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I Have Seen the Jailbirds

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They try so hard. They do. All of them, even the one she just met yesterday. She hasn't heard them talking about it and they can't see her from where they're imprisoned. They just seem to know.

"Come abooooard, we're expecting yooooooooou!" sings Scott, from the center. He has a surprisingly good voice, tenor, clear and unlessoned. He goes on singing and Wanda recognizes the theme song from The Love Boat. She's never heard it in English before.

She also hadn't noticed when they switched: she's thought it was Sam's turn. Maybe she's been unconscious. Maybe they can see someone approaching her cell and are waking her up so at least she knows. But she can't do very much except rest her head against the tempered glass -- cold, unmoving -- and wait. She can't even shrug her shoulders. They've pulled the straps very tightly.

"Hey, are you taking requests?" Sam, on the right. "You know Shaft?"

"Only the Cookie Monster version," Scott confesses. He chuckles. It's a nice sound. "My --"

He stops. Surely the State knows by now that he has a child, an ex-wife, friends. His discretion is misplaced. The State will do with that information what it wishes, and Scott can do nothing to stop it.

"Hey, the Cookie Monster version's pretty good," says Clint. He's on the left, moving around in his cell a great deal. The State knows about his children, too, and from his own mouth. He might regret telling his fellow Avengers about that, now. He thought they were trustworthy.

Sam laughs a little too. "Yeah, okay, the Cookie Monster version will do." And Scott launches into that next. He's shaggy, he's blue, and he knows what to do.

He goes falsetto to exclaim, "Cookie!" and then drops down low for: "Can you dig it?"

His voice wavers in the middle of a line, and that's all the warning Wanda gets. Whoosh of air, footsteps in the hallway. Breath fogging the glass from the outside, not her own breath, and she goes under again.

 

*

Dull blur, pain like a vise on all sides of her skull. Piercing blue light. Prison. Wanda returns to herself slowly to the sound of two male voices. They aren't speaking to her this time. One of them is... Tony.

If they've imprisoned him too -- ha. Perfect. The State polices even its own. There is no safe path to tread. But no, his voice moves from left to right. He has the freedom of the hallway, and is using it. Sam's voice is low and stinging, as it should be.

Wanda can't follow the conversation. It's possible the drug, whatever it is, is permanently affecting her hearing, or maybe it just makes her stupid. Sam and Tony talk at each other quietly and they go tense, something important, something strange. Wanda can't guess what it is. The State must be listening. There is no way they can keep a secret from the State.

There's a bit of drool on the glass. She can't even clean it up, with no hands free. How they think she will pee is a mystery. The State will surely come to understand that she is too dangerous, and they must kill her. It's the only option, unless they have already made plans to control her. Perhaps the tools they used on that long-haired man, Bucky -- perhaps they'll use those tools on her.

Tony's voice moves again. He is walking around the crescent of occupied cells. Soon he comes into view and Wanda sees him see her. He is not surprised: of course, he saw her on his way in, saw her semi-conscious and probably drooling. He is not surprised: it is the only outcome he could have expected, once he allied himself with the State. He has a black eye, probably inflicted by Steve. He passes her cell without a blink or a sideways glance, and is gone. She doesn't ask the others where he is going.

"All right," says Sam, at last. "Who wants to hear about that time Captain America was mangling German verbs and got the giggles in front of a customs official?"

His voice is rich and calm, secure. Wanda wonders what he would sound like if he sang.

He goes on: "Turns out, the German word for going on a trip sounds like fart."

Laughter from the other two. As if they're sitting around a table, beers at their elbows. Their performance skills are amazing: they don't sound like they're in prison at all.

*

Clint has been telling bedtime stories for years, obviously. He can turn off that direct, no-nonsense manner like a switch, and his voice drifts higher and gentler and slower. It has exactly the soporific effect it's supposed to. Or maybe that's the drugs.

They have all said too much already, these hours and days out of each other's sight. They speak, to save her, and betray themselves. If the State did not know already that Clint has children, they would know now. Wanda knows Sam's mother's name, Clint's dislike of cilantro, Scott's interest in elegant circuit boards. She knows them all as if she had known them all her life.

She is almost certain she hasn't said a word since the first time she went under. Almost certain. They would probably mention it to her if the State had taken her away for extended periods, unless they think it a kindness not to. She has no way of knowing if any of them have been taken away. She has been too drugged to notice, and they don't want to worry her.

"...And Hansel told his sister, No of course not. I have a plan." She wonders whether Clint chose this story because it's about brothers and sisters. "So the next morning the witch puts her hand into the cage, to feel if Hansel's fat enough to eat, only her eyes are bad and he holds out a chicken bone instead of his finger. Too skinny! she says, and puts out another meal. And he does that day after day, and he makes sure Gretel gets enough to eat, since the witch keeps setting out too much food for him."

The other two are silent. Maybe they have already fallen asleep under the bright lights. None of them can guess what time it is, because time has no meaning in the hands of the State.

"And then one morning, the witch decides to eat him anyway, and that's when Gretel snaps into action --"

Just as the story becomes exciting, the lights go out. All at once, as of a single switch, as of an act of intent. Clint stops talking quickly enough that Scott's indrawn breath is audible. He is the least experienced of all of them, the most naive. He manages to say nothing.

Dull gray emergency lighting here and there, just enough for murky reflections in the glass. Perhaps there's an evacuation plan for this prison: perhaps the State wouldn't leave its prisoners behind to burn to death, or drown. Wanda sees that her pupils are wide and black. Her hair is in disarray, greasy, tangled. They removed her makeup at some point: she doesn't remember when.

Footsteps in the hallway. Guards come, surely, to be sure that the prisoners are still under control. Wanda sees a body pass her cell, just muscular thighs. He looks like he is wearing jeans, but that must be a trick of the light.

"All right," says Sam, as if he never expected anything else. His optimism is baffling.

Wanda hears a noise, a lever noise. Raw bangs of steel on steel. She doesn't understand these noises. She wonders when her next dose will come.

Sam says, "I got it. You take care of the other two." His voice is... closer. Further to the left, not muffled. Wanda doesn't understand.

Thighs come into view again, fold, and then she's looking at a face. Brown face, sharp chin, curling eyelashes. Sam. She thinks she had forgotten what he looks like till just now. She opens her mouth and cannot say his name.

He flattens his palm on the glass. "I'm gonna thump some stuff, kid. Just don't want to scare you." Wanda does not understand. She feels the vibration against her cheek. She cringes back and watches the strength in Sam's knees. He thumps, and thumps again: raw steel noises. Finally something gives with a ting and the air moves around her face.

Her hair is in her eyes. A warm hand pushes it back, then reaches behind her neck. The straps fall away with a violent velcro rip and her arms fall useless into her lap. She cannot move them. They're nothing but pins and needles. Sam has to lift them one by one to get the strait-jacket off, and tosses it behind him into the corner like it's nothing. She sees him touch her wrist, searching for a pulse, but can't feel it.

"Okay, you're okay," says Sam, and she feels his breath against her forehead. Another breath, two more: more faces she knows and does not know.

Spiky blond: Clint. The other one must be Scott. She has known him for so little time she doesn't remember his face. Their hands on her, hot, gathering up her helpless body. None of them have shaved their faces: well of course not. The State would not trust them with blades.

Wanda goes soaring into the dim air and her head comes to rest against a beating heart. Veiny arms circling her shoulders. Clint, then. Scott has her feet. They carry her out into the hallway and Sam and that other man lead the way.

Steve leads the way. As he always does, along darkened paths Wanda has never seen before, past the unconscious bodies that represent the State. Steve's work. They steal away into the night, like children fleeing their murderous stepmother.

*

Scott washed her hair while the drugs were still clearing her system, and brushed it, and braided it in a long single braid down her back. He has not been so bold as to wash her body, or she not so helpless. Or the bathroom too small for two people: they are all four of them crammed into a single-occupancy apartment.

Wanda doesn't know where the apartment is, only that it has graying lace curtains through which Clint peers constantly, while Sam tries to wheedle him away with the offer of card games. Steve has gone away again, maybe to return, unless he's caught. He has stocked the freezer with ready-to-heat meals, and the labels might be in Swedish.

Clint fed her by hand like a baby in the morning. Meatballs, and cream, and noodles: soothingly bland. He caught drips on her chin with the edge of the spoon, and smiled with his eyes. He dabbed at her face with a washcloth after, and said, "Okay, next time you get to do it yourself."

It is evening, almost. She can do it herself now. She can unbend her legs and stand, and walk ten steps to the tiny icebox. She can use her hands, still swollen and clumsy, to pull the chrome lever and to reach into the ice. She can ignore that Clint has turned away from the window, and Scott is watching her with his hands stuffed into his pockets. On the sagging couch, Sam flips over a card -- the ace of diamonds -- and glances up at her as if it's the confirmation of something he expected all along.

Wanda has no makeup. She is wearing socks and ill-fitting jeans and two shirts and no bra -- Steve didn't know what size to buy. She turns her head, and her braid swings behind her. All three of them are watching her openly.

"How," she asks, and her throat is hoarse, full of phlegm. She clears it. "How does this work."

"Well," says Sam, with an ironic little smile, "it works however we want it to. Once Steve gets back with our new passports, we can stick a pin into a map if you like. Go someplace you've always wanted to see."

He does not say they can't go back to America. He does not say that he may never see his mother again, or Scott his daughter, or Clint his wife and children.

"How," asks Wanda again, and holds up the frozen meal, "does the microwave work."

"Oh that," says Sam, and chuckles. "Much less complicated. Here, let me show you."

He puts down his cards, and Scott gets out of his way. Clint turns back to the curtains and twitches them aside again. Sam comes to stand beside her, and shows her how to work the microwave.