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Grimm Truth 2: If You're Going Through Hell

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Chapter 252: There's Always Pain Before We Heal . . .

Grant jolted awake, flailing at the touch of hands holding his cheeks, eyes rolling as the world swooped and spun around him. “No! Please . . . no more!” he begged, uninjured hand coming up to push the other person away.

“Hey! Easy, Ward . . . easy,” came a gruff but familiar voice. “It’s just me . . . you’re all right. Easy . . .”

His eyes were still rolling crazily as he tried to place the where and when he was, even as he knew the owner of that voice. “Gamble,” he gasped, panting through the pain to settle out. The last thing he remembered had been the sound of his own screams when his thumbnail left its bed. “What . . . how? Where are we?”

“A cell of some sort. They dragged you in here about an hour ago,” Brian Grimm replied, mahogany eyes solemn as he reached for Grant’s wounded hand.

The Specialist recoiled, eyes going wide as he jerked back out of reach and cradled the appendage to his chest. One blond eyebrow rose, but Brian was otherwise calm as he spoke. “I know it hurts, man, I do. But I gotta see how bad it is. The sooner we can put the fingers back in place, the better it’ll heal in the long run.”

For all of a second, Grant considered telling the other agent to fuck the hell off. However, even as he thought it, he acknowledged the rules he and his handler had established between them. “Listen to what your body was telling you,” had been one of the very few Marina Petrovka had insisted on and currently, his body was screaming, “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” from the vicinity of his right hand. He hadn’t yet disobeyed one of those rules, and frankly was not interested in finding out what kind of consequences she would come up with if he broke one now.

Whimpering softly, he loosened his grip on his wrist and allowed Brian to pull the hand towards him for a closer look. Grant gagged as pain surged through his hand, nausea hitting him in the gut like a sledgehammer. The other agent said nothing as Grant expelled what little food and water he’d consumed during their captivity, rolled away towards the wall and shuddering with the force of his heaves. A warm, broad palm smoothed between his shoulder blades, the other hand offering the precious dregs of their only canteen. “Slowly, man.”

Grant waved the canteen away, refusing to waste even a sip of water when triage would more than likely make him vomit again. Gamble nodded in understanding, setting the canteen aside and lifting the mangled hand again. “You need something to bite down on?”

Whatever machismo Grant had been planning on, it died with a keen as Brian manipulated the first mangled finger. Between the two of them, they were able to strip off Grant’s overshirt and rip free the sleeves. One sleeve tightened around Grant’s wrist as a makeshift tourniquet, while the other was wadded up and shoved between Grant’s teeth. “Ready?” Brian asked, resigned.

They both knew the answer to that question was never going to be yes. Even still, the brunet nodded sharply, giving the go ahead for Brian to start the grisly work, the almost instant scream muffled into the fabric as the first finger popped back into place. They had to stop twice for Grant to be sick, before the worst of the work was done. “Breathe, Ward,” Gamble urged, leaning forward and ripping a gash in the front of Grant’s undershirt. Slipping the hand into the rip, he used Grant’s other arm to anchor the appendage in place; it was the closest they were going to get to a functional sling for awhile.

Grant sagged. The heat radiating from his chest was soothing against the throbbing appendage and the younger man luxuriated in the fleeting sensation. “Thank you,” he breathed, hoarse from his screams.

“Don’t thank me yet. That hand is a weakness they’ll exploit if they have to.”

“I know,” he whispered, letting his eyes drift. “How long?”

“Near as I can tell? Couple days at most.” Squeezing the visible wrist, he promised, “Hey, stay with me, okay? Marina’s coming for us.”

“Better if she didn’t come for me . . . I don’t deserve it,” he murmured, tone absent and adrift.

“I promise not to tell her you said that. She’d be pissed . . . and that is one thing I have no interest incurring personally.” Settling against the wall beside the young Specialist, Brian dropped his hand to rest on the other man’s shoulder. “Will claimed you . . . you’ll never be free of her.”

“Happiest day of my life,” he mumbled, exhausted and slipping towards unconsciousness once more.

“It usually is. Rest while you can, kid . . . I’ve got the watch for the moment.”

*********************************************

Grant woke to a whole new level of hell.

Frankly, this mission had been a shit fest from the start, an assessment which was proving to be very kind. The only saving grace Grant could see was going to be the ass kicking Garrett had coming when Marina Petrovka found out that he had flat out lied to her face about the viability of his intel. If he was very lucky, Grant was going to get to watch her do it.

Considering the fact he’d woken up, strapped down to a metal examination table and stripped completely of his clothes, that was a very big if.

The room was solid concrete with a single, naked bulb hanging precariously low just above his midsection. He shivered, feeling his skin prickle unpleasantly with gooseflesh considering the chill of the room. There were covered trays on either side of the slab and, even knowing he was about to be tortured, Grant felt dread curdle sickly in his gut. Brian was slumped in the chains that connected him to the wall opposite his feet, a bruise across his temple the clear cause of his unconsciousness.

Forcing his eyes closed, the Specialist forced himself to find a safe place in his head . . . somewhere he could find some small reprieve. When that haven appeared, it was with no small surprise that Grant recognized Marina’s affectionate grin. He had been fighting her as hard as it was possible to, but there she was, soaking through every nuance of his mind and taking up residence on the backs of his eyelids. Suddenly realizing what the diminutive handler had come to mean to him, Grant bit down on his sob.

He would not break so soon.

If he could keep her in his thoughts, keep her as his haven . . . just maybe he would be able to get through this newest round of torture with some slim fragment of his sanity intact. Closing his eyes, he imagined what he would do if he made it out of Doom’s custody. He’d go home . . . finally cave in to her affection without reservation. He would wave the white flag with Marina . . . accept her love . . . and get to work on becoming a man she would be proud of. He would tell her everything, no holds barred, and hope at the end she’d still care enough about him not to have him executed where he stood.

If he only made it out of Latveria alive . . .

Which, looking at the men who were now streaming into the room? Was looking less and less likely every moment. He yelped as pain surged through his injured hand, when he tried to yank free of his restraints while keeping his eyes on his approaching fate. These men were brawny and strong, eyes calculating as they swept over his tall, lithe frame. These were men who knew how to deal pain . . . more importantly, these were men who enjoyed dealing in it.

The last man in the room was Victor Von Doom, all swirling green cape and menacing silver mask. His eyes were cold and impersonal behind the mask as he approached, hands behind his back as he moved to stand between Brian and Grant. Turning to look at Brian, he waved a hand dismissively at one of his lackeys. “Wake him up.”

Brian came to with a flood of obscenities that would have made a sailor blush, the water dripping down the tip of his nose and soaking his shirt to his chest. “Doom, you bastard! What the fuck!”

Another gesture, and one of the men approached Brian with a syringe filled with a clear liquid. The undercover agent tried to jerk free, but his chains allowed him to go only so far before he was forced still. The syringe sunk deep into Brian’s neck, earning a grunt and a wince, before being tossed away towards the wall again. Seemingly satisfied, Doom looked between the two men smugly. “So . . . S.H.I.E.L.D. thought they were so clever, did they? Sending agents into infiltrate my country, to steal my secrets? And now look at you both . . . stuck like a rat in a trap.” Smirking, he laughed, “Tsk tsk . . . whatever shall we do with you, hm? Part of me wants to use you as bait . . . see what other, more interesting specimens I can lure into my trap using your pathetic carcass. But really . . . I have no patience for playing S.H.I.E.L.D.’s games. And my doctors have been getting a little bored lately, with no one to practice on. Fortunately, you dropped right into my lap . . . how wonderful for them.”

Ward’s fingernails bit into the palm of his good hand as his fist clenched, focusing on the stinging pain to keep from making a snide remark back to the dictator standing before him. The last thing he needed was to make this worse for himself. As it was he would likely have one foot in the grave by the time they were anywhere close to done.

Seeing that Ward was going to say nothing, Doom hissed furiously. Rounding on Brian, he barked, “And what about you? Have you nothing to say to save your comrade?”

Gamble’s eyes flickered to Grant, taking comfort in the grit of the other agent’s jaw and the firm shake of his head. Looking back at Doom, he spat, “Go to hell.”

“You first. That compound . . . it’s going to loosen your tongue soon enough. Every secret you’ve ever tried to hide, every part of you you’ve tried to keep locked away is going to be laid bare before me soon enough.” Leaning into Brian’s face as the agent went pale, he sneered, “Last chance. Any last words.”

“Fuck you.”

Doom’s lip curled upwards furiously, before he ordered firmly, “Cut the agent open . . . let’s see how long their lips stay shut then, hm?”

That coat flared out around the dictator as he left the room . . . left Ward to the cruel “mercies” of Doom’s torturers. Flinching inwardly at the order Ward called on every ounce of his training not to visibly react to the words. Gamble struggled against the chains, his jaw locked as he cussed out the men advancing on Grant gleefully. “You bastards! I’ll kill all of you! You lay another hand on him, I’ll kill you!”

Grant forced his eyes closed, resigned to his fate and knowing that Gamble could do nothing to save him now. When the first bloom of pain flooded through his body, his training was all that kept him from outwardly reacting. And yet, as time passed and the pain grew steadily worse, his resolve to stay silent collapsed as he released an almost ear piercing scream.

After that, things got hazy, and for what seemed like an eternity all he knew was pain and the sound of his own screams.

He was pretty sure he passed out, because next thing he knew, Vincent was hovering over him, hands and shirt bloody as he tried to put Grant’s insides back into him. Ward knew the instant Keller realized he was awake because the doctor got close to his face, calling insistently, “Grant! Stay with us, man! Okay? Fight!”

Ward’s eyes were wild as they shot around the room, seeking out the only constant he’d had over the days of his captivity. “Gamble?” Twisting a little, he grunted as hands trapped him back flat once again. “Where’s Brian?”

“He ran off,” Marina replied, suddenly there next to him and her hands warm on the curves of his cheeks. “Hello Prizrak . . .”

His eyes rolled as he tried to take in his surroundings. “Why? He didn't . . . he stayed with me, before . . .”

“We're pretty sure whatever drug he was given has messed with his head. Aaron went after him. He's gonna be okay . . . you’re both gonna be alright, mal’chik.”

“For unearthing secrets,” he murmured, eyes drifting for a moment before they flashed wide in shock. “You're here . . . you're really here.”

“Yes, love, I'm really here.”

The sight of her in the flesh, combined with the confirmation that he was not imagining her, earned the whimper of a child. “Marina . . . Marina, it hurts . . . make it stop, please.”

“I know, sweetheart. It’s going to be all right,” she vowed, smoothing her thumbs tenderly over his cheeks. “You and Brian are going to be all right.”

The medic’s hands jarred something inside his chest then and the pain swept Ward away once again, helpless against the onslaught. Last thing he heard before he slipped out of reach was a steady stream of cussing, then . . . “Damn it! I lost him . . . Sam! I need hands!!”

Ward drifted on waves of pain and agony, jolting in and out of consciousness. On occasion he’d wake to either Vincent or Sam’s face hovering over him as they worked to stabilize him. Marina was a near constant, singing to him and stroking her fingers through his hair.

Every time he saw her, he tried to smile.

Every time he saw her, he'd fade away.

When he was marginally conscious things felt fuzzy, the edges slightly blurred and leaving him wondering if the presence of these people he cared about was all just some horrible dream. Maybe he was dead . . . in hell and this, the sight of his friends, the people he was going to lose in the end, was his torture for his sins.

Finally, he came back to himself, more aware than he'd been in awhile. Suddenly conscious of being carried, he could feel the tightly wrapped bandages around his torso. Blinking down at himself, he frowned to see his body all but swaddled in bloody blankets, even as he was rushed from the plane. There was a man to each side of him, their interlocked hands and arms forming his makeshift gurney. Grant’s eyes fluttered as he looked over to see Bucky Barnes on one side, the Soldier’s mouth set in a firm line and with rage etched into every crag of his face. Head tilting a little, he blinked to see Steve Rogers on his other, the American Legend smiling down at him kindly on the realization he was at least marginally coherent once again. “Hang on, Agent Ward . . . we’re almost there . . . just hang on for a little bit longer, okay?”

Grant swallowed around the words he wanted to say, his fingers spasming in the collars of their uniforms. He hadn't even known these two men had been present for his rescue. He wanted Marina . . . he wanted Sam . . . Vincent . . . the people he knew best and trusted most. Moaning, he tried to struggle free . . . tried to find them, only to hear a warm voice order, “Lie still, Grant . . . you're safe.”

Twisting with a grunt to find the voice, Grant's eyes landed on that familiar blond visage, one of Sam’s hands reaching up to squeeze his friend’s wrist while the other held the blood and saline bags aloft. Grant frowned, eyes tracking the tubing to the IV needle in the back of his hand; he hadn’t even noticed the pinprick of pain that always accompanied its placement. Sam was pointedly not looking at it, earning a fond smile from the Specialist. Sam's intense dislike of needles was all but legendary by this point.

Sam's hand shifted to the back of Grant's neck and he squeezed firmly, settling the other man's restlessness. “Just a little further, Grant . . . you’re almost home, okay? Just stay with us . . . just for a few more minutes.”

“Hurts,” Grant slurred weakly, eyes very slowly blinking before starting to flutter closed. His eyelids felt heavy . . . no scratch that his entire being felt heavy as though he was weighed down by invisible forces.

Sam’s hand tightened, shaking him gently as he insisted, “Come on, man. Just a little further . . . don’t do this to Ma, okay? Try, Grant . . . you have to try.”

“So . . . tired, Sam.” He slurred his head lolling back heavily onto Sam’s hand as he tried to focus on the man’s face.

“I know, Grant . . . I know you are. But stay awake, just a little longer, okay? It’s gonna be worth it, I promise. But you gotta try, all right? Not much longer now . . . we’re almost inside. Can you try? Can you do that?” the shorter man asked, keeping pace with the two super-soldiers as his thumb smoothed gently against the other agent’s mottled throat.

“Can . . . try. Marina?” Grant blinked and forced his eyes to stay open. Every so often he failed and they stayed shut for several seconds before flying open with a jolt.

“She’s here . . . she’s gone ahead to get a gurney and start organizing things for you.” Fingers tightening on Grant’s neck as he started to drift, he insisted, “That’s why you gotta stay awake for a little bit longer . . . just a little bit, okay? Try, Grant, for Ma’s sake. You gotta try.”

“Kay?” The specialist slurred wearily, his body feeling utterly wrung out and drained dry of energy to do anything. “Gamble?”

“Uncle Brian's already inside. We had to get you stabilized to move, so we didn't rip you open again getting you off the plane,” Sam explained, eyes taking in Grant's features carefully. “You've been in and out the whole flight home.”

“Home?” he asked, hesitant and uncertain.

“Yeah, Grant . . . we're home. We're back in New York City, on base. This is the closest airstrip to Medical . . .”

“I don't remember,” he gasped, wincing as a sharp jolt sent pain flooding through Grant like water through a sieve. “Fuck . . . that hurt.”

“You're in pretty bad shape, Grant. But Vincent is gonna getcha all fixed up, okay? Just talk to me for a bit . . . stay with us.”

“I . . . I can't . . . tired,” he begged, pleading with Sam to understand. There was a moment when his head lolled, nearly losing his grip on consciousness, but then he heard it . . . the voice that always brought him peace and comfort when he was sick. “Prizrak!”

“Marina?” Grant whimpered weakly, his half-lidded eyes struggling to stay open as he watched the Russian sweep back into his limited field of vision. A gentle hand came to rest against his cheek as he met wide concerned hot chocolate eyes only moments before he lost his battle with consciousness and the world faded to black once more.

When next he came to, his first awareness was that everything hurt. Even as his brain acknowledged the impossibility, Grant could feel the cracks in his toenails . . . every strand of hair on his head. It felt as though his body was betraying him. And that was saying nothing of the stabbing pains in his chest and abdomen.

His skin felt hot and tight while his blood boiled in his veins. It was oppressive and agonizing. He'd never been more thoroughly miserable in all his life . . . which quite frankly was saying something, considering the things that had happened to him as a child. He was just contemplating surrendering back into the bliss of oblivion when a soft, gentle voice singing registered. Inhibited, Grant lolled in the direction the sounds were coming from, even as he blinked to get his eyes to focus. Marina was sitting beside his bed and apparently singing to him. While he couldn’t place the song, it was familiar somehow and oddly comforting.

“Marina?” Grant barely recognised his own voice; hoarse and rough, a result of his dry and scratchy throat. He watched Marina bolt to her feet, her hands grabbing a washcloth from a bowl and wringing the majority of the water out of it before it came to stroke soothingly across the heated skin of his face.

Groaning in blissful relief Grant tried to lift his hand to hold Marina’s in place . . . only nothing happened. For a moment, he genuinely wasn’t sure if it was his body failing to recognise his brain’s commands or whether he was restrained. Given the concerned look on the Russian’s face when she dropped one hand to press against his wrist, he assumed the latter.

“You're alright, sweetheart. Lie still . . . we don't want you moving around or touching the bandages so Dr Keller has your wrists restrained. You're alright . . . I'm here and I'm not leaving you alone. You're safe now. I promise.”

“Everything hurts . . .” Grant groaned, before letting out a quiet whimper, “And my blood feels like it's boiling.”

“You have a very serious infection, Prizrak. One of the lacerations cut into your stomach and has leaked acid into your stomach cavity. They're doing everything they can, but you're in for a serious haul, sweetie.”

“Kind of wish they’d killed me when they caught me . . . Garrett’s intel it was wrong. They were waiting for us . . . they knew we were coming.” He whimpered as pain flared in his abdomen, brown eyes widening as he stared up at Marina. “Make it stop . . . please. It hurts, I can't hardly bear it, please.”

Marina smiled, reaching out to trigger a button on the pump next to his bed. “Your old friend, morphine. How you love each other, da?”

The drug swam through his veins, leaving Grant sighing as the pain dulled; it was a unique kind of relief, seeing as he could still feel it, but he no longer cared. There was a goofy tilt to his grin as he beamed up at Marina, his head swimming with the good drugs he usually avoided. “Da, most welcome at the moment.”

“I'll bet,” she chuckled. “Close your eyes sweetheart . . . rest is the best thing for you.”

“You’ll be here when I wake?” Grant asked eyes wide and tinged with fear at the thought of waking and finding her gone. He’s not entirely sure why he felt so safe with Marina, it wasn't something he’d ever felt under Garrett’s purview.

“I will not leave you, you have my word. And if I must leave, you will not wake alone, okay? Do you trust me?”

“Yes, more than I trust anyone else currently.” He admitted voice shaky and hushed.

Her fingers were gentle as she smoothed them through his hair. “Even Sam? His hands aren't nearly as bloody as mine . . . did I mention how happy I am the two of you are friends?”

“You and Sam . . . trust you both . . . and the Colonel.” Grant admitted wearily his eyes slowly drooping as exhaustion once again swept over him.

“Sleep my darling boy . . . rest and heal, okay?”

“I’ll try . . . no promises,” he mumbled already drifting off and floating away from Marina’s angelic voice.

“Uh-huh . . .” she giggled fondly with a shake of her head, “Sleep well, my darling boy. Dream of happy things; music and love and cars. Whatever you most desire in this world, in your dreams, it's yours.”

“Home,” was the last thing the specialist mumbled as the darkness engulfed him once more, pulling him away from his Russian guardian angel and back into the lonely, solitary darkness that made up his dreams. Though this time . . . for the first time he could ever recall the darkness didn’t appear as dark, there were glimpses of sunlight breaking through allowing his mind to calm.

And through his dreams filtered a quiet, fervent voice, vowing, “I can do that.”

It didn’t seem like he’d gotten any reprieve at all, before he jolted awake again, feeling as though he was freezing. His body shook and shuddered, as chills traced up and down the curve of his spine. His teeth chattered as he struggled against the restraints, trying to escape his own body and the additional discomfort wracking his frame. Each shudder earned a stab of agonizing pain, as it jarred his chest. “Marina . . .” he whimpered, eyes squeezing closed as he yanked his body over, pulling as hard as he could on his wrists.

“I’m here,” the Russian promised, her hands warm and gentle as she gripped his shoulders and eased him back to the mattress. “Talk to me, Prizrak. I can’t help, if you don’t tell me what’s wrong.”

“C . . . c . . . cold,” he stammered, tossing his head as he tried to escape the crawling sensation under his skin caused by the chills.

Marina frowned fiercely, her hand coming up to fold over his forehead even as her eyes shot to take in the readings on his heart monitor. Looking back at him, she felt her frown fade into a fond smile at the brokenness in his features. He was looking up at her earnestly, with all the simple trust of a child; there was no doubt in his eyes. He knew she’d be able to fix it.

Bending, she pressed a warm kiss to his forehead and whispered, “Hold on, sweetie . . . let me go grab some warm water. It’ll help with the chills, okay?”

“Don’t leave,” he begged, fingers reaching for her and unable to touch due to the soft gauze restraints.

“I’m not leaving . . . I promise . . .” she vowed as she twisted to point at the tiny sink in the ICU cubicle. “Just going to the sink. I won’t go anywhere you can’t see me, okay?”

Whimpering, he nodded, staring after her with wide eyes as she grabbed one of the emesis bowls and moved to fill it with warm water from the sink, digging out several soft cloths from under the sink. Coming back, she set the bowl on the rolling table near the foot of the bed and set to baring his chest. Her fingers were nimble on the ties at his shoulders and arms, leaving the front of the hospital gown he wore to slither downwards. Next, she yanked back the covers, touch professional but gentle as she folded the front over his groin to preserve what little modesty he still had. Dipping a cloth into the bowl of water, Marina wrung out the extra water then folded it along the base of his throat, along his collarbone.

The warmth felt wonderful, earning a soft sigh as Grant sagged backwards into the mattress. Bit by bit, she covered his skin in the warm, soothing compresses, the fingers of her free hand occasionally lifting to pet fondly at the back of his head. “Better, darling boy?”

His thoughts were going hazy again, eyes drifting as he reveled in the warmth covering his body. “Warm,” he murmured, features peaceful as he allowed himself to let go.

A thought stuck him suddenly and he frowned, announcing very seriously, “I like peaches.”

The statement was so out of the blue, Marina couldn’t help her soft laugh. She moved the table around so she could access it better, before hitching up to sit on the mattress next to his hip. “Oh really? That’s news. I would have thought you were an apples man, myself.”

“Apples crunch,” he stated, tone still specialist-serious as he nodded firmly. “I like the green ones best.”

“Green peaches? Probably not a good idea, love,” she teased with a wrinkle of her nose.

There was a wealth of exasperation in his tone as he protested petulantly, “No! Green apples!”

A surge of affection swelled in her throat as she smiled at him, “Oh . . . I’m sorry. I misunderstood. Of course, green apples.” Reaching out to take the cloth from between his collarbones, she rewet the cloth before replacing it once again. “I don’t think I’ve ever had peaches before.”

“They’re sweet . . . like you.”

“You think I’m sweet?” she chuckled, “Clearly you haven’t heard all the rumors about what a mean old witch Agent Petrovka is.”

“You’re the sweetest sweet . . . like candy . . . or apples.”

“And we’re back to apples,” she laughed, amused to see him this way. “Thank you for thinking I’m sweet, Prizrak.”

“I’ll tell everyone. They can fight me. I’ll win.” Frowning, he amended, “Except against Sam . . . I think he cheats.”

“Cheats?!” was the incredulous question, earning a fierce frown.

“Yes. Or he can see inside my head . . . and that’s scary. He shouldn’t be able to see inside my head.” Cocking his head, he looked up at her with adoring eyes, “Do you think he can see inside my head?”

“No, sweetheart, I don’t think so.”

“Sweethearts! Candy!” he cheered, features light and happy for the first time Marina could ever remember.

Shaking her head in amusement, Marina muttered under her breath, “What I wouldn’t give for a video camera right now. Misha is never going to believe me when I tell him about this.” Her fingers were gentle in his hair as she leaned over to press a fond kiss to his forehead. “All right, my good boy, it’s time to sleep now. And if you’re very good . . . maybe I’ll have the Colonel bring you a peach. What do you think?”

“Do you think he would?” he asked in genuine awe at the idea of one of the scariest people at S.H.I.E.L.D. doing anything for him, Grant Ward, HYDRA mole and double agent.

Mouth twisting at the reminder of who he was, he twisted his hand in its restraint and curled his fingers around Marina’s wrist, the two now linked at the wrists. “Marina?”

“Yes love?”

“I have to tell you something.”

“What is it, sweetheart?”

“I have a secret . . . a bad one.” He looked up at her with broken eyes, as he confessed, “I’m a bad person.”

“No you’re not, love. You’re my good boy . . . it’s okay. You can tell me later.”

“But . . .”

“Grant Douglas, what was rule number one?”

“‘Take care of myself, and follow doctor’s orders’,” he recited obediently, looking distraught at the idea that he could be breaking it.

“All right then. Doctor’s orders are to rest and to heal. You can tell me later, I promise.”

Drawing small circles just under his ear, she hummed gently as she watched the drugs catch up to him and he started to drift to sleep again. Just before he slipped away, he confessed, “I’m HYDRA . . .”

Her smile was soft and gentle as she replied in a whisper, “I know.”

Her fingers came up to press against his forehead, gauging the fever he was currently carrying. She knew this was not how he would have wished to tell her his darkest secret. It was therefore fortunate his fever was so high. With any luck . . . he wouldn’t even remember this conversation.