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expendable

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expendable

 

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."

 

Chapter Text

I don't think she realized exactly how bad of shape still was in. Her hand shook every time she lifted the cup of coffee to her lips, but her eyes were clear even if her face remained pale due to pain.  I had become extremely aware over the last few months of how stubborn she could be. I hadn't planned on this. This infatuation, but I hadn't resisted all that hard either.

I liked her. Liked her stubbornness, which had permitted her to survive being captured and tortured by Hydra.

We'd found the body lying on the floor next to her, neck neatly snapped and recently at that. Given the fresh beating, it had been a fair bet she had done the deed. All while battered, bruised, and restrained.

I'd been suitably impressed. Nat had been unmitigatedly proud.

Holding the cup to her lips she quirked an eyebrow at me. The eye below still black and blue and puffy.

"What?"

"Was gonna ask you the same. All you've done is stare at me. I know I'm a mess, but..."

I reached out to wrap my fingers gently around her wrist, causing her words to trickle to a stuttering halt. "You're lovely."

She snickered. "I look like I've been mauled by a semi-truck and you think I'm lovely?" She glanced at my mug of caffeine which I had yet to touch. "Did you add quality pharmaceuticals to your coffee?"

A snort could be heard from across the room. "He's just smitten."

She sighed and rolled her eyes. "How have you not smashed him in the face with your shield?"

I grinned. "Clint has his uses. Sadly subtlety is not one of them."

"No shit," muttered Sam. "C'mon, we have trainees to lord over." Sam waved his cup of coffee at the doorway. Clint grumbled, clearly wanting to continue to harangue us so that he could report back to Nat how things had gone. With great reluctance, he stood and trailed after Sam.

The others in the cafeteria gave us a wide berth as if they had some clue about why I had brought her here. Well, they would know more than me.

"You don't have to compliment me. I know I'm built like a tank." She sipped at her coffee, watching me, and waiting for my reaction to her words.

Not a tank, but a lifter, an agile one at that. Her shoulder, back, and arm muscles overdeveloped for a woman. I'd seen her square off with men who outweighed her by nearly a hundred pounds and been unable to move her after a running charge. Hell, I'd seen her do full-on Olympic style snatches with a weight that made me blanch; certain she'd been about to injure herself.

And yet she'd done it with seeming ease. Yes, there'd been effort required, but she had the confidence to know she could do it. "You deserve every compliment you get. You have impressed me since day one."

"I believe I accidentally started a brawl on day one and damn near got tossed out on my ass."

I laughed. "Yes, you did. But you were more than justified in doing so." I reached out to run my fingers along the back of her hand. "There is a reason you are still here and he is not."

Her cheeks pinked. "All this time Captain America has had a crush on me and I had no idea."

I ducked my head for an instant as she wasn't exactly wrong. That event had brought her to my attention, but others had brought me back and made my interest more than just curiosity. "I probably should have said something sooner, I know..." If things hadn't come to a head, if she hadn't been taken by the remnants of Hydra, I would probably still be off in my own little world unable to even give a hint as to the fact that I wanted to be something more than boss and co-worker to the lovely woman sitting across from me.

I simply had no clue how to tell her that.

"Steve?"

Before I could make an attempt to explain two women and a man hustled over towards our table clearly intent on something.

"There you are. Why are you out of bed?"

She turned with all due care to face the combined wrath of her caregivers. She hooked a thumb in my direction. " 'Cause he called me a fool."

I sighed heavily as three pairs of eyes turned towards me. "I did not intend to have her follow me, I was just expressing my concern for her well being... poorly." All three of them, plus many others knew damn well I'd been hovering over her bed since she'd been cleared for visitors. They might not know all the details, but given the whole team had been standing guard since she'd been brought in they had surely figured out something was up.

Two of the three gave me nods of acknowledgment, while the third, the one obviously in charge of her charge, frowned. "And coffee? She should not be having caffeine until the doctor clears it."

"It's decaf," I admitted earning a glare from the girl across the table.

"Oh, well then-"

"If I promise to return her in ten minutes can we be alone?"

The glare deepened for an instant, but the man leaned forward to whisper something in her ear that caused her eyes to widen. She gave me a curt nod. "Not one minute more. And if she deteriorates in any manner-"

"I'll call for help, promise."

That seemed to satisfy the trio and after one last warning glare, they marched away, shoes squeaking on the tiled floor.

"Decaf? Traitor."

I chuckled. "Tired?"

"Unbelievably. But it looks like I'm going to be stuck in bed for a while to heal. Not exactly a prime vaycay, but I'll take it."

"You'll be bored in two days."

She nodded in agreement. "I'm certain I have mountains of paperwork to deal with. My team does not run itself."

"Your team will be just fine. Hill has been keeping them in line." At my request, though she didn't need to know about that. They'd been worried about their leader, understandably, especially since I had not permitted them to be on the rescue team. They were good, damn good, but too worried about her and could have made serious errors in judgment. Though I could have been accused of the same, I supposed.

She snorted more enthusiastically than she intended, grimacing in pain and making me wince in sympathy. Broken ribs hurt like a bitch and paired with the dislocated shoulder I really had no idea how she'd managed to stay awake this long, much less find the energy to argue and joke with me. At least I knew I would have the opportunity to find out.

"Hill is a brave woman for taking them on." She yawned then, hugely, apparently surprising even herself with the need of it.

I glanced at the clock on the wall, we still had nearly half the time remaining, but I suspected it would take most of it getting back to her room, so I slid my chair back and stood. I moved to stand beside her, hand out to assist her up should she be in need of it.

I half expected an argument, but she did little more than look up at me with quiet eyes before setting her hand in mine and groaning her way upright. I permitted her to walk... well, shuffle really, though she groused about the temperature of the tiles beneath her bare feet and we said nothing to each other until we reached the door of her room.

"So, for all these months you've had a thing for me and decided to show me by beating me up on the regular?"

I helped her to bed, trying to find the words to explain the whys of how I'd behaved. As I pulled up the covers I shrugged. "I just wanted to make certain you'd come back from your missions. The more training, the more detailed training, the better your chance of coming home."

"To you?" she questioned sounding both astonished and exhausted. She had every reason to feel both right now.

This time I blushed. "Yeah. If nothing else I knew I'd get to see you again."

She shook her head. "And here I thought I was the worst team leader ever given not only Cap, but every other Avenger always singled me out for punching bag lessons."

I sat on the edge of her bed. "That was never the intent. You and yours are not Tier 1 for nothing. Remember that."

She gave me a wry grin. "I'm sure you'll find a way to make it up to me."

Just then the trio of nurses appeared in the doorway, precisely when I expected them. "As promised."

That earned me a tiny smile and nod of approval. "The doctor will be in shortly to examine you, in the meantime..." She left the sentence hanging, but the implication was clear. Go away and let us work.

I stood. "Need anything?"

"Clothes. Nothing fancy, schlep wear will do. Now that I'm something vaguely resembling conscious I refuse to wear this." She flapped the robe revealing the horribly thin hospital gown beneath it.

I glanced over at the head nurse, who nodded. Perhaps realizing she would probably not win this particular battle. "Anything else."

"My tablet."

The nurse coughed.

"It'll be here by the time you wake up." I was actually impressed that she didn't argue the need for a nap. I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. "Behave," I admonished, causing her to snicker.

"No promises."

"Fair enough." I glanced over my shoulder at the now impatient head nurse. "Good luck," I whispered then left the room to permit the staff to do what they needed.

I headed for her pod, fully intent on getting her belongings.

Chapter Text

They'd gone from IV meds to pills that only dulled the pain enough to permit me to doze for a couple of hours here and there. The moment I tried to do something stupid like rollover or shift position I woke right back up, any number of body parts screaming their unhappiness at me.

In truth, I'd rather have been up and moving, no matter how slowly, since it would keep the muscles loose, which in turn would help ease the ongoing discomfort I felt.

The docs seemed to think this was the worst idea ever and required me to call for assistance even when I wanted to hit the head. Granted, I had ignored that directive and managed to not only deal with calls of nature but get cleaned up. It had hurt, but I wanted... needed to do it on my own. I knew that if I couldn't prove myself, prove I could bounce back from this they would let me go and no matter the size of the A I would no longer be an Avenger.

Captain Rogers having a thing for me wouldn't make a bit of difference if I couldn't be found fit for duty.

I lay there in that half-awake state where I floated on puffy clouds of semi-consciousness when adrenaline flooded my system, somehow certain I was no longer alone in the room.

I remained still, focused my other senses, and heard soft breathing and the creak of leather suggesting someone sat in the chair to the left of the bed.

"You can open your eyes."

I knew that voice. "To what do I owe the honor of a visit from you?" I cracked open my eyes and turned my head to see Barton sitting sideways in the chair twirling an arrow between his fingers, an oversized cup of coffee on the floor beside him. The man loved his coffee and would rarely be seen without a cup near to hand. When here, anyway.

The rumors had begun not long after this facility had opened up, ones suggesting that the reason he didn't spend a lot of time at the Compound was that he had a family. Wife, kids, house with the proverbial white picket fence.

I always shut them down immediately because, in the end, it didn't matter and, more importantly, it was none of our business. If he had been lucky enough to manage a life in this line of work, more power to him. They sacrificed so much and deserved every bit of joy they could find in their crazy lives.

"Well, Nat wanted to talk to you, but she got sent on a mission so..."

"So she tagged you in to interrogate me." I'd been on the receiving end of Agent Romanov's interrogation techniques and knew exactly how effective they could be. She had also taught me how to defeat them. Not that I had to worry about that here.

He snorted. "I'm nowhere near that subtle."

"No shit. Not quite as blunt instrument as Thor though."

"Oh. Ouch. My pride has been bruised." He picked up his cup without even looking for it and took a long drink. "Nat had a few concerns."

With care, I planted my left arm and shoved until I sat upright. it didn't hurt as much as it had yesterday but still failed to be anything vaguely resembling pleasant. "About what? I'm not scheduled to be debriefed until tomorrow. Maybe. Docs are being way too cautious."

"Docs are concerned about PTSD. Though I suspect you are tougher than that." He cocked his head. "I seem to recall you getting top marks in interrogation resistance training."

I shrugged with the one working shoulder. "I can take a hit and that's all those Hydra goons seemed to know how to do." I chuckled softly. "They could have used a few lessons from Natasha." I didn't really have the right to use her familiar name, but it seemed appropriate to do so here.

"Yes, I suppose you can," he agreed, twisting agilely in his seat and planting his feet on the floor. "Your skills have never been in question. Why did you take Cap's place?"

I had to admit to a bit of surprise at that question. "Would you have?"

He cocked an eyebrow at me. "Cap is pretty damn good at getting himself out of trouble."

"You didn't hear what they had planned. I did. So I made a choice." I'd gone over that decision dozens of times and not once had I doubted that I'd made the correct move. I had made the right choice and would do so again if a similar situation presented itself.

"But why?" he pressed, leaning forward with his forearms on his thighs.

"Do I really need to repeat my whole we're expendable and you are not speech?"

"Only if you want Steve to magically appear and yell at you some more."

I shook my head. "He doesn't get it. Yeah, we all go into missions knowing we might not come back out, but…" I shook my head certain I wouldn't be able to explain in a way he would understand. "We can save today. Steve, you, the rest of the Avengers can save the world. So-"

"Did you just quote Wonder Woman at me?"

"Technically it was Steve Trevor, but that doesn't make it any less true." I honestly hadn't expected him to have seen Wonder Woman. The words had resonated with me and my team and had only confirmed what we all knew anyway. We, all of us lesser agents, were the orcs of the Avengers. We played fodder so they could save the day.

"You really believe any of us are willing to sacrifice you?" He actually sounded offended and no little upset at the realization.

I shook my head. "No, but if push comes to shove we'll die so that all of you can live." I rubbed the side of my face, the swelling had gone down, but it still hurt. "You can't tell me you didn't know that?" Yes, they lived in their version of an ivory tower, far removed from the day to day operations of the Avengers and all us little people who did that work. And while they didn't show up at the funerals of all those who had died doing their duty, I knew they cared, too much most of the time. They had to draw that line between us and them else they'd spend all their time protecting those of us without the superpowers instead of those innocents we had all come to defend. We could protect ourselves, ordinary people caught in the middle could not, so we did it for them.

He sat there, staring at me, the arrow in his hand still, eyes narrowed as he watched me. I wondered what he saw when he looked upon me battered and bruised and defiant. I might be broken, but I'd still fight as hard as I could if needed. "You are supposed to be support troops, not cannon fodder."

"In times of war they usually end up being the same thing," I pointed out. Not that I had seen much of actual war. I'd joined SHIELD after the Incident in New York and while I had been in fights, maybe even battles by some standards, I had yet to do so in an actual war. "Why are we talking about this?"

"Because I am easily sidetracked it seems."

I snorted and regretted immediately, both my shoulder and ribs not appreciating my amusement. "I know you're mad at me-"

"Mad? Why would I be mad?"

"Steve was," I groused. I got it, kinda, like a parent being mad at their kid when they've been worried sick about them. They're not really angry, but don't know how else to express their fear. I'd been on the receiving end of that a time or two when I'd done something exceptionally stupid as a child.

"Steve's dating skills are that of a ten-year-old."

"Ah, that explains why he hits me so much."

Barton barked in laughter. "You're not wrong. Do you even like him?"

I blinked, wondering what left field that question had come out of. "Uh, that's kind of personal, don't you think?"

"Very. Which is why I'm asking. If you're not interested tell him now. No harm. No foul."

My turn to laugh. So hard that tears formed in the corner of my eyes. Granted, pain had been a deciding factor, enough so that Barton became concerned and settled on the bed next to me.

"Hey, easy there. You puncture a lung, Cap'll return the favor on me."

"Sorry," I told him, wiping the tears from my eyes. He handed me a tissue which I took with a nod of thanks.

"What was that about?"

"Just you thinking I don't like the Captain. I've had a crush on him since the battle of New York. A lot of us have." It was weird to realize that they didn't see themselves as celebrities. I mean, Stark did and had spent a fair portion of his life being fawned over by men and women alike. The rest, however, had lived in the shadows, for the most part, the world at large not having a clue who they were, except for Steve. He'd been famous back during WWII as all the books and shows and cartoons proved, but he'd been divorced from it for the most part. Hell, he'd slept through a large portion of it. Only after saving the world from the Chitauri had he been thrust into the spotlight. I just didn't think he had any idea what that really meant.

He blinked. "Really?"

"Really really. All of you have fans and admirers. None of us expect to get the opportunity to actually spend time with any of you." I definitely hadn't even after being recruited by SHIELD.

"Then why did you act as if you didn't know?"

"Because I didn't. In retrospect and after talking with Steve a bit I can see it, but in the moment..." I huffed out a breath trying to figure out the best way to explain. "How useful would any of us be if all we could manage was to gush our admiration over all of you?"

He snorted at the imagery that generated.

"We turn it off, or bury it, or whatever we have to do to get the job done. It is an honor to work with all of you and those of us lucky enough to be here make certain to keep it professional."

"And now that he doesn't want to keep it professional?"

"I guess we'll see where it goes." I had no expectations. I didn't dare. "I have concerns."

"You haven't even gone on a date yet and you have concerns?"

"I've had plenty of time to think the last few days, so yeah."

"Like what?"

"Accusations of favoritism about me and my team. Being held back from missions because he's worried I'll be hurt. Same if we're on ops together. And that's just the tip of the iceberg."

He tapped that arrow against his boot, the dull thud of the alloy to rubber sole oddly soothing to me. "Huh, valid concerns, but if you can separate the man from the hero, then he can do the same for you and yours. I just... dating isn't exactly part of his skill set."

"So I've heard."

Barton shot me a look full of concern. "What does that mean?" he all but growled at me.

"Down boy, it means we've all heard the stories about him and Peggy Carter. Took him until just before his death to kiss her. And a few of us are aware he still visits her."

"You are better informed than most. Then you should understand he does not act on his feeling easily."

I nodded. "Can I still be gobsmacked he picked me?"

He snorted. "Yeah, that would be a good idea. It'll make him blush." Barton stood and began pacing about the room, the arrow once again spinning in his fingers. "We don't want to see him hurt."

"And I have no intentions of doing so. I'm no fool no matter what he may call me, even if turned into love everlasting it can't be for me."

He paused, head snapping about to look at me. "Why not?"

"Because I'm not immortal. In twenty years, should I live that long, I'll be in my forties and he'll still look like he does now." I sat up more, crossing my legs under the covers. I needed to stretch so bad, but it might have to wait until after a nap as I also could feel my energy waning even after having been awake so short a time. "If I can make him happy, if only for a few months, then it'll be more than worth any cost I must pay. He deserves to be happy."

As if those had been the words he'd been waiting to hear Barton stopped dead and turned to me. "Yes, he does. And I think you might be able to give him that."

"So did I pass? Will Natasha be satisfied?"

He laughed. "Yeah, you did good. Now get some rest. Cap'll be by later to say 'hi',"

"Tell him to bring coffee. The real stuff this time."

He wagged the arrow at me. "I'll let him know." Then he glanced over at the chair. "Speaking of which..." He trotted around the bed, scooped up his cup, and then escaped from the room with a grin on his face.

I buried my face in my hand for a long moment. Apparently, I would have the pleasure of being under the watchful eyes of the other Avengers to prevent me from causing our great leader any harm. Hadn't I just proved I would do anything for the man when I'd been captured in his place?

With an irritated sigh, I threw off the covers, slid off the bed, and made my way to the bathroom just to prove once again that I could.

Chapter Text

The building had been cleared out at least twenty-four hours ago. Much to the dismay of all of us, but most especially the Captain. Rumlow, one of the former members of the STRIKE team and Hydra agent had not only survived his wounds at the Triskelion but somehow managed to get away once well enough. He'd been running a mercenary crew ever since. One that had caused hundreds of deaths in the months following. Captain Rogers and the other Avengers had been hunting him and his crew with an almost zealous fervor.

Me and mine had only been on one other mission involving the now infamous Crossbones and that one had been even less successful.

"Gold leader, we've got bupkis, over."

I managed to not laugh at both the choice of words as well as the utter disappointment in the tone. My team had been looking forward to a fight, which made little sense given we'd spent the better part of the previous week in South America tracking down Chitauri weapons that had ended up in the hands of a cartel. And they had not given up the artifacts easily. A couple of my team still sported the remnants of the injuries they'd sustained.

Clearly, my people were gluttons for punishment.

"Fan out and find me something. They were here recently, no way they didn't leave a trail."

I got a round of 'rogers' and they proceeded to work their way deeper into the complex. By some miracle, it hadn't been yet another warehouse. No, looked like this place had been a call center once upon a time. Big open spaces with high ceilings and a maze of cubicles on every single one of the five floors. The majority of the equipment long gone, but the obnoxious maze of half walls with built-in desks and the occasional chair left had been behind for us to make our way through.

Weapon at the ready, just in case, I worked my way deeper into the room only to find my way blocked by dull gray walls that had clearly been arranged with some purpose. With a well-placed shoulder shove, I got them out of my way to discover a cleared area in the middle. "Well now isn't this interesting," I muttered.

"I'd say you found their nest."

I looked to my right to see Sam standing in one of the three routes they'd set up to get in and out of their camp. "Falcon," I acknowledged. "Why here though?" I asked mostly of myself. I looked over the area making note of anything and everything. The power and computer links all rigged to come up from the floor. They'd been in every cubicle, but here they looked different. "Thompkins, I need you."

"On my way, Gold leader."

"You got something, kiddo?" Sam never could seem to call me by name on a mission, at least not once the threat had passed. I didn't mind all that much, except when my team could overhear as they would never let me forget it.

"Maybe. Need Thompkins to look at it."

The woman in question, along with two others, appeared, their heads poking over another blocked area. Sam assisted and shoved the cubicle parts aside so they could join us. "S'up boss?"

"Internet connections look different here. Think you can tell me why?"

Thompkins grinned. "Your wish is my command." She went to the connections, tablet coming out, and went to work.

"How pissed is the Captain?" I asked Sam off comms.

He choked. "How you always manage such understatements still amazes me."

I shrugged. I had a decent handle on Steve and his moods. Pissed not precisely accurate, frustrated would be closer to the truth. And for him, it manifested as anger. He tried to hide it, but we all knew when to stay out of his way.

"Ooo, these guys were pretty good."

"What you got, Thompkins," Sam asked, taking an interest in the trio hovering around the cables in the floor.

"This connection is unique, Hydra tech from the looks of it."

"Big shocker there. Is it useful?"

Thompkins kept tapping her screen. "I can't tell you what they were doing here, but with a little creativity I can trace their signal to the most recent set of servers used and from there-"

"You can snag their ISP and track where they'd been playing in the 'net. Excellent." I glanced over at Sam who gave me a tight nod, seemingly satisfied with the lead we'd discovered.

"That's weird," Thompkins muttered.

"Report."

"An odd signal buried in the line. I'm trying to track it- Oh shit."

I shifted to look over her shoulder. "Show me."

She handed the tablet over and I took a look at the data on the screen. In less than thirty seconds I knew that while we'd been dead on finding Rumlow's hideout that we'd also been played. I tapped the comms. "Clear the building. Now."

"Kiddo?" Sam questioned, giving me a concerned look.

I urged my people up and towards the nearest escape route through this damn maze we'd found ourselves in. "Place is rigged to blow," I told him as I grabbed his arm and shoved him ahead of me. "Where's Cap?"

"Downstairs." He headed for the stairs that my teammates already pounded their way down. We had four floors and at least fifty yards to get out of the building. Not in the clear, just outside. I pointed at the windows. "Go. Get everyone you can in the clear."

"And you?"

"I'll find Cap." I ran for the stairs and moments later heard glass break as Falcon smashed his way out of the building. I rushed down the stairs trying to contact Steve the entire time. Either his comms were down or been lost, neither of which made sense. I heard from each of my team as they made their way outside. When I hit the floor Cap had last been seen on my comms died in a screech of static. The entire floor was pitch dark and yet another maze. I flipped on my shoulder lamp and went looking for my Captain. "Rogers," I shouted, only to find my voice muffled instead of echoing the way it had on the other floors.

"God damn it," I groused. I pulled down my goggles and flipped them to IR. Less than ten seconds later I had him. A dozen yards deeper in. I charged forward, somehow managed to not trip over the junk piled everywhere until I could see him standing there in the dark, with no light, and staring down at something the seemed to be on the floor.

I flipped the IR up. "Captain," I barked.

His head snapped about. "What are you doing here? You're supposed to be-"

"The place is rigged to blow, we need to get out of here." I skidded to a halt next to him, noting he held a file in his hand and that a half dozen others lay neatly on the desk before him. I glanced at them, noting they were SHIELD files, and then up at him. "Comms are being jammed on this level. We need to go."

He frowned deeply, crushing the file in his hand. "He baited me."

I didn't argue, the sand in that proverbial hourglass quickly running out. "Steve--"

The rumbling sound started from far below us, I could feel the energy ripple upward through the vertical beams holding this structure together. I oriented quickly, the stairwell behind and to my left and probably soon to be filled with flames and smoke. The windows almost straight ahead and far closer. The trip to the ground would be short and fast, but potentially survivable if I could just get Steve out of his own head for a moment.

I surged forward, grasped the shield harness on his chest, and dragged him towards our only real option for escape. The windows on this floor had been blacked out with paint or something similar that we hadn't even been aware of when we'd done out recon of the place from the outside. Ah, reflective surfaces, excellent for hiding behind. Although in this case, it might just get me dead.

I lifted my gun and fired at the glass only to immediately regret it as the bullets did little more than chip the paint, which I now suspected to be something else entirely, off the surface permitting tiny pinholes of light into the room.

Me firing my gun on full auto seemed to drag the Captain back to the here and now. Which turned out to be a good thing as the rumble had reached us and the floor began collapsing in the center of the room where he had been standing mere moments prior.

"Run."

I didn't argue and ran straight towards the window, as we neared he wrapped his left arm firmly about my waist, raised the shield on his right before us, and slammed straight into the window I'd been using for target practice. The glass broke this time, the vibranium forcing the impact to reflect back onto the ever so slightly weakened surface and shattering it outward.

We followed.

In midair, he replaced the shield on his back and rotated so that both he and the shield would be between me and the ground, which I could see fast approaching. He could see what took place behind us, making his eyes go wide in surprise.

The impact from the threeish story fall more than enough to knock the wind out of me, but before I could convince my diaphragm to unclench and draw in a breath, my Captain rolled, once again placing the shield and his body between me and what he already knew to be coming. I caught a glimpse of flames and huge pieces of concrete being pulled towards us faster than gravity could have managed on its own before the shield blocked my view. His body pressed on top of mine, eyes watching me filled with concern and anger. Though I doubted the anger to be directed at me this time.

And then it hit. the first few pieces pinging off the shield and away like rain or hailstones during a violent storm. Then the shield rang like a church bell, deep and resonant causing Cap to grunt in actual effort. After that it all I heard was dull thuds that caused the ground beneath my back to shudder violently; the light fading first due to dust and then because so much debris had fallen about us that we could no longer see the sun.

He somehow managed to arch up a bit, carving a tiny space out for the two of us. My shoulder lamp had gone out at some point leaving us in a darkness deeper than the one we had just fled from. My lungs suddenly decided to work again and I sucked in a breath filled with dust and smoke and of course in reaction instantly began to cough. I tried to lift my left hand to cover my mouth only to discover it had been caught under something. I tugged, freeing it by tearing a section of the sleeve off.

"Shit. Sorry."

I felt him shift, then a hand traveled up my arm to find the light and switch it on; all his weight on the elbow as he did so. He flinched away at the brightness, the rubble atop his back shifting ever so slightly much to my dismay.

"Easy. I'm pretty certain you're the only reason that mess hasn't collapsed on us."

"You'd be right." His head dropped down, clearly marking him as tired, though not about to give up.

I reached out that freed left hand to cup his cheek, noting the glove had been shredded, kevlar lined or not, but my fingers, while scraped up appeared to be intact. "You can do this and I can pretty much guarantee they'll be working on getting us out ASAP."

Just then, as if in affirmation of my statement, the comms crackled to life.

"Cap? Kiddo? You alive?"

Since Cap's arms were otherwise occupied I tapped mine with my free hand, and responded, "We're alive and intact, mostly. Though the Captain would probably appreciate not having to hold up all the rubble to keep me from being crushed."

"Working on it," Sam assured me. "Is Cap's comms out?"

I had no clue so I asked the man in question. "Your comms offline?"

"Fell out, I think." His voice was low and rough from the strain. The rubble above us shifted suddenly, dust and debris filtering down. Cap grunted and dropped several inches, his weight on my lower body and my face damn near pressed into his chest.

"Sam," I squawked, "stop."

"Can't, kiddo. I've got you two on IR and this is the only feasible route in. And, yeah, it's gonna get worse before it gets better."

I sighed, trying to not draw in too deep a breath as it would cause me to cough, which would probably end with me passing out due to the pressure on my chest. I tipped my head up slightly, recognizing the scent of crushed grass as I did so, my face now in the gap at his neck. He swallowed noticeably, the shoulder light not giving either of us much of a view at the moment.

"You know, I've wanted to get you in this position for a while now, but this wasn't quite how I pictured it."

Sam barked in amusement, while the rest of the team went into howls of laughter followed by oooooos of delight. "Girl, your comms are still live."

I grinned, fully aware of that fact.

Above me, Steve went startlingly still and for a moment and I thought I had pushed things too far, but then, much to my chagrin, he said, "Me either."

He carefully moved so that he could look me in the eye. I lay there in shock that he, that Steve Rogers, had even hinted that he'd wanted me. Really wanted me. No matter what had been said that day I'd woken up or those that had followed our relationship had not changed overmuch. A few more personal moments, fewer actually alone. Not a date, not a chance for more than a peck on the cheek or forehead now and then. But I understood. We had busy lives and saving the world came first. Always.

"Uh, I have no response that isn't entirely impossible at the moment."

He chuckled and I followed suit, both of us laughing at both the situation and the revelation that had been brought to light by it.

By the time we wound down, I found it hard to breathe, which had me concerned, yet I didn't mention anything to him. That would force him to act, instead of remaining passive and wait for the rescue we both knew to be coming.

Still, he lowered his head, nose running along mine as thoughts about being this close in far more comfortable surroundings with a lot less body armor assaulted my mind.

So his next words surprised me. "Sorry. This is all my fault."

I wheezed. "How do you figure that?"

"I got distracted and if it hadn't been for you-"

"Steve, we're fine. You're fine. I'm just glad I got to you in time." I panted to halt, his face spinning above me.

"Myla?"

"Lightheaded," I told him, voice faint even to my ears.

"Then stop talking."

I gave him a tight nod and did my best to slow my breathing, not that it would make much difference. When the air ran out I'd be the only one in serious trouble. He'd survived seventy years frozen, I doubted a few minutes without air would cause him any trouble. Me, on the other hand, well I would be quite dead.

Still, it didn't take long for feeling lightheaded to change into wanting to pass out and he quickly realized my situation was deteriorating quickly. Sam had been talking in my ear, but I'd been unable to pass the info along to Steve.

"Where's your comms?"

I rotated my head and felt him remove the earwig. I let my eyes drift shut, the world spinning madly about me even though I saw nothing. Reminded me of some of the more impressive drunks I'd been on.

"Sam, hurry up, we're losing air in here."

I didn't hear the response, of course, didn't really care too much either, just kind of wanted to take a nice little nap about now, which would, you know, conserve that air that had gone lacking, even though some niggling concern in the back of my mind assured me it would be the last thing I ever did were I to actually drift under. Steve pressed against me, a powerful presence that grounded at least part of me to the here and now. His fingers tracing along my cheek in a vain effort to prevent me from drifting away from him.

I tried to assure him I had no intentions of going anywhere but the universe twisted about me and the next thing I became aware of were shouts, bright light, and some annoying thing on my face which I batted away with a grumble of irritation.

Then I abruptly proceeded to cough a metric ton of dust out of my lungs followed by a whooping intake of air. I blinked owlishly, my head pounding like the worst hangover ever, and stared up at the face of Steve, who wore a look of such relief that I could only wonder what had happened in those moments I'd missed.

The oxygen mask was unceremoniously shoved back on my face, which did seem to help with the whole coughing thing. I realized my helmet had been removed and the jacket had been stripped off, leaving me in the form-fitting compression tee beneath. A blood pressure cuff had been wrapped around one arm and a combo O2 sat and heart rate monitor stuck on a finger.

"How do you feel?"

I glanced at our medic who shot me a warning glare and shifted the O2 mask only enough to answer, "Head hurts," before swiftly replacing it.

"Hypoxia will do that to you," Sam informed me, which meant I'd been without air for too long. Taking note of the soreness to my chest I suspected I'd been given CPR as well.

The Captain didn't say a word, just watched me with that worried blue-eyed gaze. I tried to give him a smile of reassurance, but either he didn't see it or didn't believe it.

Carter flashed a penlight in my eyes and grunted. "You'll live. Broke some blood vessels in your eyes, so you'll have that horror movie vibe for a few days, but that's it other than some scrapes and bruises."

I looked up at my Captain, trying to say, 'see, I'm fine,' with my eyes alone when I saw the edge of a file folder tucked into his jacket. I would bet dollars to doughnuts it was the same one he'd had in his hand when I'd found him. Which meant... which meant he would place all the blame on his own shoulders even though none of it had been. Rumlow had been the cause of all this, we'd simply done our jobs and got caught out. It happened.

"Captain-"

He shook his head at me and turned away.

"Locals are on the way," Sam informed me. "We'll need to coordinate with them to keep the fire from spreading. We'll get you moved into the quinjet as soon as you're deemed stable."

"I'd give it another ten minutes," Carter told him. "Her O2 saturation still isn't great."

Sam nodded. "You two, with me and the Captain."

They glanced at me first, which I appreciated, but I gave them the go-ahead. Ultimately, even though I was the team leader, we all answered to Sam and the Captain.

 

~^~

 

They turned me loose from the infirmary after only a couple of hours. Mostly due to my stubborn ass bitching that I felt fine and threatening to prove it. I mean, yeah I'd stopped breathing for a while, but hadn't actually died or anything.

My team would be off rotation for a few days as we filed our reports and tried to figure out what had gone wrong on the op.

I went back to the pod, cleaned up, and put on civvies, most certainly not on duty for the next little while. My team had pretty much done the same, scattering about the Compound in an effort to relax after an unexpectedly hard day.

I debated the merits of paperwork for all of ten seconds before heading to the mess hall intending to get a bite to eat but, after glancing around the mostly empty room, instead grabbed a pair of to-go coffees.

I went to Steve's suite.

I didn't even bother checking with FRIDAY. I knew he would be there.

I pressed the door signal with an elbow and it opened almost immediately and I had to wonder if FRIDAY had ratted me out. I'd been there a few times before, even been inside, but never for long. All of our interactions in public, which made sense I supposed. Dating in the forties had been vastly different from the Netflix and chill of today.

I had to admit to appreciating his efforts at treating me like the lady I so would never be and always being a gentleman, but after the surprise revelation of today wondered if maybe I should have pushed his boundaries a bit more.

Not tonight though. This would be anything but a booty call. I'd seen the look in his eyes when I'd come to and noted his lack of presence at the infirmary, which meant, this time, Steve Rogers had blamed himself for my injuries.

I did not.

But I hadn't come to change his mind like so many others had probably tried to do.

"Shouldn't you be in bed?"

My answer involved holding up his cup of joe and waving it under his nose. His eyes narrowed for a moment, but he grudgingly took it and stepped aside, gesturing for me to enter his not so humble abode.

I heard the door click shut as I sipped on my latte. His black with two sugars, the way he always took it, but I made certain it had the fancy dark roast I knew he preferred. I headed for the living room, intending to flop on his couch when I saw all the files scattered across the coffee table. He had both a laptop and tablet running, each running a separate search from what I could tell at a quick glance. The file dead center looked like it had been recently crushed then painstakingly smoothed out, the older manilla file darkened with age and much handling.

I set the cup down and picked the file up. The words all done in Cyrillic letters, which I hadn't read in quite some time. Oh, I could speak Russian fluently, but reading it took serious skill. Still, it took mere seconds to pull up that virtual file in my mind, and the letters went from undecipherable doodles to words, and sentences, and paragraphs all about one man: The Winter Soldier.

"Sergeant Barnes?"

Steve yanked the file from my hands, an actual scowl adorning his features. "This is not something you need to worry about," he rumbled at me, leaning over to close all the other files still open.

It didn't take a genius to know who they were about. "It is if it's distracting you on ops."

He shot a glare at me, but I held my ground, not about to let him chase me away when it had become acutely clear he needed someone to talk to.

He tapped the one file, the only one that had survived the explosion earlier. "Rumlow left these for me to find. Knew I wouldn't be able to resist even if it meant screwing up the rest of the op."

"Steve, you didn't screw anything up. Thompkins got the lead we hoped for and you got more info on your friend." I waved at the lone file. "We didn't get Rumlow, but we went in knowing that the chances were slim. This might get you closer to finding Barnes."

Steve blinked. "How the hell do you know all that?"

His personal hunt for the AWOL Winter Soldier had never been a secret, but it also didn't involve anyone beyond him and Sam for the most part. He used Avenger resources but always went looking on his own time. "I listen and I remember." I shrugged then gently took the files from him and set them neatly on the coffee table. I sat down on the sofa, reached out to wrap my hand around his, and said, "Tell me about him."

He snorted. "Right 'cause you haven't memorized every detail already," he sneered, yet he didn't move, didn't pull his hand away from mine, the look in his eyes suggesting he waited on me, on the right response before considering my suggestion worthy of his attention.

"Sure, I know everything the history books, both civilian and military have to offer, but that isn't what I asked about." When he seemed unconvinced I tugged on his hand to encourage him to sit beside me. "Tell me about your friend, please."

His eyes changed, that haunted weariness lifting like the sun breaking through a thick fog. He gave me a nod and talked. For hours. Stories of his youth. Stories from the war. Tidbits and anecdotes I knew no one aside from those involved had ever heard before.

Although thoroughly enthralled with the tales it had been an exceedingly long day and my eyes grew heavy and I apparently drifted off somewhere during a tale of the Howling Commandos stealing eggs and milk from a local farm.

I twitched awake, fire and smoke from a war I had never seen filling my mind, the impact of a bullet to my chest jerking me back to awareness.

"Whoa there, you're fine." Steve's hand gently held me in place.

I found my head resting on his thigh, his hand moving from my shoulder to caress my cheek. "Ah, shit. Sorry, didn't mean to fall asleep on you."

"Old stories from an old man, of course, they put you to sleep." Thankfully there was a hint of a grin on his lips and mischief in his eyes.

Still, I refused to permit him to think anything he'd said had been boring or uninteresting."Christ, you are so self-deprecating." I sat up, his hand not moving other than to cup the cheek instead. "I want to hear more. Every story you are willing to tell. The reports and files have no life to them and what you and Sergeant Barnes went through deserves to be remembered as more than historical records."

His eyes went wide. "Sometimes I almost believe you mean what you say."

I drew back with a huff of indignation. "Wow. Didn't know I had a reputation for being dishonest." The realization caused an unexpected ache in me. I knew the attraction between us had been unplanned and that he had trouble putting how he felt into words, but to all but accuse me of playing him hurt. When I tried to pull away, fully intending to head back to my room and my bed and not bother the great and powerful Captain America any longer, he moved his hand to my shoulder and stopped me cold. Using that strength to keep me in place.

"I did not say that anywhere near close to right." He leaned forward and kissed me. Not some quick peck on the forehead. Not a brushing of his lips upon mine, but an actual for-real kiss. Lips parting, tongue darting out to encourage me to open mine, insanely strong arms wrapping around me with a gentleness I hadn't thought possible. I took it as an apology and sat back to enjoy the ride.

By the time we came up for air, we were sprawled on the sofa, him atop me reminiscent of the events of earlier today... or yesterday by this point I imagined. "Umm, yes, much better without the debris and threat of imminent death literally above us."

He burst out in delighted laughter, throwing his head back for a long moment until he wound down to chuckles, head tipping back down until buried against the side of my neck, his body still shaking in amusement even as his teeth found skin to nip at.

As a distraction, it worked. I sucked in a breath and arched at the entirely unexpected contact. That only seemed to encourage him, which I didn't mind one little bit. My hands found their way under his shirt, shifting it up to expose the tight muscles to the air of the room. He shivered as I dug my fingers in, permitting me to feel the flex and flow of him. I didn't use nails, doubting he'd want to be marked up in front of trainees come tomorrow, but I had the need to make my claim upon him known to others. Weird for me, but all I could do was acknowledge the urge while resisting acting upon it.

His lips found their way to mine, this kiss possessive and needy. He pulled away suddenly and I could only wonder what he saw given the sudden look of concern in his eyes. "Sorry," he muttered, almost sounding embarrassed.

I blinked. "For what?"

"You need rest, not... not..."

"You? Provided you don't go all supersoldier on me I can handle it. Though it would be interesting to explain to the docs how and in what position you broke me."

He got this momentary look of horror on his face which, thankfully, dissolved into amusement. "You..." He trailed off appearing flustered.

I had no clue what he was trying to say. "Steve, you can talk to me about anything." I cupped his cheek, enjoying the feel of his day-old stubble. I utterly refused to imagine the feel of it upon other areas of my body. More, I did not close my eyes and bite my lip thinking about it for an instant.

"I know. I just... You challenge me and... and I like that."

"Well, someone's got to. You've had it too easy all these years." I made certain to keep my tone light, so he could be certain that while the truth it also had been meant to tease.

He chuckled, his pupils dilating in the warm light of the room. "Keep it up then."

His lips found the hollow of my throat as a distraction, but I couldn't resist my next words. "Thought that was your job." I shifted my hips to emphasize my point just in case the innuendo had been lost on him.

Based on the look in his eyes when his head snapped up, it hadn't. "Stay tonight."

I swallowed with some difficulty and a delicious heat radiated through me at his not so subtle overture. Still, the smartass in me couldn't seem to keep her mouth shut. "I don't know, what have you got to offer?"

He shifted up onto his arms, one eyebrow quirked high on his forehead, while I just lay there waiting with a challenging smirk on my face. When he stood up I feared I had pushed too hard this time, but all he did was remove his shirt and toss it away.

Mind you, I'd seen the man in skin-tight workout wear, sometimes as little as a sweaty A-line, but never fully shirtless and, boy howdy, was it magnificent. I would completely deny goggling at him, but the amusement in his eyes at my reaction pretty much decried that.

"Like what you see?" He sounded oddly disappointed in me.

I nodded and pushed myself into a seated position. "Yes. Why, shouldn't I?"

He glanced around the room as if wondering where his shirt had landed so he could put it back on. "Of course, you should," he muttered, "it's the best our government could buy."

I snapped to my feet; a hand on the center of his chest. "No. This," I tapped my fingers lightly, "was always here."

He shivered, then set a hand over mine, causing my fingers to still their movement. "What do you mean?"

"Erskine's formula just made you the best version, right?"

He nodded slowly. "That's the theory."

"That means this," I took the time to really look him over, permitting my gaze to linger here and there and admire the beauty of the man before me, "had always been within you. Even when five foot nothing and one hundred pounds, this was there." I tipped my head up to meet his eyes. "You have always been this person, nothing will change that."

I must have said the right words because the next thing I knew he'd flung me over his shoulder all caveman-style and strode briskly deeper into his suite. When he set me on his bed it was with unexpected gentleness.

We didn't say much after that.

 

Chapter Text

"So, how's it going with your girl? She have a toothbrush at your place, yet?"

The question so startled me that I failed to catch my shield as it bounced back towards me. It struck me solidly in the chest and damn near put me on my ass. I would have glared at her except she was nowhere near me. Handling the tech aspect of this open while I distracted the ground troops by hitting them.

I activated the magnets in my arm brace and the shield leaped from the ground and back into place on my forearm. Just in time as I began to take gunfire again. Made me wish Thor was here to use the lightning on them.

"Nat," I growled, not about to discuss my personal relationship with her. Not over the comms, at least.

"What? I spent all that time trying to set you up I want to make certain it's going well."

The idiot shooting at me ran out of ammo and while he switched magazines I surged forward and bounced his helmeted face off my shield, effectively taking him out of the game for a little while via a forcefully induced nap. I sighed heavily. "Are you telling me you were picking recruits in hopes I'd date one of them?"

"Well, to be precise Hill recruited her, but you do seem to have a type, which helped." She grunted and I heard the familiar sizzle-zap of her Widow's Stings in use, which meant she was multitasking again. The fact she could fight and carry on a perfectly normal conversation had always both impressed and scared the hell out of me. She compartmentalized extraordinarily well.

A new idiot started firing in my direction, quickly joined by two others so I took cover behind a fairly solid wall and waited for the excitement to die down while thinking harder than I preferred. I didn't like that the girl I been attracted to had been a plant. Though I felt certain she'd been completely unaware of that fact. While she could lie smoothly, she never had with me and her shock at my reaction to her being hurt had been as real as it got. She'd been clueless about my attraction to her mostly because I'd been spectacularly bad at telling her. That weird deeds over words mentality I had never quite lost.

"And now she's stuck with me," I muttered. The firing paused and I moved forward, throwing my shield and forcing two of the three to dive for cover with shouts of surprise. "You got that data yet?" I wanted this op over with and for this particular conversation to end.

"Not yet. Their security is better than predicted. I could actually use some backup here."

I tapped my comms to switch frequency to the team one in time to hear Clint respond, "On my way. Wish we'd had a unit with us."

I'd nixed that early on. This should have been a cakewalk based on the info we'd gathered. Instead, they'd been far more prepared than we'd planned for. Our team of four not quite enough to handle all the necessary tasks. "Sam, can you draw off those on the east side?"

"Roger," he replied followed by the roar of his engine as he maneuvered around the building to draw their fire away from Nat and towards him. "I agree with birdbrain though, we needed at least one tactical team on this."

Nat snorted, then grunted as she either took a hit or dished one out. "Clint, hurry up."

Irritation washed over me and I gave up the pretense of distraction since Nat clearly had her hands too full to get the god damned job done. I stood and began walking forward using the shield to block the bullets being shot at me from handguns. I kept track of when they'd need to reload then flung my shield to take them out with minimal effort. "Nat, can you get to that server or not."

"I'm in. Download initiating."

"We're boxed in though," Clint added, the thwing of his bowstring easily heard over the hum of the servers and the occasional pop of a gun in the distance.

"I'm on the roof, best I can do is cover your exit," Sam informed us. "Nevermind. I'll be distracting the two trucks of heavily armed security that is tearing down the road."

I sighed heavily. "Sam, keep them busy. I'll clear a path and let you know where we'll be making our exit."

"Works." The rush of air told me he'd taken off, the explosions that followed told me they'd come prepared for an aerial assault. Great.

Somehow this op had fallen apart almost from the moment it had begun. Nothing in the intel had been correct, which made no sense given that Hill had worked on this one herself. Granted she'd wanted us to take a minimum of one tac team with us, preferably two, but I hadn't listened.

"Steve, we have those teams for a reason. You can't refuse to use them just because you're afraid they'll get hurt."

And there it was. Spoken out loud, hopefully for only myself to hear, and maybe the eagle-eared Clint who currently defended his friend and partner so she could get the tech to cooperate.

I hit the stairwell and headed down, intending to clear them a path out for when we'd accomplished our mission here. "It's not that-"

"It's exactly that. You've refused tac teams the last three ops for no real reason."

"We didn't need 'em," I growled through grit teeth.

"We need them now," I heard Clint state in a raised voice which proved he'd been listening even though it hadn't been broadcast over the comms.

I burst out onto the server room floor, surprising the half dozen that had taken up positions to prevent Clint and Nat from escaping. They spun about which allowed Clint to take two down quickly with arrows sticking out of their firing arms. They were down but not out, really, so I moved in, blocking the few potshots taken at me as I knocked the remainder out.

"I have my reasons," I informed them, tone defensive even to my ears.

"Yeah, not wanting your girlfriend to get hurt," Nat snarked.

"That's not-"

"Yeah, man, it is. You don't want any of 'em to get hurt, but that's what they're paid to do."

"If you say they're expendable I'll-"

"Steve, get off your high martyr horseYou aren't the only one willing to die for God and Country."

Clint guffawed. "You went there."

"About time too," Nat grouched still out of sight in the server room. "You aren't the only one who gets to play the sacrificing hero. Download complete."

"Wipe it."

I heard her grunt in acknowledgment. "Commencing. Let's get out of here."

I couldn't have agreed more, especially if it also ended this conversation I did not want to have. Still, as we made our way out of the building her words kept poking at me, digging in deeper and deeper and making me question more than a few decisions I'd made lately. "How do I decide who lives and who dies?" I muttered, loud enough for the comms to pick up, but making it obvious it had been more thinking aloud than an actual question.

"You don't. You ask them to do their jobs and deal with the fallout afterward. Just like always," Clint answered in a frank tone.

We met little resistance, most had been dealt with on the way in, leaving few interested in stopping us now that we were leaving even though they had to know we'd gotten the data we wanted. Maybe for them, the job wasn't worth it. For my people, it would have been. Defiant until the end.

So why had I refused to permit anyone to assist us?

We burst out into the bright sunlight, yeah, we'd decided that during the day had been the best time to make our attack. Early morning, but still lacking the cover of darkness we often took advantage of on infiltration missions of this type.

Sam joined us as we approached the quinjet, his wings folding neatly as his feet hit the torn-up turf. He'd taken care of the vehicles and those in them with quick efficiency, but there had still been damage done. Most notably shredded plants and singe marks on the perfect lawn.

"We got the package?" he asked as we ducked into the 'jet. Clint stripped off his quiver and set it and the bow aside as he headed to the front to handle piloting duties.

Nat sneered at him. "You had doubts?"

"Given the excessive amount of resistance, yeah, I had doubts." He set his hand against the wall as the quinjet lifted off the ground with a slight wobble. "Next time we take a team with us." His tone brooked no argument and admittedly we'd been both outnumbered and outgunned. The planned quick in and out having taken nearly triple the expected time and had been far noisier than intended.

"Stealthy that was not," Nat complained, "but we got it done." She held up the flash drive that contained the data we'd gone in to retrieve.

Sam sat down next to me. "Cap, would you have done ops like these with just the Commandos?"

Now that was a low blow and unfair, to say the least. "That was war," I growled, hoping he'd drop it.

"And this isn't?" Nat argued. "The rules have changed is all, but this is as much as war as the last one you fought in."

I huffed out a breath, wanting to argue with them, but since I'd literally fought an alien army from space, Hydra, and then an army of robots bent on the utter annihilation of the human race couldn't help but admit they might just have a point. No, there weren't big lines drawn on a map with our side/their side simply delineated, but there had most certainly been a good guy/bad guy, for life/against life vibe going on since I'd awoken.

And those who had been recruited, living and working at the Compound had chosen our side in that fight. Leaving them on the sidelines did them a great disservice. It would be like suggesting no one other than the Howling Commandos and the SSR that supported them had been of any value during the war.

Foolish and egotistical.

Something I rarely became.

Stubborn and angry?

Yeah, I knew those and had learned to moderate them.

I sighed. "I just don't want anyone to get hurt or worse."

Sam set an understanding hand on my shoulder. "None of us do. But they chose this, chose to stand with us and hold the line, no matter the challenge, or risk."

I nodded. "All right. I'll permit tac teams on our ops as needed..."

"I hear a but in there," Nat observed and not incorrectly.

"But not on ops involving Rumlow." I couldn't do that again. His need for vengeance so deep he wouldn't care how many he killed so long as I had been.

Sam opened his mouth, probably to argue the point, but Clint ran over the top of him. "Good idea. His kind of crazy is too far beyond the norm. Makes him unpredictable and too dangerous for the ords."

"Ain't you an ord?" Sam argued with a grin.

Nat snorted. "None of us are ordinary, it's how we ended up here."

Sam pondered for a long moment then nodded in agreement. "Good to know I'm special."

I laughed softly. "Don't you ever doubt it, Sam."

Chapter Text

He had actually fallen asleep.

That didn't happen all that often no matter how hard I tried to exhaust him. I always gave in to the siren call of sleep, what with being a mere mortal after all. He would invariably play the gentleman and cuddle, his solid presence a comfort I had come to miss when apart.

So, I propped myself up on an elbow and reveled in the simple pleasure of knowing he was mine, if only for a short amount of time. I could have him, but not keep him.

And, while not fine with it, I could live with it. I would become nothing but a memory, a moment spent without loneliness during the long centuries he could potentially see.

I could only hope he'd remember me with fondness and a smile.

I reached out and brushed a stray lock of hair off his forehead. He'd been letting it grow out, the length reminiscent of the pictures I'd seen of him in the forties and just after being woken up. Not that I'd encouraged it, though I did enjoy digging my hands in and holding tight, he'd mostly just not had time to get it cut.

Hell, this had been the first chance we gotten to spend some time alone, really alone, in weeks. The world had seemingly gone insane and we, the Avengers, had been pushed to the limits in an effort to keep it on an even keel. Downtime had become a thing of the past since Sokovia. Between the remnants of Hydra, AIM, The Ten Rings not to mention far more mundane threats such as the IRA and ISIS - and I had never thought when I chose this life that I'd consider ISIS a minor threat to the world - we'd spent more time on ops than here at the Compound.

I'd seen the world change and had the strength to decide to stand up to it, beyond proud of the work I'd done, and yet... yet I wanted more. Wanted something I probably had no right to even though I shared his bed every opportunity that arose.

I trailed my fingers down his cheek to his shoulder enjoying the silkiness of his skin and the play of the muscles beneath when he suddenly went still. Oh, his breathing didn't change and he didn't actually move, but an odd tenseness overtook his muscles that I could sense.

I don't imagine he'd woken up with someone beside him all that often. "It's just me."

He sighed softly then blinked his eyes open, the brilliant blue damn near glowing in the dim light of the room. He reached up and wrapped a hand around my neck, drawing me down for a kiss. "Sorry," he mumbled as I pulled back, his fingers toying with the hairs on the nape of my neck.

"For what? For trusting me enough to fall asleep?"

His eyes went wide. "I've always trusted you. Just don't sleep all that much."

I huffed out a breath at him. "Then why do I have the feeling that I'm not the one who tired you out."

He didn't stop toying with my hair even as he frowned. "Rough op," he disclosed to me in an equally rough voice.

I knew he wouldn't say more, most of our ops these days classified for one reason or another. "They all are lately. We need some time off."

His frown deepened for a second before he opened his mouth to speak.

I cut him off, "If you say, 'evil never rests' I'll be forced to find that ticklish spot again and make use of it."

That broke the ice and he snorted, a real smile lighting up his face and eyes. "This is why I keep you around."

"You mean it's not just for the sex?"

"We'd have to be having it more than bimonthly for it to be that."

I punched him on the shoulder or tried to but his free hand flashed out and intercepted me, his hand wrapping around my wrist and drawing mine in to kiss the fingers. "I simply meant we've... Work... Shit."

I didn't say a word. Giving him the chance to find his and actually say them aloud. I knew he cared about me. He'd get this look in his eyes when unaware I could see him, a look that could make my heart both melt and pound in an instant.

"I like this," he finally told me at a whisper. "I want more of this..."

The unspoken 'but' came through loud and clear. I'd expected this, just not quite so soon. "No worries." I turned my head to kiss his wrist then slipped out of bed and away from him. "I'll head back to my pod." He kept his rooms cooler than most and I shivered at the temperature as I hunted for my clothes. We hadn't planned last night so I hadn't brought a bag with me.

I found my panties and pulled them on, then my shirt, the bra nowhere in sight, which meant he'd flung it for distance as he had on other occasions.

I heard the bed creak and his feet hit the floor. "Go? Why?"

My pants had been abandoned in the living room and I headed in that direction only slightly surprised to have him stop me halfway there, a strong hand wrapping around my biceps. "Myla, it's freezing out you can't go."

I could only be aware. The only reason we'd been able to land the quinjet because the wind had been minimal. Snow had been falling at the rate of nearly two inches an hour and hadn't been expected to let up until sometime tomorrow. "You do realize I just got back from Siberia, right?" I spotted my pants flung over his sofa, so far out of reach that they might as well be in that hell hole in Siberia I'd just come back from. "Upstate New York is nothing."

His head dropped, staring at the floor between us, the rather cold floor, which made me wish I had found my socks first. I had never been overly fond of the cold but would walk through the not- blizzard outside to avoid hearing him say what I knew to be coming.

"My, what's wrong?" He lifted his head just enough for me to see his eyes through his lashes, which made my heart triple in speed. Of course, it didn't much help he stood there, buck ass naked, and radiating a warmth I wanted to bask in.

"Nothing I wasn't prepared for, Steve, so it's okay, really."

"No, this isn't okay." He released me but did not step back, in fact, he shifted closer, most assuredly invading my personal space, which I supposed he had a right to, given I'd so recently crawled out of his bed. "Talk to me, Myla. Please."

I choked on a laugh. "So says the man who can't finish a sentence when it matters." I didn't regret the words, not really, but I usually behaved in a far more understanding manner. In many ways, he still saw himself as that scrawny kid from Brooklyn who no female would even glance at once never mind twice. Until Peggy Carter. All the stories claimed she'd taken an interest in him before Rebirth. Little wonder he visited her every chance he could.

I could never compete against that, so better to walk away now with my dignity somewhat intact than to let this continue.

"Can I finish it now?"

I stood my ground and shrugged. "Or I can just do it for you."

He raised an eyebrow in what I interpreted as a challenging manner and said, "I was thinking we should move in together."

At the same moment, I said, "You were thinking we should stop seeing each other."

We both stood there in silence for several seconds before saying as one, "Wait? What?"

The stereo confusion was enough to break the tension and both of us laughed.

"You go make some coffee while I grab a robe. I think we need to talk."

I pouted. "But I like what you're not wearing."

He grinned and shook his head, pointing towards the kitchen. "Go on. I'll be right there." He turned and headed back to his bedroom. "No running."

"No running," I agreed. I did exactly as asked and went to the kitchen to abuse his Keurig. I chose a fancy flavored coffee for myself and his usual dark roast. He came out just as I finished adding the sugar to his cup. He'd thrown on PJs and carried the robe which he handed to me, clearly having made note of the goosebumps on my arms.

As I pulled it on he offered, "I can turn the heat up. It won't bother me."

I pushed his mug across the island counter with one finger then wrapped my hands around mine as I sipped the hot brew. "It's your place."

"Doesn't have to be."

I shook my head still not believing he'd said that.

"Why would you think I wanted you to go?"

I shrugged not certain how to answer without him deciding to follow through with my assumption. "Just the way you said you liked this. I mean, you took me off ops for a while 'cause you were afraid I'd get hurt."

"I didn't want anyone getting hurt," he corrected and I wrinkled my nose at him.

"But it was because of that one Rumlow op that went sideways."

He rubbed the back of his head with one hand. "True. I just..."

I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from interrupting him.

He sucked in a breath and blew it out slowly. "I know we haven't had much time to be together lately, but I want it. I don't want you to think I don't. I want more. And… and I don't want to come back to an empty suite anymore."

"Then what do you want?" My voice sounded far stronger than I expected. My heart pounded and that zing of adrenaline made me want to bounce off the walls because there could be no way in hell he was seriously thinking we should move in together.

"When I come home, I want to come home to you. I want to watch you sleep. Want to be boring normal people and cook dinner together."

I set my cup down, my jaw most likely joining it, my brain filling with white noise as I tried to accept that he meant everything he said. "But we haven't even had a real date," I suddenly blurted out unable to think of anything else for some reason.

"Uh. Okay, technically true. But we did take that day trip to Brooklyn. That doesn't count?"

"A slice at the corner pizza joint, no matter how good, does not now or ever count as a real date," I informed him. "That said, I enjoyed every moment of it."

"Well, I hope so," he told me sounding mock offended. "Take you to my home, introduce you to every place I got beat up."

"What? You want to meet my parents or something?" I almost kicked myself for saying those words at his sudden stiffening and the far too serious to be believed look in his eyes.

"I'd be honored to meet your family, Myla. Whenever you are ready to do so."

"Wow. You really mean that."

He nodded, gaze solemn.

"You're nuts." I walked around the island to stand before him. "I will not torture you with my crazy family."

"So, do you want to give this a try?"

"If you mean this, then yes, but..."

"But?"

"We don't have to stay here, do we?" Not that there was anything really wrong with his suite, but with two of us, a bigger place would probably work better.

"I am not moving into your pod. Your room is minuscule."

My eyes widened. "No. Oh hell no. The walls are far too thin anyway."

He blushed when he realized exactly what I meant. "We technically don't have to stay here at the Compound. We could look together. Or I could talk to Tony, he's constantly renovating. There might be an apartment or two available. I just didn't need anything more."

"Tomorrow though, okay?"

"Sure. Why?"

I cocked an eyebrow, slipped out of the robe, pulled the shirt over my head, and walked back towards the bedroom.

It didn't take him more than a few seconds to figure out exactly what I meant and catch up with me.

 

Chapter Text

I came back to an empty suite much to my dismay. Admittedly I'd been gone for a week and had no clue what she might be doing, never mind if she were even here or on an op, but I had still been hopeful that she'd be here given the time of my arrival. Late enough that the entire team's debriefing had been put off until tomorrow to permit us a chance to rest and recover a bit.

I headed for my bedroom, stripping off my garments before jumping into the shower. My original intention to be quick about it, but the heat of the pounding spray held me in place, loosening tight muscles that I knew to be covered in bruises and scrapes, they'd be gone in a day or two at most, but for the time being, they ached.

I threw on some comfortable clothes and walked out into the main suite still toweling my hair dry to discover her sitting on the sofa, hunched over her computer on the coffee table, files spread out across the surface.

"You're home."

"Hey." She lifted a hand to acknowledge my presence but she didn't even turn her head to look at me.

Nothing new, really, work stole most of our time so I didn't hold it against her. I'd had the same response to her greetings on several occasions. I walked over to the back of the sofa, leaned down, brushed the hair off her neck, and kissed her softly causing her to shiver. I glanced at the work before her and immediately understood why her attention had been lacking. I set my chin on her shoulder. "New trainees?"

She shifted and turned, kissing me on the cheek before answering. "Two dozen and they want me to handle them."

That had been my idea, actually, though I doubted she realized it. Her team had proved their versatility over and over again with a broad spectrum of skills and abilities. They had become what all the others needed to be. Hill, however, had yet to be able to recreate the effectiveness of the team, so Myla had been tasked with doing so. The theory being that she would have a better grasp on who and what made her team function as it did and therefore should be able to find the right people to duplicate it.

"You got this," I assured her.

She snorted, "I find your confidence most disturbing."

A misquote, and one I understood no less. I climbed over the back of the sofa to settle in behind her, my arms about her waist and drawing her back against me. "I missed you," I mumbled into the back of her neck. I followed up with my lips and teeth, digging into the tight muscles with just the right amount of force to make her groan. No way she could not be aware of my interest or intent, given our position. I had the sudden need to take her right here right now and fuck any extended foreplay.

I wanted her and had lost any shyness about showing it. When alone at least. The need for propriety still reigned supreme when in public.

She groaned and whimpered. "Steve."

"Yes," I said in her ear, encouraging her to lean back against me.

"God, I hate you sometimes. I need to finish this. Hill wants a report first thing and I have no clue what I'm going to tell her."

She sounded genuinely upset and my ardor cooled instantly. Don't get me wrong I still wanted sex, now, but had more than enough control to defer it until she felt ready. "How detailed does it need to be? Anything specific?"

She sighed, though in relief or irritation I couldn't be certain. "Overview of team structure, hierarchy, and dynamics." She twisted about to catch me in her peripheral vision. "Trouble is I'm not sure I can explain it."

I got her to shift a bit more and kissed her, distracting her for a few minutes that she didn't seem to mind. Her body, relaxed in my hold for the most part, though there remained an underlying tension to her. "Your team is unique, the only one with two XOs, correct?"

She nodded. "Yeah. It just works for us. They have entirely different skill sets that complement each other perfectly. We tried it with one, but it just didn't work at all."

"Maybe if we talk through it. Record it, then go through it later. I can call Hill and put the meeting off if you like." I gave her a grin. "Least I can do considering."

"Considering what?" she questioned, voice full of suspicion.

"Considering the whole team restructuring idea was mine," I told her.

"You did this?" She jerked upright, out of my arms to spin around and glare down at me. "You realize my team is pissed?"

"Why?"

"Why?" she echoed, fisted hands on her hips. "We've essentially been benched until I come up with an effective training program." She flung her hands up and stalked away. "If this is your way of getting me out of the field..."

I realized she had become really and truly angry, something I hadn't experienced before. "No. That is not why I did this."

"Then why? We're needed out there." She flung an arm toward the window, her meaning clear.

"You're right, but that's the problem. The others are good, don't get me wrong, but your team can function in situations the others would have fallen apart in. We need more of you and this," I gestured at the piles of paperwork she'd brought home with her. "is the only way we could think of to accomplish that."

"And that means I have to do this?" She looked about ready to tear her hair out by the roots.

"Who else could?" I had to admit that I might not have thought this all the way through. I hadn't just arbitrarily decided to have Myla do this. There'd been meetings and discussions and arguments on how to improve the tactical units that went on ops with us. We didn't want yes men. We needed people who could function on their own and as secondary to the main team. Hell, I'd seen her by the seat of her pants run three tac teams at once, including her own, with a coordination and success that impressed even me.

She had to be the one to do this.

However, I now recognized the fact that we hadn't once thought to consult her at any point along the way. I had a bad feeling that had been a mistake.

I stood and strode over to her where she paced back and forth stiffly. Three quick steps, spin about then repeat.

"You know, if you didn't want to see me any longer you could have just told me."

I damn near tripped over my own feet and she put out her hands in surprise as I stumbled into her. An instant of contact with my chest and she pulled them away as if burned. "This has nothing to do with us," I told her, tone harsher than I intended, but my frustration had begun to build.

"Doesn't it? We barely see each other as it is, what do you think will happen when I'm out on week-long training maneuvers with noobs on the regular?"

I wanted to shout at her, but I drew in a breath, trying to see it from her perspective. As it stood, between my ops and her ops, which yes, sometimes were the same ops, but definitely did not count as time together, we spent nights together, please note I did not say sleep as in actual unconsciousness, maybe ten days a month. She always spent the night before an op with her team and often the night post-op. While she had moved in, she still maintained her room at her pod since she spent a fair amount of time there as well.

And, yes, I recognized the fact that this new assignment would take up even more of her time. No way we could pull her and her team off of ops completely, they were just too damn good. I'd been thinking about the welfare of the Avengers as a whole and not once thought about how it would impact us on a personal level.

I had foolishly assumed we'd simply work it out as we had everything else.

Instead, she thought I had done this to push her away even though I'd climbed onto the sofa intending to explore every inch of her body and prevent her from sleeping for hours and hours. And there she stood, wanting to punch me because I'd done the right thing for the team.

The wrong thing for us.

"So, little fool, do you want help moving out, or you gonna do it all by yourself."

She twitched ever so slightly. "Oh, I'll be fine. I've got two dozen trainees to abuse after all." She pushed past me and began to close the files and pile them up. "Gimme five and I'll be out of your hair."

I had hoped my words would force her to admit that leaving would be the last thing she could possibly want.

Well, that had backfired horribly.

I wrapped a hand around her biceps, reminded instantly of the solidness of her. "How can you manage to be so stubborn?"

She tried to pull away, but on this occasion, I didn't let her go. She spun about to face me. "Steve," she growled, "let go of me."

"No, I'm not letting you leave. We can make this work." This had to work. I needed her here, with me. She had been pretty much the first person who had listened to me. Who asked about me. Who wanted nothing beyond what I, Steve Rogers, could give her. She seemed to like me for me and, damn it, I needed that so badly.

I couldn't let her go. Not now.

"How? Lately, all you ever seem to do is pile more work on me. When was the last time we cooked dinner together?" As she no longer seemed about to run away I eased my hold on her. I didn't let go, just adjusted my grip into more of a caress in hopes of soothing her ruffled feathers.

"Do you know what Fury told me the last time he was here?"

She gave me a blank gaze. One I'd seen her give Tony on a couple of occasions when he'd been poking her with sticks. "Of course not, I've never had the pleasure of meeting him."

"That if he had his way your entire team would be promoted to training full time. That is if we didn't need you in the field so badly."

She blinked at me. "You're lying."

I released her and took a single step back, giving her space while still remaining near to hand. If she really and truly wished to leave I'd let her go. Forcing her to stay would do little more than make her even angrier and for entirely different reasons.

"You know I'm not. Tony keeps offering to clone you, but Hill keeps nixing that idea." I had moments I worried he'd been serious. Though not really his field he'd pulled off miracles before. Vision a prime example of that. His butler programs verged on actual AIs so how much of a step would it be to take an actual human intelligence and place it in a suitable body. The cradle still existed, FRIDAY could be given life with little effort. I know he'd been working on a means to access memories, so how big a step would it be to downloading them.

I swallowed with difficulty. If Zola hadn't sacrificed himself in an effort to kill me he might have learned about the cradle and built himself an indestructible immortal body. And that thought alone sent terror shooting through me.

While I had no interest in losing Myla in any way, I doubted I'd approve of her being saved via an artificial life.

"How can I?" Her frustration evident in every line of her body. "I'm not sure who I'm talking to right now."

Not the response I had been expecting. I had to admit to not understanding her meaning in this instance. "I'm right here. And I really have no clue what you are trying to tell me."

She huffed out a breath. "Because I'm desperately trying to date Steve Rogers, but Captain America keeps getting in the way."

I froze at that. For too long apparently and she stormed off towards the door.

It took until her hand settled on the knob before I found the strength to move. I set my hand on the door and leaned, using my strength to prevent her from leaving for another moment. Her words had struck a chord in me. I hadn't once considered how difficult it might be for her, for anyone to date me. Or to even get to know me. Steve Rogers.

And I had to admit that, today at least, I'd been thinking and acting more like the Captain and not so much as Steve. "Five minutes, please."

"Depends on who I'm going to be talking to," she groused, clearly not happy with the whole situation.

I released the door, set my hands on her shoulders, and encouraged her to turn around. I set my forehead against hers, pleased when her eyes closed and a sigh escaped her. "I'm sorry. I didn't think about how the work decisions would affect us."

"Because the greater always good comes first."

"We wouldn't have found each other if that were always true."

She snorted in reaction. "A point," she agreed, yet her voice seemed filled with pain. "I don't know if I can keep doing this."

"Do you want to?" That seemed to be the most important question at the moment.

"Yes," she told me at a bare whisper, "I'm just not sure how."

I decided to start with the obvious elephant in the room "What do you mean Captain America is getting in the way?"

She crossed her arms over her chest clearly defensive as if thinking I wouldn't listen to her. "I mean when was the last time we had dinner together much less a date. A real date and not yet another of Stark's parties where he does everything possible to marginalize me."

She had a point there. Tony hated when I brought her along even though he made sure the guest list had been filled with as much fluff and faces to make it seem like he had more than just us as friends. When the not-friends headed home for the night the only people still around were Avengers. For some reason, even though she had earned a place in everyone else's eyes, Tony endeavored to ostracize her. "Well, it's not like our schedules have matched all that well lately."

The glare she shot my way had frightened lesser men, but I simply took one of her hands into my own and waited for her real response. "You've canceled every time in the last six months."

I couldn't deny that. "And I've sent you out on ops for a few others."

She nodded. "Exactly. And when we're here..."

"I'm loading more projects on you."

"Or Hill is or Barton. We are supposed to get days off now and then."

Yeah, we were, but most of us just worked or trained, or did research pretty much all the time. "I think I've forgotten how to be Steve Rogers. So, what? Do we quit? Go pretend to be normal people? What would we do?"

She snorted. "You? That's easy." She waved at the drawings she'd hung on the walls. A couple of her, others little more than doodles in my opinion. One of them I'd drawn while sitting in a chair next to her hospital bed. The meds causing her to sleep more often than not in those early days. It had been all of two days after we'd spoken and I'd admitted to having feelings for her.

Those feelings hadn't changed. If anything they'd grown deeper over the months and made me often wish we did have more time to ourselves.

"You think people will pay for my scribblings?"

"Own a piece of art drawn by the Steve Rogers? Oh hell yes. I could make a couple of calls and have a showing in Manhattan set up within a week." She didn't sound the least bit facetious. "And if I talked you into doing some paintings... One call." Her arms dropped down, her hands still twisting together in her irritation. "You can have a life away from all of this. You just have to want it."

"With you?" I had to ask. Had to know if she would have any interest in me outside of the Avengers.

"If you wanted me still."

"You make it sound as if I don't want you now. Right now." I still had hopes that I'd be able to drag her off to bed when we sorted this out.

"Then we need to figure out how to keep the work from coming between us," she explained with a frown. "And we won't be able to."

She might be right, but I didn't want her to be. We needed time. Time alone together to remember exactly why we'd fallen into each other and not just moved on. My stomach rumbled. A reminder that it had been a long day and I'd been sent home to rest and recover, which meant... "How about dinner?"

She scrubbed a hand across her face staring at me in confusion. "What?"

I chuckled softly, realizing it had indeed been a bit of a non-sequitur from her perspective. "How about we make that dinner now."

"You want to make dinner now? It's almost oh-one-hundred and I can promise you your cupboard is rather bare."

"So? I'm sure we can find something. Or.. or head into the city. The Tower will be open if nothing else."

Her eyes lit up for a moment before dismay chased the instant of joy away. "I can't. That damn report."

"Forget it. We went about it all wrong. I'll talk to Hill and set up a meeting we can all be at. You need to be part of the discussion from the beginning." Should have done that the first time around instead of just dumping the project on her lap without so much as a by your leave. "I'm certain we can come up with a better way to go about the transition."

"Uh, okay. So I guess that means my evening... morning is free."

I was dressed enough for the company we'd run into this late at night. Not that the Compound ever really slept. Shifts ran twenty-four-seven around this place. She'd done little more than kick off her boots and let her hair down from the bun it had probably been shoved into all day. We didn't even really require shoes. The worst we'd run into is some dew on the perfectly trimmed grass.

I held out my hand to her. "Come on, my fool, let me buy you dinner."

She considered for a long moment, that sense of unease still about her even though she willingly twined her hand with mine. "Can we not talk about work?"

"I'll do my best." I leaned down and kissed her on the temple, earning a soft sigh for my reward. "I don't like fighting."

She barked in laughter. "You live for a fight."

"Not between us. Never between us." Arguments, disagreements had been rare between us and I found had absolutely no taste for her being angry at me.

She cocked an eyebrow at me and then she softened. She patted me on the cheek with her free hand. "You're just damn lucky I love you."

I swore my heart stop beating for the better part of what felt like an hour at her unexpected proclamation. When it jumped back into motion I ever so gently cupped her cheeks in my hands and kissed her with a fervor I hadn't known in a long, long while. I kissed her most thoroughly, burying my fingers deep in her hair and holding on for dear life. Encouraging her with teeth and tongue to open up to me.

I knew the instant she gave in, her entire body melting, her response full of the same hunger I had for her. When we broke apart, both requiring a moment to catch our breath I rested my forehead against hers. "You've never said that before."

"I thought that was obvious when I moved in with you," she grouched, but I could hear the hint of amusement in her voice.

"For the record, I love you too." And I did. I hadn't expected to, but I hadn't fought all that hard against it either. "Dinner. Walk under the stars."

"That sounds suspiciously like a date, Captain Rogers."

"Yes, it does. And I think it's time we revisit finding our own place." We had looked for about two months before our free time had whittled away down to nothing.

"I would find that most agreeable."

I took her hand in mine, kissed the back of hers, and led her out of the suite. The night air cool, the stars out, the moon low on the horizon. As we walked across the precisely manicured lawn towards the main building where the never closed commissary could be found. The food wouldn't be the greatest, but the point on this occasion, not the food but the company.

She leaned into me and I stopped to shift about to gaze down at her. Not all that far really, short she had never been. I set my lips lightly against hers, making her aware that my interest in her had never waned even as we had accidentally drifted apart. "We'll figure this out, yes?"

"God, I hope so." She pressed her forehead into my chest. "I'd rather take a step back to work this out than lose you completely."

"Let's keep that option on the back burner, shall we? We'll find a place and I'll talk to Hill. If you're being overworked, then all of the teams are being overworked. We're not in the middle of a war, we need to make certain we remember there's more than this." I pressed a kiss on the top of her head.

"You most of all," she insisted, tipping her head so that her chin thumped solidly into my upper chest.

"You willing to help make certain I do?"

"Definitely. But you owe me a date first."

I chuckled. "Your wish is my command. M'lady." I wrapped my arms around her, thankful she'd been willing to work this out.

Chapter Text

We took the damn promotion. Not just me. The whole damn team. While I might be lead, in no way could I do any of this without all of them by my side, so I bargained for all of us, and those higher up the food chain caved quickly.

We would still be doing ops, just not as often and definitely not ones the other Tier teams could handle. The cross-training and modification to the hierarchy within the teams had turned out to be the easy part and had been going well, however, there had turned out to be a factor for my team that could not be replicated as easily.

Me.

Or my weird-ass memory anyway. I had an encyclopedia of knowledge in my brain that I could call up with ease. Did I know everything? Oh hell no, I'd be a drooling mess on the floor, but I knew a fuckton. And more I could use the information. Yes, I still had to learn, to be taught how to use the knowledge, but once I did I never forgot and could expand upwards from the base.

Not everyone understood that. Not even Steve, I think. The biggest advantage was that I could really learn anything and, while not necessarily an expert at all of it, I found I could handle myself more than adequately, often with above-average skill. And once I learned it I never forgot it. That included physical skills. So, while I would never be a world-class surgeon I could manage a quite neat stitch when needed.

It had been needed more than once during my comparatively short career.

Since my forte had never been programming, least not of the detailed kind I would need for this project, Hill had set up a meeting with Stark.

I didn't think it would go well at all. Somehow it managed to exceed even those lofty expectations.

Hill outlined what we needed and he laughed at us.

"You what?"

I sighed and glanced over at Hill who shrugged at me. "I want to create a program that can duplicate the data in my head and make it accessible to the other teams on ops."

He sat back in his chair with far more violence than necessary. "Not possible."

"Bullshit," I challenged. "Your butler programs shatter Turing tests on the regular. This would be similar, but not necessarily require the human-like interface, though that would make the search and requests simpler and potentially more responsive."

"My programs were never designed to handle the variable battle conditions you tend to face." He shook his head. "No, it'd be a waste of my time."

"So, Vision learned tactics all on his own? FRIDAY running your suits for training sims is sheer luck?" I knew he didn't like me, though I had never understood why. "The Tier teams need to be able to analyze faster, that appears to be the major difference between my team and the rest. The skills cross-training is going much better than predicted, but they need something more."

"Tony, this has been authorized at the highest levels. The Captain would like this done ASAP." Hill had her work voice firmly in place, but that had never moved Stark at any time that I'd observed so I didn't see it working here now.

"Of course, if the Captain wants it done ASAP..." Stark snapped off a damn near perfect salute, but the sneering tone wouldn't have been missed by a deaf man.

I pushed slowly to my feet. "Sorry, Mr. Stark, I didn't mean to interrupt your oh so busy schedule." It hadn't been, busy, that is. In fact, according to Hill, he'd proclaimed boredom which had made him willing to take this meeting. "I'll manage. I can take a few classes. I should have the basics down in a day or two if you can clear my schedule."

Tony snorted. "If you think you can begin programming an AI in less than a week-"

Hill cut him off at the knees, "Yes, we do."

The emphasis on we seemed to grab his attention. "You all really think the sun rises and sets on her pert little ass, don't you?"

I simply raised an eyebrow at him.

Hill's look darkened noticeably. "Mr. Stark, I would suggest you change your tone."

Tony frowned for a moment then nodded slowly. "I guess what the Captain wants the Captain gets."

I gave up right then. Deciding it would not be worth the effort to make him understand. "Is Constantine still available? He should be able to get me through the basics quickly."

Hill got to her feet, every line of her body telegraphing her unhappiness with how this meeting had gone. "He should be. He seemed quite excited to meet you."

"Wait. John Constantine? Works for TechEdge?" Tony sounded decidedly affronted at the mere mention of the man's name. "You think he can write this program for you?"

I snorted. "No. I intend to write the program. Just need him to teach me the basics of the coding language."

Tony blinked. Twice.

"Rogers is dating a crazy-lady." He glanced over at Hill who remained perfectly enigmatic. "Hill, she can't do this."

"Why not?" I asked. I didn't care if the man liked me or not, but to impede the job I had been tasked to do because of it annoyed the fuck out of me.

"You're a grunt. No way you're smart enough to write a program of this type."

Hill shrugged when I looked her way. "And you're just a rich brat with a god complex. Yet here we both are. Playing hero."

His eyes widened for a long moment. He slowly got to his feet, borderline glare never moving off me. "Ouch. I've been called worse names, you know."

"Names? Pretty certain I was quoting that Times article from 2010."

He froze for roughly half a second. "Huh. Oh, you're the one with the memory. That doesn't actually make you smart, you know."

I rolled my eyes, catching the twitch on the lips of Hill before complaining. "Does no one actually read my file?"

"Apparently not. I'll have a meeting set up with Constantine by the end of the week." She turned about, clearly considering this confrontation over. Much as I did.

Together we headed for the door to the conference room, only to be cut off by Tony who seemed disappointed that I'd given up the fight so easily.

"Stop."

HIll aimed that death stare first at his hand and then at him. "Mr. Stark, I actually do have work to do, so if you will excuse us..."

"And you think I don't," the put-upon tone about as fake as one could get, and just firmed my opinion of the man. Not a good one, for the record. "And just why do you think I should be the one to teach you?"

Hill glanced down at her smartwatch, I knew she was on a tight schedule. "I've got this. I'll let you know within the hour if I need that meeting with Constantine."

She gave me a nod. "Works. Mr. Stark." Then she was gone, out the door and heading back to the control center or one of the dozen other meetings I knew she had scheduled for the day.

Tony hadn't moved an inch, still awaiting that answer to his smarmily asked question. "Because using one of your existing butler programs for the base of the tactical version seemed to be the most efficient use of everyone's time and energy. It is not a requirement. And given the teams have already worked with either JARVIS, FRIDAY, or both, one done in a similar style would hopefully ease the transition."

"And why are you doing the coding?"

"My brain. My unique ability to translate vasts amounts of information into coherency is what we're trying to duplicate, might help if I'm in the same room when it's being designed."

A brief look of interest crossed his face. He waved at the table. "Sit, please."

My afternoon had been freed up to work on this and while I would have preferred starting the actual work, I decided to give Stark a few more minutes of my time. I permitted him to escort me to the nearest chair, which he pulled out for me and tucked in properly as I sat.

He waved the holographic display to life over the table, using the watch on his wrist to control the data. Within seconds I saw the majority of my life appear in the air. Reports and files and tests all the way back to the initial hospital records covering my injuries. "How the hell did you survive that?"

The remains of the vehicle I'd been in when a fully loaded dump truck had plowed into us hanging before me. "Not a clue. I have no memory of the two weeks prior to that day."

"I'm not surprised." He swiped the air and x-rays appeared, showing the damage to my skull. Still, even I knew it didn't really reveal the true extent of the damage. "How smart were you prior to the head injury?"

I shrugged. "Above average for my age, but nothing special. Had a decided interest in social media and youtube. Oh and math. Enjoyed athletics without excelling at any of them."

"A generalist then."

I nodded. "Typical kid before being pigeonholed. After, however..."

He changed the x-rays to MRIs of my brain from what appeared to be a few months after the accident. "You knew everything."

"Not exactly. I remembered everything. They thought it was a simple eidetic memory at first until they realized that I could do more than remember. I learned. I knew. And I could extrapolate from known data. And it was more than knowledge. It was physical reactions as well. I earned a black belt in aikido in six months at the age of fifteen."

"Eidetic muscle memory."

"That's what they called it, but it was unheard of. I'm an anomaly."

"Do you need to learn a full language to posit the interpolations?"

I shook my head. "There are exceptions. Arabic is one of them. But those that follow logical steps? No. This isn't something I crow about, Mr. Stark, but I do use it to my advantage whenever I can. This program they want me to write, it'll save lives, I hope."

"Including the Captain's?"

"Maybe. Though he's far more likely to jump on a live grenade to save the rest of us." I feared that one day he wouldn't come back for that exact reason. Giving his life to save the rest of us no matter how little we might be deserving of it. "The reason we met is because I did that for him. I took his bullet, so to speak."

"I remember. Never seen the man so focused on a goal." The sneering had eased somewhat but still remained buried in his casual tone.

"For fuck's sake, Stark. I get you don't like me-"

"You're his Yoko Ono," he snapped, thrilled with the fact he'd gotten me to show my emotions.

"Exactly how do you figure that?"

He narrowed his eyes and leaned in. "I'm impressed. Figured a millennial wouldn't get that reference."

"I've read Wikipedia."

"All of it?"

I laughed. "Well I don't check for new additions daily, but yeah, all of it. Now, I'm not as up on my PornHub as I could be, but I've trolled large portions of the 'net."

"And you don't need to go back to verify your data." He waved at the screen and a scan of my brain function appeared. "Your brain is weird. Wired completely wrong."

"And?"

"And I need to know more. What advantages does having all this knowledge and abilities available for instant access."

I pondered how best to explain what I simply did instinctively. "You know how Cap and Nat train us to be aware of everything around us?" Tony nodded. "I just do that. All the time."

"And you can run scenarios based on the cues to predict the outcome."

"Outcomes would be more accurate. It's why we're so adaptable." I pointed to my scans. "I've run sims through FRIDAY. Somehow I can beat her."

He looked up at the ceiling. "FRIDAY?"

"She's not lying, boss. Even in scenarios I generate, she wins. I don't even play chess with her any longer. I can't beat her."

Tony frowned, clearly having issues with that. "That... that shouldn't be possible."

"Not disagreeing with you, but she does it. It's bloody annoying."

Tony snorted. "Huh. Well, now you've made this a challenge."

Which was exactly how Steve had suggested I approach this. But he had also warned me to be subtle, to let Tony come to the decision to assist all on his own. Between Romanov and Hill, I'd become quite adept at permitting the mark to do the heavy lifting and giving me exactly what I wanted. I didn't often need to use those covers I'd created, but I had never failed on those occasions when I did. This time I let Tony manipulate himself into deciding to help. I gave him a tired sigh. "And that means?"

"I'm in, but only if you're serious about me teaching you."

There was something in his words, in his posture that I could not quite interpret. "And, what exactly are you planning to teach me?"

He gave me a wide grin. "Everything."

Chapter Text

"Your fool of girlfriend just got herself into some serious shit," Sam announced out of the blue.

I wanted to argue that I didn't have a girlfriend, but the word fool clued me in as to who he meant. "Myla? Is she all right?" Yeah, I worried about her. Worried about what she'd thought when I basically made myself an enemy of the state over Bucky. She and her team had been out on an op when everything had gone down and I had not contacted her in the weeks following. "She should be perfectly fine back at the Compound."

"Well, she was until," He paused looking at something in more detail, "a week ago when she went and got herself blackballed from the Avengers." He grinned, clearly proud of the fact my girl had followed in our footsteps.

Had it been only two weeks since we'd been upstanding members of the Avengers? It felt as if it had been far longer than that. At times it felt as if it had happened yesterday. At others, it seemed as if decades had passed since the battle in Leipzig and the fight in Siberia. That mere hours prior I had broken my friends out of The Raft.

I frowned, finding it hard to believe she would just walk out on a job she loved. Then again, I had, though, truth be told, I'd stopped loving it quite a while back, just took some time to sink all the way in and stick. But she had loved it. I'd learned that much in the months we'd been together. Our relationship the one thing I would regret losing in this mess. I honestly had no clue if she even knew the truth about what had happened or why I'd made the choices I had.

Then again, out of everyone at the Compound, she knew me best. She would understand even if no one else did. That included my little interlude with Sharon Carter. I'd liked her since meeting in DC, but we'd fallen out of direct contact after the breakup of SHIELD/Hydra and I hadn't really seen her since then, though we'd stayed in contact. To learn of her familial relationship with Peggy had both thrown me for a loop and made so much sense. The attraction had always been there. The relationship never really had a chance. And while I hadn't broken ties with Myla, the exact opposite, in fact, I didn't dare telegraph my commitment for Myla's sake. If I had known she would walk away from the Avengers, I might have done things differently, instead, I had used that connection to Sharon to my… our advantage.

Sam's eyes went wide at whatever he read on the screen. " 'Cause, after you broke us out, Ross demanded that every Avenger had to sign the Accords. Seems your girl took exception to that order. Oh… oh, and they claimed she's enhanced."

I shook my head. "She's not enhanced."

"Technically, with the way the Accords are worded, she is," Sam pointed out.

I reviewed that particular section in my mind and sighed. "By accident or design. But that was meant for situations like Banner and me, not a literal accident." No, she hadn't been born with her incredible ability. Though an accident, a car accident that caused severe neural trauma, had. I'd done my homework on her after that incident that almost cost her her life though we'd never talked about it.

She had accepted who she had become and used it to her advantage every chance she got.

"Apparently, she wasn't the only one to take exception to the new requirements. A couple of dozen stood with her that day. Ross must've gone ballistic."

Yeah, he would have. And taken it out on all of them. "Why would she do this?" I mused aloud.

Sam choked on a laugh. "Oh, and it gets better. She gave them the 'O captain! my captain!' routine. And someone got it on video." He flicked at his screen and sent the video to mine. I watched as she climbed up on a table in the middle of the mess hall in the midst of some meeting all the teams had obviously been ordered to attend. The whole room fell silent as she projected over the voice that echoed out of the speakers, "O, Captain. My Captain."

Her team didn't even hesitate for an instant, standing up on their chairs and repeating the words. Within minutes half the room had joined her. All standing tall and adding their voices to the chant. When it became clear Hill and Ross had lost control of the meeting Myla took it. A modified version of my speech at the Triskelion falling from her lips.

Sam burst out laughing at the utter shock and surprise that must have been on my face.

I paused the video. "Good grief. Where the hell did she hear that speech?" I don't know why that was the first question I could articulate, but in my stunned mind, it seemed to be the most relevant one.

"Where do you think?"

"She was there?"

"Yep, she was. Still in new recruit phase, week six." He glanced up at me. "She saved three dozen people before the building collapsed. Ended up trapped for three days."

"The scars on her lower back and…" I trailed off not sure I should be making that particular observation aloud.

"Ass?" Sam offered up, trying to hide the grin of amusement.

"Yeah," I agreed. "She said they were from a training accident," I explained to him.

He snorted. "Accurate enough, she was still in training."

How did I not know this? The details, I mean. I had asked and she'd waved them off as nothing more than a minor inconvenience. No, she had done exactly what I would have in the same position up to an including not making a big deal about it. My girl had been a hero even before we'd met and I hadn't had a clue.

I unpaused the video and watched as it ran to its inevitable conclusion. Security taking her and her team into custody with much hand-waving and boos from those who had stood with them. "My little fool," I muttered under my breath. "She still being held?" I asked, setting my tablet down as I shoved myself upright and paced the breadth of the room, already creating preliminary scenarios on how to get her out depending on where she'd been confined.

"No, thankfully. Detained for a few days and released. She posted a couple videos online explaining her side of things. She's out of a job is all."

"And alone." I didn't like that, but she could handle herself. Hell, she'd handled me just fine for the better part of a year.

Sam chuckled darkly. "Alone? The news is reporting close to four dozen have walked since that day. If they stay together she'll have a small army at her command." He looked over at me, an evil grin on his face.

I could see the wheels turning in his mind and exactly what crazy conclusion he had come to. "No. You will not reach out to her. She doesn't need the kind of trouble we'll bring down on her head."

"Man, have you met that girl?" The sardonic tone not lost on me. "She did this because of you." He waved at the tablet. "Your freaking speech and all."

I stopped dead and shook my head. "No, she believes in the ideal. Doing the right thing no matter the cost."

He tipped his head thinking about it, then gave me a slow nod. "That why you two break up?"

"We didn't break up. Not really. Just put the job first is all." In fact, we had bought a place together. Well, I had. We'd narrowed the choices down to three and she'd given me the power to pick the winner. I'd put the money down mere days before the shit had hit the fan. We had never even spent a night together in the place.

A regret I would carry with me for the rest of my days. "God, I miss her."

"Damn straight. You're an idiot for letting her move out."

I shook my head, not in denial, but because we, me and Myla, hadn't wanted to advertise our plans. "Sam, we had our reasons."

"Yeah, you did, but she agreed to it so you wouldn't lose focus. That girl is crazy about you and will do anything for you."

"Including–" I waved at the tablet.

"In a heartbeat. Yeah, she believes in the ideal, but who represents that ideal?"

I sighed. "Me."

"You," he agreed. "Though I kinda wish she'd stayed in."

"Why?"

He gave me a sly smile. " 'Cause then we'd know what's going on at the Compound."

Okay, good point, but she would show her true colors eventually and probably end up punching Ross in the nose.

"Still, she's free to do as she wishes. And if she happens to find us, that wouldn't be so bad."

"No, not so bad," I admitted. More I hoped she might actually want to. That Sam was right and she would do anything for me. I had the feeling I would need to rely on her and her loyalty in the not too distant future.

Chapter Text

"The Expendables reporting for duty, sir."

Myla snapped a perfect salute quickly followed by the scores of people that had come with her. "At ease."

Myla's hand dropped, while all the rest shifted to the at ease posture with a precision I found unsurprising. She had turned out to be one of the best trainers at the Compound. Little chance she wouldn't take what she had learned there and use it for her private army. Mercenaries technically. An army for hire. Though a picky one. We'd followed her career post-Accords as much as we could while staying out of direct contact and handling our own chosen missions.

We hadn't seen each other since the day we signed the paperwork for our new place. A day later she'd left on an op and then… then everything had changed.

She gave me a lopsided grin and reached out to give my arm a squeeze. "Good to see you, Steve."

"Good to see you?" Sam groused. "Get over here and give me a hug." He pushed his way by, intentionally knocking his shoulder into mine as he passed. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her in tight. She didn't fight it, a laugh escaping from her as Sam tried to crush her ribs. When he stepped back he noted, "You're looking good, kiddo."

She shrugged. "You haven't seen the new scars."

Sam snorted.

"Boss?" I recognized her XO from the Compound. Both of them in fact.

Myla turned to them. "Set the runes, get the wards up."

"Sat links?"

Myla nodded. "Full set up. We know it's coming, we'll need as much lead time as possible."

XO number one spun about. "You heard The Fool, full set up in an hour. Move."

One of the team muttered, "I didn't hear nothing about an hour." Yet he still spun about and got to work with the rest of them.

Myla chuckled softly. Her eyes roved over the area, the ubiquitous abandoned warehouse, near the edge of an older little-used airfield that we'd chosen to meet at. "Yeah, I know, cliche," I admitted. She had far too many people to just camp out in a field. We'd been seen in a heartbeat.

"But provides cover from prying eyes, and is near enough to the city that we might actually be able to intervene provided they don't just land in downtown. Where's Natasha?"

See, while I and Sam had chosen to not contact Myla et al, Nat had had no problems with it. We'd run into Nat, just about literally, a few months after the whole debacle, sporting new blonde locks and tracking some Chitauri modified weapons same as us. After that, we'd decided working together would make things easier and more interesting all the way around.

No matter how tempted I had been to contact Myla, I'd resisted, knowing that she was holding her own and clearly had no need of me. Of course, when I did finally break down and call her she had known exactly where I had been heading. I had simply needed to find a place to house all her people for a day or two.

"Nat is scouting the lay of the land," Sam informed her.

Myla cocked her head. "Keeping Vision and Wanda safe I would presume that translates to."

Sam clapped her on the back. "You've lost none of your skills I see."

"Oh, boys, I've learned so many new tricks that you will bow at my feet once this whole mess has been dealt with." She met my eyes. "Care to fill me in on exactly why some space tyrant has decided to vacay on our backwater planet?"

Sam snorted.

"The Infinity Stones," I told her.

She scrunched up her nose for a moment, her incredible mind searching for the meaning of the words. "Like the one in Vision's forehead?"

I nodded. "The Tesseract was one as well. And we've learned there are two more here on Earth."

She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose for a few long seconds. "You're telling me we've had four of these here in the last few years?"

"Four?" Sam asked in confusion.

She raised a hand and ticked off on her fingers. "The Tesseract: on Asgard according to the last intel I know of. Taken there by Thor Odinson himself."

I nodded in agreement.

"The Mind Stone. Brought here by Loki during the Incident and currently residing in Vision." Another finger. "The Time Stone, also known as the Eye of Agamotto, currently in the possession of the Kamar-Taj and, finally, the Soul Stone suspected of being in Wakanda."

My eyes got wider and wider as she folded the fingers. "How... How the hell did you figure this out."

She grinned. "I have my ways."

I had a sudden urge to kiss her.

That surprised the hell out of me since I had convinced myself that I'd moved past her. That I could live without her in my life. I swallowed with great difficulty thankful I hadn't blushed. "You've been busy."

She gave me a smile. A real smile that caused my heart to constrict unexpectedly.

Christ.

"Hey, you okay, man?" Sam had this hint of humor in his voice as if he'd known once Myla and I stood face to face that I would just simply fall again.

"Just impressed is all." I turned to meet his gaze, the borderline laughter visible in the grin and the crinkling of the skin next to his eyes. "Shouldn't I be?"

"Yes, you should be," Myla informed the two of us with no little pride in her voice. Deserved from what I could see. "We'll get you tied into Ares and then you can benefit from me and my teams' excess of skills."

"Ares?"

I didn't think she could grin any wider, but she somehow managed it. "Once we're set up we'll give you the full rundown of what exactly is at your disposal. And just to make it clear, I do not mean just for this little... situation. If you want full use of my systems at all times you've got it."

"Myla, I can't let you do that," I argued even though I had no clue what her offer actually entailed.

Sam shoved me away to take my place before her. "Man, shut the hell up." He lifted one of her hands, only her fingers visible thanks to the gloves she wore, and kissed the back of it. "M'lady, we'll be more than happy to accept any boon you feel we are worthy of."

She laughed softly. "Always the smart one, Sammy."

"And don't you forget it."

"Fool, we need you." XO number two trotted in our direction. He carried a satchel and tablet and little else that I could see.

"Did you forget the passcodes again?"

"One time. I forgot them one time." He wrinkled his nose at her. "No. Ares is being bratty as usual and wants to talk to the grand high poobah - his words, not mine - before agreeing to speak to anyone else." He nodded at us.

She sighed over dramatically. "I was hoping he'd decide to play nice for a change, but I guess I'm going to have to spoil the surprise." She reached out, setting her fingers against mine for an instant before turning and striding quickly towards where tables and computers were being efficiently set up.

Sam cleared his throat. "You're Jacobson, right? Her number two number two?"

Jacobson snorted. "Erastos, but you can call me Heckle or The Sun."

"Okay, you're gonna have to explain the last two." I could understand him not wanting to use his first name given it would take some serious effort to find a more obscure one from the Bible, but the other two seemed just as odd.

"Well, I get the first one. Heckle and Jeckle, since you have your partner XO," Sam explained and got a nod for his trouble. "But, yeah, I'm lost on the other one."

"It'll make sense eventually. Myla wanted to have a unique call name system for the teams and she chose tarot cards."

"The Fool," I muttered. "You know, she took that nickname way too seriously."

Jacobson laughed. "Nah. It gave her a place to start. We have four teams plus command staff. Teams are Cups, Wands, Sword, and Coins. Command staff is the Major Arcana."

"And that explains the runes and wards," Sam mused.

I had wondered about that too but didn't think it had been the time to ask.

"I am here to answer what questions I can and get you prepared for communicating with Ares." He waved for us to walk towards the set up where Myla was pacing back and forth while talking to someone I couldn't see.

"Four teams? I only see three here," Sam pointed out, not about to let that tidbit of information slip past.

"Correct. The fourth, Coins, is embedded in other agencies. CIA, MI-6, SHIELD, ATCU, Avengers. Mostly to give Ares access to their databases, but they give us a heads up when they can."

Holy shit. "You're kidding me." I looked over at Sam who appeared gleeful "She went ahead and got herself a fucking army."

Jacobson froze for an instant seemingly shocked that I'd sworn in front of him. "Sir, half of those here today found us, some months after we left the Compound."

"Why did you leave? All of you, you just threw away your chance at a military career." I really wanted to know. I mean, Myla I understood, a bit anyway, but the rest. So many of them had chosen to walk away, to leave behind what most would aspire to. A chance to work with the greatest heroes on the planet.

"That? That decision was easy. I would follow her into hell without even having to think about it."

Sam beamed with a pride I hadn't realized he'd felt for our adopted team.

"Did you know that when we got promoted to training she gave us, the entire team, her raise?"

I hadn't known that, but I did know how many extra zeros the number crunchers had added to her yearly pay to make certain she'd been well compensated for all the extra work she'd be doing what with designing the whole database and training system from virtual scratch. "Ares is her battle library program."

"Oh, now that makes sense." Sam didn't seem overly surprised. Almost as if he had expected her to be exactly as prepared as we needed her to be.

"It used to be," Myla answered, in the tone of a cranky mom. "You get them set up, Heckle?"

"Nope. We were chatting on the way over. Besides, I figured you'd want to do the honors." He opened the satchel and pulled out a small case that he handed to her. "Usual shift rotation?" He tapped his tablet into life.

"No. Full thirds. I want everyone as rested as possible." She met my eyes. "We normally do quarters or fifths, but I have the feeling our time is short."

I gave a nod of acknowledgment, not about to second guess her call. On the battlefield, maybe, but even that had been rare when we'd worked ops together.

Jacobson nodded and strode away. "On it. Wards are up, just need Ares to get off his ass and get to work."

A low rumble emerged from the speakers, but a few taps by Myla on her tablet and it fell back to that non-noise a live speaker usually sounded like.

Myla opened the case and handed me and Sam each a small black circle. "Place these either in front of or behind your ear. She turned to show the placement of hers. "This is your communications. Works via bone induction so no loss of hearing in one ear. You may feel some vibration at first, but you'll get used to." As she closed the case I noticed a third device, most likely meant for our Black Widow. She then picked up two smaller than average tablets, holding out one to each of us.

These I remembered from the Compound. The Battle Library she and Stark had built accessible through tablets, smartphones/watches, and the like. It had audio functionality, but it had been stilted and nowhere as interactive as JARVIS or FRIDAY had been. I knew she'd had plans to expand it I just hadn't realized she'd accomplished that while on her own.

"How did you manage this?" I gestured at the elaborate computer set up, the teams quickly setting up cots and fireless stoves to make certain everyone got a hot meal. Never mind her transport. Only one team had arrived in a quinjet, one of the bigger ones that could transport a score easily. Plus the half-dozen armored trucks that the rest had arrived in. "Your contracts can't pay that well."

Her eyes flicked from me to Sam who shrugged and back to me. "Uh, I'm rich?" she offered up as an explanation.

"You're what?"

Sam cackled. "You didn't know? Her grand-"

"Great-grand, thank you very much."

"-father made his money the old-fashioned way, gold, and oil. Did this startup of yours even put a dent in your cut?"

She shrugged. "Yes, but nothing we didn't recoup within the first six months. I have contracts with a few countries so we're set for as long as we want." She watched me with care for a long moment then directed my attention to the computer. "Ares, meet Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson."

The speakers crackled back into life. "The Emperor and The Chariot. Where is the Empress?" The voice deep and resonant, almost what one would expect from the God of War.

"Busy, she'll join us at some point I'm sure."

"But I wanted to meet the infamous Black Widow." Now he sounded almost whiny as if a child being withheld a favorite toy. "Probability says she's watching over The Lovers."

"Ares," Myla admonished. "Proper code names, please."

A long moment of silence followed by a remarkably human sigh. "Fine. Temperance and Judgement."

Myla tapped my tablet. "Full ranking system is in here. Only in the field do we go by these exclusively, mostly to protect our identities should we be taken. The comms also act as a passive tracking device for that very reason."

I scrolled through pages of information impressed as all get out. "Stark let you walk out with an AI. I find that hard to believe."

"She didn't walk out with me. I remember being the battle library, but it is not me. Last time they tried to grab one of our teams I made them painfully aware of that fact."

"Dare I ask?"

"He hacked into their battle computer and had them do everything that permitted us to capture them easily. The worst injury was a broken nose if I recall."

Sam laughed. "Okay, I gotta know what you named Stark."

"The Magician," Ares answered. "It seemed appropriate." If a computer program could shrug he did so, you could practically hear it in his tone of voice.

"Seems the student has exceeded the master."

"I doubt that, but I learned all I could from him, and now we're going to see if my little god of war can handle a battle with aliens."

"You act like that'll be difficult. Tactics are tactics. And I'm pretty certain I can process faster than whoever is in charge."

"I hope so."

~^~

Sam and I had taken our turns on watch. Walking the edge of the wards, a fancy energy shield that not only warned us of intruders but prevented anyone from seeing us. A creative use of Stark's holographic tech that I heartily approved of. The current generation of quinjets used a similar system, however, it had no defensive capabilities. The shielding built into the exterior metal itself.

We'd stayed with or near Myla, not because she needed us or vice versa, but to get an idea of how she ran this army of hers. It turned out to be little different than how she had back when we'd both been Avengers. We talked a bit via the comms about how we'd handle the battle. Neither of us had been the type to sit high on the hill, calling the shots and watching while the troops were slaughtered. No, she would be in the thick of it. Using her skills and Ares to call the moves from right there on the field of battle.

So, after a short, private discussion with Sam, we decided to let her take on the duty of general when the time came. I knew she wouldn't ignore any advice or opportunity I saw and she had always been exceedingly flexible with command structure depending on the situation we found ourselves in so I knew it would be a non-issue.

Then she pulled the rug right out from under my plans by assigning an entire unit exclusively to Sam and me. His flight capabilities would permit us to read and adapt to a situation in ways straight-up ground troops could not. Oh, she had drones and sat links that would give her live bird's eye views, but if what came for us were anything close to the Chitauri in fighting power and style we'd need every advantage we could get.

Technically, my team was currently scheduled for rest, which the majority were indeed doing. Most winding down after having grabbed some chow. Allowing them to catch a fair six hours of shut-eye provided our soon to arrive guests didn't make their appearance early. I went over the deployment plans one last time. The ultimate goal here to protect that Infinity Stone, which meant protecting Wanda and Vision even if they remained completely unaware of our presence.

Oh, I had checked in on Wanda circumspectly now and then, but Vision I had stayed away from for obvious reasons. Wanda could claim retired should the authorities decide to no longer turn a blind eye towards her. Me, however, Vision would take in himself. I'm not sure how he justified his loose application of the law, but since he seemed to care for Wanda I supposed it could be justified.

For the right person, I might do the same.

Had, in fact, for Bucky.

I lifted my head to see Myla, tablet in hand, glasses that I felt damn certain projected images, much like I'd seen Tony wear on numerous occasions, adorned her face. She spoke softly, clearly not over comms, since I could definitely not hear her. I suspected she spoke to Ares, her scary-ass not quite an AI battle computer. Both JARVIS and FRIDAY had been useful in a fight, but nothing like this creation. Ross, had he still be in the military would be begging for the chance to use it. Talbot would be seething with envy. Granted in the hands of almost anyone else Ares would be dangerous. In Myla's?

Yeah, I trusted her that much. Provided she didn't suddenly decide to go all sith on us she could be trusted to use the system to save lives. Ares instrumental in giving us the dozens of potential scenarios and generated code names that would permit any and all of the teams to switch tracks quickly depending on how the upcoming battle went.

Sam appeared by my side. "Go talk to her."

He looked about ready to sack out. His gear off except for the control gauntlets. We'd standardized the gear, making it fairly simple to put on in a hurry if need be. "What could I possibly say?"

He shrugged. "Start with 'Hi.' and go from there."

I smiled if ever so slightly and shook my head. "Nothing left to say." Lies, such lies, I had several novels worth of words I wished to say to her, but I doubted I'd be able to articulate even a tenth of it aloud. "Sam-"

He nudged me with his shoulder. "Man, we know what's coming. If there's even the slightest chance that this is the last time you'll see her, do you really want to just leave it like this? Strategy review? And across the room from each other no less?"

I sighed heavily. "The last thing I want to do is say goodbye."

"Then don't. Spend some time together. Figure out if she's still worth coming back to."

My head snapped about. "Of course she is," I practically growled and in that instant realized Sam was right. I'd waited too long with Peggy. Friends, co-workers for years, and even in the end, it had been Peggy to make the first move. A single kiss and then I flew out of her life. Literally. "And if I don't come back?"

"Then she'll have one last damn good memory of you. One she'll never forget."

Oof. He had a point. And this, this moment, this battle, this left turn in the path humanity was on would be burned into her mind until the day she died, which hopefully would be peacefully in her bed decades from now. For an instant, an insane need of her washed over me. Wanting to be by her bedside when that happened, proving, to me at least, the urge to kiss her hours earlier hadn't been a fluke. Reunion with an old flame stirring up feelings that were in truth dead and all but buried. "Okay," I agreed. My feet moving before I had consciously made the decision to walk towards her.

I heard Sam chuckling behind me and knew he understood. It might take a mountain to move me to make a decision when it came to women, but once it had been made I didn't bother to wait.

She lifted her head as I drew near, a smile gracing her face, one that I had seen many times when we'd been alone. Not a smile she gave just anyone. "Walk with me." I didn't ask, but something in my voice caused her cheeks to redden unexpectedly.

"Yeah." She removed the headset and set the tablet aside, her only remaining link to the teams the comms which she reached up and tapped. "Privacy mode."

"For you as well, sir?" Ares asked, oddly polite. The snark and sarcasm gone.

"Yes." My voice low and rough.

I set a hand on her back and steered her deeper into the complex and away from those trying to grab some sleep. "Shouldn't you be sleeping?"

"I'd ask the same of you, but I would presume you can still go a couple weeks without needing to." I could hear the smile in her voice.

"Well, I always did have an excess of stamina."

She snorted. "You look good," she finally managed, look changing to a far more serious one. "Been keeping busy?"

"Like you don't already know the answer to that." I wasn't angry, but it hadn't been lost on me that she had chosen to remain out of contact all this time.

She stopped dead, spinning about to face me. "Jeez, Steve, I get it. Contacting me could have put me and mine at risk. Put you at risk. If they knew we were in contact they could… would use me against you. Ross especially, in a heartbeat." She crossed her arms over her chest, the material of her form-fitting shirt pulling tight, not hiding anything. The muscles of her arms and shoulders putting a decided strain on the cloth. The stuff almost looked like armor, as in real old school medieval chainmail. All her teams had it under their heavier kevlar lined body armor.

Without thinking I reached out and ran my fingers lightly along her forearm, the material oddly slick to the touch. It pinged something in the back of my mind, but she stood there expectantly, waiting for me to respond to her. "But did you want to?" Yes, I most likely sounded like a whiny five year old wanting to know if the cute girl likes him. Shit, I hoped with everything in me that the pretty girl liked me.

"Every goddamn single day. "

I swallowed with great difficulty at the emotion buried in her voice. "You let your hair grow," I blurted out.

She blinked twice then laughed. "Same old Steve, still can't handle being liked by a girl." She patted me on the cheek, fingers combing through the thick beard I now sported.

I set my hand on hers. "Fuck, I missed you."

She gave me a wan smile. "Always good to know you're missed."

We held that tableau for a long moment, neither of us certain if we should make a move if we should actually push forward with this simply because once this was over, we most certainly would have to part ways again. I closed my eyes just wanting to be here with her for a little while longer.

Her fingers tightened on mine for an instant. "Shit, Steve, you look so sad."

Not quite the right word, but the loss of her had definitely crashed upon me. "I'm so sorry," I managed, heart in my throat.

"Me too."

Just more proof she understood. The apology hadn't been for leaving, but for the fact that all our grand plans had been torn asunder in a matter of hours. We'd gone from happy and moving forward to ripped apart through no fault of our own. Okay, some of the fault definitely fell upon my shoulders and she had been forced to deal with the fallout. "Maybe, after?"

"Yes, after," she insisted. "You, Sam, Nat if she wants. No more running."

I managed a pained laugh at that. "No more running," I agreed.

That now or never moment had come. That fork in the road where I chose that final path for the two of us. And damn it all to hell and back I wanted there to be an us.

I kissed her.

Not testing the waters. No, we had moved far, far past that. What I started here and now would be finished by us together.

Her mouth opened under mine and I didn't even consider hesitating, diving in and being swept away by the tide of emotion that swirled around us, hands shifting to wrap around her. The material of her shirt slippery and permitting me to feel every shift of muscle and sinew, Disconcertingly I suddenly realized exactly what had bothered me about the material. I pulled back and asked, "Vibranium?"

She blinked. Stared at me in confusion for a long moment then burst out into gales of laughter.

I watched her in confusion for a moment then realized exactly what I had done. "I promise I won't let the Captain get between us ever again, but I have to know how you managed to get these." Wakanda still remained insular, but they'd come out a bit since T'Challa had taken possession of the crown for good. His few rivals dealt with in an extremely final way.

She gave me a shrug of a shoulder. "He's one of my clients. He seemed to think our past association made me more trustworthy than most. And provided some gear at cost."

I had never mentioned her to T'Challa, but that meant little. If he wanted information he would find it and I had no concern he would use the relationship against either of us. If someone, prince or pauper, foolishly tried to use me to get to her, blackmail her or bait her… well, I felt a great swell of pity for them. She never went into battle unprepared. Which meant… which meant all my concerns about contacting her had been for nothing. Okay, not nothing, but I probably could have communicated with her without worry about any trouble to follow.

I'd lost so much time. We'd lost so much time and there was no way I could ever hope to make it up to her.

As if fully aware of what path my thoughts had wandered down she tapped me on the nose and said, "Don't you dare. What's done is done. No regrets."

"Lots of regrets, but I'll try to make up for lost time." I sighed softly as she sidled closer to me, hands finding all the places I liked and doing all the right things to distract me. I didn't want to regret tonight, not for this unplanned reunion, didn't want to part ways without making it abundantly clear how I felt about her.

Still, I had to pause for a reality check. Simply because we were in the middle of battle preparations and doing this no matter how needed would be a distraction we could ill afford. I pulled her close, resting my forehead against hers. "We shouldn't do this."

"Nope," she agreed sounding far too amiable for my taste. "but we are going to, and who knows, maybe the magic will be gone."

Given the current state of certain portions of my anatomy, I doubted that. I began with her nose kissing the tip, then downward pausing at her lips for a long lingering moment, across the line of her jaw until I found that spot under her ear with my lips. "Let's find out, shall we?"

She shivered and moaned at the same time, which I took as a positive sign. "Please," she managed, almost but not quite begging.

I scooped her up, her legs wrapping firmly around my waist, and carried her off into a more secluded corner of the building.

 

~^~

 

I heard Jacobson discussing waking us with at least three other people. I could hear his words perfectly since only he did not have his back to me, the rest of the sound mumbles and mutters with only the occasional audible word.

Since his tone didn't indicate any urgency I decided to let them keep talking while I lay at peace for the first time in a long, long while.

I hadn't actually slept, though I had closed my eyes and relaxed as much as I could manage, which had been a goodly amount with Myla in my arms. The cot hadn't really been made for two, but we'd made it work so we could be together. Both on our sides, her tucked right up against me, her breaths slow and even against my throat. She hadn't wanted to sleep, but I had insisted, citing she'd be much fresher come the fight once she'd caught some zzzs. She'd grumbled until I'd pointed out I intended to be on the cot with her. She'd gotten a sly look in her eyes and stripped down as much as she dared in a potential battle situation. Boots and utility belt off, the rest stayed. She'd already had to redress once tonight, she wouldn't again. Not in front of her people, anyway. Yes, the command cots were off to one side, but there remained a decided lack of privacy overall.

Still, she'd let her hands rove for a few minutes, causing me to squirm and blush, but I'd dug my fingers into all those tight places in her back, encouraging the knots to loosen and her to slowly slide down the rabbit hole and into the waiting arms of Nod.

And now I needed to wake her no matter how much I didn't want to. I had rediscovered my willingness to just be with her. I could lay like this forever if granted the opportunity.

And, damn it, I wanted the opportunity.

Whatever happened.

However, this ended I wanted to come back to her.

Whether back with the Avengers or SHIELD or join the Expendables or… or maybe even retire. I'd bought that place in Brooklyn after all. For the two of us. No reason we couldn't take some time off, be it a year or a decade, and just be people for a while.

Wouldn't that be fucking amazing? To be nothing but Steve Rogers for a while?

I could get back into art and she… well, she could do whatever the hell she wanted. Train others maybe. Martial arts or self-defense or any of the dozens of other skills she had mastered over the years. She didn't need money as I had learned the day before and I had fairly simple tastes. We'd be fine. And possibly even happy.

After.

Hell, maybe I'd even ask her to marry me.

I heard Sam mutter, "Chicken." His steps coming closer at a quick beat. The situation, perhaps, more urgent than the hushed voices had implied. "Aww, I can see why they didn't want to wake you. You're too cute."

"Fuck you, Wilson," Myla muttered against my neck.

I'd suspected she'd awoken, but hadn't wanted to disturb her if she felt the need to catch a few more winks. I chuckled.

"Damn, you are cranky when you don't get enough sleep," Sam commented, the words full of snark, but he grinned like a fool. Still, the look in his eyes belied the seriousness of the situation. Especially given he had his full EXO suit on. The goggles perched atop his head, but powered up based on the eerie red glow to them.

I shifted up onto one elbow. "Sit-rep."

"That's my line," Myla grumbled as she rolled to squint up at Sam. She'd only had a few hours of real sleep and it looked like that would be all she'd get today.

"Should I wait for you then? 'Cause while I'd be happy to stand here all night bantering over rank, the bad guys look to be making an early day of it."

She didn't move, but I felt her tense. "How many incoming?"

Ares got there first. "Dozens. More than enough to put a strain on our resources here."

She rubbed an eye appearing nonchalant, but I knew her, her mind running at top speed to figure how to deploy the troops to protect as many innocents as possible. "Do we have time to set up a defensive line?"

"Should," Sam told her. He handed over a tablet so she could see for herself. She shifted to sit, her feet on the cold floor of the warehouse. One of my hands on her back as she read over the data, the tablet in her hand. She held it at the perfect angle for both of us to easily see.

"Shit, are these numbers correct?"

Ares huffed in irritation. "Of course they are."

I reached around her to tap a couple of the data points. "We'll be spread thin."

She shook her head. "If they continue their current approach we should be able to force them to come at us here. Trapping them up against the river. Unless they have a navy, they'll be forced along here," She drew lines on the screen, showing how she'd expect them to move then added deployment areas for the teams. "We can block them and force a bottleneck along here. Keep them out of the city as long as possible."

"You thinking reinforcements will arrive?"

"Aliens blowing shit up? They better send help," Sam snarled,

I agreed wholeheartedly, but just because they should didn't mean they would. "Myla?"

"Suit up," she ordered, making it official.

Time to fight.

 

~^~

 

They had moved as predicted and we'd been able to force a stalemate against the river. They didn't swim well and had avoided the water after a dozen of them had been swept away. Good thing I'd already fought aliens, otherwise I would have stood there and goggled for several minutes at the strange creatures before me. Lizard-like in appearance, though nearly seven feet tall when on the two rear legs. Two out of six, mind you. These were nothing that had ever been seen on earth. And that was the point. Thanos didn't just want to collect the Infinity Stones he wanted to make a statement. We'd been a thorn in his side ever since the defeat of Loki and he had decided to smash the human race under his gauntleted fist, leaving nothing but a pulpy smear behind.

We had to stop him.

They'd made use of the wards to get the creatures to go where we wanted. The shields would burn out fairly quickly if pressured too much, but had enough of a zap in them to make the beasts scream and shy away. And they communicated. So once one group had learned their lesson all the rest avoided the area as well without additional prompting.

We stood an actual chance until we were attacked from behind.

"Ares, what the hell?" I heard Myla complain, sounding more irritated than anything.

"Calculating," Ares answered, sounding irritated. Not even he had expected that move.

"They appeared out of nowhere, literally." Myla reviewed the video on the screen embedded in the forearm of her armor. "Wands, move to cover Cups."

"En route, Fool."

"Chariot, can you provide air support as they reorient?"

"Done."

That's when the first of the energy blasts lit up the early morning sky. The handlers of the beasts making their appearance by firing at Sam who dodged the blasts easily. We'd predicted their arrival, and missed the window by only a few minutes.

"Fool, I think we pissed them off."

"Good," she growled. "Ares, track those weapons, and get me some targets."

"Working on it. Thirty seconds."

The weapons fire increased, but only from the one side, trapping us between the creatures and the river. The trap we'd used turned about against us. And they had superior weapons. My team had been forward of Myla's position but slowly fell back until her troops and mine became mingled together. All of using a combination of hand to hand and weapons fire to take down the horde of alien creatures as quickly as possible. Losses were mounting up on our side, but we continued to fight.

I ended up near Myla who had acquired what looked like the world's nastiest sword and swung it about with an easy grace anytime one of the monsters came near enough to her that it needed to be dealt with in a final manner. Most never made it near, her people all expert marksmen and easily able to take out the creatures with one or two well-placed bullets.

"Targets acquired," Ares informed us.

"Fire at will."

The soft whoosh of some kind of RPG could be heard, not standard issue obviously, but effective nonetheless as the flashes of blue energy ceased quickly once the exceedingly effective rockets impacted their targets.

Then reality set in as alien small arms fire rained down from above. Blue streaks of energy reminiscent of Hydra weaponry lit the sky bright as day for a long moment only to impact against the wards that magically appeared over our heads. Her runestones - she'd explained she'd spent some time with Jane Foster learning about Asgardian technology and had created more than a few toys based on said tech. Her runes were quite mobile and could create shields in pretty much any place or configuration.

Myla smiled dangerously. Clearly pleased with how they'd worked against the unknown weaponry. Then she frowned. Her focus on the data being fed to her by Ares instead of the monsters about us.

I fought my way over to her. "What?" I shouted over the din of animalistic roars and the pop of small arms fire. No, not over comms. Whatever she had learned not for general consumption quite yet.

"This is a distraction. A small unit has landed in the town. Heading straight to Temperance and Judgement from the looks of it."

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. And that suggested that whoever had been running this show, be it Thanos or someone else had been fully aware we'd been gathering troops here and had planned accordingly. Almost as if they could see the future. And for all I knew they could and nothing we did here would make a bit of difference in how the ending played out. "Myla-"

She didn't even have to think about it. "Go. Do what you do best. We'll hold the line here."

That she'd announced over comms since I heard her in an odd stereo. Usually, Ares filtered out conversations as needed, which implied the system had other details to take care of.

Sam came online quickly. "Need a lift, Emp?"

Myla responded. "Yes. Ares will feed you intel. I'll try to give Empress a heads up. They appear to be jamming communications with the city"

Which meant that I might not get a chance to speak to her again as who the hell knew where we would end up next. I doubted we would have the time to come back to check on the Expendables until after all had been said and done. The roar of Sam's engines could be heard as he cleared a landing spot by shooting a handful of the aliens as he arrived.

For a single instant, I was torn. "Remember you are not expendable to me."

She gave me a grin and a nod. "Neither are you. We got this."

I took two long strides to her side, punching a beast aside as I did so. Grabbed her weapon harness and pulled her in close for a kiss. Much as Peggy had to me a lifetime ago. "I love you."

She gave me a wry grin. "I know."

Then I turned and ran to where Sam waited to get us both into the city as fast as possible.

 

Chapter Text

Steve Rogers went to save the world.

He didn't come back.

I knew before I woke up. My mind filled with images more vivid than any dream I had ever had in my life. And I, of course, remembered every dream I had had since the age of ten years eight months and seven days. I could calculate it to the hundredth of the second, but it seemed to annoy people when I did, so I no longer bothered.

No, the death of one Steven Grant Rogers, AKA Captain America, had been all over the news what with all the plans for the massive state funeral being made. The man who had been branded a traitor and forced to go on the run from the same government he'd sworn to protect and die for now hailed him a hero and wished to honor him as such.

Fucking hypocrites.

I'd thrown the remote at the TV when my frustration and anger boiled over. I managed to hit it hard enough to send sparks flying and the nurses to rush in more upset that I'd torn my stitches than the broken television. I'd taken the admonishment with feigned stoicism then rolled over and pretended to sleep. Curled up into a little ball, pillow hugged to my chest. The aching pain of my injuries nothing compared to the one in my heart.

Hours or maybe days later, time no longer seemed to pass as it should, I heard, "Kiddo, wake up we have places to do. People to be."

I cracked an eye open to find the obnoxious countenance of Sam Wilson hovering over me. "Go away," I grumbled, not having the energy to swat at him like the annoying insect he currently portrayed.

"Not a chance."

I twitched at the rough voice of one Clint Barton and rolled just enough to see him standing ramrod straight against the door of the room. A half-dozen versions of him flashed through my mind before accepting the one standing before me. Hair shaved on both sides of his head, fading bruises on his face, a deep desperate pain in his eyes.

"C'mon, kiddo, Nat'll help you change."

I gazed blearily around the room. Not seeing the superspy in question. In confusion, I muttered, "What?"

"She's waiting for us. Not too fond of hospitals these days," Clint informed me, his hawk-eyed gaze not wavering for a second.

I glanced down at my current wardrobe that my teammates, those that had survived anyway, had brought me. Sweats and a tee-shirt. Stylish any day of the week, but especially for unexpected extended hospital stays. Least I wouldn't be sneaking out of here in an open ass johnny. I would need more than just a change of clothes, however, a shower and fresh bandages would be a necessity as well if I were expected to anything that required being with company. Polite or otherwise.

Sam must have caught my train of thought and hitched a ride. "We've got all the contingencies covered, promise."

I nodded and slowly sat up. At least this time I still had use of both arms. "I'll need help walking, I'm not exactly steady on my feet right now."

Clint pushed away from the door. "We'll carry you if needed, but you will be there."

I nodded, wondering what the hell was going on.

 

~^~

 

I hate funerals.

I'd been to far too many over the last few years. Most after the fall of the Triskelion. A smattering here and there, after joining the Avengers. None in the months after I'd left.

Until Thanos.

This particular one I had never even considered might happen in my lifetime. He should have outlived me by decades if not centuries. All the research done suggested he might never die.

Didn't prevent him from being killed, obviously.

The extremely private ceremony had not included the public or anyone from the government. No, they'd gone to the big show, the "official" one that had been broadcast far and wide and permitted the country… the world to mourn for their fallen hero.

No chance he hadn't gone out on his shield. That was just the kind of man he had always been. Fight for the little guy. Protect others. Sacrifice anything to do the right thing.

Including your life. If necessary.

Sadly, it had been necessary.

The ceremony had been short and simple. Buried in a plot in Brooklyn as near to his parents as had been feasible. I don't know who had arranged it or even known the right cemetery, but I had no reason to argue with it. I would have done the same thing. I just didn't quite understand why I had been dragged along. No other Expendable had been invited, just me, and I could barely stand upright on my own. Sam and Clint stayed by my side at all times, making certain I was doing okay and constantly checking if I needed anything. Nat had done wonders with what was left of me. I looked like I'd been through a war, which, you know I kind of had, but she'd gotten me into the dress, flats, since there was no way in hell I could walk in heels in my current unsteady condition, makeup and hair done in such a way that I didn't feel the least bit uncomfortable that the worst of my injuries were on full display.

Afterward, we headed for a bar that had been clearly bought by them for the day. They fully intended this to be a proper Irish wake for our Irish Catholic golden boy.

Sam got me settled on a stool at the bar, Clint sliding into place smoothly beside me. "So, here tell you went down in a glorious fashion."

I shrugged. "So I've been told. It's a bit blurry." Which meant the blow to the head had been serious. Part of me had hoped, upon waking that my brain had reset to something closer to normal, but no luck there. The neural damage minimal based on the scans taken. Or so I had been told. Given everything I did remember, I agreed.

"Oh? This I have to hear." Hill parked herself next to Clint, waving for refills. They'd been plowing through the whiskey one bottle at a time.

"Kid…" Clint shook his head. "She took one of those energy blasts to the head." He directed his attention to the right side of my skull where the hair had just begun to regrow. Nothing but a soft fuzz of nearly four inches above my right ear. I would have an interesting scar about a half-inch wide in the shape of all things a near-perfect lightning bolt. It had healed enough that Nat had removed the bandages, putting the injury on full pride-filled display. She had called it a badge of honor. I called it a pain in the ass that would require an entirely new hairstyle.

"You should see my helmet. Melted the entire side."

"Hush," he admonished, "I'm the one embellishing this story."

I managed a wan smile for him. His version could be accurate for all I knew.

"So she's down, hurt, but not out as she manages to get her hands on her knife and takes out not one, but two of those alien beasts."

I brightened. "Oh, that explains the bite mark on my shoulder." The vibranium lined shirt had saved my arm, the puncture wounds impressive, but not all that deep. I kind of wanted to see the damage to the shirt. It would give me a fair idea of the pressure exerted by the jaws of the alien critter.

Hill chuckled. "You didn't know?"

I shook my head with all due care. It still didn't take much to make me want to toss my cookies. "I had no idea. Everyone's been walking on eggshells around me. I remember getting shot, kind of, got me from behind. After that… I woke up in the hospital… I think."

"Transport," Hill informed me.

I stared at her only slightly surprised that she knew.

"What?" She questioned, toying with her glass. "You're on my list. As soon as the dust settled from the initial attacks I called in reinforcements. The Expendables are at the top of it."

"Only Cap had already dragged you to the party," Clint added. "Probably for the best, considering."

I looked him straight in the eye his meaning clear, he'd been there when Steve had gone down. "I want to know everything, but not today. Okay."

He nodded solemnly. "Okay."

I didn't know when, but one day, maybe years from now I would sit down with them and hear the story of how Steve Rogers died. I knew none of them were ready to talk about it. The pain still too fresh in their minds and bones. But someday they would and I… I would remember for them.

Nat appeared then, behind the bar, placing a half dozen shots of something not quite clear before us. My nose said tequila, but I didn't trust it given the bottles of Bushmills remaining on the shelf. "You are not drinking enough," she admonished me even as she grabbed one for herself and downed it expertly.

"Can't," I told her. "Concussion. It would go down and then come back up shortly thereafter." Not a lie. I'd dropped several pounds due to my current inability to keep anything of value down. It had been a major step in the right direction when I hadn't thrown up the beef broth I'd been ordered to eat that morning by a steely-eyed charge nurse.

She gave me the once over, her eyes narrowing to check for any telltales that would suggest I'd been lying and seemed satisfied.

"More for me then," Hill stated grabbing a pair of the shots for herself.

Clint took one but toyed with it instead of drinking.

Nat placed a tall glass of something bright red in front of me and when I opened my mouth to protest she explained, "Shirley Temple. You still need to stay hydrated."

I wanted to argue that I should still be in the hospital hooked up to that lovely IV line that had been keeping me going for well over a week, but just sighed softly instead. Wanda laughed at something Sam said, Vision an imposing presence beside her. The Mind Stone glowing softly in the dim light of the bar. They were an odd couple but seemed happy and that was all that really mattered in the end. All of us had taken the time to be here, to say our goodbyes.

Except one.

"Where's Stark?" Even though they had parted ways over the Accords I couldn't see him bailing on the funeral of a man who had been his friend for many years. He'd been absent from the government-sponsored show and more conspicuously the news. Yeah, he'd left the Tower behind not long after the fight that had broken up the Avengers, but still. By all accounts, they'd fought side by side at the end.

"You haven't heard?" Hill damn near choked on her shot in surprise.

"They won't let me talk to Ares; my team damn near wore gags when visiting me, oh, and I've been unconscious far more than awake recently." I thought about it and realized this had been the longest I'd been conscious in days and not just because of the painkillers they'd been permitting me. They needed me to rest but had been unable to give me anything really fun due to reasons I still shied away from mentally.

I'd deal with it later.

"He's… hurt. Bad," Clint stated in a flat tone. "They don't know if he'll wake up."

I blinked, a sudden surge of adrenaline making my head pound in time to my heartbeat. I must have wobbled in my seat and a firm hand settled on my shoulder to hold me in place. "We lost Tony too?"

There must have been something in my voice. Clint moved in closer, not releasing my shoulder, but squeezing tighter to ensure I remained in place. He must not have realized that one had the bite, but instead of complaining, I reveled in the pain, permitting it to remind me I had survived when we had lost so many others. "Easy there. Don't need you fainting on us." He slid the glass closer, encouraging me to drink some.

"I'm blaming you if I do. Abducting me from my cozy bed and all." I'd only chafed at the enforced rest because I had so much to do in the aftermath of the war with Thanos. Not that I'd been able to focus for more than a few minutes at a time, but that didn't prevent me from wanting to complete the necessary tasks.

He managed a broken smile and a cracked laugh, then he leaned in close and whispered. "How far along are you?"

I froze for long seconds. He did something and both Nat and Maria suddenly vanished. "I have no idea–"

"I read your chart. I know what those test results mean."

I swallowed with difficulty, my eyes surely wide in abject terror. Classic deer in the headlights of an oncoming bullet train. Nowhere to run and even less time. I just sat there shaking unable to articulate a single word.

See, part of the reason the docs had gone easy on the pain meds was the fact that when I'd woken up I'd been pregnant.

Something that should have been entirely impossible for any number of reasons first and foremost was that Steve's genetics had been modified enough to not be able to procreate with a normal human. At least it had been that way. I had a deep suspicion that the entirety of reality had changed while he'd been off fighting to save the world. I distinctly remembered using a condom the night before the battle. And yet I also remembered the opposite. I would swear on a dozen bibles that I had a birth control implant. Had for years. Replaced as scheduled without fail. When I woke up it was gone. And according to the record I hadn't had one in almost half a year.

I remembered that too.

I remembered nearly a dozen different versions of my life and in most of them, I had met and fallen for one Steven Rogers. Few of them had happy endings. I could remember ones where I had died in that crash as a child. Others where I survived, but the head trauma had resulted in disabilities. Ones where I'd been perfectly normal and gone on live a relatively normal life. In many, I still joined the military in one form or another. Fought this same penultimate battle though in different ways. Some I survived, others I didn't.

I had begun to believe I had gone completely and utterly insane. I mean, who the hell could I talk to about this? How do I tell someone that I remembered my parents being at my fifteenth birthday when I also knew they had died in the same car accident that had granted me an incredible memory. A memory that had become more than a tad confused and I didn't think it had anything to do with the concussion.

Oh, how I wished it had something to do with the concussion.

"Myla, you still with me?" Clint sounded honestly worried for me and I couldn't blame him.

I had become exceedingly worried for me.

"What the hell am I going to do?" I whispered hoarsely.

"Nothing today. I shouldn't have mentioned it, but…" he shrugged. "You look like shit."

"I feel like shit, so…"

"You'll have everything you need, whatever decision you make."

God. How did he know that I had already put the abortion card on the table? The impossible pregnancy could be erased in an afternoon. But then I would be left with nothing but the memories. Not the most horrible option on the planet. Though, from what I had heard, I no longer had to stay on the planet if I didn't want to.

"You suck, Barton."

"Yeah, but you love me anyway."

I gave him a watery smile, between the pain and the emotional turmoil roiling just beneath the surface, it was fucking amazing I hadn't been blubbering for hours at this point.

"Hey, kiddo, there's someone I want you to meet."

I spun in my chair, slowly, Clint patting me on the shoulder before walking past to join Nat and Maria who sat with… "Holy shit, is that Fury?"

Sam glanced over his shoulder. "Yup. He probably won't stay long. So if wanna say 'hi' do it sooner rather than later."

I didn't need to. Didn't want to. It was enough that he had come here to say his goodbyes, I supposed. Steve would have found it amusing. A dead man attending his wake.

"Myla, I want you to meet–"

I finally looked at the man standing next to Sam. He'd been at the funeral but had stayed in the shadows, long hair hiding his face, and the suit jacket he'd worn hiding the artificial arm that I could now see some of. The sleeves of his white oxford shirt rolled up to expose the hand and forearm. I recognized the tech as Wakandan. "Sergeant James Barnes of the 107th," I interrupted, giving the man a real smile. "Steve has told me quite a bit about you."

His eyes widened and then he ducked his head, oddly shy. He stuck out his hand and shook mine with a firmness that I appreciated. "He told me a bit about you."

I could see him in my mind, other versions of him who had been by Steve's side for years, known me when I'd been with Steve. Fought me when we'd hunted the Winter Soldier. Steve mourning his death, me unable to console him. Bucky lost because no one had listened to Steve. The lens of my other lives featuring him here and there, always connected to Steve in some manner.

He'd lost his best friend.

I did what anyone who knew me would convince them I had actually stepped off that ledge and into insanity. I carefully slid off my stool, wrapped my arms around him, and pulled him into a hug. "I'm so sorry, Sergeant Barnes."

He stood there frozen for a long moment, then crumbled, his arms curving gently about my waist, head tipping down to rest on my shoulder. "So am I," he said so softly I knew no one but I heard.

Tears pricked my eyes and I willed them away, instead, holding him a bit tighter. Not that it mattered to him, his enhancements similar to Steve's so nothing I physically could do would bother him in the slightest. His arms tensed but didn't tighten, probably concerned he'd hurt me.

After another moment I leaned back, his hold loosening instantly.

"Well, that was unexpected," Sam stated gaze darting back and forth between us.

I wiped the non-tears from my eyes. "Fuck off, Wilson."

Bucky's eyes went wide and then he burst out laughing. "I see why Steve likes you."

"Yeah, yeah yeah. I'll just add her to the Bucky Barnes fan club shall I?" Sam's snark ran deep, but it seemed forced.

He'd become one of Steve's best friends in this wild world he'd woken up into. Bucky had filled the same role decades ago. I looked the man straight in the eye. "You going back to cryo?"

He shook his head. "The Hydra programming is gone and… and I've been asked to stay."

"Stay? Stay where?"

He grimaced. "They want me to be an Avenger. But it's not like I have a place to live anywhere on the planet."

"Yes, you do," I blurted out. In a sudden burst of inspiration, I knew exactly how to help this man if only the tiniest of amounts.

He cocked his head, confusion in his eyes, which I understood. This total stranger offering to put him up for no apparent reason other than they'd... we'd cared for the same man. "What are you saying, exactly?"

"Steve bought us a place just before the whole Accords mess. It's yours for as long as you need it."

"Kid, you can't do that," Sam complained, appearing worried that I intended to do something stupid.

"Sure I can. It's in both our names so I'm pretty certain ownership defaults to me. Besides, I can't…" My heart leaped into my throat. "I can't, Sam." We'd never spent a night there. We'd signed the paperwork, been given the keys and then I'd been called back to the Compound for an op briefing. He'd stayed the night making plans for furniture and stuff, but that had been the closest we'd gotten to moving into our home.

"But where will you go," Bucky asked.

"She'll be coming home," Sam stated unequivocally.

I cocked an eyebrow and attempted to climb back onto the stool. I failed spectacularly on the first attempt, Bucky's firm grip on my biceps preventing me from ending up on the floor. "Shit," I muttered, "Who set the room to spin?"

In an effortless move, Bucky set his hands on my waist got me up, and secure on the seat. "Concussion?"

"Among other fun injuries," I agreed. "I stopped seeing double yesterday. Though it looks like that bit of fun might be returning." I blinked, pinched the bridge of my nose with closed eyes for a long moment then willed there to be only one of each of them when I opened them. It hadn't worked, but the doubles now looked more like echoes, one and a half of each person according to my sight. Oh, this was gonna be a fun memory to review now and then.

Bucky shot a death glare at Sam. "Why did you drag her here? She should be in bed."

Sam frowned deeply. "Because she's family. And we wanted her here." He met my bleary gaze his pair suddenly snapping into place so only one Sam Wilson stood before me. "Besides they want her under a real doctor's care and that means getting her back to the Compound soonest."

I choked on a laugh mostly because it made my head pound in a way I did not enjoy even a tiny bit. "I'm banned from the Compound."

Sam shrugged. "So am I. They still want us back."

"Is that why I'm here? 'Cause they think if they suck up to me I'll play nice and sign the Accords? Fuck that." I made as if to slide off the chair and walk the hell out of there, but Bucky's hand on my arm held me in place.

"No, kid… Myla. You're here because you're one of us. An Avenger."

Clint magically appeared then. "To be clear, since he can't seem to be, they want all of you. Every Expendable left. Anyone and everyone who is capable of standing up to major threats to the Earth."

"Need us to refill the ranks, huh?" I sneered, full of cynicism and pain and fucking angry at the hypocrisy of it all.

"Yes," Sam told me, not bothering to prevaricate. He knew better when I got into a mood like this. "We need you to train the next generation because we barely defeated Thanos. We didn't win, really. Just managed to stop him this time and look what it cost us. He'll be back and he'll bring friends to the party."

"And if I don't want to? If I choose to retire?" Had to admit I'd thought about that as well. I mean, how likely would it be that they'd want to keep me around once they learned I was pregnant.

Then again once they learned who the father was they wouldn't let me out of their sight.

Possibly ever again.

Oh. Fucking. Hell.

"Do you want to?" Clint asked, doubt of my resolve to do so there in his voice.

I hid my face in my hands for a few seconds, my breath harsh to my ears. I didn't come up until someone set a shockingly compassionate hand on my shoulder. I dropped mine to meet the earnest regard of one Bucky Barnes. His vibranium hand resting lightly upon me as if in reassurance. "Ask me again once my head stops hurting and I can actually think intelligently."

He nodded all solemn and serious. "Fair enough."

I would need to contemplate long and hard about my potential choices once in the right frame of mind to do so. Abject terror mixed with a headache so bad I could barely think did not make for rational decisions.

"You'll come back for now though?" Sam questioned, sounding hopeful. "I think I can talk Hill into giving you Cap's old suite. Someplace familiar for you to recover."

"I guess. Though I'll need to contact my team and make arrangements for home base." Just that thought made me realize how much work remained. Going through the ranks to learn who had lived and who had died. Make certain everyone had been taken care of, contact the families of those who had crossed the rainbow bridge. Assess, reassess, and delegate what I could until all had been accounted for. I might even need to pull in the Coins until we were back on our feet and stable, the ground beneath us no longer shifting unexpectedly.

"We'll help with that. We'll do right by you and yours."

I ground my teeth together, stopping only when the headache upped another notch. The room blurred to my sight and it must have shown on my face as Bucky's fingers tightened ever so slightly. If I hadn't been in such a miserable state I'd be fascinated by the technology that had gone into creating his arm. Instead, raw fury bled into my sight.

"Why should I trust them? Why the hell are you?"

Sam reached out to wrap cool fingers around my wrist. "Because there isn't anyone else. Because we want you there to make sure it gets done right this time. Steve trusted you, more, he believed in you the same way you did him. You have this incredible gift and you use it the way he did his: to do the right thing. No matter the cost."

"And look where that got him. A fucking six by three by eight foot hole in the motherfucking dirt." I ground my teeth together in my ire hard enough for my jaw to pop, the pain excruciating thanks to the never-ending headache.

Sam appeared affronted. "Are you telling me you wouldn't have done the same fucking thing? Wouldn't have taken that proverbial bullet for him? Because we both know the answer to that question, don't we."

I wanted to argue, wanted to fume and rage, and tell him he had it wrong, but I couldn't. This path I had found myself on had all begun when I had chosen to take the hit destined for Steve.

And I would do so again without hesitation. Hell, I would do it for any of them. Right this moment, if push came to shove. And he fucking knew it.

"We know you're angry, Myla, you have every reason to be, but what would Steve want for you?"

I had damn near forgotten Clint stood beside me, his quiet presence usually a comfort, but not today. Not when my head hurt and my heart ached and I had a hole in my soul nothing could ever fill. And yet I knew the answer just as all of the men next to me did. "He'd want me to be happy."

"Yeah, that," Clint agreed.

I knew happy. I'd been happy. With Steve. Without Steve. Before Steve and after Steve. We had talked about a future, that maybe, that after. Only it would never happen. Not within this set of memories anyway. I had others that I could cling to if I so chose. Let myself get lost in the other lives I had lived. Pick and choose the best moments and relive them over and over and… and never actually live the life I currently resided in.

"How?" I demanded, voice hoarse and full of the heartache I had shoved into a dark corner and tried to ignore since waking up enough to understand all that had transpired since the battle. I couldn't afford to break down now.

Clint shrugged. "I don't know. How about we figure it out together," he suggested, that deep sadness back in his eyes. With a tenderness I'd rarely seen from the enigmatic man, he set his hand atop my head and kissed me on the temple. Without another word he strode away, joining Nat and Hill with Fury.

Sam gave me the once-over. "You look like shit."

Two of them now, saying the same damn thing. I wondered how they would have described my appearance had they seen me a week ago.

Bucky snorted much to his surprise. "Well, I can now see how Steve managed to get the girl instead of you."

"He almost didn't," I quavered."I had to get taken by Hydra before he realized he might miss his chance at all of this." I gestured at myself, getting an eyebrow raise from Bucky.

He shifted closer, hand still on my shoulder, which I appreciated as my energy reserves had run out and the world kept shifting in such a way that I wanted to fall over. "Oh, really. This I have to hear."

Sam clapped his hands together, signaled for another round of drinks, and said, "You're gonna love this."

 

~^~

 

I made it through the afternoon somehow. Telling tales of Steve, listening to others, some even from Bucky dating back to when they'd been kids in Brooklyn. Toasts abounded, which I joined in with my candy-flavored non-alcoholic drinks. I did not doze off in the booth, head leaning on Clint's shoulder only to twitch awake to see Nat watching me with a melancholy smile on her face.

Knowing Clint he'd spilled the beans to his cohort, but if anyone knew how to keep a secret it was Nat. When she realized I had awoken she gave me a wink and slid a glass of water in my direction. I drank slowly, my stomach unsure if it wanted anything near it. I didn't want to be the party-pooper but I'd maxed out my dealing with reality for the day.

"Kid needs to crash," Clint informed the table before I had the chance to do more than raise my head from his shoulder.

"Kid needs serious narcotics," I informed them, my voice rough with discomfort. "I'm seeing double again."

"Shit," Hill cursed. "Damn it, Steve wouldn't want me to swear."

Sam laughed. "Which you just did again." He pushed his chair back and stood, holding out a hand for me to grasp so that I could stand. I managed two steps before the world did a tilt-a-whirl impression and I found myself staring up into the eyes of one Bucky Barnes, who had apparently been quick enough to catch me as I went down. "Sorry," I mumbled, my tongue thick and stomach roiling with unhappiness. "I don't like this damsel in distress thing very much."

"No, I don't imagine you do," he agreed in a soft voice. He turned to Sam. "She needs a bed and a doctor."

"Your ride is on its way." Fury stepped in front of us. "You are under orders to rest and heal. I'll be back in a month to have a serious discussion about the future of the Avengers. I want you standing on your own two feet for it."

"Why, when I can have a selection of handsome superhero cabana boys to cart me about and fulfill my every whim?"

Nat and Maria hooted and whistled, just drunk enough to find my brazen commentary, and to the former director of SHIELD's face no less, amusing instead of frighteningly foolish.

Fury's lone visible eyebrow rose on his head. "Well. Rogers always did say you were afraid of nothing. Seems he was right." He set a hand on my shoulder, patting it in an almost fatherly manner. "Good. You're going to need that attitude for what's coming."

"And what's coming?" I asked, not entirely certain I wanted an answer.

"War. What else. The world is depending on us to be ready for it." And on those words, he swept out the door the way he'd come in.

Moments later a quinjet settled in the near-empty parking lot.

"I'm guessing that's our ride," Clint said looking out at the slick machine. A design I didn't recognize even though none of the others seemed to find it unusual.

"You okay?" Bucky asked.

"Tired," I admitted.

"Then sleep. I'll protect you."

I had the odd feeling there was something more to his words than just the kindness of a virtual stranger in a stranger than usual situation. Still, the need for rest won out over my curiosity. I tipped my head onto his shoulder and let reality, whichever one this might be, slip away.

 

 

finis