo around his head, making him appear far more than human, which could only be appropriate I suppose.

Sam stayed near the wall while I slowly walked forward, taking care with both my balance and the robe, which kept trying to slip off my right shoulder. "Captain, what did I do wrong?"

He twitched. Plainly, he'd been so deep in his thoughts he hadn't heard us approach. "Technically, nothing," his voice soft as if wanting to be angry, but not certain it was appropriate any longer.

"Then why am I a fool?" The statement that had woken me from my drug-induced slumber.

"Because you risked your life for him, duh." That came from Barton, who sat in the far corner, tablet in hand, doing his version of stalking. The guy could hide in plain sight, waiting patiently in the shadows like a bird of prey before striking. And he always went for the kill, even if just with words. "He doesn't ask to spar with you 'cause he thinks you need more training. You remember the moves perfectly after your first exposure."

Steve sighed. Sam coughed, though I had the feeling it was to cover a laugh.

I felt like... well, a fool. "Captain?" I liked the man, most of us did, but if he had ever shown that he had feelings for me beyond boss and employee I'd obviously missed it completely.

Without turning about he muttered, "Give us a minute."

Barton snorted, but unfolded and walked over towards Sam. "Coffee?"

"Sure," Sam agreed and seconds later the sound of their footfalls faded into the distance leaving me alone with my Captain.

I shuffled over to the oversized couch a few feet behind him and settled into it with only a single groan escaping from me as I reclined into the plush cushions. I had a bad feeling getting back up would be a greater challenge. Then again I could always just take a nap right here. The sunlight warm enough to make me want to bask in it. And, truth be told, I already had used up what excess energy I had trailing the man to his current location. I had a fair idea how badly I'd been injured, but hadn't looked at my chart to see all the niggling details. Hell, I had no clue how long I'd been napping. Several days at the very least.

"You are not expendable." He glanced at me over his shoulder. "Not to me anyway."

"Just me or all the Tier agents?"

"And if I said just you?"

I shifted, my ribs protesting, but even though I ignored the pain I could not prevent the sound that made its way past my lips, face scrunching up at the sharp jab as bone scraped across bone in my side.

Suddenly, an extremely large supersoldier knelt before me, his hands hovering over me wanting to touch, but appearing afraid to do so. "Fool, you should be in bed."

"You know, you keep calling me a fool and I'll show you exactly how hard I can hit even when injured."

He laughed. Both his calloused hands wrapping around my mostly uninjured left. "I know how hard you can hit. I don't believe you have ever held back when sparring with me."

I huffed in irritation. "No point, you can take a punch from a mere mortal without flinching."

"You are not a mere mortal. I just... when they took you, I--" He bowed his head down over my hand much to my shock.

"Steve?" I didn't know if I were questioning my sanity or his or maybe both. If he liked me that way he'd never given me any direct indication. In fact, he would often work me harder than a lot of the other agents, which had made me assume that I'd been lacking in a variety of skills no matter the high rank I had achieved.

He shivered in the warm light that bathed both of us then lifted his head to meet my eyes. "I still don't know how to do this."

"Well, given I had no idea until this morning... or whenever it is, I think, maybe, we can figure it out together." My lips quirked in a half-smile. "How about you buy me a cup of coffee, soldier?"

He nodded. "Of course, ma'am." He stood, still holding my hand in one of his, and assisted my gaining my feet. Then he scooped me up in his arms. Before I could complain he said, "Docs'll kill me if you're caught walking around."

I muttered imprecations under my breath. "Fine, just this once."

He laughed. "I hope not."