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Echoes In Our Minds

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1.

 

 

“…and this concludes our musical break,” Loki said into the mike, turning a dial on his mixing desk so that the song would fade as it ended. “You’re listening to Sleipnir and this is Loki Laufeyson with one Hel of a headache. It’s five past four in the morning, I suppose the sun is just getting up…”

A high-pitched sound whistled through his ears. He smirked, then extended his right hand towards the braille terminal to check that his firewalls were holding. The nubs pressed furiously against the tips of his fingers, information shifting almost faster than he could read; but it betrayed nothing alarming.

“And that, listeners, was our esteemed rival Gungnir trying to phagocyte the Bifrost frequency again. Wherever you are, please raise your glass for Heimdall Heimdallsson; we must be keeping him awake and the poor man cannot drink on duty.” He sipped a bit of ale from his bottle. “I wonder—which wildly inappropriate topic should we discuss? The King’s paranoia? The Prince’s anger issues?”

His headache was getting worse, but he was on a roll and didn’t want to relinquish the royal frequency just yet. He snapped his fingers close to the mike. “How about the Jotun riots? A personal favorite. Most of you might not even know about this little affair, listeners—that is information the Bifrost conveniently forgets to relay. So let’s do a quick recap.”

Loki flipped a switch on his desk and the Asgardian anthem began to play in the background. “A thousand years ago, emboldened by a swift victory over the seals and puffins of Iceland, our Viking ancestors sailed further into the freezing seas and stumbled upon a land of black rock and rainbow skies.” He changed the tunes to typical Jotun sounds—drums and kite wind-music. “The island was not empty; the natives were quite tall, almost blue-skinned with tattoos, and did not seem to fear the cold. The Vikings called them Frost Giants. The giants called themselves Jotuns. First disagreement of many. Rape, murder, war. Let’s fast forward a few centuries.”

Loki turned a button so the music would become an accelerated squiggle of sounds. “Ever since the Vigridr massacre in 1837, the ever-dwindling Jotun population has been fighting for recognition and visibility. Five years ago, the All-Father’s own Royal Guard slaughtered no less than fifty-three protesters during the riots of—”

Another whistling sound screeched through his ears, more powerful than last time, and suddenly swelled into a gunshot— so loud he ripped off his headphones with a cry of pain.

His headache had flared into an unbearable, lancing agony. Loki took a gasping breath, then reached for his terminal and discovered he’d lost control of the band.

“What the Hel was that,” he muttered, fiddling to get back online. His hands were shaking. “Ah, damn it—”

Someone pounded on the door. “Loki!” bellowed an angry voice. “Come out this instant!”

Loki sighed and went still. That was it for the night, then.

He got up from his chair and walked smoothly across the room—he knew it well enough not to hesitate. Unlocking the bolt, he pulled open the door with a scowl on his face. “For Hel’s sake, Thor, it’s the middle of the night.”

“Not that you were sleeping,” Thor said. “You have to cut this out, Loki, there’s enough chaos as it is. The crowning is tomorrow.”

Loki clenched his hands into fists, digging his nails into his palms to steady himself. “I’m just having fun. It used to make you laugh.”

“Yes,” Thor said, walking closer, “it used to. But we are not boys anymore. A prince hacking into Gungnir’s frequency to ramble at night is unseemly at best. Especially to speak of nothing but bitterness and discord and old wounds. On this day of all days. We’ve argued enough about this and I will not tolerate any more of your—”

Thor’s voice trailed off in frustration. His hand wrapped behind Loki’s neck, in a rough, brotherly gesture Loki tried not to hate. It was very difficult. It had all been very difficult ever since he’d lost his sight. But that had been his fault, of course. Everything was always his fault.

“Brother, I just—can you not cease your tricks for one day?” Thor said, impatience and regret belying his words. “Just one day. Be a true part of our family and work with us for once. This is my crowning.”

Loki forced his lips to stretch into a tight smile. “Of course. I’ll stop. Since you won’t tolerate it.”

Thor sounded too relieved to argue with his tone. “Thank you,” he said dryly. “Now go to sleep. And—behave, little brother,” he said, bringing Loki’s head back in line one last time. “Alright?”

“Fine,” Loki said.

Thor laughed and let him go. “Good man. Now give us a kiss.”

Loki swatted at him, but if his smile grew more genuine, it was only muscle memory.

His headache was getting worse and worse. True to his word, he did not go back to his mixing desk after Thor was gone. It did not matter. Everything was ready.

He only needed to let it play out.

 

*

 

Steve woke up with the echo of a gunshot in his ears.

He didn’t remember his dream, but the headache kept him from trying anyway. Sitting up in bed, he winced and rubbed his temple to soothe the throbbing pain. He looked out the window and repressed a sigh; it was still the middle of the night. Too early for his morning run.

Someone pounded on his door, startling him. That, he suddenly realized, was the reason he was awake.

“Who—” his throat was raspy and dry. “Who is it?”

There was no answer, but the pounding got louder.

Steve reached in the dark for his service weapon. Sam wouldn’t be happy to know he was still sleeping with it, but it wasn’t like Steve planned on telling him anyway. His migraine pulsed hard, and he swallowed a rise of nausea before getting up, wavering. DC’s finest for sure. He should take some Ibuprofen later.

“Who is it?” Steve called again as he walked forward, keeping his gun trained on the carpet for now. Most likely a drunk neighbor.

There was a beat, then the angry voice of a girl. “What do you mean, who is it? It’s Kate, you dummy! Time to get up!”

The line of Steve’s shoulders relaxed, though only by a fraction. “Ma’am,” he called, turning the doorknob, “I think you’ve got the wrong—”

The jerk of the safety chain startled him—and suddenly he realized it wasn’t the middle of the night like he’d thought; it was morning. A glance at his alarm clock told him it was exactly 8am.

The hallway was perfectly empty.

 

He still felt dizzy driving to work. The radio was on, too cheerful for the subject involved (“Billionaire Tony Stark is still unaccounted for. It’s now been twenty-four days since his disappearance in the Kunar province of Afghanistan, and it’s unclear whether—”) and as it didn’t help with Steve’s headache, he quickly turned it off.

There was a long-haired man standing in front of the precinct when Steve got out of his car.

Steve only glanced at him in passing; he’d learned to ignore the crazies loitering around the precinct unless they looked like trouble. He would have kept walking if not for a glint of metal catching his attention at the last second.

All his alarms went off at once—is this guy open-carrying in freaking DC? —but when he did a double-take, there was no gun.

In fact, there was no one at all.

Steve cast a startled look around, half-expecting the man to be crouching behind somethinghe even walked around his car to check. He was certain there had been someone just a second ago. Yet the street remained perfectly empty.

He kept looking around for a second, waiting for his aching mind to puzzle it out. But he couldn’t come up with any obvious answer for himself. Eventually he just had to admit the man had slunk off without him noticing. What had he been holding? Steve wasn’t so sure anymore it had been a gun. Something metal, though.

It was no use. He was gone now. Steve shook his head and walked into the precinct.

“Running a little late this morning?”

“Headache,” Steve mumbled, reaching for the mug Sam held out to him. He drank a long gulp and blinked hard, exhaling. “God. Thanks.”

“Milk and sugar,” Sam said, before raising an eyebrow. “I knew this Boy Scout thing was all an act. The hell did you do last night, Rogers?”

“I was never a boy scout.” Steve risked an eye across the precinct. “Is the Captain around?”

Sam did not make the obvious Captain America joke, which was one of the reasons he was Steve’s best friend. He’d had enough of that nickname for two lifetimes.

“Naw, don’t worry, Carter’s not in this morning. Your hungover ass is safe.” Sam pointedly slurped his coffee. “Provided I get all the juicy details.”

“I went to sleep early, Sam. It’s just a migraine.”

Sam looked disappointed—Steve was famously bad at lying and clearly telling the truth. “Aw, seriously? Dude, you look like you’ve been partying in Vegas all night.”

Feels like it, if that counts,” Steve muttered.

“Still celibate, then?”

“Sam—”

“No, but, for real, man. It’s been months since Sharon.”

“Sam—”

“Alright,” Sam relented. “Breathing room, I get it. We’re gonna have a nice uneventful day, anyway.”

Steve’s brow furrowed. “Says who?”

“Says our new case.” Sam handed him the file. “Suicide in a hotel. Black male in his sixties. Fury, Nicholas J.”

Steve put his cup down and blearily flipped through. It did look uneventful, and it was something of a relief—he wasn’t sure he could handle a lot today, at least not until the Ibuprofen kicked in. He went back to the first page, and looked at the picture.

Sam patted his shoulder. “C’mon, I’ll drive.”

The picture was looking back at him.

The man’s skin was very dark but his eyes were darker still. The left one was unseeing; the right one was drilling into his soul.

There was a white shadow pacing in circles behind him, getting closer every time, though never enough to be seen clearly. The man paid no attention to it. He was staring at Steve.

The gun glinted silver when he put it against his temple.

“I figured,” he said very calmly, “I’d give you all a fighting chance.”

There was a deafening noise and a spurt of blood—

“Whoa, Rogers!”

Steve blinked. He’d let the file slip from his hands; the papers were fanning out on the floor. He realized Sam was very close to him, with a worried look in his eyes and a hand on his chest as if to keep him from keeling over.

“Hey, you alright?”

Steve looked at him. “I—”

It suddenly occurred to him he might not be alright at all. He was pretty sure he’d been sleepwalking earlier. He kept—seeing things. And this piercing headache…

He instantly berated himself. Jesus, he didn’t even need the Internet to send him into a hypochondriac spin. He didn’t have a brain tumor, he was fine. Just a bit of stress and his long medical history keeping him on edge.

“No, I’m—I’m good,” he said.

Bending down to pick up the papers, he repeated, “I’m good.” He straightened up, careful not to look at Fury’s picture. “Let’s go.”

 

*

 

The sun was just coming up when Kate started pounding on the door again.

“Clint Francis Barton, I let you sleep for another hour, but it’s 6am now, you gotta get up this time!”

“Nnf,” Clint grunted, burying his head under the pillow. Fuck, he’d slept with his hearing aids in again. Eventually, he fumbled for his phone and squinted at the screen. 6:12am. That meant he’d gotten… a little less than four hours of sleep. No wonder he had such a vicious headache.

“Come on,” Kate called. “There’s coffee.”

“Coffee,” Clint said longingly. He could almost taste it—milky and sugary… Which was odd, since he’d drunk it stark and black his whole life. But he didn’t have time to ponder this mystery, because the sensation faded and all was left was morning breath.

He dragged himself out of bed and grabbed the first shirt he found. Outside the window, the cloudless sky was a vibrant, overpowering blue already. Another scorching hot day.

“I fucking hate Vegas,” Clint mumbled.

“Tough luck, Iowa boy,” Kate called.

Their apartment was so small someone was always in at least two rooms at the same time; Clint stumbled into the hallway and found himself directly in the kitchen. He dragged out a stool and sat at the table, blinking into his coffee. Which was black. Of course.

“Jesus.” Kate dramatically averted her eyes. “Seriously, with the abs and the—it’s too early for this. Put your shirt on.”

Clint groggily complied, knocking a few items off the table as he did.

“Hey, did you hear a gunshot last night?” he croaked.

“A gunshot? No.”

“Huh. Musta been a dream.” His ears hurt. His head hurt. He rubbed his face with both hands. “God. I feel like microwaved shit. Tell me again why I’m up during the day?”

“Because,” Kate said, entirely too awake. “Cirque du Soleil tryouts!”

Clint put his forehead on the table. Right. That was today. And then he’d have to go do his shift at the Circus Circus hotel. And then at the Plaza. And then at the Blue Diamond—double shift for that one, since he’d gotten the last night off to sleep a bit.

But if he got the Cirque du Soleil job… well, for starters, he wouldn’t need the other three.

Reaching for his phone, he dragged it closer and hit redial. The call rang into silence for six long rings before the voicemail came up. “Hey, you’ve reached Barney Barton—except apparently you haven’t, sucker. Leave a message or some shit. Beep.”

“Fucking nerd actually says ‘beep’ out loud at the end.”

“Yes, you kind of point it out every morning,” Kate said, her tone neutral.

Clint pushed the phone away. He hadn’t actually expected Barney to answer, not when he hadn’t the seventeen times before, but—“Shit.”

If he got the Cirque du Soleil job, he’d also have enough money that he could finally, actually leave a message. He’d rehearsed it enough that he knew exactly what he’d say. Got ‘em off your sorry ass, big bro. Maybe don’t rack up so many debts next time. And beep yourself.

“Shit,” he repeated, then he finally straightened up and drank his coffee. He’d need it.

 

“Your costume is ridiculous,” Kate said as she helped him zip up his sequined leotard, glinting purple in the muted light. “Have I told you this already?”

“Five or six times,” Clint mumbled. “Don’t talk so loud.”

“I’m whispering.”

Fucking headache. Clint put on his mask and grabbed his bow, then frowned at the crust of sequins hastily glued onto the wood. “The fuck is this shit?”

“I did that!” said Kurt excitedly, as he rubbed night-blue body paint on his torso. “You said we needed to make an impression, yes? Now you are twice as sparkly.”

Clint tried to give the kid a smile, but he still ripped the decoration off. “Thanks, Wagner, but don’t put stuff on my bow. S’not a prop, you’ll fuck up my balance.”

Kurt looked crestfallen. “Ah. Entschuldigung.”

“He means sorry,” Kate said.

“I know, I—Jesus, Bishop, he says it enough.” Clint rubbed at his temples. God. Maybe it was a good thing the tryouts were so early in the morning. That way he could go pass out in his bed for a few hours more before his night shifts started.

“Seriously, though, we need better costumes. Purple and blue do not go well together.” Kate peeked out the door and bit her lip. “Oh God, we have to go—they’re giving out numbers.”

“Coming,” Kurt said, hastily spreading out the last of the paint and wiping his hands on a rag.

When they walked out of the changing room, the lights had been turned off under the big top—one of the largest Clint had ever seen, with traditional wooden terraces all around the ring. Maybe as a kid, he would’ve tasted a bit of that good ole circus magic in the air. At almost thirty-two, all he hoped for was a job.

“Carson Carnival team!” called the ringmaster. Kate raised her hand high, almost bouncing on her heels. “Hawkeye, Nightcrawler and… Hawkeye again.”

“That’s right.” Kate and Kurt beamed; Clint managed a vague grimace.

The ringmaster raised an eyebrow. “That’s a bit confusing,” she said, handing out their numbers. “Why not three different names?”

“It’s a concept,” Kurt assured her. Clint just reached for his own sticker, peeled off the paper and pasted it over his heart. Clint Barton - 616. ‘Kate Bishop’ was 617 and ‘Kurt Wagner’ was 618.

Jesus, he thought as they got in line. Had six hundred people tried their luck at this job already?

“NUMBER 608,” bellowed the speakers over their heads. Clint winced and pressed a hand to his temple. He couldn’t afford to take out his aids. At least his thick purple cowl muffled the sounds a bit. But Christ, he had to focus. This was the goddamn Cirque du Soleil. He wouldn’t get another chance like this anytime soon.

He let his gaze wander up the wooden underbelly of the terrace. Whoever number 608 was, they were putting on a hell of an energetic show—multi-colored lights bounced off the cloth walls overhead, while Nicki Minaj proudly proclaimed that starships were meant to fly.

Waiting in the wings had always made Clint fidgety; he rolled his shoulder to readjust his quiver and almost elbowed the next person in line. “Ow—sorry, lady,” he said, turning round, “didn’t see you there.”

The woman had long, straight black hair, and she looked built enough to bench-press him one-handed—the medieval armor didn’t hurt either. Thankfully, she grinned at him. “No harm done, my friend.”

She added something, but Clint’s aids went to shit with background noise and he couldn’t make out her words. Seeing the confusion on his face, she repeated louder, “My name is Sif—from Asgard.”

“Asgard?” Clint blinked. “Wow, you’re kinda far from home. You guys are right next to Greenland, right?”

“NUMBERS 616, 617, 618.”

Clint startled—he hadn’t realized it was their turn already. Moving forward, he pulled his cowl down. Their music was already blaring out the speakers. Yesterday, I had the longest ever dream…

Clint had loved that song once, but now it only translated to a series of moves in his head. He shut off every other part of his mind and focused on the moment.

Kate’s run up was perfect, as well as the way she landed on his shoulders; he wavered when Kurt added his weight to the human tower, but soon enough the kid had grabbed the trapeze overhead and swung away, carrying Kate with him. Clint gave the empty terraces a cocky salute, then casually drew out his bow and shot at his partners without looking.

He was pretty sure he heard a gasp from the jury, up in the shadows; but of course his arrow landed exactly in the middle of one of the plates Kate and Kurt had started to juggle. He repressed a smirk. Some people still fell for it even after years in the business.

Trapeze, acrobatics, juggling, and a bit of marksmanship to boot—their number wasn’t half-bad, if Clint did say so himself. His headache was killing him, but the Cirque tryouts were short by necessity; it was almost over already. He shot down all the plates, one by one, even as Kate and Kurt juggled them according to a complex routine while they swung suspended in mid-air, in time with the upbeat music. For the last one, Clint backflipped at the same time as his partners overhead—concluding the choreography—and let another arrow loose, sniping the plate they were both triumphantly holding up.

Almost there. His two concluding shots were so easy they didn’t deserve the name—he just had to shoot the spring-loaded targets they’d set up at both ends of the ring, poised to explode with streamers and glitter.

One to the left—and bullseye; the glitter sprayed into the air and plumed down, adding to the already thick carpet of colored confetti from the previous contestants.

One to the right—

There was a man.

Between Clint and the target, in the ring, there was a man.

It was a small guy in a lab coat, with curly hair and dark eyes. He spotted Clint aiming at him and cried out, hands flying out to protect his face. Clint’s fingers had already opened

—but in a last-second reflex he knocked his own bow out of line, and his shot flew up to the ceiling, straight into the main spotlight which let out a spectacular clacking noise, then died with an explosion of fiery sparks.

Kind of like Clint’s job prospects.

 

*

 

This wasn’t how this day was supposed to go.

“Come on, Banner, not today,” Bruce mumbled as he stepped under the shower, wincing against his throbbing migraine. Cold water probably wouldn’t hurt. He’d startled awake in the middle of the night—thought he’d heard a gunshot outside—and hadn’t managed to go back to sleep afterwards.

The heat was horrible already. They had air conditioning in the actual base, but it didn’t always work in his little prefab. Not even 8am and he already felt like he was suffocating.

Outside the window, the Nevada desert stretched out as far as the eye could see. Bruce let the cold water soak his hair. He wouldn’t even need to dry it; in fact, stepping out of the shower, he only perfunctorily grabbed for the towel to dab at his neck. He was already hot again, and his headache was unrelenting.

He dressed himself quickly, shrugging on his lab coat, then took a deep breath and stepped out in the heat.

He only had a few yards to cover before he reached the main building. He usually made it without a problem. But this time, as he walked, the world wavered around him—darkened like it was closing in on him, and a dazzling silhouette was suddenly in the way, aiming at him—poised to shoot—

Bruce startled violently, but there was no one there. Nothing but shimmering heat. Above his head, the skies were as implacably blue as ever. A mirage, probably. Or maybe he’d been standing in the sun for too long already.

“Keep it together,” he muttered. “And stop talking to yourself.”

 

The chilly air of the facility was a relief, but not as much as Betty’s smile when she saw him.

“Hi, Dr. Banner. How are you doing today?”

He tried for a smile back. “Hi, B—Dr. Ross. It’s… it’s very hot outside.”

It’s very hot outside. Some genius, Banner.

“That it is. My father was looking for you earlier,” she added. “He was pretty insistent about it.”

Bruce tried not to wince. “Okay, I’ll… I’ll go say hi.” Suddenly he was craving coffee. That was strange—he hadn’t had coffee in years, not since his counselor in college had advised him to stop.

He grabbed a piece of toast in the mess and munched on it on his way to the lab. Ross could wait. Bruce preferred to check his results first thing. When he got to the lab, his antique monitor had gone to sleep; he jiggled the mouse and sat at his desk, hoping the food would help settle his headache. At least the air conditioning was up and running here too, even though it was louder than bricks in a washing machine...

When the screen blinked on, it took Bruce a few seconds to comprehend what he was seeing. In fact, he was still staring when a knock on his door made him jump.

“Banner!” Ross never spoke—only barked at him. It was a good exercise in self-control, Bruce reminded himself as he made the automatic shift to yoga breathing. And he needed exercises. He couldn’t afford to get too complacent with himself.

“Did Betty not find you?” Ross said, stepping into the room. “Or did you think you had better things to do than obey a direct order?”

Bruce’s anger was buzzing at the back of his mind already. He wanted to point out he was not actually a soldier, despite working at a military facility. He wanted to rub his discovery in Ross’ ugly face so he’d be the one impressed into silence for once.

He managed to quash the first impulse, but not the second.

“Actually, I’ve had kind of a breakthrough,” he said. He turned his monitor towards Ross even though he knew no one in the building could possibly understand the results on the screen, save for himself. “Nuclear fusion.”

Predictably enough, Ross was patient for all of two seconds. “Well, what? Nuclear fusion, what?”

“It’s there,” Bruce said. “Clean renewable energy, without any waste, forever. I have it. It’s all there.”

The look on Ross’ face was not as satisfying as he’d hoped, but he did fall silent and that was a pretty good start.

 

The thing about nuclear fusion was that mankind had known how to do it ever since they’d invented thermonuclear bombs. Knowing how to control it was a different story. Bruce had had a project to confine and redirect the blast using gamma rays, so the fantastic amount of energy could be used for constructive purposes. Such as powering cities instead of blowing them up.

He just hadn’t expected his idea to be the right one.

Locking up his lab that night, he wondered if he’d really just changed the world. The hard drive had looked so small in the empty safe. He’d downloaded the entirety of his results onto it and locked it away as per required—never leave sensitive work on a machine connected to the Internet. But he was perfectly unable to feel the importance of what he’d done.

His headache was still acting up, but it wasn’t enough to dampen the faint hope rising in his chest. He walked to his tiny prefab wondering if it’d be appropriate to ask Betty out for dinner. They were colleagues, after all. And if nothing else, today was an opportunity to celebrate. Right?

He was just stepping out the shower, still undecided on what to do, when someone knocked on his door. Fumbling, he hastily wrapped a towel around his waist.

“I’m—I’m coming,” he called, dripping water on the sticky floor as he crossed the room.

He opened the door and almost dropped his towel.

“Dr. Ross! I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting—um, what are you doing here?”

“Let me in,” she hissed, and forced him back into the room, closing the door behind them both. Bruce clutched harder at his towel, feeling very confused. He’d thought once or twice about being naked with Betty Ross, but always in very different circumstances.

“Put some clothes on,” Betty said, peeking out through the blinds. “Dr. Banner, you have to leave.”

“I—what? I don’t…”

“Put some clothes on,” she repeated, and Bruce had to admit that sounded like a good idea. He dug into his closet for slacks and a button-up shirt, then stepped backwards into the tiny bathroom, because there was nowhere else to change. It was very cramped and he banged his elbow on the sink twice.

“Okay,” he said, coming out. “What’s… what’s going on?”

Betty was in the middle of shoving his belongings into a duffle bag. “Here—take this.”

She was handing him the hard drive he’d locked in the safe not an hour before. Bruce stared. “Did you—Dr. Ross, we’re not supposed to take those off base.”

“You have to bring them to someone who’ll actually make use of them,” she went on, ignoring him. “My father is not very interested in clean energy, I’m afraid.”

“Why wouldn’t he be?” Bruce said, honestly surprised. He had no illusions regarding General Ross’ ecological sensibilities, but clean energy was a goldmine.

“Your equation can control and direct fusion blasts,” Betty said. “People are going to think of military applications first. Especially people who work for the US army. Especially people who are my father.”

Bruce was beginning to see the problem, but—“Dr. Ross, I’m still bound to the Culver Institute, I’m… I don’t think I’m allowed to just go and sell this elsewhere.”

“Bruce, maybe legality shouldn’t be our first concern in the face of World War Three.” She sounded a bit manic and he reeled over the fact that she’d just called him Bruce. “I can promise you, whoever patents your discovery will find a way to break your contract with us. Money always finds a way.”

His hands tightened on the bag. “You’re… you’re right.” His head was spinning and still pounding with pain.

“You have to go,” Betty said. “I know this is very sudden, Bruce, but time is of the essence here.”

“Yes, I—yes.” He shook himself and repeated, “You’re right.”

 

They stepped outside and walked to his crappy little car. It was a very quiet, very warm night; the stars twinkled against the velvety black sky. The sand crunched under Bruce’s feet, too loud in the deep silence of the desert.

Suddenly, he stopped.

“Bruce?” Betty asked.

He swallowed and turned round, still clutching the bag to his chest.

“I… I was hoping to take you to dinner.”

She blinked, then smiled at him. “You know, I would’ve liked that.”

He let out a sorry little laugh. “It’s nice of you to say.”

“Maybe later, when this is all over.”

“Maybe,” he echoed, but they both knew it wouldn’t happen. Bruce hadn’t been able to comprehend his success a few hours ago; but he was familiar with the feeling of utter disaster. He’d felt it already, as a toddler hiding from his dad and crying for his mom. And later in life, coming back to himself with Rick Jones’ blood on his hands.

It was the reason he’d settled for a miserable salary in a military facility; it was the reason he’d never dared even to call Betty by her first name in the two years he’d spent there. There was no point. He could never allow himself to get too close.

At least he could try and do the right thing, this time.

“I guess I should go,” he said, groping for the door handle. “I… Thank you, Betty.”

“He’ll come after you,” she said. “For the equation. He’s been calling potential buyers all night—I wrote down the names, I’ll text them to you so you know who to avoid.”

“Okay.”

“Don’t let him have it, whatever happens.”

“I won’t. Thank you,” he said again, and then he was getting into the car and she was stepping away, hurrying back to the facility. The engine coughed to a start, and then Bruce was gone, too, driving into the dead land.

 

*

 

James blinked slowly at the white wall in front of him. He could hear distant beeps like a satellite passing overhead, far away in space.

“That’s weird,” said a female voice. It sounded like it was reaching him through a huge body of water. “He’s only reacting to the loudest settings. Seems like he has… 80% hearing loss?”

“He’s only just woken up. Give it a minute and try again.”

The beeps came back, so loud James flinched. There were headphones over his head; he hadn’t noticed them before.

“Alright,” said the woman, making a note. She shone a light in his eye next; he blinked fast against rising tears. “We’re all set for briefing.”

James realized he had a headache. For a second he thought maybe he should report it. But he had learned long ago never to miss an opportunity to keep quiet.

White walls, white coats. The chair underneath him was gleaming metal; the restraining straps had been unbuckled. He was careful not to move too much. Maybe if he didn’t attract any attention to himself, he could be left alone for a little while.

A pile of clothes was set on the table next to him. “Up. Get dressed.”

He looked down at himself and realized he was wearing nothing but black boxer shorts. He slowly got up and complied. Jeans and a red shirt. Brown leather jacket. Dark gloves. A baseball cap. By the time he was done, his head still hurt a lot. He wished he could sit in the chair again and close his eyes.

Something caught his attention, and he looked up. There was a man in the corner of the room, staring at him with bright blue eyes. With him came a sense of open air and shining sun. James thought he could feel a warm breeze moving through his long hair.

His instinct told him to step forward.

Why are you here? he wanted to ask. You don’t belong here.

“Alright, we’re good to go.”

He startled and acknowledged with a nod. When he looked at the corner again, the stranger was gone. But he’d seen James get prepped. No one was supposed to see it—he was in grave danger. James was wondering how to warn him when he belatedly realized the man was probably not real.

“What are you looking at? This way.”

James turned away and went. His head was still throbbing.

 

The target is a white male in his sixties. Dr. Erik Selvig, Swedish. He will know you.

James walked through the crowd and the crowd parted for him. The late Berlin afternoon was grey and dull and busy. Maybe the blond man would appear again, James thought. He wasn’t sure why he would think that. It could not possibly be safe. Nothing unplanned was ever safe.

Despite the clouds overhead, the day was uncomfortably warm. Tourists bustled around, some of them dragging screaming children after them. A song streamed through the air. Yesterday, I had the longest ever dream…

James froze and raised a hand to his lips. He’d been about to hum along. Blinking, he turned to hear better, but the song did not come from anywhere in particular.

James stood unmoving in the constant stream of people. He needed to understand what was happening to him. He couldn’t let it get in the way of the mission. It was already getting in the way of his mission. That wasn’t good. He was just standing there. He was making himself an easy target. As a matter of fact—

He looked up and found himself staring straight at Selvig.

His target stood petrified for a second. Then, with surprising swiftness for a man his age, he turned around and sprinted away. James forgot all else and ran after him. The crowd was getting in his way. He couldn’t let Selvig escape.

Selvig had just gotten into a cab when James got to him. He ripped him out of the vehicle—then on second thought, shoved him back inside and climbed in with him.

“Ich—” began the driver, but James got out his gun and pressed the barrel against the headrest, cocking the weapon with an audible click.

“Drive.”

The car smoothly drove away from the curb. James turned his gaze to Selvig.

The Swede looked like a man on the run—disheveled, unshaven, his eyes red with grief and anger. But the second he met James’ gaze, his entire demeanor changed. He first seemed shocked; then disbelieving; then wry enough to let out a bitter laugh.

“Oh, isn’t this brilliant,” he muttered. “Just brilliant.”

James ignored him.

“You have a headache,” Selvig said. “And you heard a gunshot in your sleep. Didn’t you?”

It was difficult to stay completely impassive this time, but James managed. He did have a headache. He’d been too drugged to hear anything in his sleep. None of it mattered.

“Left,” he told the driver in a monotone. “Follow the road till it stops.”

The look Selvig gave him was almost amused. “Oh, you’ve studied the field, is that right? All this effort to catch an old scholar? That’s almost flattering.”

The car stopped; it was a deserted junkyard. James glanced around to make sure no one was there, then pulled the trigger.

The shot was unbelievably loud in the tiny cab; he had to compensate for the added recoil from the headrest. Blood and brains spattered the windshield from the inside. No witnesses. This was how it was supposed to go.

Too messy, thought James. This entire op had been too messy.

Selvig was silent, breathing ragged and eyes wide. James couldn’t help being relieved he’d stopped talking. There was no music left in his mind, either.

 

James drove the bloodied cab back to base. No one commented on the driver’s body on the passenger seat. It would be taken care of.

Selvig, who’d spent the rest of ride silent and cuffed to the car door, was taken into a cell while James remained alone in the debriefing room. Being left alone before debrief was unusual. He wondered if he’d given himself away to his handlers. Even though he had no idea what he was trying to hide.

He stared at his hands. They were speckled with blood.

The door hadn’t been fully shut, and he could hear people talking in the hallway.

“—so that’s all of them. Correct?”

“Fury killed himself this morning in DC, sir. Gao didn’t survive the attack—she was the frailest by far. T’Chaka remains unattainable but his health is rapidly declining; he’ll be dead in a day or two.”

“I see.” A pause. “Selvig isn’t very solid either. Don’t we have any young ones in our sights?”

James suddenly realized he was very afraid of whoever was speaking. He had no idea why, but he also knew that his fear wasn’t like the music; it took root in his own reality. In what his body knew. He only wanted to be brought to his cell and locked away until the next mission.

“There’s always Loki Odinson, sir. But—”

“Forget it.” The man was irritated. “We’re not kidnapping an Asgardian prince. He was still unborn last time we checked, anyway. And these people are savages.”

“He’s one to talk,” said a voice behind James.

James stopped breathing.

This was—this was impossible. Selvig was in a cell underground. He’d been taken there in handcuffs.

Very slowly, James looked over his shoulder.

It was Selvig. He was standing in the corner of the room, arms crossed. James stared at him in utter confusion. It seemed like nothing could keep this day from spiraling out of control a little more with every passing moment. He understood nothing about what was happening, but he did know he would pay for it somehow. Whenever something went wrong, it was always his fault.

Selvig seemed to think the same thing; there was some kind of disgusted pity in his eyes. “You poor, pathetic wretch,” he said. “When they realize what’s happened to you…”

In the hallway, the conversation went on. “If Odinson happened to fall from grace, maybe—but right now he’s untouchable. No, we need to sweep the medical records again.”

They could hear the man so clearly—he was right outside. Yet Selvig kept talking normally, as though he was confident only James could hear him. “You’ve just become what you’re hunting. How does that make you feel? Do you even realize what’s going on?” He scoffed. “Karma’s a bitch.”

James could not speak.

“Now don’t go thinking you’re part of my family. This kind of link,” Selvig said, gesturing between them, “is what happens when people like us make eye contact. Even when they’re of different clusters. I can visit you, and you can visit me.” He jerked his thumb at the door. “And if you look at good old Pierce there, he’ll be in your head too. Now won’t that be fun?”

All of a sudden, James became so sick with fear the world lurched around him—and suddenly he was not in the little room anymore; he was in Selvig’s cell two stories underground.

Petrified, he stood very still, staring at him. On this side of their connection, Selvig was sitting on the bare floor, his hands cuffed in front of him.

“Did Fury know, I wonder, that he was giving birth to you of all people?” His voice was heavy with genuine disgust. “You’re not even people. You’re a twisted excuse for that.”

James realized he knew what Selvig was talking about. Or at least part of it. The man, upstairs—Pierce—had often said of James that he was unborn. In fact, they regularly conducted tests on him to see if this state of things had changed.

“...Am I born?” James asked, almost inaudible in case he was talking, too, in the room upstairs.

The old man sneered. “You and your own. Yeah. And you know what? I hope you’ll be sent after them. I hope you’ll have to kill them.” His eyes burned with hatred. “It’s the worst pain in the world, to feel parts of your soul die. And it’s all you deserve.”

He was going to commit suicide too, James understood dimly. Like that other man. Fury? He should warn someone, but then he would have to explain how he knew it.

“Wait,” he said. “Please, I…”

Selvig grinned at him. His teeth were bloody, and white foam was beginning to froth at the corners of his mouth.

“Fuck you,” he said distinctly. “Fuck you and the fucking horse you rode in on.” Then his head snapped backwards, his eyes bulging out, veins swelling in his neck—

—and James jerked back to awareness in the room upstairs.

People were calling and clamoring in the hallway. He heard the words suicide and fucker had a cyanide capsule and why didn’t anyone check? and the Asset didn’t report it. A cold sweat gathered at his temples. It was true. He should have searched Selvig. It was his fault. Whenever things went wrong, it was always his fault.

His head was hurting again. It had never really stopped.

 

*

 

What would Captain America do?

It was really fucking stupid, but it was what kept Tony going.

When his SUV had blown up on a deserted Afghan road, there had been nothing much going through Tony’s mind, save for a streak of uncreative curse words and the cold numbness of fear. But afterwards, while he was lying in the dust with his shirt slowly turning red, he’d been thinking about Captain America. He would have died thinking about him, looking placidly at the cloudless sky, if he hadn’t been rescued.

For a given definition of rescued.

“I’m not familiar with this Captain America character,” said Yinsen one day. “Care to enlighten me?”

He always wanted to understand. He made Tony stop at every turn of the nonsensical, endless ramblings everyone else had long since learned to tune out. Stop and actually make sense of them, dissect and untangle meaning until it was all laid out in the open. Sometimes Tony thought Yinsen was the best shrink he’d ever had.

Of course, there was always the possibility that Yinsen was a bad guy, too. His presence in that damn cave was a bit too convenient. For a long while Tony had been wary of him. But now that Yinsen was helping him plan the mass murder of their captors, Tony tended to trust him more—either the guy really was a prisoner like him, or he was awfully committed to his role.

“Stark?” repeated Yinsen.

Tony startled, glanced up at him, then went back to the plans he was working on. “What, Captain America? It’s nothing, really.” He could speak while he worked; botching missiles was easy. “He’s the comic book character I loved when I was a kid. Even bought some vintage issues. In the first one he actually punches Hitler in the face. Bit cheesy in hindsight, what can you do.”

He shuddered with cold, and it tugged at the cables leading to his chest—inside his chest—but he wasn’t thinking about it, wasn’t feeling his own ribs shift out of alignment with every breath, like he was on the brink of complete dislocation—no, he was talking about Captain America. Cold sweat had begun to wet his temples. Focus. Explain.

Yinsen was waiting. He knew how Tony felt; he had been the one to cut into his sternum.

“Yeah, so, he started out fictional,” Tony stammered. “But there’s another one. Some guy named Rogers. Saved a hundred goddamn men overseas in—in where we are now, I guess.” His laugh was hollow. “And he was a captain, with all-American looks, so they gave him that nickname, and it stuck.”

Yinsen nodded, satisfied. “Very well. So what would Captain America do?”

“Either one? Would punch his way out,” Tony said. His sentences were clipped; he was having trouble breathing again. If he ever managed to fix his chest, he’d never shut the fuck up ever again in celebration. “Would’ve never let this happen in the first place.”

“Let’s go over the plan again,” offered Yinsen, ever so calm.

 

Yinsen was always calm, even when they discussed the outside world, a topic Tony found difficult to bear. He was so completely divorced from the person he used to be—and it had happened in so short a time—that he sometimes felt he had dreamed his old life entirely.

“I’m from a small town called Gulmira,” Yinsen said. “It’s actually a nice place.”

“Got a family?” Tony forced himself to ask, because he was the all-time champion of small talk he would rather avoid.

“Yes, and I will see them when I leave here.” Yinsen sounded perfectly confident. “And you, Stark?”

For some reason, the question took Tony off-guard, and all he could say was, “No.”

“No?”

Tony shrugged. It was the truth, though it didn’t usually come out so bluntly. He had Obadiah Stane, of course, but the man had become his caretaker when Tony was eighteen; he hadn’t raised him. He was the closest thing to family Tony had. But he wasn’t family.

“So you’re a man who has everything—and nothing,” Yinsen said.

This was why Tony hated small talk.

 

Tony and Yinsen were in this godforsaken cave to make Jericho missiles, and they’d made them alright. The missiles were a bit more inflammable than usual, maybe. Less likely to resist the outside heat, maybe. Very much likely to blow up if they stayed for more than two minutes in a sunbeam. Maybe.

Of course, this whole plan hinged on his captors taking the missiles outside. It was too great a risk; Tony  would have preferred to build himself some kind of robot suit to break out of the cave and save everyone. But this was the real world, which always sucked, and Yinsen knew the missiles would be taken outside; they always were.

There was an explosion. Then a few other ones.

Everything went just as planned. The cave roof had not collapsed on top of them; Tony had managed to find the exit; the tiny reactor he’d improvised to power the magnet in his chest seemed to be holding up. Yinsen had been gunned down, sure, but even that was part of the plan. In any case, that was what he’d whispered as his eyes closed, ignoring Tony’s screams and pleas.

This was the plan, he’d said.

Get up, Tony had stammered, your family, you said you were gonna go see your family.

Yes. I’m going to see them now. His eyes were closing. Don’t waste your life.

Yeah.

Everything.

Just as planned.

 

Later, so much later, Tony found himself wandering aimlessly in the desert and realized that it was damp.

He must be delirious from the sun beating over his head. With every other step, the desert landscape around him transformed into a deep jungle. He saw low obsidian buildings, smooth and sleek-lined, crouching under the canopy like so many predators.

His teeth was chattering, and as he walked—as the reactor hummed in his chest, so heavy, but keeping the shrapnel from his heart, blocking his ribs into place—a thick mist gathered around him, and he was beginning to work up the most godawful headache he’d ever felt in his life.

“Yinsen,” he called hoarsely. “Is this real? Yinsen!”

He was almost blind with it when a helicopter flew over his head and he finally let himself fall to his knees. Fifteen minutes and an eternity later, Rhodes—Rhodey?—was running towards him in the sand. He yelled something Tony didn’t understand; he had dew in his eyes and the air still smelled of hot wet soil and his head was about ready to split open.

It was all he could do to smile and let himself be pulled in a rough embrace, and give in at long last to exhaustion and pain.

 

Tony hadn’t cried when Yinsen had died. He hadn’t cried when Rhodey had found him, and he hadn’t even cried when he’d seen the outline of the East coast through the window. But when he got closer to Pepper and saw that her eyes were red, he almost started bawling like a kid.

“Few tears for your long-lost boss?” he said instead.

She smiled and bit her lip—too hard, like she was trying to keep herself from crying again. “Tears of joy. I hate job hunting.”

Tony had to look away from her. He couldn’t trust himself to keep it together, not when he was still so raw, his hands still trembling, everything too close to the surface. He’d gotten drunk often enough to veer away from sentiment when he was in that state. She was just his secretary—or his assistant—whatever political correctness called it these days. She’d made that very clear from day one.

And he’d just gotten out of hell, anyway. There was no time, for anything.

“Where’s Obie?” he asked.

“He’s…” Pepper paused, as if she wished she could end her sentence differently. “In a board meeting.”

Stane had taken care of Stark Industries after Howard and Maria Stark’s death. Of course, after he’d turned 21, Tony had fully come into his inheritance; and Stane had gracefully backed off—though some would say he’d worked twice as hard after that, both to manage the company and to cover Tony’s slip-ups.

Tony had been missing for almost a month; surely Stane had been busier than ever. Surely Tony didn’t get to be disappointed that he wasn’t part of his welcome committee. He said nothing and got into the car.

Pepper sat in the backseat next to him. “The hospital, Happy, please—”

“No,” Tony cut off. “No hospital.”

What would Captain America do?

Tony didn’t even know if he was thinking of the comic book character or the real guy. He wondered how the real guy was even doing. All he knew of him was that he’d refused the Medal of Honor and then fallen off the face of the earth.

Maybe he’d already understood, at the time, what Tony was only just beginning to see.

“Tony,” Pepper said. “The doctor has to look at you—”

“I've been in captivity for almost a month. There are two things I want to do. First, I want an American cheeseburger, and the second…”

Pepper rolled her eyes. She thought he was talking about sex. But Tony didn’t think he’d ever want to get laid again—not if it meant someone else’s hands coming close to the thing in his chest. He could feel it, heavy, humming, aching.

He had no fucking idea what Captain America would do, if he found himself the CEO of the most powerful weapons company in the world. A rather unrealistic scenario, all in all. But Tony wasn’t a hero and remembered well enough how his own world worked.

Obie wasn’t going to be pleased.

“A press conference,” Tony said, “I need you to call for a press conference.”

And he knew in his heart—his shining new heart—that it was right. That it was a start.

 

*

 

T’Challa’s hands clenched and unclenched over the stone railing.

To gaze upon the canopy usually soothed his deepest troubles. But today, the whispers of the foliage—the bird calls in the distance—the silent curl of the mist—all of it did nothing to appease him. He’d tried to meditate, but an awful noise had broken through his thoughts, and he had been harboring a piercing headache ever since. It was all he could do to contain his restlessness within himself.

“Your Highness,” a voice called behind him.

He clenched his hands into fists, then relaxed them one last time and willed them to stay that way. Only then did he turn from the balcony to retreat into the shade of his apartments. Okoye was waiting at the door with her head bowed.

“Yes,” T’Challa said. “What is it?”

“His Majesty sends for you.”

T’Challa’s migraine pulsed like a living creature. Wordlessly, he nodded and left the room; at once Okoye straightened up and fell into step with him.

“Is the plane ready?” he asked.

“Of course.” A pause, with nothing but the sound of her boots on the marble floor. “You’re troubled.”

As the head of the Dora Milaje, Okoye owed her masters respect, obedience and discretion. As T’Challa’s childhood friend, she sometimes took liberties when she felt the situation demanded it.

But T’Challa did not want to acknowledge the situation—and so Okoye’s cool remark angered him disproportionately.

“Have I given you cause for complaint?” he said dryly.

“No, your Highness,” Okoye said, smooth deference sliding back into place.

It only made him more furious and miserable. She was giving him time to process his pain. Though she did not mean to humiliate him, it was a humiliation all the same—made sharper still by his acute awareness that he needed it. He could not say: Yes, I am troubled. He could not look her in the eye and say: Yes, I am afraid my father is dying.

They were at the door; Okoye stepped forward to open it, and left him to go into the royal chambers alone.

T’Chaka was sitting up in bed, writing a letter with great difficulties. He had been losing weight at an alarming rate; his skin was greying, his eyes had glazed over. Nonetheless, he glanced up when T’Challa walked in.

“There you are,” he said. His beloved voice was but a husk of itself. “I trust everything is ready for your flight to Asgard?”

“Yes, Baba,” T’Challa said, throat tight.

“All is well then. I am sorry I could not be present.” His father reached out and clasped his hand. “But you will make me proud. You always have.”

T’Challa grasped his hand in both of his. What is wrong? he wanted to ask. There is no cancer. There is no disease. What is happening to you? Do you know? Why won’t you tell me?

“Should you be sitting up?” he said.

“This needs to be done.” His father’s fingers trembled over the paper. “Don’t worry. Soon I shall rest.” He pulled T’Challa down to kiss his forehead. “Now go.”

 

The Nengwe Omnyama flew at a cruising speed of Mach 2 over the Atlantic ocean. There was not much to see, yet T’Challa spent the flight looking out the window. He had no desire to visit Asgard—the crowning ceremony was sure to be a pompous, gilded affair, not to mention that politics as a whole irked him. But he was there on behalf of his father. He had to try and honor his country.

Across the aisle, Okoye said nothing, but he could hear her think. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. His migraine was relentless.

The island of Asgard was peculiarly isolated, caught under a near-constant electromagnetic storm which forbade radio communication of any kind. As the Nengwe approached, it had to switch to the country’s closed-circuit system—the Broadcast Internal Frequency for Royal Open-Signal Transmissions, or BIFROST for short.

“Nengwe Omnyama, you are cleared to land.” The language was English, spoken with a strong Asgardian accent.

T’Challa rather liked snow—it was so exotic—but today he could not bring himself to enjoy it. As they stepped out of the plane, though, he caught sight of Okoye blinking up in wonder. Seen from below, the electromagnetic storm translated into a shimmering rainbow aurora spanning the whole expanse of the sky; the first time he’d witnessed it, he’d been wide-eyed too.

Naturally, Okoye regained her composure at once. “What a garish country.”

T’Challa almost smiled, just for a second. “Come,” he said, turning away. “We are not early.”

 

The Great Hall was as showy and glittering as expected. T’Challa sat down, saluting his peers with quiet nods. President Ellis was there, of course—and out of the corner of his eye T’Challa spotted one of the English princes. The abundance of world leaders and crowned heads was not surprising. Asgard was courted by many. Its peculiar weather rendered them virtually invulnerable against outside attacks; their oil was theirs only to exploit, and as a result their wealth was remarkable. Prince Thor Odinson’s crowning was bound to attract anyone willing to remain in the All-Father’s good graces. That was why T’Challa was bored by politics. It always came down to the same dull, unsurprising reason: money.

T’Challa’s hands raised and started to clap, following the crowd’s lead. The royal family was walking onstage. He found himself studying them with attention almost despite himself.

The King and Queen were first. Thor Odinson strode in right afterwards and opened his arms to receive the cheers of the crowd—it was his party after all. The Asgardians seemed to love him, chanting his name and tapping their feet. He was an impressive beast of a man, nearly seven feet tall, with broad shoulders and bare muscled arms. A Viking in all aspects, boisterous and proud. His ceremonial armor gleamed, cape swishing behind him, and his presence filled up the room like a golden aura.

Yet T’Challa focused on the younger brother, who’d walked in last. Laufeyson, Son-of-None, as he called himself. An adopted native, dark-haired and sharp-featured. Even from a distance, he looked tense and pale. Nothing in his posture betrayed his disability, except for the fact that his unseeing eyes did not scan the crowd.

“Is he blind, ubuthi?” Okoye asked.

T’Challa did not believe for a second that she didn’t know the story; but the endearment made her intention clear—my brother, an affectionate way for the people to call their prince. She was trying to distract him from his bleary thoughts.

“It’s a sad story, usisi, ” T’Challa answered in kind. “There was an earthquake—ten years ago, I believe. The royal family was visiting a refinery at the time. It collapsed and they were all buried under the rubble for several hours.”

“Ah. Fuel in his eyes,” she guessed.

Rumor had it both princes had suffered that horrid fate, but only the Odinson had been healed swiftly enough to retrieve his sight. T’Challa knew better than to assume; however, Loki’s isolation from the rest of the family was blatant. He stood almost at attention, his own ceremonial armor muted and sleek.

Looking at him for too long made T’Challa’s headache grow worse.

Glancing away, he was surprised to discover another Jotun in the room. It was a woman standing at the edge of the crowd. Unlike the pale Laufeyson, she was almost blue with intricate tattoos stretching over every visible square inch of her skin.

On stage, Thor had dropped to one knee. Odin had begun his ceremonial speech; his voice boomed under the gilded arches of the room. “Do you swear to guard the realm?”

T’Challa’s migraine throbbed again. He looked down to keep himself from wincing—and blinked. His hands were pale and covered in bright red blood. There were white scars along his fingers, old and numerous and almost shining through slick scarlet.

An omen? he thought in puzzlement.

“Your Highness,” Okoye murmured.

T’Challa started and looked up. Following her gaze, he saw that there was another Jotun at the far end of the room, wearing so much ink his skin was almost as dark as T’Challa’s. There was another one by the main doors.

“And do you swear to preserve the peace?” Odin went on.

T’Challa looked at his hands. They were dark and smooth again.

“Do you swear to cast aside all selfish ambition and to pledge yourself only to the good of Asgard?”

T’Challa got to his feet. At that very moment, the Jotun woman reached for her belt—

“Everybody get down!” he shouted in English, just before the explosions started.

 

Fire. Screams. T’Challa wanted to find Okoye, but she found him first. Her shaved head shone with blood but he knew it was not her own. People were rushing towards the exits, stepping over each other in a mad scramble for life.

“Come,” T’Challa said, and they both stepped over the backs of the seats, leaping from row to row until they’d reached the stage. Above them the crowd still pushed and shoved to get to safety. T’Challa preferred to walk towards the mess; there was no one left there to trample them, and it was unlikely to blow up again and kill any more.

However, there seemed to be no sign of civilian death. T’Challa blinked, shook off his shock, and looked again. Now that he was paying attention, the oddity was plain enough: clearly the charges had been directed inwards and harmed only those who carried them.

A flicker of red cloth caught his attention; he was surprised to realize the Odinson hadn’t fled the room. He was, in fact, headed for the edge of the stage, crimson cape billowing behind him. His shining breastplate was splattered with bright red blood. A guard was hurrying ahead of his prince, pointing at something T’Challa couldn’t see.

“Come,” he repeated to Okoye, and stepped over broken chairs and charred remains to walk around the stage.

When he got there, his stomach gave a horrible lurch. It was another Jotun woman. Her belt seemed to have malfunctioned. The left side of her body was nothing but a bloody pulp, but she was alive.

The crown prince had knelt by her side and spoke to her in Asgardian. She rasped back words in a different language—presumably Jotun. The Odinson was growing agitated with her refusal to communicate; eventually, his frustration got the better of him and he addressed her in English.

“You are dying, woman. Joining no one but your own brothers in Valhalla. I am hard-pressed to believe this was your plan. Will you let your pride get in the way of your revenge?”

Blood was bubbling at the corners of her inked-blue lips.

“Revenge,” she croaked in distorted English. “This was supposed to be revenge. He tricked us, the bastard boy, didn’t he?”

“Who did? Give me a name.”

Her eyes were filling with blood to the point of turning crimson.

“Give me a name,” Odinson insisted, “and you will not have died in vain. I will avenge your honor and mine.”

Her gasp of pain sounded like a bitter laugh. “You do not want his name.”

“He will be punished. You have my word.” He leaned closer. “The name. Tell me.”

So she told him.

T’Challa froze, then stepped back, turned around and signaled at Okoye to follow. He should not have heard this; they should not be there. And to gaze upon Thor Odinson’s expression for a second longer would have been obscene.

 

The crowning ceremony, of course, had to be postponed, which was exactly the excuse T’Challa needed to leave the island at once. He had to swear that his swift departure was due to personal matters, that Wakanda had not taken offense, and that he would happily return—he repeated these three things again and again and again until the Asgardians diplomats finally relented and let him go. T’Challa left them with a roomful of outraged world leaders wrapped in tinfoil blankets and bleating for reparation.

He crossed the wet tarmac side by side with Okoye. The Nengwe Omnyama ’s sleek lines seemed to shimmer under the northern lights.

It was strange, T’Challa thought, to realize how much he’d distanced himself from his shock already. But then again, they had never been in danger. It was clear enough that the Laufeyson had meant to destroy Odin’s reputation and nothing else.

He had almost managed, too. Jotun bombers lay double the blame upon the All-Father—for angering the natives to such extremities, and for failing to protect his guests from them. To kill none of the guests was a master stroke; they were going to raise hell for Asgard—unless Odin chose to reveal that this had all been orchestrated by the Laufeyson.

He probably would. His adopted son had let four people die without blinking, just to deal him a blow. There was most likely no lost love between them. How could it be, T’Challa wondered, to live in such a broken household? How could it be, to harbor so much hatred for your own father?

“Oh,” Okoye said, tapping her earpiece. “The Bifrost is opening.”

T’Challa looked up. Indeed, the rainbow aurora was fading, a sign that the electromagnetic storm surrounding the island was calming down. For a few hours—minutes?—information could flow in and out freely.

“Oh,” said Okoye again.

And then, terribly softly:

“Your Majesty.”

For a blank second T’Challa thought she had somehow reached his father on the line. Then he realized she was talking to him, and understanding came in a cold, unforgiving rush.

 

*

 

There was going to be an explosion.

Natalia knew it. She was the one who had placed the charges. But she still had thirty minutes left, and it was more than enough.

“Comfortable?” she asked.

Laid out on his card table, Ivan did his best to glare at her. He was tied spread-eagle to the table legs, and his chest protruded slightly from the awkward angle, making it hard to breathe. He was eyeing her knife.

“I will not be unfair,” she said. “You may attempt an apology if you like.”

She stuck the blade into the old rag gagging him and fished it out. As soon as it was out, Ivan gave a shaky laugh.

“An apology? For what?” His breathing was uneven, but he still sneered at her. “For taking you in when no one else would?”

“Ah, Ivanuskha.” She pressed the knife to his throat, so hard he had to crane his head back and snap his mouth shut. “You did not take in an orphaned six-year-old out of charity. You took me in because of what showed in my brain scans.”

Natalia had no actual memory of her parents; but she clearly remembered Ivan dragging the little girl she’d been away from the hospital. His fingers had left bruises. He’d slapped her until she stopped crying. She had never known why her, until a few hours ago, from the mouth of a dying technician.

She had learned a lot through dying mouths in the past few hours.

“I made you,” Ivan panted. “Everything you know—you owe it to me.”

“Yes, Ivanuskha.” She smiled. “And I remember your lessons well.”

He couldn’t help yelping when Natalia sliced through his clothes. It was a clean cut all the way down to his navel, and his shirt fell to the sides, leaving his chest and belly open and vulnerable.

He wasn’t long to swallow his fright, though sweat glistened on his greying temples. “Do you feel very powerful, tormenting a tired old man? Do you feel very important?” He took a hissing breath, then spat. “You still are a spoiled brat. No humility, no respect, no focus—”

The push of the knife shut him up. “How long did you think I’d keep waiting for you to dissect me, Ivan Petrovitch?”

“We were never going to send you to surgery!” he garbled.

She pulled back the blade by a fraction.

“It would have been a waste,” he croaked. “You are a better hunter than even the Asset. You are too valuable.”

The Asset was a legend among the Red Room girls—the best hunter in all of the Khah; all of them had feared him and worshipped him and desired him in turn, and Natalia had been no exception. This idolization had always been encouraged. It was good for the girls to have a model, one that the handlers could control and mold at will.

Natalia knew better now. The Asset was no god, only their German counterpart, and Ivan’s garbled compliment made her sigh. He still thought she was a little girl.

“Ah, but you are lying again, Ivanuskha. The surgery only works on people who are born into their cluster—and it has not happened to me. You were waiting for it to happen, and in the meantime, you thought you’d make use of me. That is all.”

This was knowledge she’d gathered from the others—all of the Red Room, the handlers and the surgeons, the guards and the technicians, all lying dead in the upper levels. Destroying one’s own world so thoroughly was a strange experience. The huge building was quiet for the first time in years. No one remained but the other girls in the dormitory, shackled to their beds.

Natalia had no intention of freeing them. Fire was all the freedom they’d ever wanted.

And Ivan in his comfortable basement, of course, with old couches dating back to the USSR, concrete showing through threadbare wallpaper, empty bottles of vodka shining like ice on the old carpet. He’d been her very first handler; so she’d saved him for last.

He stared at her and, for a second, she thought he was about to crumble for good. But then hollow laughter pushed past his constricted lungs. “That is all?” he repeated, almost cackling. “That is all, indeed! But you enjoyed it. You liked winning. You liked the hunt. You were always so proud to bring them in, your people. Twenty-six years—and suddenly you decide it was all wrong?”

Natalia couldn’t help the minute flinch that betrayed her to her oldest handler. His crazed grin grew wider, even though he was panting with the effort to speak. “You are way too late for second thoughts, poor little Natalia! You think killing us all will atone for your sins? It’s only adding to the list!”

His words had rattled her, but already she was calming down again.

“I know,” she said.

She placed her hand on his chest, fingers spread out wide, and placed the tip of the blade between her thumb and index finger. His eyes widened. He recognized the gesture.

“I remember the hours you spent teaching me this game.” Her fingers still bore the marks, a myriad of tiny crescent scars. “So in honor of your hard work, we shall play it one last time.”

Natalia brought the knife down hard, stabbing him. She paid no mind to his scream as she began to pick up speed, hitting each space between her fingers.

“Keep still,” Natalia said coolly as she repeated the pattern, bringing down the knife even harder. The flesh underneath her palm was getting slippery and hard to keep in place. When she’d finished the pattern for the last time, she quickly removed her free hand and used all her force to bury the knife between the sternum and collarbone.

Ivan’s last scream turned into a gurgle. She had ripped into his left lung.

She exhaled, then sat back. For a while, the dusty old basement was silent save for his wheezing agony. She thought of all the others, on the upper floors. All that blood. There had been two newborns in the lobotomy chambers, too. She’d put them out of their misery.

“I know I cannot atone for anything,” she said, looking at her bloodied fingers. “I have known for a very long time. Did you never wonder why I stayed unborn all these years?”

Ivan was busy drowning in his own blood and did not answer.

“It’s because no mind could ever bond with what you’ve made of me.” She got up. “You have done an excellent job, Ivan. And now I will finish it.”

When he died at last, she’d already left the room.

 

The explosion burst through the roof of the facility three minutes later. The other hunters were all asleep; they probably hadn’t even felt themselves die. Natalia imagined them burning. It felt peaceful.

All the same, she’d killed them; she didn’t deserve a fiery death. She had left her coat behind and decided to walk into the forest until she fell. Nobody would find her there; it would be as though she’d never even existed.

But a few steps into the woods, she stumbled and caught herself on the trunk of a tree, bringing up her palm to put pressure on her temple. The pain had pursued her since she’d taken Ivan down, but she was only really feeling it now that everything was over and done.

The taste of coffee filled her mouth.

The smell of hot jungle soil filled her lungs.

She heard music, saw flashes of color, like a carnival rushing past her in a phantom blur. For a second, she was utterly lost; but then it hit her.

Her knees gave out and she fell in the snow.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh—no.”

No. This was meaningless. She was just exhausted. She’d been running on adrenaline and it was wearing off. She must have hit her head during an earlier struggle. She was too cold.

“No,” she said again, with nothing but roaring fire behind and silent snow ahead.

But she was beginning to feel the others already. Like candlelight flickering in the dark, pushing back the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

2.

 

 

Vodka was the answer. And then perhaps a bullet.

The drive to Moscow was long and dark; the car lights struggled to cut through the thick curtains of twirling snow. Natalia was grinding her teeth with slow intent, clutching white-knuckled at the wheel. Ivan’s blood was flaking off her fingers like old brown skin. It itched. The inside of her head itched.

Oshibka,” she said under her breath. “Oshibka, oshibka, oshibka.” A mistake. It was a mistake. Her hands were shaking and she gripped the wheel harder, blinking tears out of her eyes. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Nothing more was supposed to happen.

Before she could collapse from exhaustion, she parked the car on the side of the road and slept for a few hours, with the heat turned on. When she woke up, she started driving again. All she wanted was to reach the city and get drunk.

She reached the outskirts of Moscow just before dawn and parked her car. There was a little bar blinking at the corner of the street, burrowed into fading darkness and snow. It was still open from a late night. She strode towards it and pushed the door. There was no one inside, save for a man in the corner, with his head on the table. Drunk. She walked behind the bar to grab a bottle of crystal clear vodka and a tiny chiseled glass.

The first shot burned down her throat like rocket fuel. She shakily poured herself a second one, then a third and a fourth and a fifth, slamming them back in rapid succession. Ivan had trained her in this, too, and it would take a lot to get herself drunk.

“Wow.” Suddenly there was someone next to her, nursing his own drink. “Maybe you should get a bigger glass.”

She stared at him in horror. He was sandy-haired, dressed in a ridiculous sequined suit which glistened in the cold darkness.

“American,” she hissed. Once, she had asked Ivan why their prey were so far apart from each other, and he had told her that evolution thrives off diversity. You can only bring something new to someone different. Someone different—so of course she had gotten saddled with a goddamn Yankee.

But no. This wasn’t real. This couldn’t be happening to her. Oshibka.

“Well, yeah,” the man said, blinking slowly at her. “Lots of us ‘round these...” His voice trailed off when he realized he was gesturing at a dark, cramped little bar. He stared for a second, then frowned at his beer. “Must be drunker than I thought.”

Natalia got up so violently her stool toppled backwards—

And found herself standing in the middle of a bright room covered in neon lights, shimmering into ever-changing shapes and letters. STEAK DINNER FOR TWO—ONLY $29.79! and HAPPY HOUR NOW! and GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! and BEST ELVIS IMPERSONATOR IN TOWN—LOVE HIM TENDER! Against the far wall, tacky golden curtains opened onto a small karaoke stage; two teenage girls were soulfully bleating a ballad into the same mike, heedless of rhythm or harmony. Behind them, a little old man in an afro wig nodded along, occasionally crooning some ooh yeahs of accompaniment.

Natalia took a look at the sequined man again. He was still staring at his beer.

“I thought I could break free, y’know?” he muttered. “Thought I had a real chance this time. Should know by now I’m never that lucky.”

Natalia felt her knowledge waver for a terrible second—her kin shared her mind but couldn’t voice her thoughts. Could he? It was just the ramblings of a drunk man.

A digital sound of cascading coins floated through the open door, along with a cheerful You win! and a little tune of celebration. The man gave a wry smile.

“Don’t listen’a me, I’m just a maudlin drunk. Speakin’ of which—hey, Verity,” he said, gesturing to the barmaid, “can I get a coffee? Strong as ya can. Please.”

“Clint, it’s 7pm,” answered the barmaid with full sleeves of tattoos on both arms.

“So? My first shift starts in thirty minutes,” he whined. “I can’t show up drunk. Circus Circus is supposed to be family friendly.”

Natalia sat back on her stool, calculating fast. 7pm there, and about 6am here, on the other side of the Atlantic. An eleven-hour difference in this season—and the gambling machines, the neon lights…

“Is this Las Vegas?” she said out loud.

She shouldn’t have been startled. She knew how this worked, damn it. But to live it herself—it was so astounding she forgot to hate it for a second.

“Well this certainly isn’t,” muttered Clint, looking around the darks and greys of the silent Russian bar. “But I don’t even care right now. God.” He lay his forehead on the bar. “Today sucks so bad.”

“Tell me about it,” Natalia said, surprising herself.

Without straightening up, Clint turned his head to smile at her. “Wha’s your name?”

She stayed silent for a second. Then she said, “Natalia.”

“Well, Natasha, at least we understand each other.” He groped for his beer and held it up. “Cheers.

The endearment surprised her. But of course he would feel like she was family. On some level, they were the same person.

It made her head spin enough that she absently echoed “Na zdorovié,” raising her glass alone in the empty Russian bar.

 

She didn’t want to drink any more after that, so she left the bar and wandered the snowy streets.

At least we understand each other.

She really was weak, if this single vision was enough to sway her. This man—Clint—may have made her feel warmer for a split second, but he hadn’t actually understood a thing to what he was seeing or why. He had no idea what was going on.

But she did.

The thought slowly permeated the thick walls she’d built within herself. She knew exactly what was happening. This was precisely why catching the others—the newborns—was so easy every time: because they had no clue. The visions and the mindswaps unsettled them, and so they went to their therapists and to their doctors and to their hospitals, and asked themselves for the brain scan which would doom them. Sure, Natalia had burned her home to the ground, but the Red Room was only the nickname assigned to the Russian division of the Khah. They had many other compounds in many other places.

She could still feel the others. Candlelight in her mind. Her newborn brothers. Her cluster. Her kin.

Now the hunters would come for them. They were always so hungry for tender new flesh. But it was her they’d find, she thought with a fierce surge of protectiveness, walking faster in the snow. Her cheeks were flushing and her breath was pluming in front of her. Oh, yes, she was a hunter too. She had claws and teeth. Ivan had told her it was too late for redemption and he was right. She knew what she had done. The souls and the bodies she’d torn apart. She deserved nothing.

But she could not die now. It would mean a world of hurt for them. And her kin did not deserve to be hurt; her kin was innocent. How could they not be? Since members of a cluster must differ from each other as much as possible, then they were the opposite of a monster. And if blood needed to be shed to protect them—she could shed it. Her hands were already bright red.

Natalia stood still in the snow, breathing fast, feeling terribly awake. She would need to be awake. She had work to do.

 

*

 

Bruce drove into the desert until midnight, then pulled over to have a panic attack on the side of the road.

Clearly, he wasn’t the ideal man to handle this situation.

“—has confirmed that President Ellis is alive and well and that there has in fact been no victims, I repeat, no victims in the suicide bombing attacks in Asgard. All-Father Odin Borson postponed the crowning of Prince Thor so as to be able to focus on his other son…”

In the grey hours of insomnia, Bruce had made a list of people he thought might be persuaded to break his contract. But then Betty had texted him a list as well, like she’d promised—all the potential buyers her father had contacted. By the time Bruce was done reading it, his hands had started shaking again. It was a terribly long list, and all the names from his own meagre attempt featured on it.

Samuel Sterns, his old physics teacher who knew everybody. Aldrich Killian and Maya Hansen, whose startup had been growing fast these past few years. Alexander Pierce, philanthropist CEO who’d once refused a Nobel prize. Bruce didn’t want to believe it, but he did trust Betty; and Betty was telling him none of these people could be trusted with nuclear fusion.

“…Prince Loki, famously vocal against his adoptive father’s regime, and who allegedly organized the attacks himself. In other news, billionaire Tony Stark has been, against all odds, retrieved from Afghanistan and brought safely home with only minor injuries, even though his immediate press conference caused some to express concern over his mental—”

Bruce turned off the radio; he’d hoped for a distraction but the words were turning to soup in his brain. He pressed his forehead against the wheel and swallowed thickly, screwing his eyes shut.

He was in way over his head. This was a job for some kind of rogue superspy hero, not a miserable little scientist with nothing to his name but anger issues and social anxiety. He supposed he should have felt exhilarated at finally doing something—but all he felt was petrifying panic and a dangerously rising nausea, which picked this moment to turn into straight-up heaving.

Bruce hurried out of the car and stepped away from the road, walking into the dark desert; a dozen steps in, he put his hands on his knees and retched a few times, but nothing came up. He couldn’t even manage that.

“God,” he gasped, straightening up and wiping the sheen of cold sweat from his face. “Pull yourself together, Banner.”

The night sky stretched over his head, twinkling with stars. Even though they were only in the middle of April, the air felt stuffy and hot. Bruce had a hard time gulping it down his lungs.

“Hey,” someone said.

Bruce froze. There was a red-headed woman looking at him, not three feet away. “Are you alright?”

He looked over his shoulder, at one side of the road then at the other. Both of them stretched out into the darkness. There was nothing, no truck or bike, no hidden pueblo buried in the sand. They were in the middle of nowhere.

“How did you…” he mumbled, then turned back to her. “Are you lost? Can I—can I get you somewhere?”

She smiled at him, like she thought he was sweet for asking, then reached out. “I’m Na—” She paused, then said, “Natasha.”

“Bruce,” he said, shaking her hand.

“You’re American.”

He blinked a little. “Um. Yes?”

“Eh. I’ll make do,” she said in a conceding tone, then looked around. “Is this… Arizona?”

“Nevada,” Bruce said, feeling more puzzled by the minute.

At least she had the good grace to look perplexed as well. “You too? That can’t be right, it’s way too close.”

Bruce opened his mouth to say he didn’t understand—but then a gust of freezing wind ruffled his curls and made him look up; daylight exploded in his face and he squeezed his eyes shut.

When he cautiously reopened them, he blinked, and blinked, and found himself surrounded by sturdy black buildings, reaching for the fragile blue of a winter sky. People in thick coats and heavy boots hurried past him, cursing when a passing car splashed them with slush.

“Um,” Bruce said.

He absentmindedly wrapped his arms around himself and glanced at Natasha, who was still there. “I think I’m going crazy.” He took a look around again and remarked, “I’m being very calm about it.”

“You look like you’re on the run,” Natasha said, eyeing him critically.

He felt himself redden—his shirt was rumpled and his cheeks unshaven, and maybe he was going insane, but it didn’t change the fact that Natasha was beautiful in a sharp perfect way he’d only ever seen on movie screens.

“I… I am on the run,” he said lamely, wishing it didn’t sound like a justification to his own ears. “I’m very bad at it, actually.”

“Go to Mexico,” she said with a shrug. “They will let you cross the border for the right price. And it’ll give you time to figure out your next move.”

Bruce stared at her. He’d thought about it—and then dismissed it instantly because relying on clichés from spy movies was stupid. But now that she was saying it, casual like an evidence, he realized it was actually a good idea. Ross was military. He would have no jurisdiction to apprehend Bruce if he crossed the border. He didn’t even have proof Bruce had taken the hard drive with him.

“It’s okay,” Natasha said. For the first time, she looked hesitant. “You’re not actually alone.”

But the next second Bruce was alone, in the desert under night skies.

Moscow? he thought, still absently rubbing the chill of snow from his arms, though he was back to stuffy, vibrant heat. It looked a bit like Moscow.

He walked back to his car and sat inside, picking up his mobile from the floor. Heading to Mexico, he texted Betty. I’ll keep you updated. After that he committed her number to memory, then cracked the flip phone in two and tossed it out the window. Maybe clichés weren’t all that bad.

 

*

 

Steve was heading back to the hotel room where Nicholas Fury had killed himself. The body was gone, but the scene had been left untouched at his demand.

“I don’t know what you’re looking for, man,” Sam said, reluctantly climbing up the stairs after him. “That room was cleaner than clean. It’s not a real crime scene. Guy just wanted to die someplace nice.”

“You’re probably right,” Steve said, but he kept going up the stairs all the same. Behind him, Sam let out a sigh and muttered something which sounded like Steve fuckin’ Rogers.

On the second floor, Sam got a call from his mom and let Steve go ahead. Steve walked with muffled steps on the thick carpet until he’d reached room 616; he stepped in—and froze. There was a redheaded woman standing there, frowning at the bloodstained carpet.

“Ma’am?” he said. “If you’ll pardon my asking, what are you doing here?”

“This is where he died,” she mumbled.

Steve blinked.

The woman looked up at him with bright green eyes. “And you’re the cop handling the case. This can’t be a coincidence.” She looked at his badge and read out loud, “Steve Rogers? That sounds familiar.”

“Ma’am—”

“American again.” She looked out the window and sighed. “At least this isn’t Nevada.”

“Ma’am,” Steve said for the third time. “How did you get in here?”

Sam was coming up behind him. “You talking to someone?”

“Yeah, there’s—” Steve began, then stopped. He was gesturing at nothing. The room was empty.

Not again. He swallowed hard and pretended to look out the window to keep his composure. Anxiety was beginning to squeeze at his chest. It was just a bit of fatigue. Just his imagination running wild.

But she’d looked so real

“Steve?”

“I’m fine,” Steve rasped. “It’s okay, Sam, it’s… nothing.”

“You still can’t lie for shit,” Sam said, but then he just stepped past Steve, looking around the room. “So what are we looking for, here?”

Steve just stared at him, standing where the redhead had stood a minute ago. Sam wouldn’t push. He never did. This was why he was the only friend Steve had from the VA—the only friend he had, period. Sam had picked up the broken pieces of him, and beaten away all the Captain America fans with a stick, and waited months and months and months for Steve to come out of his shell and admit he needed help against the crippling claws of panic.

And when Steve had healed enough to wonder what to do with his life, Sam had helped him figure out law enforcement might be a good compromise for him—since he couldn’t stand to be a soldier anymore but couldn’t stand either to sit still and let bad things happen. Being a cop hadn’t fixed his problems, but it had made them bearable. It had kept him sane.

Until now.

Steve stared and stared at Sam, and thought of his infinite patience, and thought of his own stubbornness.

“I’ve been seeing things,” he said.

The words didn’t sound like they’d come out of his own mouth. His heart was very loud in his ears.

Sam Wilson, being Sam goddamn Wilson, just calmly looked back and repeated, “Things?”

“People,” Steve amended. “A man in front of the precinct yesterday. Fury himself, too. And… a woman, just now. I think they’re real, they talk to me and I talk to them and then they just… disappear.”

“Hmm,” Sam said. “Alright.”

Steve stared at him.

“Alright,” he echoed, sarcasm creeping in even as fear pounded in his chest. “I know you’re an open-minded kind of guy, but you gotta draw the line somewhere, Wilson.”

“Sure,” Sam said, scratching his nose. “I draw the line at people getting hurt. There’s no harm in just seeing things. You’re aware they aren’t real, and they’re not even telling you to go shoot up a school. That’s weak shit, Rogers.”

Steve was nonplussed. Sometimes he forgot Sam had a talent for taking the drama out of anything.

“Now it’s not nothing either, obviously,” Sam conceded. “Visual and auditory hallucinations aren’t actually that uncommon among vets, but I think the smartest move here is to ask for Dr. Cho’s opinion.”

Steve felt the tight knot of worry in his stomach loosen. It was a good idea. Dr. Cho was a neurosurgeon they’d helped with a case of stalking and harassment two years ago; her advice would be invaluable.

“I’ll give her a call later tonight and let you know right away,” Sam said. “In the meantime, I’ll need you to not look up your symptoms on the Internet. Deal?”

Steve finally smiled, and exhaled for what felt like the first time in minutes. “I don’t know where I’d be without you, Sam.”

He must be pale, because Sam threw an arm over his shoulders and squeezed. “Dead in a ditch somewhere, no doubt.” He steered Steve towards the exit. “C’mon, Rogers, the crime scene can wait. You’ve shared with the class today and I’m all about positive reinforcement, so we’re getting you some Starbucks.”

 

Steve’s apartment would have probably despaired his mother. He’d moved in five years ago and yet it still didn’t look lived in. The carpet was a neutral beige; the walls some kind of pastel blue, with a few black-and-white photographs of city landscapes in muted red frames. Sam thought it was depressing. But it was on the thirteenth floor, which allowed Steve to look at the great silent expanse of DC at night, and he was getting by.

He was about to step into the shower when his phone buzzed. He hesitated—he always felt awkward answering a call without any clothes on—but then he saw that it was Sam, and picked up.

“Hey, man, I got Helen Cho. She says there’s a 90% chance it’s due to stress and the fair bit of trauma you’ve got under your belt.” Sam cleared his throat. “But it’s still better to do a brain scan just in case.”

Steve’s stomach dropped, memories of hospital beds and IV bags flashing through his mind. “A brain scan,” he repeated. “I’m not sure if—”

“Don’t,” said a low voice.

Steve startled and swiveled round.

He’d left the bathroom door open and could clearly see that there was someone in his living room. And not just anyone.

It was the first one—the man from the precinct.

“You… you shouldn’t get a brain scan,” he said hoarsely.

He appeared to realize Steve was naked and looked away.

“Sorry.”

Steve reached for his bathrobe to cover himself. The man was looking at the twinkling lights outside, with faint wonder in his blue eyes.

“Is this Washington?” he said under his breath. Then he risked an anxious glance at Steve again. “I don’t mean to scare you.”

“I’m not scared,” Steve lied, heart hammering. He wished he wasn’t naked under the thin cloth.

Without any sort of warning, their surroundings changed—they were now in a small white room with no windows and no furniture, save for a narrow hospital bed and a stainless steel toilet bowl. The weirdest part was that Steve knew without a doubt that he was also still in his apartment in DC. At the same time. Somehow.

The man was standing in a corner and looked distinctly uncomfortable. “This… this is me.” He ventured a small smile. “I like your apartment better.”

“Can’t say I’ve ever heard that before,” Steve couldn’t help saying. His voice came out steadier than he felt.

The man’s smile grew, making his eyes crinkle at the corners. He was—pretty in a way Steve had only ever noticed in women before. The thought only added to the absolute confusion in his mind. Maybe he should try to ignore his visions, but they were proving hard to ignore.

“Hey,” the man said cautiously, like he was afraid Steve was the hallucination and might disappear any second now. “Can I ask—what’s your name?”

There was something warily hopeful in his expression. In fact, his entire demeanor reminded Steve of a spooked cat he’d once tried to coax from under his mom’s porch, a mix of anxious longing and bone-deep terror.

Steve just stared for a minute, then eventually said, “It’s Steve.”

“Steve,” echoed the man. “I’m… I’m James. I think.”

“Hey, man. You still there?”

Steve blinked.

He was back in DC. There was no one in the room with him. He was still holding the phone.

“Sam—” Steve felt his throat tighten. His hand was shaking. “Sorry. Sorry. I just… again…”

“It’s okay,” Sam said, but even though his voice was calm, he didn’t sound flippant like before. “I was saying Cho can clear her schedule tomorrow morning. Is that fine?”

“Yeah.” Steve swallowed thickly. “Yeah, it’s fine.”

 

*

 

Kate had once asked Clint why he didn’t quit his performer gig—it was the least lucrative of his three jobs, and starting out the night with acrobatics usually ate up most of the energy he needed for his next two shifts. He always told her he didn’t want to fall out of practice, and while it wasn’t a lie, it wasn’t the whole truth either.

Truth was, he liked performing for kids. He liked that the Circus Circus hotel wasn’t just about the booze and gambling and sex. Sometimes he thought this job was the only reason Vegas hadn’t yet turned him into a jaded wreck.

The gasps and applause all blended into one big dazzling cheer through Clint’s hearing aids, overpowered only by the deep growl of the indoors rollercoaster which vibrated through the walls every ten minutes. He bowed one last time, then waved at the crowd and disappeared in the wings.

He peeled off his sequined suit on the way to the performers’ dressing room. Their resident magician Wanda was already there, adjusting her tiara. Clint hopped in and out of the shower, then screwed his hearing aids back on with one hand, pulling on his crisp white shirt with the other. He checked the time; it was 9:38pm.The Plaza wasn’t very far from Circus Circus, but it wasn’t right next to it either, and he’d gotten a late start already. His shift started at ten.

“How long do you have to keep this up, again?” Wanda asked. Everyone knew about Clint’s brother’s debts. It was such a common occurrence in this goddamn city, no one would’ve thought of hiding it.

“I dunno,” he muttered, pulling on the slacks—he hadn’t properly dried off and they clung to his thighs. “Like two more years?”

Wanda shook her head, but only said, “I’m up next. Are you going to be alright with your bowtie?”

“I know how to do a bowtie.”

As it turned out, he should have accepted her help. His fingers were still shaky from the coffee in his bloodstream, and he usually could handle a bowtie, he wore this goddamn penguin suit every night, but he tried and tried and tried and wanted to fucking punch something, break something, he was late already, why couldn’t this fucking thing just stay in its goddamn place—

“Here,” said a soft voice.

A curly-haired man was pushing Clint’s hands away. “Breathe,” he added. “Getting angry never works out for anyone.”

Clint stared at him.

“You’re the guy from the Cirque du Soleil.”

“Probably.” He sounded weary. “I’m Bruce.”

Clint should have gotten even angrier, maybe, but Bruce looked scruffier than last time, with unruly hair and dark circles under his eyes. He was wearing slacks and a plaid shirt instead of a lab coat. With infinite patience, he tugged the tortured bowtie loose from its angry knot, flattened the wrinkled cloth over Clint’s chest, then started it up again.

“I’ve ruined something for you, haven’t I?” he said quietly.

Clint had no idea how to respond to that. He was a little hypnotized. The collar of his shirt was tightening around his neck as Bruce finished up with the bowtie, and old longings suddenly flared up Clint’s spine. Bruce had made him stand still; Bruce had made him calm down. If he’d tugged down, Clint would have knelt pliantly and waited to see what happened next. It had been so long since he’d last been able to let go.

But—he shook himself up—he didn’t have time for anything like that. And besides, this guy wasn’t even real.

“There,” Bruce said, stepping back. “You clean up nice. I mean, the suit—you look good.” He ran a hand through his curls and cleared his throat. “Anyway. I should get back on the road.”

They were at a small gas station. The cold lonely sound of a highway filled up the background and made Clint’s hearing aids buzz. In the flickering lights of the nearby Denny’s, Bruce looked even more tired.

“Drive safe,” was all Clint could think of saying.

Bruce seemed a bit surprised, but the next second he gave him a weary smile. “Will do. Thanks.”

 

“No more bets!” Clint called for what felt like the hundredth time.

He was relieved to see Scott wave at him across the room. It was 1am, his shift was done, he hadn’t developed a migraine from the flashing lights and shifting noise, and there hadn’t been any important losses—or any important wins, thank God. Winners at the roulette were goddamn savages. Though sometimes they threw some of their brand new money his way.

“Heading home?” Scott asked sympathetically.

“Nope,” Clint said, hurrying past him. “Got a double shift at the Blue Diamond.”

“Dude, how long can you keep this up?” Scott yelled after him, and Clint didn’t want to answer the same dreadful question twice in one night so he ignored him.

Keeping his stripper shift for last was kind of stupid, Clint knew—he wasn’t at his sexiest—but it wasn’t like he had much of a choice. He needed his focus on archery, and to watch out for desperate gamblers. Pole-dancing didn’t demand too much brain work, and his routine involved a lot of yoga moves which allowed him to stretch his tired body before he could finally go to bed. When he’d told Kate about it she’d laughed for a week.

Clint kept his foundation in his glove box; he made the dark rings under his eyes disappear a bit more at every red light. The third time he stopped, he met other eyes in the mirror—softer, darker ones blinking back warily at him.

“Like what you see?” he muttered, because he didn’t even have the option not to roll with this right now. No time, no time.

The brown eyes looked away; if Bruce was reddening, Clint couldn’t tell because of the crimson sheen of the traffic lights.

“I didn’t mean to stare,” Bruce said. “It’s been a long drive.”

Clint snorted. “Why are you heading to Tijuana anyway?”

He wasn’t dumb; the I-15 didn’t lead anywhere else when you were past San Diego. In the mirror, Bruce’s face turned a bright green—Clint hastily drove on before anyone started honking at him, and when he looked up, the mirror was empty again.

 

The Blue Diamond wasn’t the shadiest spot in Vegas by far. Most of the time, Clint wiggled his golden booty shorts under the nose of giggling middle-aged women who came into the club by entire busloads—Clint found it sweet on a good day, depressing on a bad one. But tonight, all he felt was fear.

His stomach had started twisting in knots a little while ago; at first he thought it was his stress and fatigue at work, but soon he acknowledged that what he was feeling was Bruce’s—the guy had followed him all night, and Clint was too exhausted to worry anymore about whether he was losing his mind. He could still get pissed, though.

After five minutes of increasing nausea, he got off the stage and headed for the bathroom. Bruce’s anxiety was still clawing at him. Clint actually had to take a deep breath before he locked the door behind him and glared into the mirror.

“Dude, cut this out. I’m trying to work.”

“I’m sorry,” whispered Bruce, and his voice was so full of genuine terror that Clint took a look around.

Out there in the desert, the night was hot and suffocating. Bruce was standing with his back to a cement wall. Moths kept flying into the violent neon light to die short, sparking deaths; he flinched with every sizzle.

“I don’t have enough,” he rasped.

Clint didn’t ask enough for what? because he already knew Bruce was trying to get into Mexico, and knew a border post when he saw one. The guard was on the other side of the cement cabin, doing… something. Bruce was twisting his hands.

“He wants me to…”

He couldn’t get the words out, but Clint understood well enough, because what the guard was doing had just become abundantly clear. Clint shouldn’t have been able to hear his small grunts, though, or the wet sound of his pumping hand. This wasn’t his hearing.

“I’ve never done that.” Bruce was positively white with fear.

When the guard looked up, Clint didn’t think and just—went for it. He didn’t even mind. He often had special clients at the Blue Diamond, he could handle one extra if that was what it took to finish his night in peace.

It wasn’t the fanciest blowjob in the world; the cement was hard on his knees and the guard kept thrusting up. But it was only two uncomfortable minutes before he shot down Clint’s throat, who spat on the floor. He would’ve liked a condom, but he supposed Bruce hadn’t been given much of a choice.

“Clint!” Someone was pounding on the door. “Ya sick or something? You’ve been there ages!”

Clint straightened up, wiped his mouth by reflex—even though there was nothing, not even a lingering taste—and quickly headed out. Thirty more minutes around the pole, and then his car, his broken elevator, his Kate snoring in the next room, and his beloved bed.

Somewhere, he knew, a small curly-haired man had gotten into Mexico.

 

*

 

Tony’s decision to stop manufacturing weapons had been met with predictable uproar, yet he was optimistic. With a little bit of persuasion, the board’s mind would end up swaying towards his new pet project. Clean energy was the new black.

The problem was that Tony didn’t know how to actually achieve it.

He’d been relying on his reactor for that. But after two days of nausea and vertigo, he’d finally taken the time to run some scans on himself, and he’d very quickly detected the source of the problem.

“The problem, Pep,” he said, sending holograms flying across the room to illustrate his words, “is that my core is made of palladium. Great stuff. Found in many missiles and nuclear reactors and other such things. To be very precise, it’s made of 107Pd, which is very radioactive. Half-life of 6.5 million years, this baby will run virtually forever. You can tell, because it glows.” He tapped his reactor and grinned.

Then he swiveled around and said, “But, Tony, radioactivity is bad! And you’re right, of course you’re right. But first of all, I didn’t have much of a choice at the time. And second of all, I’m not a complete moron. 107Pd emits only alpha radiation, which can be stopped with an aluminum casing. No harm done.”

He turned back to his holograms and leaned hard on his desk. “But on the other hand, I am a complete moron, because the ionization of palladium also creates 103Pd. Less fun. It degrades in about seventeen days, which you’ll notice is way quicker, because it does so through gamma radiation. The kind of nuclear reaction your mom told you not to talk to in the street, that’s the one.”

Wincing, he unknotted his tie and took a gulp of horrendous algae smoothie. “So that’s why I’m dead. I thought you’d like to actually know why. Sorry about calling you Pep. And sorry about everything else, I guess.”

He waved out a hand to stop the recording, then looked up. “How was that, Jarvis?”

“Rather distressing, sir. For several reasons.”

“Yeah, well, give me a break,” Tony muttered into his smoothie. “Nobody ever teaches you how to record post-mortem messages. It’s not like Dad left me one before he got in that car.” His hands started trembling all of a sudden, and he scrubbed them hard over his face so it would stop. “Jesus. Okay. Let’s try again.”

“Tony?”

Tony startled and dropped his smoothie, which spilled on the floor like an abstract indictment against healthy living.

Pepper stopped and blinked. “Oh—”

“Don’t worry about it! It’s nothing! It’s forgotten! Dummy’s on it. Isn’t that right, Dummy? No, of course not, you’re busy unscrewing the fire detector. My bad. Do your thing. Hello, Pep, what brings you to my humble workshop?”

Pepper was staring at him. “Are you alright?”

“Perfectly fine,” Tony said, leaning against his desk about as unnaturally as humanly possible. “What’s up? Weren’t you in a board meeting?”

“I was.” She was pale. “It’s about Afghanistan.”

Tony snorted mirthlessly. “Oh, are they trying to drive me away from the company? Saying I’ve gone mad from trauma? Big surprise there. Joke’s on them, though, I’ve been notoriously crazy for quite a while.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Pepper said, then caught herself. “Well, yes—they are doing that. But it was premeditated.”

Tony frowned. “What was? Pep, come on. You’re talking in riddles.”

“Afghanistan,” she repeated. “What happened to you. Someone paid a lot of money to get you out of the way.”

Tony stared at her, finally understanding what she was saying. It made sense, and yet every time something like this happened, it felt like a fresh stab. This one was on a whole new scale, too.

“Someone from the board,” he said, to make sure.

Her eyes still held that soft look, and Tony knew he wasn’t going to like the answer, but he asked anyway.

“Who?”

She hesitated, lip tucked between her teeth for a moment before she took a fortified breath and said, “Obadiah Stane.”

Tony blinked—then coughed a laugh, nerves breaking out. “You almost got me there, wow. Maybe next time you could manage a single tear, make it more believable...” His grin turned stale when Pepper’s face fell a little bit more. “Pepper, you’re kidding me, right? Obie would never…”

His breath was getting shaky.

“Tony, I’m so sorry. I found out this morning.” She put a flash drive on the desk. “I got this from his personal computer. He might have already figured it out. We have to move fast.”

She reached to put a hand on his arm, but Tony pulled away. This wasn’t happening.

“Pepper, you’re wrong. He’s like my father, he’s—” The words sounded hollow in his ears. His arm felt cold from where her fingers would have been. Pepper was never wrong.

“Tony…” Pepper started, but Tony shook his head and held up a finger. He covered his face with his hands and pressed his palms into his eyes. “Yeah, um. Look, I have to, uh,” Tony tried to get his words out, but he was losing his train of thought. “Give me a minute. Okay? Just—a minute.”

Pepper looked helplessly at him for a moment; but then she gave a little nod and left. He watched her until the doors closed her off from him, and then he was alone.

“A dónde quieres ir, mi amor?”

Tony whipped round. There was an old woman—in the middle of his workshop—except this wasn’t his workshop but some kind of dusty gas station, and she was smiling patiently at a curly-haired man with tired eyes. The man was struggling with his Spanish, broken words and nonsense spilling out despite his best efforts.

Tony took pity and answered for him, “Necesito un lugar para la noche. Hay un hostal cerca?”

He quickly gathered the directions to a couple of rundown motels and thanked her. The sun was just rising.

“Thank you,” the man said. “I didn’t know you could speak Spanish.” He raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms, a shiver running through his body. The early morning wasn’t that warm.

“I had a nanny,” Tony said by way of explanation. He wasn’t surprised that this man knew who he was; everyone did.

At the same moment, in his workshop, the man looked around at his equipment and then froze in awe; and suddenly Tony realized he knew him, too. “Wait. You’re Dr. Bruce Banner.” A sense of giddiness suddenly filled him. “I saw your panel on anti-electron collisions last year. That was beyond genius.”

Banner glanced at Tony. “And you’re Tony Stark. I did hear you were back from Afghanistan...”

Tony cocked his head to the side. “I’m just not sure why I would hallucinate you.”

“Let’s not get this mixed up. I’m hallucinating you.”

“You don’t seem worried about it,” Tony remarked.

“Well, it’s been a rather crowded twenty-four hours,” Banner went on in the same deadpan tone. “Eventually the novelty wears off.”

Oh, what the hell, Tony thought. “Wanna see something I’m working on?”

Bruce looked back to him, and the hint of a smile started creeping on his face. “I’m not terribly interested in building weapons.”

Tony waved a hand, “Nah, I don’t do that anymore. Check this out, J?”

“At your service,” Jarvis said placidly, pulling up the last thing he’d been working on. Tony winced—it was his palladium research.

Bruce was snapping his eyes around, looking for the disembodied voice.

“That’s just Jarvis, my AI,” Tony explained as he started fiddling around with the hologram.

“Palladium?” Banner asked. “Is that what’s humming in your chest?”

Tony stared at him and Bruce smiled apologetically. “I can feel it,” he said, reaching for his own chest. “It’s very heavy.”

There was a silence.

“What happened?” he asked softly.

“Oh, nothing, I just need it to—keep me alive—Jesus.” Tony swallowed. “I really hope you won’t be selling this to a peer-reviewed journal, I was kind of trying to keep this under wraps for now.”

“I don’t think they’d accept submissions from a fugitive,” Bruce said distractedly, staring up at Tony’s schematics. He winced. “Oh, 103Pd. That can’t be good.”

Ah, Tony thought, so that’s why I’m hallucinating him. Of course. A gamma radiation specialist and a literal genius. If Tony could have picked anyone to chat with right now, it would have been him.

“You could use vibranium,” Banner said. “Wouldn’t that work?”

Tony stared. Vibranium absolutely would work. In fact, it was the only other option he had for a micro-reactor like the one sitting in his chest. For Banner to have figured this out already… it meant he not only knew the specifics of all isotopes in the periodic table by heart, but also that he’d understood how Tony’s reactor worked.

Definitely a hallucination.

“Yes, vibranium would do the trick,” Tony said slowly. “But it’s the rarest element in the world. Even I don’t have enough money to buy the amount I need. And I don’t exactly have the Wakandan king on speed dial.”

Bruce looked shrewdly at the hologram. “You could synthesize it from scratch in the CERN collider.”

Tony scoffed. “Believe it or not, I thought of that, but they’re a bit strict about my presence in Switzerland.” Bruce raised an eyebrow and Tony went on, “I’m not technically allowed in the country. Not sure what I did, 1997 was much of a blur.”

Bruce gave another of those small smiles. “Well, short of buying your own coils and building a collider in your basement, I can’t think of a way to solve this one.”

It was meant as a joke. He obviously meant it as a joke. But Tony froze.

“Dr. Banner, you really are a genius.”

“Bruce,” Banner automatically corrected. Then he blinked. “What?”

“That’s perfect! God, why didn’t I think of that?” Tony started bouncing on his toes.

“Wait, Mr. Stark—Tony, I was just kidding...”

Tony interrupted him, “No! This is perfect! We can just build our own and make it! And if I can just synthesize vibranium whenever I need it—”

Bruce’s eyes went wide. “—you could expand production for worldwide energy.” Then he seemed to rein himself in. “Atom by atom, though? I’m not sure that…”

“I could save myself from radiation poisoning.” Tony couldn’t stop grinning. He reached out. “Dr. Banner, this is the beginning of a beautiful partnership.”

“Bruce,” Banner corrected again without thinking.

“C’mon,” Tony said, wiggling the fingers of his proffered hand. “You can’t leave me hanging. Do you see what we just did? We are science brothers. Science bros, if you will.”

Bruce smiled again. He reached out to shake Tony’s hand, but before they made contact, a loud horn from a truck blared across the tiles of the workshop. Tony blinked and Bruce was gone.

Of course. He wasn’t real.

Right.

His eyes fell on the flash drive Pepper had left for him. Obie. Afghanistan. Was that real?

He turned his attention back to his holograms. He didn’t have to think about this right now. Hell, he couldn’t afford to think about this right now. He had a goddamn collider to build. The rest could wait.

It could wait.

 

*

 

The echo of his own breath woke Loki up. Raising a hand, he immediately met a curved wall of plastic.

“What—” He twisted and realized he was enclosed from every side. White plastic all around him. His heart picked up speed. Buried alive? Was that his punishment? Would Odin have—without even telling him first—

“What is this?” he called, trying to sit up. “Where am I?”

Suddenly there was a woman’s voice next to him. “Captain Rogers, please! This is a MRI, you have to stay very still.”

“Why am I in a—why are you speaking English?” Loki panted. “What’s going on? Thor! Thor!”

He tried again to sit up—and sat up unimpeded, gasping for air.

His breath bounced off the walls and told him for certain he was still in his cell. A dream. Of course. He should have known when he’d been able to tell the plastic was white. If he could see anything, then it was a dream.

“Loki? Loki!”

Loki sat back against the stone wall and huffed a shuddering breath. Of course Thor had come for him. He always did, the overbearing fool.

“What is it?” There was a metallic sound when Thor gripped the bars. “You called out my name.”

“You must be hearing things.” Loki wiped the cold sweat from his brow. He hated the dungeons; they reminded him of the refinery, ten years ago.

He had been so young, eyes still bright at the time. Thor was bragging about some inane feat Loki could not even remember. Well if you’re so brave, won’t you follow me? There had been a skull and bones on the door—but they’d stepped inside anyway. It should have been fine; it would have been fine, had the earthquake not hit a few minutes later.

Roofs had a way of collapsing on Loki. The floor had a way of giving under his feet. It didn’t surprise him anymore.

“What are you doing here?” he asked Thor.

But he could tell already, from the distinctive swish of Thor’s cape—the golden prince was wearing his ceremonial armor yet again, but this time it wasn’t for a crowning.

“How admirably swift.” Loki smiled. “Am I missing my own trial?”

“It will not be a trial. Just an exposure of the facts. We have definite proof of…” Thor sucked in a sharp breath. “Your podcasts. You’ve been talking to them for months.” His voice was hollowed out with anger and pain. “I do not understand.”

Loki’s heart was finally calming down. “I wouldn’t expect you to.”

Thor Odinson, who had spent his first hours on Earth resting on Frigga’s golden breast, could never understand Loki Laufeyson, son of none, who’d been birthed in the hospital parking lot and left to die in the snow. Odin’s bodyguard was the one to pick him up from the ground—if not for his infant wailing, no one would have spotted him.

Give me the child, Frigga had said. She had just given birth; she was overflowing with love. Odin was under no such delusions. But with his tuft of black hair and his translucent skin, Loki was obviously native; and the All-Father needed to appease the growing discontent in the Jotunheim reservation. Why not take one of them as his son? Surely this would be seen as a gesture of goodwill.

The first time he wore a ceremonial armor, Loki was eight years old and bursting with pride. It gleamed under the sun as they made their way down the street for the Walpurgis festival. A Jotun woman, covered in ritual tattoos from head to toe, had pressed herself against the barrier to spit on his clean white cheek.

It had trickled down onto his golden breastplate. Traitor!

At first he was confused. How could he have betrayed people he didn’t even know? But then he looked for answers, and they came soon enough.

If not for Thor, Loki would have gone mad much sooner. But Thor was blessedly ignorant of history and politics. Thor was only interested in Jotuns whenever he played war. Loki always played the enemy—after all, he had the looks—but he didn’t mind, as long as he was allowed to play. And Thor liked him best for his foolhardy plans. Loki tried to find more and more. Let us climb on the roof. Let us walk on the ice. Let us visit the forbidden zone in the refinery.

After he lost his sight, Loki swore to himself he would never misstep again, and would try to live by a rigid set of rules. Do not think his eyes could have been saved. Do not resent the screams of Thor first, my son first!

But being blind made it harder to be distracted or deceived. It forced him to pay attention. Thor’s familiar boasts began to grate at him in uncomfortable ways. They were not children anymore, yet Thor still did not care for history and politics; still joked about slaying monsters whenever people alluded to the Jotuns marches; still yelled at Loki to take a joke whenever he tried to argue. Principles Odin had taught him—who else? The whole country reeked of it. It permeated everything. Loki heard it wherever he went, whichever Bifrost channel he turned on. Jotun scum. Tattooed trash. Blue bastards.

Loki’s plan was not designed to attain anything but chaos, really. Give the loathed old anthill a good solid kick. Make them look their own prejudice in the face, for once. But of course, nothing ever went his way.

Thor’s voice brought him back to the present. “Don’t you have anything else to say?”

“Nothing anyone would hear.” Loki took a deep breath. “What will I get? A hanging?”

The Viking way for criminals and offerings to the gods. A last indignity before Loki left this world; it would be appropriate. Maybe he wouldn’t even mind. The dungeons were very cold and there was no way out anymore. He’d done an excellent job backing himself into a corner.

“No.” Thor still sounded torn between anguish and fury. “Brokkr’s trial.”

He didn’t need to say more; they were both familiar with royal punishments.

Ah, Loki thought for a strange second of calm. Then the nausea hit and he thought maybe he would have preferred an execution.

 

 *

 

T’Challa, my dear son,

You have just departed for Asgard and I fear I will not see you again. The golden fields are opening before me; but before I take the goddesses’ proffered hands, I must tell you the truth, for your sake and the sake of our kind. You may think me a coward for keeping this a secret from you, and you may well be right. I wanted to spare you until the very end. But as you rise to be king, I can protect you no longer.

As you know, my son, we do not discuss a man’s soul-siblings. Even though it is our royal legacy, it is also an intimate matter, and I did not share their stories even with N’Yami, your beloved mother, whom I shall be meeting again soon. Yet today I must tell you of my family of soul, and of the crimes we committed together.

I awoke into my siblinghood five years before your birth, and for that I will always thank the gods. When the day comes for you (and I have a feeling it might be very soon) I only want you to know that yet again, you will have made me proud. When the day comes, I only want you to embrace the infinite love which will come in your heart for them, though they will be foreign, and fallible, and human.

My siblings were six in number. There was Howard Stark and Nicholas Fury in the United States; Maria Carbonell in Italy; Gao Chang Wu in China; Erik Selvig in Sweden; and Alexander Pierce in Germany. They were all surprised to discover I had been expecting them to enter my life. Erik Selvig, who was a learned man, knew of the Wakandan soul-sibling cult; but as all Westerners do, he’d believed it to be superstition.

At once he wanted to reveal our existence to the world; the rest of us assured him it would be unwise, and he agreed after a while. He was, however, adamant on revealing ourselves to our own species, at the very least. The rest of them sided with him this time. Without me, they said, without my knowledge, they would have thought themselves mad. Our duty was to provide guidance to our kind all over the world; we had the power and thus the responsibility to do so.

Developing our project took us but a couple of years. Gao was the heiress to a drug empire; she owned lands the size of a small country in the heart of the Chinese mountains. I used my political influence to clear her name, and Alexander absorbed her legacy into his family pharmaceutics company. With such clean, wealthy hands, we were able to create our haven there; a hidden city aptly named Lai Shi—which means “Afterlife”—for us to welcome unborns and newborns and offer them guidance.

Slowly but surely, it flourished. Howard Stark, of whom I’m sure you know, devised a way to scan hospital records everywhere in the world, so as to detect unborn individuals and newborn siblinghoods more easily. In Lai Shi they could learn about the potential within themselves. They left with an appeased mind and a hopeful heart.

This project cost us a great deal of money, but we could afford it—I would have never let it interfere with the well-being of Wakanda. For this at least I have no apologies to make; my country did not suffer from my other preoccupations, and for a few years I was as perfectly happy as a man can be. I had my life with you, with my people, in Wakanda; at the same time I lived six other lives, all equally as rich and surprising; and together, we were building the world of tomorrow. What a journey! Even as I write these lines to you I cannot bring myself to regret our beginnings.

Of us all, only Nicholas was reluctant. He admired our intentions and acknowledged their usefulness, but he liked secrets, and thought disclosing ours, even to our own kind, was dangerous, especially in such a flamboyant, grandiose way. Where there is a light—he said—there must be shadows. We paid him no mind. We were wrong.

Howard and Maria, who loved each other, died together in a car accident fourteen years ago. Do you remember? You were eighteen. I faltered and you called for help, thinking that my heart was failing. In a way it had.

My illness began then; only it was no illness, just the natural pull of death. Our soul was split in seven, and two parts of it had crossed into the golden fields already. My siblings suffered like I did; but by relying on each other, we could still keep each other on the side of life. Nicholas, however, was not just devastated. Though the accident seemed to be due to random misfortune, he was angry and more mistrustful than ever before. He began keeping more and more secrets from us. He seldom visited us through our bond, and refused our attempts when he could.

I had not seen him in months until one day he suddenly came to me with atrocious news. The light of Lai Shi had cast many shadows indeed: people had been using our resources to hunt down our students. Every single one of them had either died or disappeared after their visit to China.

We shut down our haven at once, but the deed was done. Our actions had endangered our entire kind. We did not know who was hunting us or for what purpose, but our enemy was out there and their power was growing. Nicholas did not blame us, though he would have had every right to do so. When he quit his job to travel around the world so as to flush out our enemies, I supported him in any way I could. Erik put his knowledge at his disposal; Gao and Alexander, their wealth.

We found nothing. How could we have? The scorpion was among us from the beginning.

I do not have much time left, my son, and I must give you all the facts. My story ends without grace. A week ago, Gao died. Shortly afterwards, Nicholas killed himself; and that very same day Erik was captured and followed his example. I am now too weak with loss and I fear I must join them. I take a small comfort in knowing that my death will be a blow to Alexander, our enemy.

You did not misread. Nicholas was the one to find him out. He refused to believe it for a long time, but when Alexander’s men cornered him in DC, he could not stay in denial any longer. I was with him when he died; before he pulled the trigger, he sent me everything he had gathered on the tentacular network we are facing. Its pest has spread to every continent.

The most agonizing discovery was that Alexander was the one to arrange Howard’s and Maria’s deaths. He probably did not expect it to affect him so badly; if not for that pain, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have hunted down the rest of us, back then. But instead he went after our students. For what purpose, I am still not certain. I cannot know. All these years, and I never suspected him, not once. He was my brother. I loved him. I still do. Why did this happen? Could we have prevented this? I can never know. He has become too skilled at shutting his mind from me.

I have failed my kind, and I have failed my family of soul; and because of it I am now failing my family of blood. I fear for the people we have endangered by our reckless actions. I fear for you in particular, my son; this great adventure to come—I have tainted it for you. Alexander knows of the Wakandan lineage and will come after you. Through this letter I hope to warn and protect you, and I hope you may warn and protect others. Nicholas’ resources are at your disposal, should you choose to shoulder my burden and make amends for your father’s sins.

My beloved son, my greatest pride, I cannot in good conscience ask for you forgiveness. And yet I hope for it, because I am a foolish old man. My blessings are with you, my son, my precious child. May you one day absolve me for the harm I have caused.

Your Baba,

T’Chaka

 

*

 

James didn’t know for how long he’d been in his cell.

The period of time between two missions varied a lot. Sometimes he was locked down for weeks on end. It usually made him look forward to an assignment—made him grateful for any opportunity to be let out. He wondered if that was the point.

They did take care of him, though; whenever his captivity exceeded seven days straight, they increased his daily dosage so the sharp edge of isolation would turn into a blurry cloud of indifference. He took the pills willingly—they made it difficult to think, but that was usually a relief. As a general rule he tried to think as little as possible.

He couldn’t stop thinking about Steve.

It had only been a couple of days since the Selvig mission; James did not think he would get another assignment soon, which gave him leisure to reflect on what was happening to him. He couldn’t remember the last time his mind had bubbled with activity like this. The meaningless details were what fascinated him most—the habits and hobbies James himself wasn’t permitted to have. Was Steve a morning person? What was his favorite food? Did he enjoy listening to music?

James cherished what he did know. Steve was a police officer in DC. Steve lived in an apartment high above the ground. Steve had told James his name, even though he was afraid of him.

He probably hadn’t known it for the gift it was. James’ handlers only ever referred to him as the Asset. He knew he couldn’t trust his own memories, but he was almost certain he was called James—even though something about the name nagged at him—and this small knowledge had been his most guarded secret until then.

Everything was different now. James could feel it sparkling at the surface of his skin—the lick of sun in the middle of the night; the kiss of windblown snow within the four walls of his cell; phantom touches even though he was alone. Distant music, distant voices. It freaked him out. This wasn’t just Steve: there were more. Selvig had been right about him.

James didn’t know how long he’d be able to hide it. As far as he knew, nobody could find out the way Selvig had—except Alexander Pierce. If he looked him in the eye, they would be bonded forever. And even if James managed to pass undetected, scans and tests were routinely conducted on him. He was bound to be discovered eventually.

The worst part was the uncertainty. Being locked up did not mean being safe. He had no window, so he didn’t even know if it was day or night. He might be taken to a physical at any given moment.

He tried to shut his mind to the souls brushing his own. If he got distracted, he would doom them all. Better to not let anyone in. Though of course it was too late when it came to Steve. Their connection was like summer filling his lungs.

James curled up on his cot and retreated into that faint wisp of golden memory.

Perhaps he shouldn’t have—because when he reopened his eyes, he was sitting on Steve’s couch.

He only had the time to cast a look around before the front door unlocked and Steve walked into his apartment. When he saw James, he froze; then he shook his head and let out a fatalistic laugh.

“Well, you’re not a tumor,” he said, shutting the door behind him. He dropped his keys and toed off his shoes. “I’m still not sure I should be talking to you.”

James gingerly got up from the couch and padded across the living room—it was very different in broad daylight. The pale blue walls almost shone. The beige of the carpet was very soothing. The pictures on the walls were simple, but beautiful. In James’ cell the bare walls were stark white.

Steve walked to the kitchen and pulled out a Coke can. The bright red gleam of it was mesmerizing to James, just like the faint pshh of the drink when Steve opened it. He took a gulp, then saw James watching him.

“What,” he said wryly. “Do you want some?”

James felt his eyes go a little wide. “Can I?”

Steve huffed a bitter laugh. “Sure, but I don’t see how that’s gonna w—”

He shut up when James got closer and touched his hand. James didn’t want to take the can from him—didn’t want to intrude more than necessary. He just inched closer and delicately guided Steve into tipping his hand so he could take a sip.

He could taste it, fizzing on his tongue, though it felt distant—rather like a memory. He closed his eyes to savor it.

When he remembered to open his eyes again, Steve was gaping at him.

“You’re…”

Steve raised up a hand, as if despite his better judgment. His knuckles brushed James’ jawline, just the faintest scrape. The touch tingled down James’ spine.

“Jesus,” Steve said faintly, eyes wide. “I’m losing my mind.”

“No,” James smiled. It was suddenly very easy to smile. “It’s just expanding.”

Steve was still staring at him.

“It’s a connection,” James said, trying to find the right words. “It flows both ways. We’ve been… reborn within it.”

“Reborn?” Steve repeated with a shaky laugh. “By whom? Jesus? Buddha?”

“No.” James frowned. Selvig had told him this. “I think his name was Fury.”

Steve froze.

“What?” His hand closed around James’ wrist. It was almost too much sensation. “Nicholas Fury? How could you possibly—” He closed his eyes. Took a deep breath. “You’re not real. This is my own mind talking to me.”

James supposed that was true, in a way. He wanted to tell Steve he did actually exist, but—he wasn’t certain he could call it existing. Not by most people’s standards.

Steve reopened his eyes. They were still very close to each other.

“Well.” He laughed, helplessly. “You do feel real.”

It was dizzying. For as long as he could remember, James had existed only to fulfill a purpose. To have this all of a sudden, this open door, this staggering freedom—it felt like being drunk on an empty stomach.

“I suppose Sam’s right,” Steve went on in the same uncertainly open tone. “As long as you don’t tell me to go and hurt people, I can live with it.”

“I… I won’t,” James said, confused but hurrying to add, “I promise I won’t.”

Steve looked at him for another second, still half-smiling, like he was trying to puzzle him out. Then the harsh noise of an opening lock startled them both; James whipped round to face the front door—but ended up back in his cell.

The door was opening.

“Report for briefing.”

James was putting so much energy into hiding his shock that he almost didn’t understand at first. Two handlers were waiting by the door, raising an eyebrow when he didn’t get a move on immediately. He got to his feet, doing his best to stay impassive. His thoughts were rushing in his head. Briefing. Not a physical. That—that was a relief.

But another mission so soon?

“We’re sending him where?” the first handler asked, craning his neck to read the file.

“United States. Some newborn fool just got a brain scan. Pinged into our database right away.” The second handler flipped back to the front page. “Steven G. Rogers. Apparently he’s a war hero or something.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

3.


Clint’s night had been relatively uneventful, without hallucinations this time—or maybe he’d just been too exhausted to notice. But he was tired, sore, and painfully aware that he’d only paid a third of Barney’s debts. Also Kate was still giving him the cold shoulder for messing up the Cirque du Soleil gig.

When he felt as shitty and confused as he did now, his skin crawled with the need to just get away for a bit. So when he left the Blue Diamond a little past 7am, still sticky with body glitter even after a shower, he got into his rusty car and drove into the desert. He didn’t go far, just past the Alien Fresh Jerky billboard—you couldn’t make that up—and up to the dusty gas station by the highway. He parked his car and climbed up the hill behind it.

It was the middle of April, and the mornings were still pretty damn chilly. The highway sounded like roaring wind. Clint took off his hearing aids with relief, then sat on the ground and zipped up his jacket. The city below was lost in a grey haze, neon lights blinking uncertainly against the clearing skies. Without his aids, it was very quiet.

He exhaled in the silence. The need to sleep tugged at him; he just needed a moment and then he’d go back. Before he went to bed, he still needed to go hide half of today’s money in the egg carton he used as a cache. Barney would come and collect it during the day—Clint had tried to wait around for him once or twice, but he always got so tired…

“What is this?” said an uncertain voice next to him.

Clint didn’t startle. He was honestly too tired for this shit. When he looked up, there was a tall, thin man standing a few feet from him, with long black hair, a very pale face, and stricken features.

“Hey,” Clint said, “You alright?” because hallucination or not, that guy looked like he was about to keel over. His muscles ached, and he was cold to the bone. Clint could tell. He had no idea why or how, but he could feel it, in his own body.

The man blinked, then looked at him with an expression of absolute awe. “I can see you,” he whispered. He looked around, eyes wide. “I’m still... but I can see. How…”

He stepped back, stumbling a little, trying to look at everything at once.

“This is no dream,” he mumbled haphazardly, “I would know. I would—” Tears started streaming down his face and he let out a shaky breath. “Forgive me.”

His speech patterns reminded Clint of someone else—that buff girl Sif from the Cirque du Soleil , with the same black hair and narrow features.

“You Asgardian?”

The man looked at him, blinking the tears away. His look of absolute confusion morphed into milder puzzlement. “Don’t you know me?”

“Sure don’t,” Clint said. “But you look like one.”

The man barked a laugh. “Some would say I look like the opposite of an Asgardian. This is—” He wiped at his eyes. “It’s refreshing, to say the least.”

He looked at Clint for a few seconds, like he was the most beautiful thing in the world, then cautiously sat cross-legged next to him, with a smile both sharp and uncertain. “I don’t believe I have ever truly introduced myself to anyone.” He reached out. “My name is Loki.”

“I’m Clint.” Clint went to shake his hand, then hesitated. Loki was just as tentative; his hand remained outstretched for a few seconds. His fingers were long and slender like a pianist’s, as elegant as the rest of him. Eventually, he curled them around Clint’s, then lightly drew his nails across his palm, letting them catch on his calluses.

“Gods.” His voice was almost inaudible. “You’re real. This is real, isn’t it?”

“That’s kind of a loaded question, buddy,” Clint said.

Loki wasn’t really listening. His fingertips kept tracing patterns into Clint’s palm. From up close, Clint could see there was a veil over his eyes, dampening their color.

“What happened to you?”

Loki let out a wet, self-deprecating laugh. “A loaded question as well.” He folded his fingers, as if realizing he was acting strange. “You must forgive me. I’ve been a prisoner for some time, and a blind man for longer.”

Clint supposed this kinda put things in perspective for him. And wasn’t that why he’d come up here? To have perspective?

“So much space,” Loki murmured, looking at the desert. “Such open skies.” He wiped his eyes again and said, “Thank you.”

“Uh—I’m not sure I have anything to do with it.”

“Of course you do.” Loki gave him a bright, sharp smile. “I do not see anyone else around.”

Clint blinked. That was a new perspective alright. Was Loki implying that this was some kind of—ability? Clint had just boringly thought he was losing his marbles. But if he didn’t lie to himself, he didn’t feel like he was losing his grip on reality. More like reality was turning out stranger than expected.

Loki’s fingers came back, brushing Clint’s neck this time. “You’re exhausted.”

It didn’t feel out of place. The touch was casual and fond, almost familiar, like they’d been friends for a very long time, maybe from birth. Clint was ashamed to feel his throat tighten.

“I… I work most nights,” he answered hoarsely. He felt bad talking about his pathetic life with this sharp-edged, elven-like vision. “I just… come up here when I need to breathe. Y’know?”

“Yes.” Loki’s smile was bitter. He drew back his hand, then brought his knees up and wrapped his arms around them. “You know, it’s rather stupid, but it's my Bifrost station I'll miss the most. I liked the idea of people listening.”

Clint looked at him.

“What are they going to do to you?”

“Something rather appropriate for a silvertongue, I must admit.”

He would have been good at masking his anxiety beneath aristocratic composure, if not for the fact that Clint could feel the erratic beating of his heart and the cold in his limbs. It made him dizzy. Natalia, back in the bar, had been like that, too. And Bruce even more so.

Loki took a sharp intake of breath and lifted up his head.

“But look,” he said, “the sun is rising.”

It was true. The grey remains of the night were dissolving into liquid gold.

“To see this—to be here with you, when a minute ago I was alone and blind—it must mean something.”

For a second Clint couldn’t see anything at all. He could feel the coldness of stone all around him and the thin mattress of a cot under his body. There was a stale smell in the air. His hearing—well, definitely not his hearing, since he didn’t even have his aids in—picked up steps coming towards him from an echoing corridor.

“Go,” Loki said, “don’t stay for this,” and Clint’s eyes blinked open to full daylight.

 

*

 

James’ passport was American and said his name was Arnold Roth. He repeated it in his head while he looked at the tiny picture. Underneath the plastic he looked pale and gaunt. The name didn’t sound like his. But then again, James only barely did.

Arnold Roth was an expatriated robotics engineer, which explained his state-of-the-art prosthetic. Arnold Roth was visiting his family in DC, which explained that he traveled light. Arnold Roth had a rare cardiac disease, which explained the number of prescription pills securely packed in his little bag.

James had already swallowed one, in the car that had dropped him off at the airport. It was the standard procedure after a briefing; and long missions required a daily dosage to keep him focused. As always, the pills were very efficient that way, stripping his thoughts down to the bare bones. Now there was nothing unnecessary on his mind. He just went through the motions.

Of course, he had been searched and scanned at the gate, because of his prosthetic. It moved in an eerily natural way but it wasn’t any deadlier than James’ human hand—which actually meant that it was quite deadly, but the customs officers needn’t know. They’d let him go in the end, naturally. Arnold Roth had been in a car accident in his youth. Arnold Roth did not intend to hijack a plane. Arnold Roth was a very nice man.

A call in German, then in English, rang out for the passengers to DC. James got to his feet and shuffled in line, adjusting his bag on his shoulder.

He had a seat by the window. The seat right next to him was empty, and in the one after that was a girl, with a head of wild brown curls and an All-American jacket, cursing in Spanish as she dug into her bag for headphones. James closed his eyes and pretended to sleep so she wouldn’t talk to him. He was not supposed to talk to anyone unless it was directly related to his mission.

The plane was moving. James let the acceleration of take-off press him back into his seat and kept his eyes closed. Eleven hours until landing.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Lufthansa flight number LH616 to Washington DC. We remind you that this is a non-smoking flight—”

“Jesus fuck, warn a guy,” said a voice next to him.

James reopened his eyes.

The seat next to him was now occupied by a man with wild dark hair and a short trimmed beard. He looked at James indignantly. “And seriously, did you have to fly coach? Where’s your leg room?”

Anxiety spiked into James’ chest. No. This was not supposed to happen anymore. He thought the pills would keep this from happening.

“Hey,” said the dark-haired man. “Who the fuck are you anyway?”

Go away. James screwed his eyes shut. Go away, go away, go away!

When he reopened them, there was no one in the seat next to him. But his hands were shaking. His thoughts were racing. He was not supposed to think.

He suddenly unbuckled himself and got up. “Excuse me,” he said hoarsely, and the girl let him through. He shouldn’t have done that—attracted attention—talked to her for no reason. And he’d spoken in English. Why not German or Spanish? English came naturally to him and he didn’t know why. James was an English-sounding name and he thought it was his but he didn’t know why.

He shouldn’t think. He shouldn’t think.

James walked up the narrow alley to the tiny toilet. The folding door felt cardboard-thin, and creaked when he opened it. He locked it behind him. This was not too strange. People got sick on airplanes. He had not acted outside of situational parameters.

In the mirror his reflection was disheveled, and stared back with red-rimmed eyes. He fished his silver pill case in his pocket and opened it with shaky fingers, taking out two. He would risk it if it would just keep his thoughts quiet.

When he looked up, he froze. The face in the mirror was still disheveled and still had red-rimmed eyes, but it wasn’t his anymore. It was a small man with curly hair and soft eyes, who’d apparently just put his shirt on and blinked owlishly at James over the collar. There was a half-peeled nametag on his chest saying DR. BANNER.

He finished tugging his shirt down, absently took the name tag off and stuffed it down his pocket. Then turned the silver case in James’ hand to look at the tiny imprint codes on the pills. LR17-DF9-BH1F.

“Hm,” he said. “I’ve tried that, too, you know. I thought if I could just suppress my emotions it’d fix everything.”

The cabin walls were humming. James stared.

“But it just makes them harder to control when they do come out. And believe me, they will,” Banner went on with a rueful smile. “Where did you find this, anyway? It’s full of benzodiazepine, they took it off the market ages ago. There were bad side effects… Amnesia, confusion…”

Someone knocked on the door. “Sir? Are you alright?”

James startled and dropped the pills he’d taken out.

“I’m fine ,” he answered in German, pocketing the pill case. “I’m coming out.”

He got out of the toilet and smiled sheepishly at the flight attendant, then went back to his seat, disturbing again the girl with headphones and an All-American jacket.

He sat down, still shivering, and closed his eyes, desperately praying for sleep. He should just sleep. Think of nothing.

There was a shift and a change of light behind his eyelids. It could have been a dream unreeling to a start. But he knew it wasn’t.

 

When he cautiously blinked his eyes open, he found himself on a busy street, everything around him bright with saturated colors. The sky was a humid blue with plump white clouds. The wet pavement glistened under his feet.

And on his right was Steve.

“You’ll have fun,” said a black man walking by Steve’s side.

James could feel the sun on his skin—or the memory of it. He could not help the wonder he felt whenever he visited Steve in his world. So much sensation. The air was fresh and free in his lungs, pleasantly chill with the smell of recent rain.

“C’mon,” the black man was saying, “it’s Saturday, and you can’t say you don’t need to unwind. Besides, you don’t have a tumor! We’re celebrating!”

“I’m a terrible singer, Sam,” Steve muttered.

“Karaoke is all about terrible singing.”

“Maybe, but there’s terrible singing and then there’s—oh.”

He’d seen James.

James just looked at him, drinking it all in, the look of Steve and the sun on Steve’s skin, and the wind in Steve’s hair. Part of him had wished this wouldn’t happen again, he knew. But it all seemed so insignificant now, his fear completely removed from this bright place full of life.

“What?” Sam asked. Then his eyebrows raised. “Is it…?”

“Ah… yeah. He’s… right here, yeah.” Steve ducked his head, then looked at Sam pleadingly. “You’re sure you can’t see him?”

Sam patted his shoulder. “Sorry, man.” Then his dark eyes sparkled. “But hey, that don’t mean he can’t come along! Yo, Steve’s vision,” he yelled in James’ approximate direction, “you into karaoke?”

Steve looked at James expectantly. Even though this Sam person had literally just declared James wasn’t there, Steve still looked at him, like his opinion on karaoke was determinant to the course of the day.

It was very easy not to think, now. James’ panic and wariness were gone. After all, he had eleven hours to kill. And he wanted to go to karaoke with Steve, even though he only had a very faint notion of what karaoke was. He must have known once, and then forgotten about it.

“I’d like that. I think,” he said hopefully.

Steve kept looking at him, his lips parted.

“So?” prompted Sam. “What’d he say?”

Steve startled and looked away. He clearly felt ridiculous, but smiled anyway for some reason, maybe precisely because he was embarrassed.

“He said yes. Happy now?”

Sam whooped and tugged him along. “Steve’s vision knows what’s up! C’mon, let’s go. It’s gonna be a hell of a night!”

 

*

 

Natasha had spent her first day in Moscow withdrawing cash from various sleeper accounts, moving around town as to never withdraw too big a sum from the same machine. At the end of the day, she had gathered a small fortune in roubles and dollars. She rented a room in a ratty little hotel and went to sleep.

She spent her second day in Moscow shopping. She headed back to the classier neighborhoods and bought herself Gucci sunglasses, a heavy silver fur coat, a pair of nude pumps, and lots of expensive clothes. Then she headed to the Baltschug Kempinski Hotel, which had to be the snazziest hotel around. Nobody asked her any superfluous questions: she was pretty, she’d booked the royal suite, and when she spoke English, it was with an American accent.

That is how you secure a cover, little girl.

Now she had a room to herself—well-guarded, too; she knew for a fact several Mafiya heads rented rooms at the Kempinski. She had wifi that could not be traced to anybody in particular: more than a hundred people used it every day. She had old money, a new name, and room service.

All that she needed to focus on finding out exactly who, now, shared her mind.

She’d done her best not to indulge in the subconscious call of her clustermates while she prepared her nest—and she was surprised to discover it hurt. Her mind longed to meld with its siblings. She could not help getting flashes of sensation, whiffs of extraneous smells, odd tastes filling her mouth at odder moments. On that third morning, when she woke up in her five-star hotel room, she finally realized she wanted nothing more than to give in to the pull.

Even though she’d been preparing for this, the thought scared her. These people—they were people, not like her, never completely like her. When she had met the curly-haired doctor in the desert, she’d fallen back on her favorite cover persona, the nice girl who wanted to be friends with everybody. But could she keep it up, when they shared a mind?

Maybe she was not ready to do this now after all. Maybe she should go for a shower instead.

 

As she stepped into the bathtub, a bright red drop splattered the white tile. Her first thought was that she had been injured without noticing— sedated? —and a spike of adrenaline raced through her system before she looked twice and realized what was happening.

“Oh.” She slipped two fingers between her thighs, and they came out crimson. “Oh. Wow.”

The Red Room had all its hunters on hormonal implants to suppress menstruation. It was true that she’d been overdue for a physical; now nobody would ever give it to her. She was back to bleeding freely.

Now that she knew, she recognized the pain in her abdomen for what it was—she was so used to ignoring her discomfort, she hadn’t even consciously acknowledged it until now. It hurt in a deep, diffuse way, spreading in her lower back and weighing her down like lead. She liked even this. It was her pain, and it did not even signal anything wrong or life-threatening. It filled her with a stupid, joyous little rush of power, to bleed and to hurt without being wounded.

She took a quick shower and folded a hand towel to put in her panties. Then she called the room service to ask them for tampons, but also caviar, smoked salmon, and vodka—she wanted to celebrate, and the fact that this was not exactly breakfast food did not bother her in the slightest. When the food arrived, she gave the steward a ridiculous tip, then took the platter from his hands and shut the door in his face.

For a moment, she stood in the middle of the room, with the platter in her hands, unsure what to do. Her mind was cluttered with plans, and uncertainties, and hopes. She needed it clearer.

The only way she know how to do it was to clear the room itself. She set the food on the floor, then moved the furniture out of the way so she’d have a big wide space.

“Alright,” she said, sitting down cross-legged and pouring herself a glass of vodka. “Let’s see who shows up for a drink.”

The first sip settled down her nerves; the second one numbed the pain in her loins; the third one deepened her breathing.

She leaned back and closed her eyes. Nothing happened, but letting her thoughts drift was pleasant enough.

In hindsight, destroying the Red Room so thoroughly had been a mistake. She’d cut off all of her ties to the rest of the Khah; precious intel gone up in smoke. But of course, at the time, she expected to vanish with them. Sometimes she was still surprised at finding herself still alive. She wasn’t sure it would go on for long.

As far as the Khah was concerned, though, the Russian hunters were all dead. Before she could move against them, Natasha had to know who they were going to target next. Which meant she needed to find out about the entirety of her own group.

She’d jotted down a short list in her mind. Steve Rogers. Bruce Banner. Clint Barton. Looking them up on the Internet was too risky, even from the anonymity of her hotel room. She knew the Khah was regularly scanning those channels, and it was probable they had already found out about their newborn cluster. She didn’t need the Internet, anyway. She knew there were more of them; she could feel it. But it was all so muddled still. Their birth was so recent.

She exhaled, deeply. When she reopened her eyes, there was no one else in the room.

Her disappointment was cut short by an excited voice behind her. “Holy shit!”

She took a deep breath, then looked over her shoulder.

“Hi, Clint.”

Clint, who’d been looking out the window, turned to her with a huge smile. “It’s the fucking Kremlin out there!”

“Yes. I thought you’d enjoy the view.”

“I’ve never been to Russia before! Oh, hey—He saw what she was eating, and his eyes widened. “Salmon and caviar?”

“Just a light snack. Help yourself.”

“Don’t mind if I fuckin’ do .” Clint sat down next to the platter, then dipped a finger in the caviar, because he apparently had no manners whatsoever. He was about to get a taste when he stopped and reconsidered. “Is this gonna… y’know. Work?”

“One way to find out,” she said.

Clint smiled shyly, as if realizing he was acting like an overexcited child. He gave it a try, closing his eyes.

“I can taste it. But it’s more like… a memory?”

Natasha let herself be permeated by him—and found herself in a minuscule apartment. Out the window, the sun was setting; neon lights were beginning to blink to life in the distance. In the other room, a dark-haired girl was making bacon and humming to herself.

“Your girlfriend?” she guessed.

Clint wrinkled his nose. “No. God, no. Kate is, like, nine years old. Nah, she’s just… a friend. A kid. An apprentice? I don’t know, it’s… we’re circus partners.”

“You work in the circus?”

“I wish,” he said, and for a moment there was something bitter in his eyes. But then his sunny expression returned. “I perform for kids at a Vegas hotel, and I’ve got another gig in a casino, but mostly I’m a stripper.”

“This I would like to see.”

He laughed. “Well, my shift at the Diamond starts in…” He checked his phone. “Roughly six hours. You’re welcome to show up.”

“Maybe I will.”

They smiled at each other, and then—it was like watching your image desynchronize itself in the mirror; whatever linked them faltered, and the connection was lost.

Natasha exhaled, then closed her eyes and focused again. It made sense that her mind would follow well-worn paths; she expected to see Steve or Bruce next.

 

It took almost two hours.

“Um. Hi? You’re early.”

Natasha reopened her eyes. In front of her was a tall white building—CIRCUS CIRCUS, proclaimed giant red letters on its side. Clint was just getting out of his car, wearing only a purple shirt, jeans and flip-flops. He’d slung a bowcase and quiver over his shoulder.

“Miscalculation,” she said. She squinted up at the building. The skies were now dark. “Go to work. I’m sorry.”

She opened her eyes to Moscow again, frustrated, then closed them. Focus, focus, focus.

 

Another two hours. It was infuriating, like not being able to fall asleep, tossing and turning. She’d managed so easily the first times. Why couldn’t she do it now?

“Oh—um, hi.”

The sudden splash of warm water made her startle. When she blinked her eyes open under the stream of the shower, Clint stood inches from her; he made a vague move to cover himself with the loofah, then gave up.

“Hello again,” Natasha said helplessly.

“Clint?” said a voice outside the shower stall, so muffled Natasha couldn’t hear what it said next.

“Can’t hear you, Wanda, no hearing aids,” Clint called, before turning to Natasha again. “Is everything cool?”

“I’m sorry, I—” She made a frustrated gesture. “I can’t seem to reach anyone else.”

“I don’t think you’re supposed to try,” Clint said. “It’s stuff that just... happens, you know?”

“What do you know?”

“What do you know?”

The voice called again—they couldn’t make the words out, but it sounded worried.

“Goddammit, Wanda, just let me talk to myself in peace!” Clint yelled. He turned back to Natasha. “Who have you reached yet?”

“You, Steve, and Bruce…”

“You’ve met Bruce too?” Clint said excitedly.

“Yes.” Natasha pushed a wet strand of hair away from her face. “I think he’s in trouble.”

“Yeah. Last I heard, he got into Mexico.”

“He did?” The force of her own relief surprised her. “I’m… happy to hear that.”

They stared at each other for a second, amidst the trickle of water all around them.

Clint looked over his shoulder, then lowered his voice. “How many of us do you think there are?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been trying to find out all day. But I guess our bond won’t be rushed.”

“It’s getting stronger, though.” Clint watched her for a moment. “You do know what’s going on.”

Her lips twisted into a despondent smile. “I do know that this is for real.”

“S’what a hallucination would say,” Clint said with a lopsided grin. Then he added, softly, “But I want to believe.”

He raised a hand; droplets of water hung onto his fingertips. “Can I…?”

She said nothing, and he touched her shoulder, thumb skimming over her clavicle, over her shirt, then over bare skin. It made her shiver, even though the water was very warm. Natasha was no virgin, but this kind of intimacy—this reverent, hesitant sort of touch, in the wet heat of the confined shower stall—it was not something she knew.

Clint’s grey eyes flicked to her lips; he was obviously wondering what it would be like to kiss her. Natasha couldn’t help but wonder, too. This weird, carefree American was her soulmate. Would it feel good, to kiss him? To make love to him? Through their bond, and then for real?

She thought her life had made her impervious to attraction of any kind, but Clint felt both safe—like family, like home—and exhilarating like a summer love.

“I—” He drew back his hand and smiled, bashfully. “I’m being a creep, aren’t I?”

She couldn’t help smiling back. “I’m the one who showed up under your shower.”

“Clint,” the woman from before called again, and at the same moment, pain stabbed at Natasha’s abdomen. Fucking period. She was not kicked away from Clint like last time, but the connection had weakened and they both felt it.

“Wait—” Despite his own advice to let it happen naturally, Clint was mentally clinging to the bond. “Natalia, wait, there’s so many things—”

“Natasha,” she said, without thinking.

He blinked. “What?”

“You called me Natasha, that first time. I think I like it better.”

The next second, he was gone, and she was back in her hotel room.

Let it happen.

But there was no time for that.

 

*

 

Tony poured another finger of whiskey into his glass and stared hard at Obadiah Stane’s flash drive lying on the floor, five feet away from him.

Building a collider, when you were Tony Stark, did not take that long. Now he was back to watching this fucking piece of plastic and he couldn’t help feeling like it was watching him right back. Pepper’s words were pushing at the resistance in his brain, trying to make themselves heard.

“Sir,” Jarvis piped up, uncharacteristically hesitant. “Shall we—proceed?”

Tony scrubbed a hand over his face. “Proceed, J?”

“With the actual colliding. Sir. In order to produce a sufficient quantity of vibranium, filings of palladium must be spun for a time exceeding—”

“We’ve still got time for that,” Tony mumbled.

He had to replace his reactor’s core before he could do anything. So until he’d replaced it, he didn’t have to do anything. Flawless reasoning, if he did say so himself.

“Sir, I must disagree,” Jarvis said.

Tony didn’t know if he’d spoken out loud or if Jarvis was just answering to his previous statement. He sat heavily on the ground, sloshing the contents of his glass, and stared at the flash drive some more. After he watches its content, he could never go back. No denying Obadiah was behind all this. No more

“You know,” said another voice, “procrastination is just like masturbation. You only fuck yourself in the end.”

Tony craned his neck up and saw a guy with sandy hair sitting casually on top of one of the coils of the collider. Tony could see the way the light caught something sparkly on his skin. Body glitter?

“And who the fuck are you?” Tony felt like a broken record at this point.

“Clint.” The man was staring at Tony with odd intensity. “And you’re Tony Stark.”

“The one and only.” Tony gave a mock salute and raised his glass to his lips, but paused before taking a drink. Clint was still staring, and he didn’t look leery or tight-lipped as people usually did when they got confirmation of Tony’s identity. Instead, his expression was one of incredulous wonder.

“Dude. You’re the reason I survived long enough to see adulthood. Well—your mom’s foundation is.”

Tony sat up. “The Maria Stark Foundation? You were an orphan?”

“Still am, technically. They don’t really come back once they achieve ‘Death Level,’ ya know?”

“Touché,” Tony muttered, going for a sip.

“I guess you would know. My bad.”

Again, Tony stopped himself from drinking. He glanced up from his glass and really looked at Clint, who blinked back at him.

“Who are you?” Tony said again.

“I’m your... soulmate? Spiritual twin? I think? I’m new to this whole thing. It’s kinda trippy.”

“You know, I’ve had hallucinations before, but they used to make more sense.”

“I’m real. Look me up, dude. My name’s Clinton Francis Barton, I live in Vegas. Please call me Clint, though.”

“Clinton Barton who lives in Vegas,” Tony repeated sarcastically. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound made up at all.”

Clint didn’t even look offended, just shifted to sit more comfortably. “I can tell this is real. It’s getting clearer every time. I can tell you’re sore from sitting on the floor. I can tell you’re cold and tired and drinking too much.”

Tony just stared.

Clint wrinkled his nose at the tumbler in his hand. “Seriously, you… Look, I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I don’t like being this drunk, and you know it’s not actually gonna...” He ran a hand through his short hair. “Ah, fuck, I’m shit at pep talks. Bruce could probably do better.”

“Bruce?” Tony repeated, blinking up.

“Yeah!” Clint brightened. “You know him too?”

“Bruce Banner?”

“I don’t know his last name. Just that he’s in trouble.”

“He got into Mexico,” Tony said automatically.

“I know. I know that!” Clint was grinning. “Guess we’re all watching his back, huh? That’s good.”

“Sir?” Jarvis inquired anxiously.

It was like snapping out of a dream. All of a sudden, there was no one else in the room.

Tony just sat there and listened to his own heavy breathing. Had he been actually dozing off? Daydreaming? In a drunken haze? It would make sense. It was the only thing that made sense.

“Jarvis,” he rasped after a while. “Was I… was there anyone in here? With me? Just now?”

“Sir,” Jarvis began much too cautiously, “If you would…”

“Ah, you know what, never mind.” With a fortified breath, he downed the whiskey in one go for courage, then snatched the drive off the floor. “Start the colliding process. I’ve got files to read.”

 

He didn’t want to read the files in his workshop, as if to keep it free from the tainted reality he was about to face. The strong humming of the collider would have distracted him anyway. So he went upstairs—fully aware that Jarvis would send an alert to let people know he’d gotten out of his workshop at long last—and plugged in the drive.

Pepper arrived twenty minutes later.

“Oh, Tony,” she said when she found him there, sitting at the computer and crying.

It made him want to cry even more. Instead, he grimaced a smile and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “I’m fine,” he said, then scoffed wetly. “I mean, should’ve seen it coming, right? I took Obie’s company, I took his legacy. It just makes sense.”

“No,” Pepper said softly, “it makes no sense at all.”

Tony clenched his jaw not to start bawling again. Jesus, he was usually in better control of his emotions. He had a weird stomach ache, too, an oddly lazy pain weighing down the small of his back. A side effect of palladium poisoning?

Jesus fuck, but everything was just going to shit right now. He tried to keep his hands from starting to shake again.

“We’ll drag him to court.” Pepper’s voice was like steel on steel. “We’ve got proof.”

Pain lanced at Tony’s abdomen and he tried not to wince. “He’ll say I faked it all. God knows I have the technology. He’ll say I faked it to feed my own paranoia. He’ll say Afghanistan made me lose it. Hell, he’s been saying it since I got back. This time, I’ll lose the board for good and there’s nothing I can—”

“Tony,” Pepper said, with a hint of concern. “Are you in pain right now?”

Tony stared at her, wondering how the hell she knew. Then he glanced down at himself, noticing that he’d been absently rubbing at his chest. He’d very neatly avoided his nipples, however, instinctively knowing they were too sensitive to touch. Which was a very odd and specific symptom of palladium poisoning, now that he thought about it.

“Uh, just—just a little sore. Nothing to worry about.” He dropped his hand and tried to smile, then got up. “I’m just gonna…”

He was about to walk past her when she grabbed his hand. “Tony. He’s not going to get away with it.” She squeezed his fingers. “I promise.”

Tony couldn’t remember the last time someone had held his hand. And Pepper—she’d always been a good employee, but this was beyond professional loyalty. She’d taken an immense risk to retrieve the files from Obie’s office, and she was now basically telling Tony that she would stay by his side on a sinking ship.

In Tony’s world, profit always came first. No friendship, no love, no promises ever held in the face of it. Obadiah was the cruelest example yet—he’d promised Howard he’d take care of Tony should anything happen; he’d loved Tony like a son; and he’d been one of Tony’s best friends during his adult life. All of it—blown to dust because Tony was trying to steer Stark Industries towards a direction Obadiah didn’t like .

But every time Tony began to believe, really believe, that everything was rotten and nothing could be saved, Pepper stood in the way of despair. How could she be so loyal? And more importantly—how could she be so loyal to him? He knew he was a bad boss, and he knew he hadn’t ever done anything to warrant her respect.

“You don’t make any sense, you know that?” he said hoarsely.

Pepper’s eyebrows knitted together. She didn’t understand; she was waiting for him to explain. But Tony, for once, had no words left. He felt such an unbearable, aching swell of fondness for her it pushed fresh tears out of his eyes; and without thinking he stepped forward, wrapped both arms around her willowy figure and hugged her tight.

He heard her inhale sharply in surprise; but then she tentatively hugged him back, one hand coming up to stroke at his hair. It was all Tony could do to not squeeze too tightly. He never wanted to let go. It felt so good. She smelled like freesia.

He let out a shuddery breath, then realized what he was doing and snatched away. “I—uh.” He stepped back several steps. “I’m—sorry. I’m really sorry. I don’t know what I—”

“Tony—” She was obviously startled. “It’s fine.”

“Nope, it’s fine,” Tony said nonsensically, backing out of the room, “you can start with a battle plan, we’re definitely going after him—going to court maybe? I’ll let you figure it out—just gotta go back to, you know, got something brewing in the—” and then was in the elevator and the doors closed around him.

He thumped his head against the wall and put his hands over his face. He didn’t know what the fuck that had been about, but he still felt like weeping, and on top of it all he was now craving chocolate ice cream.

“Oh, God,” he muttered, scrubbing grit out of his eyes. “I really am going crazy.”

“Perhaps not,” Jarvis said.

“Yeah, thanks for the positive thinking, J, but I don’t—”

“Sir, if you would please look up.”

Wearily, Tony made himself glance up at the holographic display Jarvis had put up for him.

And then he froze.

“That’s—”

"The Facebook profile of Clinton Francis Barton, currently residing in Las Vegas, Nevada.”

Tony stared for a solid minute.

There was no mistaking the sandy hair and lopsided smile.

“Holy fuck,” he said eventually.

And then, as it really sank in, he whispered again slowly, “Holy fuck.”

 

*

 

James followed Steve for the entire day.

At times Steve would think he was gone, but then he’d catch him out of the corner of his eye, walking a few paces behind him on the street, looking at everything with wondering eyes. The weirdest part was that he was obviously trying to be discreet—which, for a hallucination, seemed rather counterproductive. Several times, Steve caught himself on the brink of inviting him to join their group of friends instead of trailing behind, but then he remembered that no one but Sam knew about James, and that James wasn’t real anyway.

Said unreal person was currently busy poking at cheap souvenirs in a gift shop, looking absolutely fascinated by them. When he glanced up, he met Steve’s eyes; for a moment he just froze, then he gave Steve a small, apologetic smile and ducked behind a postcard rack, in an obvious effort to stay out of his way.

“I really am going crazy,” muttered Steve.

“You say anything, Rogers?” slurred Morita, who was already pretty drunk.

“Nothing,” sighed Steve.

He usually didn’t drink but was seriously considering it, just for tonight. It was the whole point of bar-hopping, after all, and as a cop, he didn’t often get a night out.

So he was seeing things. He was tentatively beginning to believe that maybe he could live with it. Maybe this didn’t have to be a major problem. The problem was that James wasn’t making any sense. If Steve was going to have schizophrenia—because that must be it, right?—then he shouldn’t be seeing James, who looked like nothing Steve could have ever imagined, with his soft curved mouth, his crinkled eyes and his sharp, handsome features.

And here Steve’s thoughts were taking an uncomfortable turn again. Every time he tried to steer them away from that specific track, his mind would only stretch so far before it snapped back to the unavoidable evidence. Steve was more lost and confused than ever. Hallucinating James was problematic enough, but being attracted to him was another matter entirely.

Maybe he just needed to get laid. Hell, maybe his subconscious was trying to tell him he’d repressed something about himself all these years. It was possible, he supposed, and it wasn’t like he was having a problem with it—only, just, maybe, that it was very new. But it wasn’t likely.

Nothing about James was likely.

“You okay, man?” Sam said.

Steve realized he’d been ducking his head and frowning at the ground; he quickly looked up and gave him a smile. “Yeah, I’m—I’m good.”

And then he ruined it by looking over his shoulder at the gift shop. James was gone. For a second, a strange mix of relief and disappointment made Steve’s chest clench—but then he spotted James a few feet away, studiously reading a historical plaque on the side of a building. Steve huffed a wry laugh and shook his head.

“What’s on your mind?” Sam said quietly.

“I—” Steve said. Sam had obviously seen right through him, and so Steve didn’t try to pretend otherwise. “I just… It’s weird. He’s right here, he’s been here all day, but he’s staying away because he knows he’s… confusing me.”

Confusing was a loaded word. Steve flushed hot despite himself, and tried again to think of anything else. Sam was dealing with enough of his baggage already, and Steve would like some things about his fraying sense of self to remain private.

Sucking a sharp breath through his teeth, he ducked his head again. “But I don’t—it’s okay, I don’t really wanna talk about it. We’re supposed to be having a fun night out.”

“Ah, don’t worry,” Sam said, clasping his shoulder, “pretty sure karaoke will help take him off your mind.”

Steve froze for a very different reason. He hadn’t paid attention, lost inside his own head; but their bar-hopping down the street had finally brought them to the dreaded karaoke bar.

Well, gotta cross that bridge eventually, he thought dejectedly. As the guys whooped and clambered into the place, Steve suddenly wondered if James was going to come in with them. He looked around, slowing down, but Morita tugged him by the sleeve.

“No chickening out, c’mon!”

“No, I just—” Steve spotted a golden-haired girl by the door, chatting with a blind man; he vaguely gestured at her. “Just give me a minute.”

The door closed on them all, but not before he’d heard Dugan laugh boisterously and shout that Rogers was getting started early.

Okay. He had a few minutes before Sam wondered if—

“Sorry,” said the golden-haired girl, startling him. “You’re going to have to go in there eventually, I’m afraid.”

The blind man next to her winced. “Yes, disliking karaoke never seems to count as a valid excuse.”

Steve looked at them both. And what he saw, unavoidably, was this: she was gorgeous, and so was he. This could not be hallucinated. Could it? It sat, solid like proof, in the pit of Steve’s stomach. This wasn’t just about visions; something fundamental about him had changed in the past three days.

That vertiginous feeling was what decided him. Evidently, ignoring it would not make it go away.

“You’re right,” he said, “it’s time to stop running,” and then he walked away, heading for the street corner.

As soon as he’d turned it, James was there.

“I’m sorry,” he said quickly, backing away like he expected Steve to hit him. “I’ve tried not being here, but it’s not working, I—”

“It’s… look, it’s fine,” Steve said.

And, he realized, it really was. To be near James was like standing close to a fire; Steve’s doubts and confusion evaporated, leaving only tingling warmth. Not to mention this strange, aching empathy tugging at him. Whether James was real or not, whatever his presence meant , Steve didn’t want him to be alone anymore.

Without thinking, he reached out and grabbed his hand. It felt like a weight off his shoulders—Christ, he’d wanted to do this all day.

“Come into the bar with us. God knows I’ll need someone to cheer me on.”

James looked absolutely taken aback for a second; then he smiled with childlike happiness. “Really?”

Steve couldn’t help smiling back. He really should have done this hours earlier. “Yeah,” he said, huffing a derisive laugh, “I think you’re here to stay. Come on.”

 

“There he is!” Dugan shouted when Steve walked into the bar, and the rest of his co-workers cheered and catcalled across the room as if he’d shown up naked. He definitely felt like it, and he grimaced a smile as he trudged through the crowd to reach their table.

“What’s the occasion?” James asked, still holding his hand.

“Oh, it’s just Saturday night and my asshole co-workers really want to humiliate me on stage, for some reason.”

“You’re first, man!” Morita laughed. “Thought we’d rip the Band-Aid!”

“That’s actually very thoughtful of you.”

“You get to pick your song, we’re not complete animals,” Sam added, before gesturing at the little karaoke stage. “Go!”

In the middle of all the oddity, this felt extremely normal. Steve still winced as he walked to the platform. He’d never been good on a stage, and the room was full of strangers. Weird how this could disturb him more than the fact that he’d literally just walked up to an hallucination and invited him for drinks.

His palms had started sweating the minute he’d gotten onstage. He grabbed the mike, then pressed the button to flip through the selection of songs. He’d just have to pick something really cheesy that he could mess up without too much shame.

James was peering at the songs over his shoulder. His presence was actually grounding—it gave Steve something else to focus on while he flipped blindly through his weirdly eclectic options.

“Oh—” said James all of a sudden.

Steve paused, then said, “What is it?”

He could afford to talk to him—the room was so loud and busy Steve could have probably yelled at an entire busload of hallucinations without anyone noticing.

James was frowning. “I—I know this song. I think.”

“Which one?” Steve scrolled back up. “This one? M.A.G.I.C by the Sound of Arrows?”

“I… Yeah.”

“Okay then,” Steve said, selecting it without thinking—right before it occurred to him he didn’t know the song at all.

The speakers started blasting strange noises—something like the whistle of a dish antenna swiveling for frequency, along with an oriental-sounding beat. Steve blinked at the lyrics appearing on the screen. Yesterday, I had the longest ever dream…

Oh, Jesus, this was going to be an even bigger disaster than planned. Well, he thought resignedly. Might as well get it over with. He’d have to wing the entire thing…

And then James stepped forward, took the mike, and did it for him.

He had an amazing voice, certain and vibrant, and he seemed to love singing, in a way Steve never could—without any self-consciousness, only genuine joy. He kept his eyes closed, but he let the music flow through his whole body with obvious, contagious enjoyment, never off-beat, never off-key, until the very end of the song.

At which point Steve blinked, and suddenly found himself holding the mike.

“Uh,” he said into it. It reverberated into the silent room.

His co-workers were staring at him. The whole bar was staring at him.

Then everything erupted into applause, and Steve’s friends jumped to their feet to give him a standing ovation.

“Jesus, Rogers!” shouted Dugan over the rest of them, “who knew you could sing like that?”

“You’ve been holding out on us!” Gabe yelled.

Steve dug up a smile and let himself be dragged off the stage and jostled around and offered three drinks at once, but his thoughts were racing.

It was as if James had possessed him. Steve shuddered involuntarily. For a second, he’d stared at his colleagues, at his friends, and he hadn’t known them.

“Excuse me—bathroom,” he said, and trudged away from the table, dodging Sam who looked both truly amazed and deeply unsettled.

The bar was old-school, with a single, one-room toilet, complete with a sink and mirror. Steve closed the door and almost walked right into James when he turned round.

“What—” he hadn’t caught his breath yet. “What was that?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t know I could sing.” James was breathless too, but only with bewildered joy.

The toilet was cramped and they were very close, almost pressed against each other.

“But you… That was…” Steve swallowed and tried to get it together. “James, how did you do that?”

“We shared,” James said, with that wary look back in his eyes.

“Shared?” 

“Right now, we’re—that’s visiting,” he said, pointing back and forth between them. “But we can also share. Like we just did. I think. It’s new for me, too.”

Steve stared at him for a long second.

“James—” He took a second to steady his voice. “James, who are you? What are you?”

But at that moment the floor shifted under his feet, and he stumbled backwards into the door, banging it open—he’d forgotten to lock it.

“Whoa! Hey there, man,” and Sam’s strong grip was around him, helping him stay up, “I got you.”

James was nowhere to be seen, but the floor was still shaking under Steve, in a strangely familiar sensation.

“You alright?” Sam went on.

Steve opened his mouth to answer, then nearly lost his balance again.

“Dude —hey. Wait. Have you been actually drinking for once?”

“Uh, yeah,” Steve said, latching onto the excuse, “I was nervous. About the—the singing. So, on the way here, I thought… I’m not really used to…”

“Okay,” Sam said, sympathy and worry still wrestling in his voice, “let’s bring you back to the table. C’mon.”

Steve sat back down with his friends, who kept congratulating him and slapping him in the back and buying him drinks, but he wasn’t listening to them. The room was still shifting around him. He knew what this was; he recognized the feeling in his gut, now, the impending ground rushing at him.

James was on a moving plane, and the plane was about to land.

 

*

 

T’Challa performed his ablutions in silence, readying himself for the funeral ceremony.

He’d closed the blinds to keep the hot afternoon glare away. The room was so dark, and he was lost so deeply in his thoughts, that he almost didn’t notice when what little light filtered through the blinds vanished completely.

After several seconds of blindness, he finally froze and tilted his head from side to side. His eyes remained sightless.

“Who is this?” he asked under his breath. He did not dare say Father. He did not know why he’d asked this particular question.

A few blinks and the light returned to his eyes. He swallowed, then started washing his hands again.

It happened thrice more as he finished bathing. He did not think it was his father’s spirit after all. Each time, the blindness was not as suffocating as the sense of being trapped, the sound of one’s breath echoing in a narrow room, and the smell of fear.

“Who is this?” T’Challa asked again, every time, and the last time he said, “Tell me how I can help you,” but there was no answer, only those quick, shallow breaths, like those of a terrified animal.

When he left the funeral rooms, Okoye was waiting for him by the door.

“Your Majesty.”

T’Challa wondered how long it would take to get used to his new title. He wished he could have talked to his father one last time. But his father had been devoured by shame, and left him only a letter.

T’Challa did not want to think about the letter.

The umkhapho is about to begin,” Okoye said. “They are all waiting for you.”

He inclined his head in acknowledgment, and that was all.

T’Chaka’s body had been wrapped in the skin of a black panther. It was lightly raining now, which was supposed to be a good omen—the skies parting for the new spirit joining them. T’Challa bowed before the body of his father, then stepped back while the Dora Milaje brought the ox.

It was a strong, flawless beast, snorting nervously in the tense atmosphere, held firmly by the grim-faced women with shaved heads. The gold trimmed in their clothes glinted faintly in the dim light. T’Challa’s ceremonial robe was dampening in the rain, getting heavier on his shoulders.

Okoye led the ox to the altar for the umkhapho. At this moment, T’Challa’s vision failed him again.

All around him, he sensed no longer solemn guests of honor, but an impatient crowd whispering as he walked past. The air was no longer hot and damp, but crisp and light with morning. His arms were lashed behind his back; he stumbled as he walked, led by an iron grip. He was being brought to his knees, then bent backwards over a steel rack, fastened solidly to it. A leather strap held his head in place. A claw-like hand seized his jaw.

He blinked his eyes open when the ox bellowed loudly in the deep silence. Okoye was stepping back, cleaning her blade and sheathing it in a fluid move. Thick, crimson blood pulsed out of the beast. The Dora Milaje stepped forward and set to skinning and dismembering it. As one, the assembly sat down, cross-legged and straight-backed, in solemn silence.

T’Challa was grateful he did not have to stand anymore. His skin was cold and clammy with a terror that wasn’t his. His other self was being—

His other self.

The thought stopped him.

In a feverish rush, his father’s last words came back to him. When the day comes, I only want you to know that yet again, you will have made me proud.

Could this be?

But who was it? What was happening to them, and why must it happen now, while there was nothing T’Challa could do to help? While he could not even afford to give them his full attention?

The ox had been skinned; Okoye was now cutting a strip of meat from its right foreleg. A small fire had already been lit. When the meat was roasted, it would become the intsonyama, the first spoils of the funeral ceremony, for T’Challa to eat.

He felt himself waver—his mind torn in half, a part of him crushed by the enormous revelation of what had happened to him, and the other part desperate to stay in this moment with the spirit of his father, for what little time remained.

The intsonyama was ready. Okoye lifted it from the grill, put it on a plate, and presented it to T’Challa.

It was at this very moment that the pain started.

It was unlike anything T’Challa had ever felt. The Black Panther training was rigorous, and because of it he had broken his share of bones, and sported his share of scars. But what he now experienced was deliberate and gratuitous. A needle—a thick needle of bone—was being pushed through his lips on the left corner of his mouth.

Only through sheer willpower did he manage not to show anything. His other self—his soul-sibling, somewhere on this earth—did not possess such self-control, and thrashed and screamed and sobbed, while the crowd around mumbled with excited bloodthirst.

T’Challa took the plate and lowered his eyes.

“Please,” he breathed as if in prayer, barely moving his aching lips. “Come to me. Come to this painless place and be well.”

But as he said those words, he realized they were a lie. This place was not painless. He and his soul-sibling had nothing but pain to offer each other.

The needle stabbed again at his lips, and T’Challa, feeling the drag of a coarse thread, realized with horror they were being sewn.

Again, he was glad he was sitting down. It took everything he had to recall his own self to the present, and open his mouth—despite his mind screaming at him that it was held shut—to ingest the intsonyama. As per the ritual, the meat had been roasted, but not seasoned; it tasted mostly of blood. Though T’Challa suspected anything would have tasted of blood at the moment.

“Please,” he whispered again. Chewing was a torture. “Talk to me. We are not alone in these trials.”

This time, he heard a laugh, a frantic, breathless laugh, bordering on sobs; but his soul-sibling was in too much pain to speak. T’Challa’s hands wanted to tremble; he did not let them.

At long last, the intsonyama was finished. Now the entire ox was to be cut up, boiled, and shared between all the attendants; only when it was entirely consumed would the umkhapho end. Then the actual burial could take place. Hopefully, by then, the torture would be over. T’Challa did not trust himself to dig a hole while in such pain. By his sides, his hands were clenched into fists so they wouldn’t shake.

A third puncture. He gritted his teeth; tears escaped his eyes, and he hated them, because they were not even tears of grief, and yet he’d cried them at his father’s funeral.

“What good does it do to us?” someone said suddenly. “To suffer together?”

The voice was shaky, on the verge of breaking. On the very edge of his sight, T’Challa could discern a pale figure in green clothing. He could not turn his head to see it better; he could not look away from his father’s body.

There was a fourth puncture, even more unforgiving than the others. On the other side of reality, in front of the crowd, the both of them screamed in pain, so intense and so loud it barely left room to think. T’Challa felt bruises bloom on his skin where they jerked against the restraints.

“This morning,” he said, tears rolling down, “I wished I was not a prince or a king; I wished I was a hired mourner, so I could scream and thrash as my heart commanded.”

On the steel rack, somewhere in the world, he was screaming and thrashing. He closed his eyes for a brief second, burning tears clotting his eyelashes. “So thank you, whoever you are.”

He almost couldn’t believe he had said those words out loud. But if his father’s teachings were to be believed, it was only to himself—to another of his selves—that he was revealing his innermost feelings. Still, it felt like baring his soul, and the feeling sat uneasy in the pit of his stomach.

The figure finally took another step and carefully sat down next to him. T’Challa could not look directly at him, but he still knew him. He’d seen him not two days ago. The coincidence was so enormous he almost did not believe it at first.

“Laufeyson?” he murmured. And then, more hesitantly, “Loki.”

Loki gave a thin smile, staring ahead. “I was not certain you would know me.” He nodded at the body. “I wish it was my father lying there, and not yours. We’d be both happier for it.”

A fifth puncture. Loki was almost too exhausted to scream, now. This was his punishment for the bombings. T’Challa felt sick.

“I must apologize for disturbing you in this time of mourning,” Loki said quietly.

T’Challa shook his head by half an inch. “You are the sibling of my soul,” he murmured, “and welcome everywhere I go.”

He was quoting the soul-sibling lore, and half-expected it to be dismissed, but Loki fell silent, as if not expecting any sort of welcome.

A final puncture point. It was over. The pain was indescribable, but the sheer, malicious cruelty of it was what nauseated T’Challa the most.

Loki finally spoke again, sounding as if he’d had to unlock his jaw. “Thank you.”

They were the same in this moment—both suffering and desperate not to let it show, though it was already obvious to all; both unsettled by the intimacy of sharing such naked pain; and yet perhaps, both thankful not to be alone.

“What will happen to you now?” T’Challa asked, under his breath.

But only silence answered him; Loki was gone. The assembly was rising to their feet. The umkhapho was over. It was time to dig the grave.

 

The burial took time and the ensuing reception took longer. It was close to midnight when T’Challa stepped into his private rooms with dull relief, rich dark soil clinging to the soles of his feet, stuck under his nails.

“I do not want to be disturbed,” he told Okoye. “Not before morning.”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

For a second, Okoye looked like she wanted to do something foolish, like step forward and hug him. But then she only bowed her head and said, “I am at your Majesty’s service, from this day until the end of my days.”

“I know,” T’Challa said softly. He wanted to do something foolish as well, but only turned away.

He was not surprised to find the cardboard box on his bed. His father had said Nicholas Fury’s files would be his to parse, if he chose to fight. T’Challa was full of anger and grief, of confusion and pain. There was nothing he wanted more than to fight.

He took a folder out of the box and opened it; a picture immediately slipped out and fell to the floor. He went to pick it up, then realized what it was and sat down instead, suddenly without strength.

When could this have been taken? Maybe ten years ago. T’Chaka looked so young. Next to him, a man with pale hair—probably Erik Selvig. Next was a tiny Chinese woman who gave the camera a thin, lopsided grin: Gao Chang Wu. Next were a couple holding hands, both of them fair-skinned and dark-haired, both grinning bright toothy grins. Maria Carbonell and Howard Stark. Finally, a tall, good looking-man, with dark blond hair and wide blue eyes. Alexander Pierce.

And next to him, standing apart from the others—

T’Challa reared back when a gunshot exploded in his ears. Nicholas Fury. The man who had killed himself in DC so Alexander Pierce would not take him.

My second father, T’Challa realized shakily. His own reaction made it clear: Fury had opened the path for the new generation—T’Challa’s generation—to be born. Right before he killed himself to escape the clutches of Alexander Pierce, his own sibling.

T’Challa brought the box down on the floor with him and flipped through the files. One of them stood out, the paper visibly new. It was a copy of a police report on Nicholas Fury’s death, case closed as a suicide. One of the detectives in charge had written down by hand: despite lingering doubts.

On impulse, T’Challa dialed the number and let it ring, belatedly wondering what time it could be in Washington DC.

“Detective Steve Rogers, how can I help you?”

There was a beat before T’Challa realized he’d been addressed in his native tongue.

“I’m sorry—you are speaking Xhosa?” he asked carefully.

Rogers sounded puzzled. “What? No, I —” And then he lowered the phone and looked straight at T’Challa—from across the ocean—from across the room.

Struck silent with emotion, T’Challa could only stare.

Rogers was a tall, well-built man, with blond hair, pale skin and big, confused blue eyes. Some part of T’Challa felt humbled at this new manifestation of his rebirth, but mostly his skin was crawling with a feeling of violation. No one entered his private rooms, not even Okoye, and certainly not strangers and foreigners.

Rogers seemed petrified. He suddenly turned round and called across his police precinct, “Hey, Wilson!”

Suddenly T’Challa was plunged into the distant ringing of work phones, the smell of paper and printer ink, of sweat and plastic. It was almost more disturbing than visiting Loki on the rack, because his blindness hadn’t left T’Challa much leisure to examine his surroundings.

A man with cropped hair crossed the room, eyebrows raised in questioning.

“Can you take this for a second?” Rogers asked.

The man’s brow furrowed, but he still said, “Sure,” and took the phone. When he spoke, T’Challa heard him, both through Rogers’ ears and through his own. “Hello?”

“Hello,” T’Challa said in English. For a few seconds, he did not know what to say. “I must speak to Detective Rogers, please.”

Wilson blinked, then shrugged, handing Rogers the phone again. “Guy says he wants to speak to you. What gives?”

Rogers stared at him for a long, fascinated while. Then he picked up the phone. “Thanks, I… I’ll explain later, Sam—thank you. Thanks.” He put it to his ear again, but said nothing.

He looked up at T’Challa, from within his dark rooms, and lowered the phone.

“You are real,” he said, his voice too calm. “All of you are real, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” T’Challa answered with his heart in his throat. “All of us.”

Rogers was silent for a long while.

“What is this?” he asked at last.

“My culture calls it soul siblinghood.” Umoya ibhondi, he’d said, because he was speaking Xhosa again; but Rogers understood. “Our minds have been reborn into this bond.”

“By Nicholas Fury,” Rogers said. “So it wasn’t just suicide.”

T’Challa nodded and got up. “I was calling you to warn you; I suppose the warning is twice as necessary now. Come and see.”

 

Rogers, being an American police officer, took to Fury’s old files like a duck to water. He seemed immensely relieved to finally discover an explanation for what he’d been experiencing, even if it meant upsetting his understanding of the world—and finding himself in mortal danger to boot.

They parsed through the files together. Rogers was frowning more and more as he read. T’Challa felt strange, sharing his father’s last gift with him, interacting with such familiarity with a man he did not know two hours earlier. T’Challa did not think of himself as naïve, but a lifetime of lore had taught him to expect something like a father’s instantaneous and overwhelming love for his newborn child.

This, the sense of losing himself to something greater than him, the grief and the pain and the worry—it was not the wave of serene acceptance he’d expected.

“But I don’t understand,” Rogers’s nauseated voice jarred him out of his thoughts. “Why the procedures? Why—” he had trouble getting the word out, “lobotomize us?”

“I don’t know,” T’Challa said tiredly. “But Pierce kidnapped and killed dozens of our kind already.”

“You mean his Asset did,” Rogers said, looking for the transcript of the right email.

“It is not only one man. The Russian report spoke of hunters, plural.”

“Yeah, but they seem more disposable than him,” Rogers objected. He put the email on a pile and tapped it. “These here say the Asset brought in at least two dozen newborns by himself.”

T’Challa could feel his own dread simmering in the pit of Rogers’ stomach. He said nothing.

“I had a brain scan,” Rogers went on. “Just yesterday. That means he could already be after me.” His voice took a hard edge. “Well, I suppose that’s a good thing. He’ll have no idea I know he’s coming.”

He was a warrior, too, after all. T’Challa looked at him, hoping, wishing for the wave of unadulterated love he’d dreamed about. It did not come, but he felt Rogers’ sincerity and determination, his sheer courage, and a shared will to fight.

It would have to do for now.

“I’m sorry,” Rogers blurted suddenly. “I got so swept up in this, we haven’t really talked or—anything.”

T’Challa just looked at him.

“I mean, this… this is strange,” Rogers went on, scratching the back of his head. “Isn’t it? Even for you, and you were prepared. It’s… it’s frightening, sometimes.” He gave a small smile. “But—kind of exhilarating, too.”

T’Challa closed his eyes for a moment. Then he said, “I am glad it was you.”

Rogers blinked, then smiled again. “And I’m— honored it was you. Really thankful, too. I was starting to think I was going crazy.”

T’Challa abruptly felt like he’d done this all wrong, dragging his sibling into catastrophe without even getting to know him first. He should have eased him in. Welcomed him. He opened his mouth to ask him something—he didn’t know what—but then the room was empty, the files spread out on the floor for no one to read.

Next time, he thought.

He expected to feel relief now that he was alone again, but nothing came.

His eyes fell onto the piles of transcripts related to the Asset. Acid wrath twisted his stomach again. That was something he could still feel. Nobody but T’Challa knew his father’s death hadn’t been natural; nobody but him knew he needed to be avenged. It didn’t change anything. The Wakandan law stated that ritual mourning could only begin after the deceased’s soul was at rest.

T’Challa would see to it.

 

*

 

After the ritual ninety minutes, they removed the thread and bandaged Loki’s mouth. Then they threw him back in his cold, narrow cell, with his hands still bound behind his back. The needle punctures throbbed in time with his pulse.

Needles, Loki thought, through a haze of pain. Once when he was a child, Odin and Frigga had gotten in a fight. It was Loki’s seventh birthday, the ritual age for a Jotun child to get his first tattoo. There will be nothing of the sort under my roof. Odin had crouched to look at him. What do you say, child? To tarnish your skin with ink, is that something you want?

And Loki had answered wholeheartedly that no, he definitely did not, because he was deathly afraid of needles.

It was one of the rare times he’d made Odin laugh, and clap his shoulder. The sovereign of Asgard had straightened up to face his wife. There you have it. The boy says he doesn’t want a tattoo. Frigga had not fought again when he’d reached twelve, fifteen and seventeen, the other three steps into becoming a man. Loki’s skin had remained unsullied and immature.

Hot blood was oozing from his wounds, soaking the bandage already.

His thoughts floated towards T’Challa, then towards Clint, then towards the other bubbles of life he felt through the darkness he lived in. He did not allow his mind to linger long enough for a visiting. The wonder he’d felt sharing a sunrise had abated during the burial in the jungle, and was now completely extinguished. To brush so many freedoms when he was to be imprisoned for the rest of his life… What could he bring them, but gloominess and despair? What could they bring him, but tantalizing visions?

This was just a fresh form of torture.

He deserved it and more, or so they said. For tricking suicide bombers into killing nobody but themselves. He failed to see how it made him a murderer. They would have detonated the bombs anyway—in a useless street protest, blindly killing Jotuns and Asgardians alike. Since they wanted to die so much, Loki had done a service to everyone by sparing innocent lives, and at the same time allowing their deaths to matter.

Or he would have, if they hadn’t ratted him out.

Useless tattooed freaks. No point thinking about it now. He shifted on the cold floor of his cell, trying to find a comfortable position with his arms twisted in his back. If he could only have turned onto his stomach—but shoving his face in the dust, that was a risk he wouldn’t take, even with a bandage. He was too exhausted to remember how long he would be left alone before someone treated his wounds again.

Thor would have never been made to endure this. And he hadn’t, not even when he’d killed no less than five protesters during the Jotun riots. Those hadn’t been suicides, hadn’t they? Legitimate defense, had said Odin without batting an eyelid, and Thor had been praised for restoring peace and quiet to the streets…

Loki was so immensely tired. He didn’t know anymore what he’d been trying to do, what he’d been hoping to achieve. He wished he could be reading a book in his room, waiting for Thor to come bother him. More than anything, he wished he did not wish for such a thing.

Someone brushed his sweat-sticky hair away from his face, and he froze.

“Asgardian royalty, huh?”

It was a woman.

“Can’t say I saw that one coming,” she added. “Especially since I was expecting Clint again.”

“Go away,” Loki rasped. He should not have been able to speak, with his bandaged mouth; but he was not really using his voice. His rage and pain were enough. “I am not royalty . I am the bastard son of nothing.”

“With blood on your hands. Yes,” she said, her voice light, “we truly are kin.”

Loki swallowed thickly, panting. Dreamspeak made him dream of using his mouth, and it hurt in the real world, the real world full of cold stone and thick dust getting in his lungs with each shallow intake of breath.

“Go,” he repeated, twisted arms spasming under his weight.

“If you really wanted me to go, I could not be here,” she said quietly.

Loki was horrified to feel hot tears on his face. He screwed his useless eyes shut and wished her away. He did not want to share his humiliation and despair with anyone. Why must this happen to him—why now?

“I remember,” she said, “being left alone in the dark, with broken bones, so I could meditate on my failures. It only stirred up more rage in me. Which was what they wanted, of course. That is how you grow killers.”

Loki laughed. It was an ugly sound.

“Ah,” he said, “but I already am a killer; they needn’t have bothered.”

Instead of lecturing him about blood debt, she let him rest his head in her lap, away from the hard stone floor, and put a cold hand over his burning eyes.

He clenched his teeth, but his crushed sob wracked him inside, and he knew for sure she had felt it.

“Gods,” he exhaled. He took a deep, shaky breath, and tried not to start crying again. When he spoke, his voice wavered. “I can’t tell if this is a blessing or a curse.”

“I’m not sure either,” she murmured. “But here we are now.”

For a moment, they just breathed together. Loki gradually managed to calm down. It was so unexpected, not to be alone in this pit.

“What’s your name?” he rasped after a while.

“Natasha.”

“Mine is—”

“Loki,” she smiled. “I do watch the news.”

He laughed again, joyless. “Has it been broadcast overseas already? How flattering.”

“As soon as the Bifrost opened.” It was soothing, to hear her speak in the dark, in that polite, almost indifferent tone, as if they were having tea in an English garden. “What happens now?”

“You all ask me the same question.” Loki exhaled. “The answer is—I do not know. Prison for life. Or maybe a pardon after a few years of rot. I cannot tell which I dread more.”

She was silent for a while. Then:

“Do you know I’m real?”

“Oh yes,” he said. “My senses tell me so. There is little else I trust.”

He almost told her about the dreamwalker lore, but didn’t. He never talked about Jotun culture unless he was in front of a mike, trying to stir the political pot. Some part of him was ashamed to even know about it in the first place.

The pain, for a moment, ceased to be all-encompassing, and he took advantage of that lull to reach further into the presence around him. He felt her mind, felt her body, felt her perception of him, in a strange feedback loop like two mirrors placed in front of each other. Then his puncture wounds started throbbing again and he curled up in mute pain.

“Loki—”

It took him a moment to realize that the voice had not come from within him.

The door opened on creaking hinges; Loki recognized the scent of Thor—he smelled as always of wheat and sun-warm sand. Under his head, the weight of Natasha’s thigh was gone. For a weak, foolish moment, he wished she hadn’t left him.

“Brother.” Thor’s voice was choked as he crouched next to him. “Can you walk?”

Loki tried to talk and realized it was much more painful that way—not to mention the bandages over his mouth, muzzling him. Thor helped him kneel up and cut his bonds. He was in a hurry, febrile, hands shaking. At that, Loki snapped his head up, willing his unseeing eyes to meet Thor’s blue ones. What are you doing?

“Come. We’re leaving.”

Loki did not understand, and Thor must have seen it on his face. “A boat will get us to Iceland,” he explained, hauling Loki up, drawing one of his aching arms over his broad shoulders. “And from there, we can get to Germany. They’re offering us political asylum.”

At that, Loki started struggling in earnest, so much that Thor had to let go of him; as soon as he was free, Loki tugged at his bandages.

“Loki!” Thor hissed, trying to stop him.

Loki batted his hand away and tore the whole thing away from his mouth. “Political asylum?”

His own voice shocked him, his speech grotesquely mangled by pain. He forced more words out. “Thor, what is this? What are you doing?”

“There’s no time,” Thor said, dragging him along again.

“Oh, you’ve chosen a fine moment to grow a conscience—” The pain took Loki’s breath away for a second; he gritted his teeth and managed to spit out, “And a defective one to boot.”

Suddenly they were in the open air; the salt in the breeze stung at Loki’s lips, and he hissed with pain.

“No,” Thor said, “for once I see clearly.”

“Well, lucky you,” Loki said with venom. “Do you care to enlighten the cripple?”

“Why must you always twist my—” Thor huffed and repeated, “There’s no time. Come.”

In absolute disbelief, Loki stumbled along the well-trod path to the volcanic beach. By the time they got there, his whole body was shivering, and it got worse when they waded into shallow, icy water. He heard it slapping against an echoing mass. There really was a boat.

Stunned, Loki let Thor boost him up the ladder. As soon as they were aboard, the engines rumbled, reverberating through his bones and teeth; the motion of the boat changed in a subtle way as they pushed forward instead of bobbing into place. By the sound of it, they were on Thor’s yacht.

Thor sighed in relief. “I don’t think they spotted us. Thank the gods we were not too late.”

Loki let out an awful, ugly sound which tried to be a laugh. He spread his arms, as if to show himself: his bloodied puncture wounds, his empty eyes, his general state of misery and disarray, but also maybe his blank, tattoo-less skin—something Thor wouldn’t even know to notice.

“Not too late,” he repeated, voice quavering. “Not too late.”

Thor moved towards him. “Loki,” attempting to seize the back of his neck, as he so often did, “I just broke you out—”

Loki reared back and shouted, “And who put me there?”

The loud rumble of the engines was his only answer. He realized he was shaking with exhaustion, and anger, and pain.

“Odinson,” he said, hatred simmering in his voice, “you’re ten years too late.”

And then he turned away to find the cabin. He hadn’t been on Thor’s yacht since before the accident, but he’d take his chances rather than to face him for a second more.

 

*

 

Being on the run, Bruce learned, mostly consisted of moments of absolute panic interspersed with long, tense stretches of nothing.

Almost three days in, he seemed to have hit his longest lull yet. This close to the border, Mexico wasn’t too different from Nevada; and he now spoke fluent Spanish, without any explanation. Well, no, he had one—it just didn’t make any sense. But he found that he was much more worried about General Thaddeus Ross than he was about his visions. He’d always been mentally unstable, after all. Though he’d never had imaginary friends before; that was almost nice.

He bought a second-hand laptop and spent most of his time locked in his tiny hotel room. Plugging in the drive, he’d spent four hours encrypting it—for the algorithm, he’d used the gradient curve of a fractal equation he’d particularly loved as an undergrad. That way he didn’t need to write down the encryption key; it was safe in his mind. The rest of his day was spent trying his luck at disguising his IP address so he could contact Betty again and search for buyers in relative peace. 

As the afternoon ended, someone said, “It’s hot as fuck in here.”

Clint was gazing upon Bruce’s fascinating view—another wall not two feet away, complete with a rumbling air conditioning unit stuck to the façade like a big, square leech.

“Why isn’t yours on?” he asked, craning his head to look at Bruce.

“Um,” said Bruce, running a hand through his damp curls. “I’ve tried, but… I think it’s broken.”

Clint winced in sympathy, then sat down on the floor next to him. “I’m glad you’re okay, man. We were worried about you.”

“Who’s we?”

“Natasha and Tony, mostly. They both like you.”

This close, Bruce could smell the clean sweat and bowstring wax on Clint’s clothes. As always, his skin was faintly sparkling with leftover body glitter, and Bruce suddenly wondered what it tasted like.

He cleared his throat and took off his glasses, folding the branches.

“You know, I… I wanted to thank you for… last time…”

“What, the blowjob thing?”

Bruce wished he could sound so casual about it. “You… you didn’t have to do that.”

“Hey, nobody made me. No skin off my back, I’ve had worse clients. And I feel like we gotta watch out for each other, you know?”

Bruce tried to think of something to say, and came up empty.

“What’s up with you, anyway?” Clint asked. “It’s not drugs, is it?”

“Oh—no. I wish.”

Clint blinked, which made Bruce chuckle.

“Long story short,” he said, putting his glasses back on, “I accidentally invented a weapon which would put Hiroshima to shame, so I had to run away from my military bosses. I’m trying to find a trustworthy buyer, and it’s not easy.”

Clint snorted. “What do you know, that does sound worse than drugs.”

They were now sitting at the kitchen table in a small apartment, which felt blessedly cool in comparison to Bruce’s hotel room. Here, too, the sun was low on the horizon. Through a half-open door, he could see a dark-haired teenager snoring on a bed.

“How come you worked for the army?” Clint asked. “Don’t sound too fond of ‘em.”

“I’m not,” Bruce said wryly. “Beggars, choosers.”

Nobody had been too keen on hiring a small-town physicist charged with aggravated assault—aka committed “under the influence of sudden passion or in a sudden fit of rage.” It should have meant eighteen months of prison, at the very least. The army had saved him from it, and even let him pursue his research. Culver University hadn’t let him know how Rick Jones was doing, and maybe that was a blessing in disguise, because Bruce was too much of a coward to find out by himself.

“Just a roommate,” Clint said quickly.

Bruce shook himself, realizing he’d been absently staring at the teenager on the bed.

“That’s Kate,” Clint went on, sounding embarrassed like he’d had to explain himself too many times. “She ran away from her parents to make them notice her—they didn’t, by the way, it took her dad a whole week to realize she was gone. She wanted to join the circus, so I kinda took her in, found her a job. We’re scraping by. She’s a great kid. Gifted.”

Bruce wondered if this was some sort of wish fulfillment thing, hallucinating someone so kind. He cleared his throat again and asked, “What about you?”

Clint blinked. “Me?”

“Yeah, what’s your story?”

“I’m nobody, just a piece of carnie trash tryna clear my brother’s debts.” Clint rubbed the back of his head and gave a lopsided smile. “I feel kinda lame next to you, with your big nuclear spy thriller thing.”

His bare, muscled arms were scintillating in the dim light. Bruce stupidly thought of Twilight. Then, even more stupidly, he thought again of licking the body glitter off.

“You know I can feel that,” Clint said quietly.

Bruce looked at him.

“You mean—um,” his throat dried up all at once when he caught on.

He was too mortified even to try and babble an apology, but Clint wasn’t expecting one. The look on his face wasn’t one of teasing. He seemed slightly surprised, but overall pleased.

“Hey, d’you—” He hesitated, then grinned. “D’you wanna kiss?”

His straightforwardness struck Bruce dumb. His experience of human interaction was that of a battlefield—where nothing could be won without a great amount of strategy, calculated risks, and inevitable losses. For a crazy second, Bruce almost let himself believe it could be that simple. All he had to say was sure and then Clint would lean in. Bruce could wrap his hands around his biceps, feel the muscle shift under his fingers. Everything about this felt so real—but at the same time it was also like a hazy fever dream where nothing he did or said mattered.

But reality wasn’t long to catch up. He didn’t even like men—did he? And more importantly, he’d spent his whole life tip-toeing around relationships for a reason. It had been years, but when he looked down at his hands he still saw Rick Jones’ blood there.

“It’s not—” He hated how miserable, how tremulous he sounded. “It’s not a good idea.”

A blink and he was in Tijuana again, completely alone, the connection apparently severed by his cowardice.

Good, he thought in the sweltering heat. Then he said out loud, “I’m crazy.” And then, “Christ, Banner, stop talking to yourself.”

 

Maybe he shouldn’t have thought of Rick Jones. Maybe then, this wouldn’t have happened.

He only had good intentions, trying to keep himself from going even more insane cooped up in his little room. At sunset, he hid the hard drive under his dingy mattress, then forced himself to leave and headed for a diner so he could feel presences around him, in hope that his anxiety would loosen its vise.

The news was on when he sat at the bar. At first, he paid no attention to it, but suddenly the volume was cranked up by the enraptured barman. Half the diner looked up.

“…the All-Father exerted retribution over Prince Loki today by making him undergo Brokkr’s trial, an ancient custom which consists in sewing up the lips of the victim in punishment for slander or hatemongering. This move was described as ‘savage’ or ‘barbaric’ by some, but for others it was a demonstration of the strict Asgardian sense of justice, with the All-Father being lauded for carrying it out in spite of the culprit being his own son...”

“Could you turn that down, please?” asked a shaky voice, making everyone turn. It was a young mother with two tiny sons, who looked decidedly shocked by the images onscreen.

The men at the bar groaned at her and went back to watching. Bruce looked between them and the woman. Surely—

The screen showed the first puncture of the needle; the prince’s body bucked in agony when blood spurted over his pale skin. His scream was speckled with static through the cheap speakers.

“That’s sick,” said the bartender in overt admiration.

“Don’t look, mijo, don’t look—excuse me,” the young woman repeated, “there are children in here, please turn that down!”

“Jesus, puta, just fuck off with your—”

“Hey!” Bruce said. He was gripping the edge of the bar tight. He should have backed off. “Hey, can’t you just—”

“I can watch the news in my bar if I fucking want to. You and the other cunt can fuck right off.”

Onscreen, the tortured man screamed and half the bar cheered as if it were a football match. Bruce’s blood flooded through his veins in a boiling rush.

“I’m asking you—”

At which point someone pulled his stool from under him, and his head hit the edge of the bar.

 

He came back to himself lying on the wooden floor, with blood crusted around a painful, throbbing cut across his forehead.

For a foolish moment, he let himself hope he’d been knocked out and nothing else had happened. But then he opened his eyes and felt like his insides had turned to stone.

The place was thrashed. Most noticeably, there was a stool embedded in the TV screen, but apparently that hadn’t been enough for him; he’d shattered all the bottles he could find, littering the floor with broken glass, and at least one table had smashed through the big window. Pieces of furniture were strewn across the room. A dark liquid was dripping quick and steady from a spill on the bar.

Bruce groaned and slowly sat up. His body was like one giant, throbbing ache. He wondered if he’d been beaten down, or if people had tried to stop him, or if he’d done this to himself. Belatedly, he realized that the only lights in the bar were a flash of red-and-blue coming from the outside. Through the broken window, he could hear the scratch of walkie-talkies and the murmur of a crowd.

He put his head between his knees and focused on not throwing up.

When they finally dared to come inside the ruined diner to get him, he did not resist arrest. He knew he should have tried, but he couldn’t do it.

 

He was kept alone in a holding cell, shivering in his damp, ripped clothing. Some part of him miserably hoped for Clint, but he also wished no one would show up. There was no sense dragging anyone else into this mess. His mind was such a wreck of confusion and self-hatred anyway that he didn’t think anyone could have connected with it.

At some point, he did think he saw the long-haired man from the German plane, looking at him with sorrowful eyes. But the vision was gone in a blink, and he was alone again.

 

In the end, it was five hours before the door finally opened.

“Alright,” said General Thaddeus Ross. “Playtime’s over, freak.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

4.

 

It had been a whole night and then a whole day—more duties had awaited T’Challa in the morning, to bid his guests goodbye, to accept yet more words of condolences, to deal with the thousand problems the funeral had put on hold. When he finally found himself alone, with all his tasks completed, the night was falling already.

He still hadn’t washed the funerary dirt from his hands, and could feel its grains under his nails as he typed in the code to the shrine.

It was easily the safest place in the world. The seamless vibranium walls would absorb explosions, divert drilling, withstand any sort of extreme temperature, and possibly shrug off a nuclear strike—though the latter option remained hypothetical, for lack of lab-testing.

“Your Majesty called for me,” said Okoye’s low-pitched voice behind him.

On any other day, her presence would have been soothing. But in his harassed, frayed state of nerves, T’Challa could feel nothing. Only the flame of anger was hot enough to burn through his numbness. 

The reinforced vibranium opened with a low pssh and T’Challa stepped inside, with Okoye after him. Her tense silence spoke volumes; entering the Black Panther shrine was an act of consequence. Almost a declaration of war.

T’Challa walked to the silver circle in the middle of the room and stood there. His weight was enough to awaken the sphere; silent scanners blinked to life in its entrails and ran their ghost fingers over him. He was the heir; he was the defender; he was the avenger. The shrine would open for him.

“Does the name HYDRA mean anything to you?” he asked quietly, standing still and staring ahead.

“Yes, your Majesty,” she answered at once. “A pharmaceutical company with representatives on every continent. In Africa, they’re established in Morocco, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.”

A melodic sound rang across the room when the vibranium panels at the far end split open. As they parted, a vertical ray of light filtered through and widened into an all-encompassing, blinding luminosity. In the middle of it, obscuring the light, stood a headless human shape. T’Challa’s blood was singing.

He walked forward, unbuttoning his shirt as he spoke. “Alexander Pierce is the CEO of that company.” He took a deep breath. “And he was also my father’s soul-sibling.”

“T’Challa,” Okoye exclaimed, horrified.

He almost faltered in his step—she hadn’t called him by his name since they were children—but her shock wasn’t unexpected. Nothing was more intimate than soul-siblinghood matters. That T’Challa should know about his father’s was unsettling enough; that he should tell the head of the Dora Milaje was obscene.

“Be quiet and hear me,” he murmured.

Now slowly unbuttoning his shirt with his dusty fingers, he told her about Lai Shi, the city of afterlife, and its unfortunate students. He told her about the shadowy Asset, who had caused the death of two dozen people—among them Howard Stark, Maria Carbonell, Gao Chang Wu and Erik Selvig. He told him about Alexander Pierce orchestrating it all.

He did not tell her about his own rebirth, because then she might look at him with wonder and compassion, and he only needed her aid as a warrior.

“And so I must kill them both,” he finished. “The Asset, and Pierce. Then my father’s soul can rest.”

“Your Majesty,” said Okoye.

This time, it was in steady obedience. She was the leader of the Dora Milaje for a reason. And anyone would have been out for blood after hearing Alexander Pierce’s monstrous story. To be reborn into this blessed synergy—and to harm your brothers and sisters of soul? Mutilating an infant wouldn’t have been a more hideous crime. It could only be the work of absolute, inconceivable evil.

There had been no need for the Black Panther in over a decade; modern politics had rendered him inadvisable. But now a wounded Wakanda needed him, a bloody Gordian knot must be cut, and so he must rise again.

Okoye left the shrine while T’Challa finished his transformation. The nanochainmail was cool against his fingers, light and fluid like silk, so dark it seemed to be absorbing light. It would resist knives and bullets and fiery blasts. The Warrior would permeate him; and then he would not have to feel anything but the righteous drive of vengeance.

The suit slithered over his bare skin, hugging him tight. The claws fitted his fingers. The helmet came before his eyes.

 When T’Challa reopened them, he was in a hot, dark room, stinking of excrement and fear.

There was a small man with curly hair cowering in a corner. “Oh,” he said under his breath when he saw T’Challa. “Oh, no, no, no.”

“Fear not,” T’Challa said. The layer of vibranium over his mouth absorbed the higher vibrations of his voice, turned it into a deep-seated growl. “I will destroy those who wrong us.”

“No,” said the man, closing his eyes and pressing his hands over his ears, slightly rocking back and forth. “Go away. I don’t need this. I don’t need you. I can’t hurt anybody. I just want to calm down.”

“You want nothing of the sort,” T’Challa said, feeling it simmer in his veins. “Your anger calls to me. Your bloodthirst calls to me. We are the same when we feel the same.”

The curly-haired man stopped his rocking and warily reopened his eyes.

“Are we? Then you must be very afraid.” He laced his arms around his knees. “And you must hate yourself a lot.”

T’Challa recoiled. Before he could respond anything, a loud clanking startled them both. The door of the cell creaked open and three muscular men walked in, nonchalantly swinging iron baseball bats.

“Hey, Dr. Banner,” said the first one, with a sharp British accent. “It’s me again. Freeman, from the truck, remember? I know, it’s been a coupla hours. Hope you got your beauty sleep.”

Banner did look like a man who’d spent the night in the back of a truck. He was still hugging his knees to his chest, and did not answer.

“Look, you know you’re gonna end up giving us that hard drive, man,” Freeman went on in a long-suffering tone. “That’s just a fact of life. You’re not a soldier, you never signed up for any of this.”

His bat swung back and forth by his fingertips, like a deadly pendulum.

“At the risk of sounding cliché, we could do this the easy way.”

Banner looked like there was nothing he wanted more. But he shook his head resignedly and curled into a tight ball, staring at the filthy floor.

The goons grinned. Freeman tilted his head to the side. “Alright,” he shrugged, “the fun way, then.”

With nonchalant ease, he grabbed Banner by the scruff of his neck and dragged him to the middle of the room, sending him into an undignified sprawl at their feet. The other two were snickering already, swinging their metal bats.

Freeman kicked Banner in the ribs, cutting off T’Challa’s breath. His hands turned into fists, and he gave the man above him a venomous glare.

“I will destroy,” he repeated through Banner’s cracked lips, “all those who wrong us.”

The three men burst into laughter.

“Is that so, little man?” said one of the other goons. He crouched and seized him by the hair. “Nobody can hear you scream in here. Nobody’s coming for you. Nobody even knows you exist.”

“Except for Betty,” amended Freeman. “Precious little Betty. She’s lucky to be Ross’ daughter, I’ll tell you that. Did you know she went looking for you in Tijuana? We probably passed her on the road.”

The crouching man let go and stood up. An iron bat slid under Banner’s throat and pressed hard, until he retched and coughed.

“This is gonna hurt a lot, doctor. And the more you make us wait, the more I’ll enjoy it.”

And Freeman slammed his heavy boot onto Banner’s hand. Three fingers broke with a crunching noise; he squashed them under the heel, grinding them into the dust, while the other two men laughed and whooped.

T’Challa’s training could not keep the pain away. It had taught him, however, not to scream. The rush of adrenaline sharpened his mind to a fault; rolling to his side, he slammed the edge of his free hand behind Freeman’s knee. Freeman lost his balance and stumbled down with a curse—extending his arms for balance—bringing his metal bat within reach.

After that, it was easy.

Banner was a small man and did not wear armor; but these men were crass fighters, who had come to beat down a helpless victim. It was a pleasure to feel their bodies give under the heavy bat. T’Challa bruised flesh and crushed noses, broke bones and shattered teeth, but he did not render them unconscious. Blunt cranial trauma might kill them, and he would not kill anybody but the truly deserving. The Asset, and Pierce. The Asset, and Pierce.

It was over already. The cell echoed with whimpers and moans. Blood was quietly dripping off the metal bat, pooling on the floor, almost black in the dim light.

It felt good, T’Challa told himself, through the throbbing pain in his hand.

It had to.

 

*

 

Loki woke up to the muffled slosh of water and a deep, regular engine buzz.

Right.

He slowly sat up. They must be in the middle of the ocean, judging by the absence of seagull noises; and if the warmth touching his skin was anything to go by, it was a bright, warm day. He could almost see it. It made his whole body pound with the need to find Clint and revel again in the miracle they shared.

A scraping noise made him tilt his head up. Heavy footfalls overhead. Thor, pacing the bridge, no doubt. He’d actually rescued Loki. What an oaf.

Loki was in no hurry to join him on deck; when he did, he would have to explain to him the absurdity of this whole escape operation, and it exhausted him in advance. Thor had broken Loki out because the punishment hadn’t been to his taste. But on the heels of the recent events, it would look like he’d exiled himself to protest against Odin All-Father delaying his crowning. Thor was effectively painting himself as a righteous king in exile, beleaguered by fate; a very romantic figure, especially since he had the looks to match.

And taking Loki with him was a coup de maître. Loki was responsible for his brother’s misfortune, after all; and yet Thor had pitied him, at the apparent cost of his own social status. The golden Viking prince rescuing the destitute Jotun wretch! Both of them, fleeing a despotic monarch! Verily, t’was a masterful piece of storytelling politics—which was completely infuriating because Loki was positive it was also accidental.

Thor had proved long ago he had no sense for strategy. He simply barreled on, armed with the blind conviction that he was in the right. He had certainly been sincere in his will to aid Loki. And he had—just as certainly—succeeded only in helping himself, first and foremost.

The rest of the story wrote itself, so predictable Loki could have wept with boredom. The world would cry out in support for Thor; Odin would take him back in as his rightful heir eventually; the crowning would take place and all would be well. As for Loki, well, he would probably be granted a more comfortable cell. Why, he might even get books and armchairs.

“Um,” someone said from across the cabin. “Hello?”

Loki’s bitter thoughts cleared away at once. He sat up, heart beating faster. The voice was a new one.

“Who speaks?”

He could feel the man turn to him—it was like having a second body he inhabited almost completely. “I’m Steve. Steve Rogers. I…” He was disoriented and reaching out for support. Loki got up to take his hand.

“Thank you,” Steve said with relief when Loki guided him to sit down on the cot. “Why is it so dark in here?”

“It’s not. Though I’m only guessing.”

Steve stayed silent for a few seconds, then startled. “Oh—oh Jesus, we’re blind. You’re blind. I’m sorry.”

Loki didn’t respond—he was more interested in lacing their fingers together like he’d done with Clint. It didn’t feel the same, which puzzled him. He supposed he had better affinity with some dreamwalkers than others. But he felt the same potential for sharing—for oneness. He was tempted to push, but Steve was like a solid block of self, keeping to himself in this destabilizing environment.

“Do you feel dizzy?” Steve asked cautiously. “Maybe it’s just me, but—”

“We’re on a boat. And before you ask, no, I did not chew on glass. My lips were sewn together yesterday.”

“Sewn? What—” He stopped abruptly. “My God. You’re that Asgardian prince.”

“I see you watch the news,” Loki said absently, moving his fingers over Steve’s face, mapping its lines and planes. “Where are you from?”

Steve was keeping very still under his touch. “Um. Washington DC. You don’t seem… surprised. Do you know what’s going on?”

“I’m catching up,” Loki said.

Then he pushed, and the world swiveled round like a secret door. Beloved light flowed to his brain through Steve’s eyes. Loki couldn’t help laughing in sheer delight, drinking in his surroundings as if he’d just passed through the gates of Valhalla. It mostly looked like an American police precinct on a lunch break, but it was better than heaven, because he’d consciously tried to do this and it had worked, and now he could see again.

He reclined in his chair, grinning at the ceiling, and then kicked at his desk to spin around. He looked at the pens and files and coffee mugs almost religiously. A miracle. There must be a reason this was happening to him now. If nothing else, this felt like a boon, granted to him in return for all his suffering.

“Hey,” Steve protested.

Loki found himself standing to his side, actually looking at him now. Rogers was a handsome man, broad-shouldered, with blond hair and pale blue eyes. He looked a lot like Thor.

“Are you doing this on purpose?” he asked, sounding cautious and impressed in equal parts.

“Of course. Can’t you do it?” Loki grinned—it was all so exhilarating. Steve must have felt his excitement, because he relaxed by a fraction, and even smiled a little.

“Not that easily. Mostly it just happens.”

“The first was easier,” Loki amended, thinking of Clint, how it had felt to touch him. “Maybe we meet our closest matches first.”

Oddly enough, Steve blushed. “Yeah. Maybe.” He rubbed the back of his neck, then cleared his throat. “So… you don’t know what’s going on?”

Loki tilted his head to the side. “You sound like you do.”

“I’m trying to warn everyone in our…” He hesitated. “Our cluster, I guess. T’Challa called it siblinghood.”

“Ah, you’ve met the Wakandan king.” Loki leaned on the desk and crossed his arms. “Warn us against whom?”

Steve pulled a file out from a little plastic drawer. “Here,” he said.

Loki sat on the edge of the desk with his feet on a chair and flipped through the pages, skimming over the actual evidence to focus on Steve’s notes. They were clear, concise and clever; he wasn’t entirely like Thor after all.

When he got to the picture of Nick Fury at the end, Loki stared in fascination.

“Our dreamwalking father,” he whispered.

“If that's what you're calling it. I wish he’d left a letter or something,” Steve said, “but I guess he couldn’t do that without Pierce knowing. All he could do was kill himself before he was captured—and he did it in DC, because he knew he would give birth to me, and he knew I would investigate him. He was hoping we’d continue the fight.”

This wasn’t just compelling, Loki thought. It was familiar. Nicholas Fury giving spiritual birth to a new generation of psychics—it matched the Jotun dreamwalker lore almost word for word. His birth begets with snow’s thawing/From embers a root arises/Grows a tangle of dreams dawning/To last through all new sunrises…  

“And with all the lonely souls/Left behind among the coals/A marveled sense crystallizes.” Loki whispered. He flipped back to Alexander Pierce’s profile. “But it’s not a lonely soul hunting us.”

“What?”

Loki rested his chin on his hand, tapping at his jaw. “This man—Pierce. He is of our kind. He isn’t dissecting us out of fear or greed or simple curiosity; we must be of some use to him.”

Steve frowned. “What use?”

“I have no idea,” Loki said, and wondered if another dreamwalker could tell when he lied.

It wasn’t even a lie, really. He didn’t know for sure. But he did have an inkling. And if he was right—but it was too dangerous to think about it now. He’d learned to let the dust settle around his ideas.

“Like I said,” Steve went on, “I’ve been trying to get everyone up to speed, but I’m not even sure how many of us there are.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Loki said, still tapping at his jaw, on a more rapid rhythm now. “We’re a group of eight.”

Steve stared. “How do you know that?”

“I just do. Can’t you feel them? Even when you can’t see them.” He could feel them right now, as a matter of fact. It was easy, like navigating radio channels. Rogers, of course, was the strongest presence of all at the moment; Clint was a close second. Then there was T’Challa and the killing woman, Natasha. The last three entities were very muddled, but Loki knew they would come to him. They would all come to each other in the end.

“All in good time,” Loki whispered.

A blink and he was back in darkness, in the middle of the ocean. It was just as well; he had a lot to think about.

 

*

 

James’ plane touched down at 10pm, local time, bumping him back to reality.

Arnold Roth collected his backpack with mechanical gestures. Arnold Roth bid the flight attendants goodbye on his way out. Arnold Roth walked the corridors of the airport until he’d passed the very last gate.

ARNOLD ROTH, said the block letters spread across the tablet in the dark-haired man’s hands.

James walked towards him and said, “Ready to comply.”

“This way,” answered his US-based handler.

 

Some might argue the German branch of the Khah was the most efficient of all, but the Americans weren’t doing too bad either. A black car with tinted windows was waiting by the curb. When James sat in the back, there was a doctor on the other seat, already prepping a syringe.

“There you are. My name is Zemo,” he said. He wasn’t expecting James’ name in answer; he was just telling him who he was. “Take your shirt and jacket off.”

James complied wordlessly and held out his right arm. Zemo injected him at the elbow. James waited for the dizzying rush of the drugs, but it didn’t come. Then he realized this was probably a flu shot, or maybe an update on his vaccines—he hadn’t gone through any of the regular medical procedures normally required for an American visa.

“Rumlow,” the doctor called, “why aren’t we moving?”

“In a second. Christ.”

The engine rumbled and the car smoothly moved into traffic, heading for the highway. Zemo was now rummaging in James’ backpack.

“What is this?” he said, popping the pill case open. “You’re two days ahead of schedule.”

James’ throat went dry.

“I… I thought I needed more,” he said.

The Khah had trained him not to lie, and this was the truth—somewhat. Yet he couldn’t help feeling burningly ashamed, and almost sick with fear at the thought of withholding information from them. He should have explained. If he just confessed, they might be clement.

But something kept his mouth closed, and maybe it was the memory of Steve in the bar. He wanted to keep them, the colors and the music.

“I keep telling them, this treatment is outdated,” Zemo fumed, clapping the case back shut. “How is he supposed to take his pills himself when they make him forget?”

“They’re supposed to induce long-term amnesia, not short-term,” Rumlow pointed out from the front seat.

“Then maybe he’s the one who fucked up. Is that right, Arnold?” said the doctor—and he suddenly grabbed James’ hair to twist his head back, so hard something in his neck cracked. “Did you take them on purpose?”

“No, sir,” James uttered through the pain. That wasn’t a lie, either; in the end he hadn’t taken them at all.

 A few tense seconds went by, then the doctor let him go with a shove. “Whatever. I’ll handle his medication this time around. But seriously, if it were up to me, I’d just put him on a drip at night.”

“Take it up with management,” Rumlow said.

“Management has enough on his plate. Did you hear what happened to the Russian department?”

“The Red Room? Yeah.” He parked the car by the Residence Inn. “They’ll find out who did it, it’s just a matter of time.”

 

They had gotten two rooms—a single for the doctor, and a double for the Asset and his handler. It was almost midnight by then, and James had had a long flight. He was told to sleep, and so he did.

In the morning, he woke up like he always did—all his muscles bunching at once, getting him to full alertness. He was still wearing his clothes and shoes from the day before. He’d slept on top of the covers, removing only his baseball cap.

“Christ, you need a shower,” said Rumlow, who was already up. “Give me your clothes, we’ll put them through laundry.”

He went back out to talk to the doctor in the next room. James undressed, folding his clothes to put them on the bed. One could get punished for not folding; but the other way around was a rarer occurrence. In doubt, always fold.

Sure enough, Rumlow was dissatisfied when he came back. “The fuck are you standing around with your dick out for? Get in the shower.”

James went into the bathroom, but didn’t close the door. He was never to lock himself into a room. He stared at the shower for a minute, then stepped in and turned the knob. His shoulders flinched under the icy stream, but it was safer that way. In doubt, always use cold water.

When he got out, he spent almost five minutes pondering the hotel robes and whether he should put one on. Some handlers wanted him to be nude. Considering his handler’s reaction to his earlier nakedness, though, he supposed the safest bet was to cover himself.

When he came out of the bathroom, Rumlow snorted but otherwise did not comment. There were clothes on the bed. James was not completely clueless; he took them in the bathroom and dressed himself, then came back to sit down by his handler for briefing.

But it was not briefing time yet; first they had to go downstairs for lunch. James was quiet and ate what he was given. Since he had taken two pills the day before, Zemo said he should not take one today. James said nothing to agree or disagree. After that they went back upstairs, and he spent a rather long time sitting alone on the chair by the wall, while the other two conversed in the doctor’s room. Then finally they came back to brief him.

Steven G. Rogers’ record was spotless and quite linear. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he’d joined the military right out of high school only to retire after twelve years, honorably discharged, and with a Medal of Honor. He had been hospitalized in DC and met a Sam Wilson there. Bereft of any other significant bond—his mother had passed away months before he joined the army—he had never returned to New York, choosing instead to join the Metropolitan Police Department.

The target was isolated and discreet; the principal obstacle to his abduction would be his training. Which explained why they’d called in the Asset instead of a simple extraction team. James’ equipment spoke for itself—among other things it featured a long-range tranquilizer rifle, a short-range tranquilizer gun, and even a couple of roofies. After a careful recon, drugging his target should be easy enough.

After he passed out, Rogers would never wake up. The standard procedure was to keep the targets in an artificial coma until they reached the facility, and bump them up to light sedation before the surgery. Rogers wouldn’t even know it was happening to him. He would not be afraid. He would just slip away.

James’ eyes were burning. He blinked, and tears rolled down. Ducking his head, he let his wet hair fall around his face. Rumlow was busy writing a text and did not notice.

“Okay,” he said, pocketing his phone, “everyone’s set. Status?”

“Functional,” James answered, though he sounded hoarse to his own ears.

“Let’s go. I’ll drop you at the National Mall.”

 

The door slammed shut and the black car drove smoothly away. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon. James was on his own, now. It was up to him to find a good spot for recon, so that he could find a pattern and exploit it. He usually liked those kinds of missions; they allowed him to spend a lot of time outside. And planning his own operation was always nice, gave him a small taste of freedom.

“James?”

He was not surprised, but a pang of fear still shot through him.

Steve’s vivid blue eyes were so wide. James thought for a wild second that he was really there—that he’d just happened to take a walk around the Mall. But no. Steve was somewhere else in DC; probably at work, if his clothes were anything to go by.

“You’re…” Steve looked at the Washington Monument in the distance, then back at him. “You’re here.”

“Yes,” James answered quietly. “I arrived yesterday night.”

“Did you… did you come for me?”

James huffed so softly he almost didn’t make any sound. “Yeah, I did.”

Steve walked closer to him—until they were inches apart. Gradually, the rush of the tourists around them dropped to the muffled background.

“I’ve seen others,” he said, his voice wavering with emotion. “Loki, T’Challa, I know there are more, but it wasn’t the same—”

Don’t tell me their names, James thought. God, don’t make it easier for me.

Steve cut himself off, swallowed. Then he said, “I know you’re real.” The faintest smile touched his mouth. “I was… I was hoping you were.”

James had been off his meds for nearly forty-eight hours; but until this very moment, he hadn’t been able to tell the difference.

All of a sudden a tidal wave of desperation crashed over him, completely unopposed for the first time in years. It closed like a fist around his throat. It was no use. When Steve was so close, James couldn’t think. His emotion was like fluid in his lungs, drowning him from the inside, and he knew he would rather die for Steve than live to hurt him.

“Steve, listen—Steve,” he rasped, grabbing at his arms, trying to warn him somehow—but the words dried up in his mouth at once. What was he doing?

He’d always been able to feel fear, even on a heavy dosage, and it was now magnified one thousandfold by the lack of chemicals in his bloodstream. Terror clawed at his gut. Without HYDRA, he was nothing. He had no identity, no nationality, no memories. All he knew was that he had always fought for them. And even if he couldn’t remember why he had given them his life, he must believe it was right; because this single choice was all he had to his name.

So what if he loved Steve so much he couldn’t breathe with it? Steve was still a target. James should have known to bypass personal bias and focus on the mission. His training had prepared him for it. Instead, he’d acted like a stupid, star-struck child. He had kept crucial information from his handlers, contrived not to take his medication, questioned his orders—

But it wasn’t too late. Nothing was set in stone yet. He could still bring Steve in, let him go to his fate, and then confess.

He hadn’t realized how much he was shaking. He was still holding onto Steve, so tight he would have left bruises on his real body. He hated himself for making Steve experience his acid fear; but as always, Steve brought nothing in return but warmth.

“James,” Steve said, so open, so trusting, so concerned about him.

All at once James grabbed his shirt and pulled him forward—Steve made a close-mouthed, surprised noise when their mouths pressed together.

James wasn’t sure why he’d done it. To keep Steve from asking questions, was the reasonable answer. But already, his reasons didn’t matter anymore: even with the dreamy distance of visiting, the kiss was more vivid than anything James had ever known. Steve’s lips were soft and cool, half-open on an unspoken word. He tilted his head to fit their mouths together, still hesitant for a second; then a warm pool of desire washed in from him, and he grabbed James in turn, kissed back, and inside James’ mind everything was swept away—his doubts and his fears, but also what little sense of self he still possessed.

For a freefalling moment, he did not know who he was anymore; but it didn’t scare him. Losing himself was not a new feeling, and this time it wasn’t in some blank void, but in someone he loved. When they both deepened the kiss, it all wrapped them together in a dazzling feedback loop, and for one merciful moment they were one and the same, and James thought he might never again feel unhappy.

“Jesus,” Steve breathed against his mouth.

He was shaking. They both were.

“If—” He had to pause, to catch his breath, to try again. “If this feels so good already, I can’t imagine what the real deal is like.”

James let go and stepped away. Everything became a little greyer, a little colder.

“No.”

Steve looked lost, already trying to pull him back. “What? I—what’s wrong? You said you’d come for me.”

“I did,” James said miserably. “But I’m not… I’m not ready yet.”

And what a wretched fool he was. Because when would he ever be ready? It made no sense to keep stalling; it would only make what he had to do more difficult in the end. He should have ended it now, told Steve where to meet him and take him down. But the thought paralyzed him.

“Look,” Steve said clumsily, “is this ‘cause I’m a… you know, a guy? Because the, the gay thing, it’s… it’s kinda new for me, too.”

That almost made James laugh—or maybe sob. “No. It’s nothing like that.”

But Steve was trying so hard to make it right. “Seriously, you can take all the time you want. In fact, you… maybe you should. It’s not safe to be around me right now.”

James looked at him. “What do you mean?”

“The Asset is coming for me.”

It was like someone had sucked all the blood out of James’ veins.

“What?” he managed.

“He’s—some kind of serial killer, I don’t know. He specializes in hunting down people like… like us.” Steve laughed without humor. “God, I sound like a ghost story. But you should know. These people, they… they mutilate us. I can’t risk this monster getting anywhere near you.”

James couldn’t breathe.

Steve finally seemed to realize something was wrong. “James?”

“If—if you know—then run,” James said in a wisp of sound.

“No,” Steve simply said. “It’s my job to protect people. If this guy is coming, then I have to stop him.”

“Steve,” James pleaded—madness smashing through the barrier of his conditioning, “Steve, I’m—”

At this moment a high-pitched scream pierced through his ears, making him startle so violently he snapped back to himself.

He was alone in the crowd, panting, trembling with fear and nausea. He darted feverish glances around and then saw. It was a kid. A tiny child running past him, screaming in excitement as his big brother chased him between the placid tourists.

James screwed his eyes shut; a sheen of oily sweat was clinging to his brow. This wasn’t normal. Something else was wrong—something was wrong with his body. He was shivering, feeling ice cold even under the early spring sun. His stomach suddenly revolted and he staggered away from the tourists, mouth filling with bile.

He managed to get behind a tree and rest against it, trembling with all his limbs. His stomach heaved again; he resisted for a few seconds, then threw up as discreetly as he could. He was soaked in cold sweat now. Wiping his brow with a shaky hand, he finally understood what was going on.

He had been on meds for most of his life. He could stall all he wanted, but withdrawal was catching up already.

 

*

 

The meds, thought Natasha before she even opened her eyes.

Ripping the covers off, she got out of bed and grabbed her laptop. The hour burned into her eyes: midnight. Her fingers were shaking but she willed them to stop, because this was just muscle memory. Nothing else—she hadn’t been on suppressants for years.

The Red Room had stopped using them on their hunters after one of the girls—Yelena—had died. The rest of them had been shamed for it every day. This was why there were so many of them! This was why they could never be as good and strong and fast as the Asset! Their fragile female bodies could not take the medication! They must do without, which made them erratic and distracted—and distraction led to failure, and failure led to termination, so new hunters were always needed, always, always, always!

Ivan had not known Yelena hadn’t died from the pills, but from a lethal dose of cyanide she’d patiently extracted from hundreds of apple seeds and peach stones. She wanted to quit and she wanted to do it on her own terms, not like the girls who messed up missions on purpose. The rest of the hunters had known, but they hadn’t said—out of some morbid admiration rather than solidarity. They all dreamed of a way out, back then; secretly, they all dreamed of a fire to come and cleanse them.

That had been Natasha’s last gift to them.

She still couldn’t forget—and most of all, she couldn’t forget Ivan’s constant reminders that the Asset still took the drugs. If she could only remember the tiny numbers engraved in their side, she could find them, track them down, and follow them to the heart of the Khah.

She sat back on the bed, squinting at the blue light of the screen. The memory came to her with surprising ease, as if she’d held one of the pills in her hand only hours ago. LR17-DF9-BH1F. She typed it in and was about to press enter when someone said—

“Are you doing something illegal? It kinda feels illegal.”

Natasha’s eyes snapped up. Across the room, a grinning man waved at her. “Hi. I was wondering if there would be any girls in this psychic boy band. It’s interesting, you know—does it mean I’m a girl in some way? Or does gender not factor into this at all? Is gender even real? I wish I had more data to sketch out some kind of algorithm, see if there’s a pattern to people like us.”

Natasha was not fond of stating the obvious, but she still said, “You’re Tony Stark.”

“Most famous member of the club, that’s me. Is it possible to sign psychic autographs, do you think? For you, I’d be willing to try.”

A smile tugged at a corner of Natasha’s mouth. “I don’t know about most famous. At least one of us is royalty.”

Tony’s eyebrows climbed to his hairline. “No shit. Who is it? Prince Harry?” He gave an exaggerated gasp. “Don’t tell me we’ve got the Queen.”

“I doubt it. We’re supposed to be born on the same day.”

For a second, Tony sobered up. “Seriously? All of us?”

“It’s a constant within clusters, yes. I don’t think we’ve all met each other yet, our rebirth is too recent, but in a little while you’ll be able to ask them all yourself.”

Tony gave her a shrewd look. “So you’re the Gandalf of this fellowship, huh. The One Who Knows. How come?”

“I’m not telling.”

“Points for being cryptic, typical Gandalf fashion, but I wish you’d commit a little less to the role. The only thing I have to safeguard my sanity right now is the Facebook profile of a Vegas stripper.”

Natasha grinned. “I see you’ve met Clint.”

Tony stared at her for another couple of seconds. Then he snapped out of it and walked to her. “Whatever. Bet I can find out. You should use a scrambler, by the way, a VPN won't be enough if you’re trying to track down drugs—unless you want people to know you’re hailing them from…” He pushed the curtain aside and looked out the window. “Huh, Moscow.”

She looked at him. Obviously, he’d recognized what she was typing as an imprint code. She was not used to working with a team—her handlers had made sure to encourage infighting to keep the risk of revolt to a minimum. But Tony Stark seemed to be every bit the obnoxious genius he’d been known as, before Afghanistan.

“I hear your company won’t manufacture weapons anymore,” Natasha said in a low voice.

Tony’s shoulders tensed; his hand came up to rub at the strange metal core in his chest. She had felt it the moment he’d appeared, heavy and sore.

“Yeah, well,” he said off-handedly, “sometimes you get an epiphany, you know? Even if it was really, awfully obvious in hindsight.”

Natasha almost wanted to smile, but her mouth wouldn’t quite obey. “I’m familiar with the feeling.”

She angled the computer towards him in silent invitation. Tony blinked, then gave a half-smile and came to sit next to her on the bed.

Drawing the laptop to him, he opened a browser and went on the Stark Industries website. “I hope you’ve got a few hours. Quality hacker work isn’t as fast as Hollywood makes it seem—and, seriously, your computer’s crap. Actually, why don’t we just…”

And then they switched.

Now they were standing in a vast, futuristic workshop with floating screens and half-dismantled robot arms all over the place. A huge metallic structure was occupying the room, so large it went through the walls at both ends; it was vibrating ominously and radiating heat.

“…get to my place,” Tony finished with satisfaction. “I’m getting the hang of this. Pay no attention to the collider, it’s just a side project I’m working on.”

Natasha looked upon the structure with a critical eye. She couldn’t understand its purpose at a first glance, but one thing was certain; Tony Stark was as deflective and secretive as her. And—it was an oddly comforting thought—he probably had even more blood on his hands.

“Now we’re talking,” Tony said, invoking an array of floating screens. “Okay, so what was your little code thing again?”

Natasha shook her head. “I can’t let you do this from here,” she said. “If the Khah finds a way to track us down, I won’t let them find anyone but me at the other end.”

“What’s a Khah?”

She looked at him innocently. “Russian for H.”

He furrowed his brow, then made a dismissive gesture. “Fine, keep your secrets. What really matters is that nobody can track me down. I hacked NASA when I was thirteen, I’ll have you know. And they never found out. I’d burrowed very deep for that one, I wanted to know if aliens were real—spoiler alert, the answer will disappoint you.”

“You don’t even know what I’m looking for,” Natasha objected.

“Do I look like I care? Seriously, if I’d found you painting your kitchen, I would be designing software as we speak to help you find the optimal pattern to match the curtains.”

She stared at him. Tony seemed to realize his ramblings had veered a bit too close to the truth. He opened his mouth, then winced and ran a hand through his hair. It came out almost black with streaks of motor oil.

“Look,” he said. “I don’t know why this is happening, if it’s a sign from God or some other random New Age shit. But the fact is, it’s happening to me. And I want to believe it’s for a reason. And maybe that reason is—I can help.”

Natasha’s lips stretched in a wry smile. They really were too much alike.

“It’s not penance,” she said softly.

Tony almost flinched and didn’t meet her eyes.

“Watch a flock of birds move as one, and you glimpse where we came from,” Natasha said. “Ask how aspen trees feel trauma hundreds of miles apart, you’d begin to grasp what we are. It’s not fate bringing us together. It’s nature moving through us. And it moves at random.”

She took a deep breath.

“But… if you want to treat this as penance… or destiny, or love, or enlightenment… I can’t exactly stop you.”

Tony was looking at her, now; and it was her turn to avert her eyes.

“I’d ask what you’re making of it,” he said eventually, “but I have a feeling I won’t get a straight answer.” He crossed his arms, then quirked an eyebrow. “So are we ever gonna stop talking and get our hands on a computer, or what?”

 

“There,” said Tony, straightening up after two hours of work, “your computer is still shit, but now you’ll be able to break through any firewall and look good doing it. Also, you’re untraceable. Knock yourself out.”

Natasha pulled the laptop to her and started typing. She wasn’t long to find the drug; after all, it had once been circulating freely. The molecule she’d been made to absorb in her youth was an emotion suppressant just as she remembered. She did not allow herself to wonder how it could have affected her cerebral development at a formative age.

What mattered was the name of the pharmaceutical company that manufactured it.

“HYDRA. They only plagiarized about twelve different kinds of shampoos with that name,” Tony smirked. “Looks like the stuff you want is off the market, by the way.”

But Natasha knew where to look. “Their backlogs tell a different story. They’ve been shipping crates of it from China to a bank vault in Berlin.”

“A bank vault?” Tony said, nonplussed. “What are they keeping in there?”

Natasha edged closer to the screen. Berlin.

She’d always known the Asset was in Germany, but to get his actual address was giving her chills.

 

*

 

Steve kept looking over his shoulder.

He frankly could have done without the stress of a psychic-hunting serial killer coming for him. He had already way too much to think about, to the point that he hadn’t worked at all since lunch break. Loki’s visit had set off too many trains of thoughts at once. There was sheer astonishment, but also the unsettling feeling that Loki might just be as clever as he looked—he would have to be, to have such a handle on this mess already—and that he was right when it came to Pierce. We’re of some use to him. What use? What could possibly warrant the capture and lobotomy of dozens of people?

Steve wished James was here. And—his heart beat faster at the thought—he wished James was actually here. Whenever his mind drifted in that direction, he couldn’t bring his thoughts back on track for a solid fifteen minutes. James was here in DC. All Steve wanted was to send everything else to hell, and go find him. It was a physical ache, like a missing limb, like withdrawal. Maybe this wasn’t even about the psychic bond. Maybe this was just love. He wouldn’t know; he didn’t think he’d ever really been in love before. Nothing had ever compared to what he was feeling now.

But James wouldn’t even appear in the precinct anymore, and there was a horrible feeling of dread permeating the atmosphere, which seemed to be, at least partially, coming from him. Steve tried to reach him, if only to reassure him, to ask what was wrong, but he didn’t have Loki’s ease and remained alone in his very real, very busy precinct—

“Rogers,” said a sharp English voice.

Steve stood at attention by reflex. Carter wasn’t often in the building, but when she was, her authority made everyone stand just a bit straighter.

“Captain,” he answered. “I’m sorry. I was thinking about a case and—”

“You’re packing it in for today,” she said. “Detective Wilson will walk you home.”

He blinked. “Sorry? I…”

“This isn’t punishment, Captain. Caution, at the very least.”

Out of respect for his military rank, Carter called him Captain as well; but on the force, Steve was really a detective, same as Sam. He straightened up even more and nodded. “Yes ma’am.”

“Good. As you were. And Rogers—” She visibly hesitated. “Take care of yourself. You’re one of our best.”

Steve watched her go, nonplussed. Then he looked at Sam who was getting up from his desk. His expression was… not exactly guilty, but certainly not innocent either.

“What did you say to her?” Steve hissed.

“The truth. That you haven’t been feeling well, and that I’m worried,” Sam said brusquely. “As your friend, and as someone who’s spent a long time working with veterans. But let’s not talk about this here.”

Steve let himself be pulled out of the room, feeling like he vaguely deserved it anyway—he had blown off all of his cases this afternoon. Once they were outside, he stopped. This very spot was where he’d seen James for the first time. It was where—for him—this morning—where James had leaned in to kiss him.

Just looking at the empty stretch of sidewalk brought the memory back, so vivid it was like he was living it all over again, with a hammering heart, and for a moment he almost thought he could reach him—

“You’re doing it again,” Sam said, snapping him back to the moment. “Rogers, tell me the truth. Are you dissociating?”

Steve looked at him. “What? No.” Then he really understood the question. “What? Sam—no. This isn’t what you think. I’m not—going to have a nervous breakdown, or anything like that. I’m just… I’ve been distracted.”

But Sam was shaking his head. “You aren’t just distracted. I know what distracted looks on you. The other night at karaoke… it’s like you’re turning into someone else, Steve.”

Steve did his best not to start laughing hysterically. “You’re not too far off.”

“Steve.” Sam grabbed his upper arms. “I’m not playing. Tell me what’s going on.”

He looked truly anxious, and it rattled Steve. “I wish I could,” he said honestly. “I don’t know how to explain it to you.”

“I can help with that,” someone said right next to them.

Steve stared.

Because it was Tony fucking Stark.

You’re kidding me, he thought to no one in particular. Stark—Tony—was wearing a sharp suit, opaque sunglasses, and a crooked grin. “It’s nice to see you gaping. I’m freaking out too, you know. Internally, of course. Isn’t it weird that I knew two of my soulmates before we even soulmated? And oh, no, that was a bad new word. Really didn’t come out right. Now I’m picturing some kind of weird psychic orgy.”

“Wh—”

“It’s okay, Cap, just look to your right,” Tony said.

Steve did and saw an open diner, with a TV over the bar. Tony Stark happened to be onscreen, in the same suit and sunglasses, apparently giving a live press conference. STARK TO CONFIRM NEW COMPANY ORIENTATION, said the horizontal scroll at the bottom of the screen.

Steve looked back to Tony—the one standing there and grinning at him. “I’ve always had a thing for public declarations.”

“Jesus,” Steve whispered as he began to understand.

Tony wiggled his eyebrows expectantly. It was crazy, but—it could work.

Steve grabbed Sam’s shoulder. “Okay, fine. Sam, come on.”

“Steve, what—”

“Just come on, trust me.”

They went into the diner. Steve politely asked the waitress to turn up the volume, and Stark’s voice filled the entire room, raising a few heads.

“—yes, it was a long time coming and I can’t say I regret it. I know we’ve dropped a few points, but I really do not believe—”

“Stock market babble,” Tony said next to Steve, “I could do that in my sleep. Case in point: I’m doing it there and talking to you here. Okay, now give me some code words, c’mon. Christ, it’s like a childhood dream come true.”

“Sam,” Steve said. “Give me a code phrase. It could be anything.”

Sam was looking more and more puzzled, but he trusted Steve, maybe as much Steve trusted him. “Fine. ‘I am Iron Man,’ there you go.”

Steve furrowed his brow. He didn’t recognize that reference. “Is that a VA thing?”

“No, it’s Black Sabbath lyrics, because I feel more and more like we’re about to perform some kind of exorcism.”

Steve raised an eyebrow at Tony. “Alright, work your magic.”

“—and besides,” said the Tony onscreen, “there’s something we should all remember in those troubled times. The truth is—I am Iron Man. By which I mean, of course, that I’ve been forged in fire, and—”

Sam’s head snapped up. “Whoa.”

“I’m talking to him right now,” Steve said, looking him in the eye, wishing he would just understand. “I can make him say anything you want. This is real. This is proof.”

“Not anything,” Tony said, raising a cautionary finger. “Even hero worship has its limits, Captain.”

Steve made a face. “Hero worship?”

“Whoa whoa whoa,” Sam repeated, bringing him back to the upper layer of reality, “wait. I don’t get it. Proof of what? Is this some secret service thing? Are you perjuring yourself right now?”

“No, I’m not wearing a mike,” Steve said. He took a deep breath; this was the toughest part. “Sam, it’s some kind of… telepathic link.”

Sam stared at him.

Then he said, “I’m just happy we know for sure you don’t have a brain tumor.”

“Search me,” Steve said, spreading his arms. “I’m not wearing anything, I swear. Give me another code phrase.”

Sam looked at him, lips parted, looking so uncertain Steve felt cold fear shiver up his spine. But then Sam crossed his arms and said, “Strawberry omelet.”

Steve blinked. “That’s… I’m not sure he can—”

“No no no, this is fun,” Tony interjected. “Check it out.”

He shifted in his chair onscreen. “—not to mention mixing weapons development and green energy would be like making a strawberry omelet. You have the ingredients, you can probably do it, but why on earth would you even try?”

Sam was gaping now. He looked at Steve.

“Okay. Let’s have a drink. A lot of drinks. I’m going to need it if I’m gonna hear what you have to say.”

 

*

 

Bruce was hurting everywhere.

The room kept getting colder. At first it had been welcome—a reprieve from the damp, horrible heat—but now he was freezing, curled up around his broken hand in a weak attempt to preserve his body warmth. He had no doubt this was just the beginning. It was to be expected after he’d demolished three of Ross’ men. Although it hadn’t really been him. The other guy. Apparently Bruce’s anger issues were developing schizophrenic complications. Just wonderful.

He could hear the air conditioning rattling its heart out. He could have stuffed his tattered shirt through the vent, but it was too high in the ceiling. So he was left shaking in his ruined clothes—now blood-stained with the evidence of what he’d done. What the other guy had done.

Bruce wasn’t an idiot. He knew that they were leaving him alone in here to fear what would come next. It was a classic tactic, something to be expected from the military. But knowing didn’t help against the dread pooling in his gut. He was stuck here, and now that Ross knew that Bruce—or at least some strange cat version of him—could fight back, he was getting more professional about his methods.

When the door opened again, Bruce pushed himself uselessly against the far wall; making himself look small had never worked before, but he couldn’t help doing it.

Four men came in and one of them pointed a huge black gun at him. Bruce didn’t even have time to panic before he felt a sharp sting in his shoulder. He brought his unhurt hand up to the sore spot, expecting it to come away covered in blood, but his fingers bumped into a dart instead.

“We’re not taking chances anymore,” the man said. “Take it as a compliment.”

Bruce opened his mouth to say something, but all that came out was a slurred moan. Within seconds, he couldn’t move his limbs. He was completely paralyzed and still completely awake.

“Let’s go.” Rough hands grabbed at him and dragged him across the cement floor. Bruce’s tattered clothes did nothing to protect him from the rough scrape of it; by the time they kicked him in a new room, he was scratched and bruised all over.

“We tried to play nice, doctor. We really did.”

Bruce’s head was abruptly snapped backwards. The grip on his hair was so merciless and the angle so wrong he thought he was going to start choking. All he could see was blurred shadows—but then a single light bulb was turned on and suddenly he wished he still couldn’t see anything. In the middle of the room was a metal basin full of water.

“Do you remember my friend Ajax? Last name Freeman. You broke all four of his limbs.” It was a woman’s voice, grating at him from across the room. “Now why did you do that, Bruce? I was told you were a smart man.”

Bruce couldn’t even struggle. Strands of hair were being torn from his scalp. When he reached the basin, there was no dramatic pause—whoever was holding him just shoved his head underwater, and held him there.

The force of his chest hitting the edge of the basin was enough to make him cough and lose all of his air in the first two seconds. He automatically tried to breathe in and got a lungful of water. He tried to cough it out but he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t do it, couldn’t breathe—

The hand dragged him back out and dropped him gracelessly on the floor. By the time Bruce was able to cough all the water out, bile was rising in his throat. His lungs were on fire—the water was freezing, which he was only realizing now. His clothes were sticking to his skin, and he couldn’t stop shaking.

When he was finally able to get in a good breath, the woman said, “Okay, let’s try that again.”

Bruce’s body was still unresponsive; this time, however, he’d had more warning and gasped for air just before he got dunked. The shock of cold water threatened to make him lose his breath again, but he forced himself to hold on. He could feel painful nips against his face and throat and suddenly realized the basin was filled with ice.

A wave of rage welled up in his throat, but it was useless. He was useless. As if to prove it to him, the hand pressing over the back of his head let go—and he just stayed there, still paralyzed.  They were essentially letting him float and he couldn’t even pull his head out. He was going to die like this, weak and pathetic.

Then something warm touched his face, and the shock of it made him lose his breath and start coughing again. After a few moments of complete panic, he was finally pulled out and left to drop limply on the floor.

It took even longer to get his breathing under control this time, but it still felt too soon when he was pulled up again. Someone was laughing at him. When he was shoved under again, Bruce opened his eyes—just in time to see a hand come up and cup his cheek.

A familiar face loomed up from the bottom of the basin, and suddenly Tony Stark was—kissing him? No. It was mouth-to-mouth. He was breathing for him.

Some distant part of Bruce was still choking—because this wasn’t real, he knew. Tony might have air, but Bruce did not, and nothing could change that. But his body was still cheated into relaxing for a few miraculous seconds. Tony’s eyes looked into his, and Bruce felt a wave of calm drape over him, chasing away the chill of the ice water.

He wasn’t alone. He was here, and Tony was here with him, and maybe this wasn’t the end. Not just yet.

Then his vision vanished in a burst of bubbles and he was pulled out again, coughing so much he could taste blood.

“Well, this isn’t working. Maybe we just need to try again.”

He was pulled over the water—and maybe the paralytic was beginning to wear off because he managed to stammer weakly, “No.”

“No?” He got shoved inches from the floating ice. “You want to go back to your room?”

“Yes.” Bruce could feel his lips turning blue. He didn’t even know why he was bothering to beg. He just couldn’t help it. “Please.”

He was kicked to the floor.

“You heard him, gentlemen. Bring the doctor back to his room.”

 

He was back to his room, alright.

His head pounded along to the unbearable bass of the heavy metal music that blared out of the speakers in the ceiling, and his throat had been long shredded from screaming himself hoarse. His broken fingers were throbbing. The room was still cold—maybe even colder. They’d taken what remained of his clothes. He had no idea how long he’d been in here. He didn’t know if he’d been listening to the same song on repeat or if it was even still a song. Everything was crashing together in his head.

Yet again he tried to struggle free, pulling against the rope binding his chest and hands to the chair. He was almost skinning himself, and his muscles were beyond aching—sporadically contracting of their own accord, but he still tried—if he could only free his hands—he was going crazy, he wished it would just stop.

Sometimes it did. And then it started again, and he screamed, and sobbed, and started struggling again because if he could just free his hands—

“Shh.”

He startled at the voice—so clear despite the blaring cacophony. He looked up to see a blurry shock of red. It took blinking a few times to finally get Natasha’s face in focus.

She reached out and brushed her thumb under Bruce’s eye, wiping off the tears. He hadn’t even noticed he was crying. Her gesture pulled a wet sob from Bruce’s sore throat, making his chest burn anew. He leaned towards her, like a flower seeking the sun. Not even the raw slide of his bindings on his skin could stop him. He needed her too much. If he was going to go mad, at least he’d get to choose his madness. To choose her—them.

Natasha slid her hands even further and covered his ears, pressing enough to dampen the shrill music. Everything slowed down—in that moment, even his pain seemed to subside. He felt his head tipping forward and realized Natasha was pulling it down to rest their foreheads together.

He was sitting hunched over on a hotel bed, and Natasha was kneeling on the floor in front of him, hands still protectively holding his face. The room wasn’t too bright, pale daylight filtering through the white chiffon curtains. There was no music, no pain; the only sounds Bruce could hear was distant traffic and the gentle hum of the radiator on the wall.

“Bruce?” Natasha murmured, as if trying not to spook him.

He cleared his throat, was briefly surprised it didn’t hurt, and whispered, “Thanks.”

Natasha looked pained. “This shouldn’t be happening to you.”

He snorted in wry disagreement—this whole thing had started with him, after all. But Natasha frowned and pressed her hands tighter around his face.

“No,” she said, and her voice was laced with steel. “I don’t think even an evil man would deserve this. And you…” She brushed his cheek again. “You might be the best of us.”

“You’re not real,” Bruce whispered. “When you say things like that, I know you’re not.”

“Can’t you give them what they want?”

He shook his head wearily.

“Okay,” she said. “I’m going to tell Clint. He’s only hours away. We’re coming to get you.”

“That’s… nice. That’s a nice sentiment.”

“It’s true.”

Bruce shook his head again, but not hard enough to pull away from her.

“I’m sorry you don’t believe me,” she said. “But Clint will come. You just have to hang on for a little while longer, and then you can go home.”

“Home,” Bruce echoed tiredly. “And where is that, now?”

Natasha carded her fingers through his hair, sorting the wet strands away from his face. “With us.”

Like a rubber band snapped back to place, Bruce was forced back into his hell. The music blared at him, washed over him, through him, and he tried to hold on to Natasha’s words—but they were being blended into pieces already, just like everything else in his mind.

 

*

 

Clint woke up in the process of packing a bag, which was odd even for him.

“Uh,” he said, realizing that he was also fully dressed, with his hearing aids in place. The moonlight was shining through the window; Kate was peacefully snoring in the other room. A glance at his phone told him it was 1am.

“What—”

“Do you have a car?” Natasha said, sounding slightly manic. “Where is it?”

“What? Yes—across the street, but—”

“Perfect. Let’s go.” She grabbed his wrist.

“Go where?—hey! I have a job—three of them! I can’t just leave!”

“It doesn’t matter. Get a move on.”

He wrenched himself free, startling her.

“Yes it fucking matters,” he snapped, his voice tight with anger. “What? Just because I’m working in sequined tights and glitter shorts, you think it’s a joke?”

“What? No. It’s not what I meant. Clint—there’s no time, we need your help.”

“I’m already helping! Helping is what I do,” Clint protested. “I’ve got to take care of Kate, and I’ve got to protect my brother, so whatever the hell your problem is—”

“Bruce is going to die.”

That effectively shut him up.

“The military caught up with him. They’re going to kill him eventually, because he won’t talk; and they’ll do it without a second thought, because he has nobody to ask after him.” She threw him the duffle bag, her eyes fierce and shining. “Nobody but us.”

“But—” Clint said, petrified. “I would have felt it.”

“No. The bond is young; our visits are still random.”

“Shit,” Clint whispered. “Do you know where he is?”

“I can only assume they brought him back to base. The Internet says he works for the Culver Institute. It’s a three-hour drive.”

Clint hesitated. If he didn’t show up to work he might just get fired, and then what would happen to Kate? To Barney?

But right now Kate was safe, and Barney was in the wind. Natasha was right: Bruce didn’t have anybody but them.

And he thought nobody was coming.

“Well I guess I can find another goddamn job if it comes down to it,” Clint mumbled, grabbing a few more things Natasha hadn’t thought to pack—namely, his bowcase and quiver, because it was the only weapon he had. Natasha had packed Bruce a change of clothes, right down to his underwear, and an icy shiver went down Clint’s spine at the implications.

All done, he opened Kate’s bedroom door. She was sprawled out on her mattress, deeply asleep. Clint’s throat tightened; he crouched by her side and shook her shoulder. “Katie-Kate. Wake up.”

She opened bleary eyes and raised her head. “Mwha’?”

“I have to go. For a few days. I’m going to miss work and I might—I might get fired. If that happens, you go to Wanda or Scott. Okay? You don’t stay here alone.”

“Few days, Wanda or Scott, not alone,” she repeated hazily. He hoped she would remember this in the morning, because she was clearly still asleep.

“There’s no time,” Natasha said. “You’ll call her later.”

“Alright. Yeah. Go back to sleep, Katie.” He kissed the top of her head and got up. She kept staring at him in sleepy confusion until he’d left the apartment.

 

“I thought you worked at night,” Natasha said as they jogged to the car.

“S’my night off.” Clint threw his duffle bag and bowcase in the back. “Which way?”

The highway was nearly deserted. As soon as they left town, Clint pushed his old car as fast as it would go. The Alien Fresh Jerky billboard whooshed past. He hadn’t left Vegas in years—not since he’d gotten there, now that he thought about it. The flat darkness of the open road was strangely exhilarating, almost dreamlike. But his pounding heart reminded him it was all real.

He knew Bruce was still alive; he knew he would have felt his death in his own soul.

 

Time went by in a hypnotic haze of headlights over unreeling concrete. Clint almost missed his exit and swerved with a curse.

He drove for a couple minutes down a lonely dark road. There was a cluster of dusty buildings at the end, and he felt a strange twinge in his mind. Recognition. He’d been here before. But he hadn’t really: Bruce had been.

He stopped the engine and got a good look. The Culver Institute was designed for scientific research; it was protected, but not heavily guarded. There was a gate with a night watchman, but no one patrolling the grounds. Just a ten-feet-tall fence with barbed wire on top.

Clint was used to swinging from a trapeze and juggling knives. He climbed the fence without trouble and landed safely on the other side.

That was when the music exploded in his ears.

He jerked in pain and surprise and ripped out his hearing aids—but it was no use: the torture came from within, and it was not music but a furious splintering of the mind, overhauling his thoughts like a hurricane.

“Good,” Natasha managed—he could hear her, because her voice and the music were not on the same channel, “he’s here.”

“Jesus goddamn Christ how are you still moving,” he gasped when she walked forward.

“Come on,” she said with gritted teeth. “We have to.”

Clint tasted salt and realized he was crying uncontrollably, Bruce’s nervous exhaustion pouring out through him. His felt like falling to his knees and pulling at his hair and howling. But he dominated the tremor in his limbs, repressed the lurching in his stomach. Bruce was living this. They had to rescue him.

There was a window full of light on one side of the building, and another greyer and dimmer, at the other end. The others were all dark. Clint knew the dim one was closer to his goal. He took out his bow with shaking hands, tried five times before he managed to nock an arrow. He aimed at the golden window and shot. It shattered—that sound he couldn’t hear anymore—but he saw shadows moving there, getting in the way of the light. He’d drawn attention; that was all he needed.

Breaking out into a run, he slammed his quiver into the dim-lit window; it burst open and he hauled himself through it. He could barely think, but he was in. The pull was so intense now, he could only stagger forward. He walked past laboratories full of ancient computers, break rooms with friendly messages on the white boards, dusty offices strewn with coffee cups and staplers. There was another door, opening on a flight of descending stairs.

He went down the steps. The avalanche of sound in his mind had become almost abstract, like an enormous flare of burning hatred. He could feel its real echo—because he was coming closer to the actual room Bruce was kept in, and the heavy bass line throbbed in his stomach.

All of a sudden there was someone in his way. It was a military grunt, wearing sand-colored camouflage.

Before Clint could do anything, Natasha shoved her fingers in his eyes then punched him in the throat; when he folded on himself, she slammed a knee into his plexus, so hard something cracked. The man crumpled completely, curled around his crushed lungs, unable to breathe. In a minute he would be dead.

“Take his gun,” Natasha said.

Clint took his gun. His own hands were bloody. From the man’s eyes.

“What the fuck—” he managed.

She shot a slightly unsure look at him. “What?”

“You… you killed him!” Clint couldn’t look at the man. He didn’t want to think about it, couldn’t hear his rasping attempts at breathing. All his brain was screaming at him to help.

“He would have killed you,” Natasha said, still confused.

A renewed wave of agony poured in from Bruce; they both winced. On the floor, the man had stopped moving. Clint couldn’t even afford to think about it. There was a door at the end of the hallway, throbbing like an eardrum. And just across from it sat the control panel, with an empty chair in front of it.

“Don’t waste your time with that—”

But Clint was already going to the panel, because he needed to shut this torture down or they’d all go crazy. He fiddled with the controls and, when that didn’t work, began ripping out wires until the monstrous blare of noise suddenly vanished.

More than one kind of silence washed over him, then. He went back to his world of muffled sounds—he’d never thought he’d miss it—but he was also freed of the frantic, anguished madness plaguing him. Bruce must have passed out instantly.

And then—there was a gunshot.

It took Clint several seconds to realize he was the one who’d fired. At the other end of the corridor a bulky woman was dead. She’d been aiming at him as he went for the control panel. Clint hadn’t seen her; Natasha hadn’t seen her. But somebody else had.

“Stay alert,” murmured a man with chin-length brown hair and piercing pale eyes, lowering the gun.

Clint stared at him, wide-eyed and breathless. It was another one of his soulmates, without a doubt. A blink and he was gone.

“Never seen him before,” Natasha murmured.

“I don’t even know how to shoot a gun!” Clint whispered hysterically. “I—”

But there was no time. A gunshot was bound to draw attention. Clint turned to the door and found it locked; he tried to throw himself at it shoulder-first like in the movies, but Natasha took over again and shattered the lock with one swift kick. A powerful stench of sweat and urine assaulted Clint at once.

He clamped a hand over his mouth and walked in.

The room was freezing cold. Bruce was there, naked, his head drooping forward. He’d been bound to a chair so tightly he was bleeding. His skin was grey, making him look like some wax figure version of himself. He was so deeply unconscious Clint couldn’t feel their connection at all; but he recognized him, with his mop of curls and his small frame, and his heart twisted with agonized empathy.

“Jesus Christ. How could they—Jesus Christ.”

Natasha was already sawing his bonds loose with an arrow; she had to pull the rope from his flesh, because it was so deeply embedded. Bruce crumpled forward and Clint gathered him in his arms, lifting him up. He felt like he weighed nothing at all. Clint was trembling with horror.

“Hurry,” repeated Natasha.

She seemed unaffected. Clint was in too much turmoil to know if she really was. But she was a killer alright; she’d seen this kind of thing before. Clint hadn’t, and he supposed he was lucky she was here, because without her he wouldn’t have been able to move at all.

He got out of the room and ran up the corridor, past the two corpses—the bulky woman and the soldier in sand-colored fatigues. Don’t think about it. What a fucking idiot, throwing his hearing aids away. He couldn’t even tell if there were people waiting for him upstairs. There must be—and if there were he was doomed—

But there was nobody.

Without taking the time to ponder this miracle, Clint hurried out, towards the door, because he wouldn’t be able to climb the fence with Bruce in his arms. The gate was there under the dark night skies, bathed in bleary orange light, but nobody was guarding it anymore. Everybody had flocked to the broken window. After all, it had only been five minutes since Clint’s arrow had shattered it—but why hadn’t anybody heard the gunshot?

“The basement was soundproof,” Natasha said, showing her teeth, “it was soundproof so they could torture him,” and Clint ducked under the gate, carrying Bruce away, absolutely unable to believe what he’d just done.

 

*

 

Tony woke up with a gasp.

“Shit,” he mumbled, closing his eyes again. His heart was racing, and his temples damp with cold sweat. This was why he tried not to sleep anymore.

Looking around, he saw that he was in his workshop—he must have collapsed right after coming back from the press conference at 8pm the day before. From his sleep he remembered muddy nightmares. Ice water, feverish darkness, and the desperate need to breathe. Also Bruce? He didn’t know anymore.

“How long have I been asleep?” he asked, rubbing at the godawful crick in his neck.

“About eleven hours, sir,” Jarvis answered. “It’s now 6am on April 16th—”

“Mute,” Tony said, then mumbled to himself, “Cap will think I’ve been slacking off.” Because that was apparently a thing. He was psychically linked with Captain America.

Wait—had he dreamt this as well? He furrowed his brow. He wouldn’t put it past his shit brain to invent something that ridiculous.

But no, it was all real. He had been too preoccupied with hiding his excitement—and at the same time he’d been trying so hard to please Steve, to be useful to him. Their little game with the code phrases had made his inner nine-year-old squee with excitement.

And now Steve Rogers was part of Tony, and Tony was part of him.

People said you should never meet your heroes; Tony supposed being soul-bonded to them was even worse. Sooner or later, he was going to have an actual conversation with Steve, and that thought made his stomach tighten as if in anticipation of Judgment Day. What would he even tell him, when Steve inevitably confronted him about his weapons company? The man had been through hell—and it was a hell Tony had personally manufactured.

Tony felt suddenly so terribly afraid he couldn’t bear to be still for a second longer. He got up, and if the collider hadn’t been humming like a giant hornet, he might have lost himself in his work; but as it were, he escaped from his workshop and hurried up the stairs.

A whole different world was waiting for him there. Pepper had been more or less living in the penthouse of Stark Tower for the past few days; she was too concerned with decorum to invite herself in one of the bedrooms, though, so she was sort of camping out on the couch. Tony hadn’t even questioned it until then. But in this moment, when he saw her curled up on the couch like a teenager, balancing a laptop on her knees, he fully realized he had the power to actually invite her in his home.

And there was nothing he wanted more.

“Hey,” he said.

She looked up at once. Despite the awfully early hour, she was already working. “Tony—you’re awake. I think I found something.”

“I should tell you,” he began, ignoring her, because he needed to say this all at once, “after everything you’ve done for me, I’m just beginning to realize—”

But Pepper was used to talking over him and ignored him as well. “It’s a different angle but we might make it work—I think Stane has been laundering money using various companies over the world. Like AIM, or Latverian Foods, Inc.—”

“—I’ve never even hinted at how grateful I am, and this couch is probably very comfortable but I was wondering—”

“—or HYDRA Pharmaceuticals; anyway, it means we could sue him for this and use it as a Trojan horse to—”

They both trailed off and stared at each other.

“Wait,” Tony said, “wait, wait, wait, what did you just say?”

“No—you first.” Pepper’s expression was very odd, something between hopeful and angry. “What were you getting at?”

Tony blinked. “I… was suggesting that you might want to… sleep in an actual bed—not mine,” he exclaimed in sudden understanding. “Just that you can take one of the rooms.”

“Oh,” Pepper said, and once again the look on her face was strange, as if she was gathering her wits after letting her mind go on a tangent. “Right. Well—thank you.”

“It’s—you’re welcome, but—wait,” Tony said, struck again by urgency. “What were you saying?”

“That Stane is laundering money—”

“No, not that—well, yes, that. I guess I should have seen it coming. Just another stab in my back, who’s counting. But—anyway, what was that company you mentioned? The last one?”

“HYDRA Pharmaceuticals?” Pepper said in confusion.

Tony was almost vibrating with excitement. This was the company Natasha had been trying to hack. The coincidence was too extraordinary. And if HYDRA had been associated with Stark Industries, then Tony knew what they were keeping in that bank vault in Berlin: some sort of weapon.

“Show me,” he demanded.

Puzzled, Pepper called up some visuals. “Here. It’s very subtle… but the clearest sign is that Stark Industries delivered them some prototypes, for no apparent reason. It’s obvious they have an arrangement of some kind.”

“What prototypes?”

“Mostly prosthetics. Arm prosthetics.”

Tony had expected guns and missiles. Why prosthetics? Stark Industries’ products were priceless, but they still had to be tailor-made, which explained why they hadn’t hit the market yet. Very few people could afford them, and they couldn’t be resold, or scrapped for parts. As bribes went, it was very odd.

“Jarvis, who’s the CEO for HYDRA Pharmaceuticals?”

“Alexander Pierce, sir.”

“Alright, new search term: ‘Alexander Pierce’ in all of Obie’s emails. Have at it. Find out if there’s a particular reason he’d need a state-of-the-art mechanical arm.”

Pepper’s lips tightened. She used to berate Tony whenever he sicced Jarvis on Stark Industries employees—Tony, this is a serious invasion of privacy, you could lose your company over it!—but times had changed, and she said nothing. There was still a puzzle there Tony couldn’t make out.

“What did Stark Industries ‘give away’ to the other laundering companies?”

“Small things,” Pepper said. “Office supplies in bulk, delivery trucks, raw materials and spare parts…”

Tony put them off his mind. There was something going on with HYDRA and Stark Industries, something much bigger than a money laundering scheme. They weren’t just partners in petty crime; they were associates.

Jarvis suddenly piped up. “Sir. An email from 1998, from Mr. Alexander Pierce to Mr. Obadiah Stane. The word ‘arm prosthetic’ is mentioned only once.”

All at once Tony’s heart was in his throat.

“1998?” he repeated, trying to sound casual, but there was a tremor in his voice.

“Asset test run,” Jarvis read out. “Equipment: M249 Paratrooper SAW rifle. Harley-Davidson VRSC A V-Rod. Stark Industries ‘Winter Soldier’ arm prosthetic.” He paused. “There is a video attachment. Shall I play it, sir?”

Tony did not want him to play the video. Some deep buried part of him already knew what it was going to show.

But he still croaked, “Yes.”

 

It was just a view of a deserted country road. Tony knew it by heart. It had engraved itself in his memory on that cold morning when he’d had to identify the bodies. But it was just an accident. It was just an accident.

They told me—it was just an—

In the video there was a man on a bike, catching up to the mustard-colored car Tony tried never to think about. He had mocked his father for buying it. His mom claimed to love it, but Tony was certain she disliked the color too.

The 90s recording was full of static and Tony couldn’t make out much. But the man’s left arm was glistening silver when he lined up his gun and took the shot.

There was no sound, only Pepper’s breathless gasp; yet Tony heard the crash as if he’d been in the car with them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

5.

 

The streetlights melted into one long drag of fire streaming after Clint’s car, devouring the strips of white paint on the road. The spare hearing aids he kept in his glovebox weren’t as good as his regular ones; but even through the jumble of sounds, he was hyperaware of Bruce’s painful, rattling breaths, and of the long silences between them, as if each one could be his last.

Clint was Natasha, or Natasha was him; in any case someone had taken over, someone that could function even through deepest shock and nameless horror. Maybe it was him after all; maybe it was bits and pieces of them all. The confused mixture of their selves somehow managed to get to a hospital, and to park the car without crashing it.

When Clint stumbled out, he found himself astonished at the concrete under his feet, because it was a clear sign that he was here even though he felt all over the place. For the first time since he’d been reborn into the bond, sharing his soul frightened him, as if he was about to lose track of himself for good in the multitude.

“Clinton Francis Barton,” he muttered, walking around the car. “31 years old. Grew up in Iowa. Get it together.”

He opened the door, and the sight of Bruce’s crumpled, naked body gave him back a bit of clarity. He may be going crazy, he may have just killed two people, but it didn’t matter; Bruce was more important.

Clint took off his jacket and did his best to cover him up, then he pulled him out and gathered him in his arms again. “You’re okay, Bruce,” he whispered, “we got you out. Just hang in there.”

He walked towards the hospital, which looked almost phosphorescent with white light. With every step, Clint felt that he might splinter into five or six or seven different people. What if Bruce woke up? he thought suddenly, and so close to him? Would they melt into one? Would there be any difference left at all between them?

“Oh jeeze,” someone said, and then, “Claire, we’ve got an emergency here!”

In a maelstrom of pale blue scrubs, white coats and silver implements, Bruce was taken from Clint’s arms and wheeled away on a bed. Someone was talking to him, but Clint’s spare hearing aids were really old he only made out the words when they were repeated louder.

“Sir? Can you hear me?”

Clint turned round. It was a chubby guy in pink scrubs. His nametag said Foggy. Clint wondered if that was a metaphor for his general situation.

“Uh. Yeah. Yes,” Clint said. “Sorry, yes.”

“Can you tell me what happened?”

Clint opened his mouth, then froze. Could he tell them what’d happened?

Bruce worked for the military. Maybe it was like in the movies and they’d find him right away if Clint gave his real name. Maybe he shouldn’t have brought him to the hospital at all. And—he looked around—he was in the Culver hospital, the closest to the place Bruce had been detained.

Idiot!

“Uh,” he said. “I… found him on the side of the road?”

The nurse stared at him. “On the side of the road?”

“Uh-huh, yeah. Naked and all. And I thought he didn’t look so good, right, so I was like… whoa, hey, maybe I should drive him to the hospital, y’know?”

“I see,” said the nurse. “Please come along, sir,” and he gently took Clint by the arm to bring him to an empty room, with an empty bed.

“Lie down or sit down or whatever you like. I’ll be back in a sec, and then we can pick up this convo. Deal?”

“Uh, sure,” Clint said. “Thanks.”

Left alone, he stared dumbly at the closed door; and as he stared he began to shake, and he might have shuddered out of his skin if someone hadn’t wrapped him in his arms from behind, putting a cool hand over his eyes.

“Easy,” said a low voice close to his ear.

Clint let out a shivering breath. “Loki.”

“You do know me. No—don’t try to free yourself,” Loki advised when Clint instinctively pushed at the restrictive embrace pinning his arms to his chest. That order helped him calm down more than all the blankets in the world.

Loki felt him relax, of course. “There you are,” he murmured, and Clint shook violently with relief. A moment ago he’d been afraid he’d go crazy, but now Loki’s presence was grounding him back into his own mind.

“You’re covered in blood,” Loki remarked.

“They—Bruce—”

“I know.”

“You don’t—you weren’t there—”

“All the same. I can swim upstream everything you’ve felt in the past few hours.” He tightened his embrace even more, and Clint exhaled again, deeper but still shaky. It felt so good to be held.

“I think I could go further still,” Loki murmured. “Maybe even feel from this present moment all the way back to the first breath our cluster ever took.”

His mouth was so close to Clint’s neck that Clint could feel it move when he spoke. It sent minuscule thrills through him, and he shifted uncomfortably when his restless energy began to pour into a new outlet.

This wasn’t even surprising. He was restrained and someone was taking charge—all the things he was desperate for; and he’d always responded to that in a very specific way. Not to mention sex had always been his way to defuse conflict or avoid it. (His ex-fiancée Bobbi could testify to that.) His thoughts were still churning with anxiety and horror, and in this moment, in Loki’s steely vise of an embrace, there was nothing he wanted more than a good hard fuck, so he could forget everything for a nice mindless while.

Just as he had that thought, the door opened on Foggy the nurse; but Loki answered for Clint, who kept feeling like he was being held close from behind, with a hand over his eyes.

“Hey,” said Loki through Clint’s mouth.

“Hey, buddy. Look, it’s 5am, our resident cop has been called on a car accident on the interstate. He won’t be able to come in before a couple of hours. Do you mind sticking around?”

“No—of course not. I could use the rest.” Loki was disturbingly good at counterfeiting profound exhaustion.

“Great. Feel free to crash for a bit, we’re not using this room right now. We can talk when Dr. Stahl comes in. Just—I don’t suppose you can tell us that guy’s name?”

“I wish I could,” Loki said, “I don’t know him.”

“What about yours?”

“Clint. Clint Barton.”

The nurse nodded and left them alone.

“He sounded strange,” Loki said. “Muted, somehow...”

“My aids—”

“Ah. Yes.”

Loki wasn’t muffled; his voice came from the bond. He hummed, then put his lips to Clint’s cheek again.

“You know I can feel that,” he said.

Clint swallowed thickly, because it was exactly what he’d said to Bruce, that time when he’d felt his hesitant desire.

Loki was pressing against him from behind, and Clint’s head swam when he felt the evidence of his arousal. Could they actually do this? Somehow he hadn’t really pondered it until then, not even when he’d almost kissed Natasha in the shower.

“How is this even going to work,” he mumbled.

“I’m in a mood to experiment,” Loki said right in his ear, and Clint shuddered when something else dawned on him. He had access to what tons of people dreamed about; a partner who could literally feel what he felt.

“Ever since we awoke to each other, I wanted to try something like this.” Loki’s right arm was still tightly locked around Clint’s torso, and his fingers stroked his dirty shirt, almost imperceptibly. “And I wanted to try it with you.”

Clint’s head was spinning. This whole thing scared him, but at the same time it couldn’t start soon enough. It was like being a virgin again, and in a way it was—he couldn’t say he’d ever had psychic sex before.

“But should it distress you more—” Loki began.

“It won’t,” Clint hurried to say. “It won’t.”

This was all he needed right now, something to make his mind quiet down, something to make him realize that even if his soul was multiple, it might still let him feel at peace—might even help him feel that way. And there was a simpler aspect to it, the joy of being dominated. It had been a long time since Clint had last found the time and trust he needed for a scene.

“Hmm. Are you certain?”

“Yes,” Clint repeated. He didn’t know how to explain his twisted, kinky deal without words. “I swear, it’s more than fine, I—”

Then a wonderful chill ran up his spine. Loki was in his mind. He knew perfectly well that he wanted it. But he was waiting for Clint to beg.

“You’ve done this before?” Clint asked in hopeful disbelief.

“I’m familiar with the concept. And I can feel what you want.” There was the hint of a smirk in his voice. “If indeed you do want it.”

“Yes—please,” Clint breathed, and it felt so freeing. “Please, please.”

Loki hummed again, deep and throaty, then bit at the lobe of his ear. The sharp pain gave Clint goosebumps, and his legs almost gave out.

“No,” Loki said, holding him upright. “Let’s bide our time. I need to keep you frustrated.”

As he said this, his hand came down to rub and massage Clint’s crotch. A fresh wave of burning desire raced through his body, and he needed release so badly he couldn’t help feeling miserable at the thought of making it last.

“Why?” he pleaded. “Shit, I’m already—”

“Shh,” Loki said, the hand shielding Clint’s eyes moving to clamp over his mouth. “I know. But you’re like a beacon; and if we ramp it up you’ll turn into a lighthouse. I’m very interested to see who shows up to our party.”

Clint couldn’t even wonder what he meant, because he had his answer almost instantly. He could feel the desire of others echoing down the bond. They were responding to it, like they’d responded to his pain and to his distress. Only then did he truly realize what they’d begun; but by then he wasn’t sure he wanted to stop it, and he was powerless to do so anyway.

 

*

 

She was kissing Clint.

It was a dream, probably, because she’d collapsed with exhaustion, right there and then, in her hotel room, in the middle of the afternoon. She’d spent the night tracking down drugs with Tony’s help—and then the race to rescue Bruce had started, and in the end she hadn’t slept in too long. She was at the end of her rope. So, yes. This was a dream.

Clint probably didn’t want anything to do with her anymore. And maybe this was why she was imagining this now, as if he’d forgiven her. She could feel his desire, as wholesome and straightforward as the rest of him; and from the depths of her slumber, arousal was flooding up, making her arch her back and push her hips down.

“Come a little closer,” whispered Loki.

Natasha blinked at him in confusion. Suddenly her mouth was free to talk.

“Why are you here? Where are we?”

“You’re not fully here yet. Come closer.”

She rolled her hips against the mattress, deepened her kiss with Clint, because she was somehow still kissing him, at the same time. Then her eyes opened, and she was in her hotel room in Moscow, masturbating alone; and she was in a dimly lit hospital room in Nevada, biting Clint’s lower lip; and she was in full darkness with Loki, the scent of sea and salt mixing with her own.

Clint opened his eyes. His pupils were blown, and he was exuding an arousal so intense she could feel it between her own thighs. In Moscow, on her bed, she brought her hand down to grind against her palm instead. The shiver of pleasure made her blink and stop.

“No—” Then she understood this was real, as much as it could be. “No.”

He blinked. “What’s wrong? Nat—”

“You don’t want this from me.”

In Nevada, where it was the three of them, Clint ducked his head. His hair was dark with sweat. “Tasha,” he said, heaving with tiredness and desire. “I do.”

“Clint, I made you—” She didn’t know how to say this. She hadn’t understood that murder could shock people until she’d felt it and seen it through Clint’s eyes. How could she explain something like that?

But she didn’t need to speak. He sensed it. “No, it’s okay,” he breathed. “Natasha, back there… we would have all died if not for you. Now Bruce is alive. Bruce is out. And, what they did to him, I—” A wave of misery washed from him. “I don’t know, maybe they deserved it.”

“Don’t feel too guilty,” Loki whispered silkily, coming closer to her in darkness. “We must think of ourselves first. Even if it means dirtying each other’s hands.”

As he said this, the hand down Natasha’s panties in Moscow suddenly wasn’t hers anymore; long, nimble fingers rubbed at her, making it harder to think. She wanted it so badly. But she still couldn’t believe Clint did.

She had dirtied his hands. Bloodied them. She had promised herself she would be the monster her soulmates would need; but she tainted all she touched; how could she ever think—

But then Clint kissed her, so deeply, so completely she couldn’t think. He still felt like an old friend and like a new love all at once; safe, and indulgent, and forgiving. She had never been forgiven for anything before.

“Three of us,” Loki breathed, “I do believe it’s the first time.”

 “It’s okay,” Clint whispered in her ear. “Tasha, please. It’s okay.”

She kissed him, in the hotel, on the boat, in the hospital room, and felt nothing but desire from him. He truly didn’t hate her for what she’d done—somehow the crime was entirely detached from the person in his mind, because that was how he thought of others, good people who sometimes did bad things, and she thought what an idiot, that’ll get him killed

“We all need this,” Loki murmured. “We all deserve this. We’ve all been through Hel.” All of a sudden he was the one kissing her. It felt sharp like a dare; he was talented but aggressive, and proved it when he pulled back to say, “You’ve hurt him. You started it. Now finish the job.”

In complete darkness Natasha pushed Clint backwards onto Loki’s cot, pinned his wrists and straddled him, bearing down on him to crush their mouths together again. He bucked up enthusiastically, radiating need and relief and want, and it was easier to fuck than to wonder if they should. She was tired of trying to be the voice of reason. She had never been trained for it anyway.

“God,” Clint gasped, in the hospital room, on his knees while Loki and Natasha kissed right over him, someone’s fingers pulling at his hair, “I never dreamed it could be like this.”

“I did,” Loki breathed, “and it came true.”

He let his head tilt back when Natasha tangled her fingers in his smooth, dark hair. She felt like a Hindu goddess, with as many pairs of arms as she wished, and enough bodies to make love to two men and herself at the same time. Clint’s face was buried between her thighs now, but he also had Loki’s hand over his mouth, and somehow it could all happen at the same time, because it was not real. With a conscious effort, Natasha could distinctly see the three of them, pleasuring themselves in their solitary beds, in three different parts of the world. But as soon as she stopped focusing, she slipped back into this confusion of the senses, where they were more fantasy than people.

Suddenly she knew how it was to have a cock, to feel it hard and hot between her legs; she could feel the readiness of pleasure, the swelling ache of it, and how sharp and sudden her orgasm would be, in contrast to the deep rolling waves she usually experienced. She also became aware of masochism when Loki raked phantom nails across Clint’s bare back, drawing lines of fire across his skin. Clint buckled and she buckled with him; it hurt, but her body craved and relished the pain, because it was given like pleasure, for pleasure, and sharpened her ability to feel it. Endorphins were flooding their shared systems.

“Don’t come yet,” Loki gasped. “We can count to four.”

“Please,” Clint rasped.

She dug her nails into his cock, eliciting a hitching moan; and it was so good she trembled with it, too. Her other hand groped for Loki’s hair again, wrenched him close enough for their mouths to meet. Loki enjoyed pain as well—or maybe it was Clint through Loki; who could tell, at this point?

“Four of us,” she gasped, “and more?”

“You’re the one who wanted to meet us all,” he grinned, and she was so overwhelmed with desire she didn’t notice that he’d never been there to hear her say it.

It was so good. It was too good. It was crazy. And some buried part of her still thought of Clint’s frantic horror after she’d used his hands to take a man’s life. To her it had meant nothing; she’d forgotten it was supposed to be wrong, until Clint reacted to it. She’d forgotten how much worse it must be for Bruce, to experience torture when he hadn’t grown up in a pit like she had. Her soulmates were too human for her, and soon they would find out what she was. Loki already knew, maybe; but then he’d been brought up as a monster too, though in a very different way. And he was already too skilled in the strange art of soulmelding for Natasha to know if he felt guilty over the lives he’d taken.

But before it fell apart, she got to feel like this. She got to feel whole, for the first time since she was six years old. She got to share pleasure and nothing but pleasure.

Despite everything, Loki was right. They all desperately needed this crazed, mindless lust, to free them from the cage of their own horrors. Natasha had always calculated and weighed and measured sex as she used it; but today it was like a flood in which she happily drowned. She gave in. She gave up. She let her guard down.

 

*

 

T’Challa was sifting through a digital map when the first spike of desire skewered him.

He let out a soundless breath—but it was enough for Okoye, who looked up at once.

“Your Majesty?”

“It’s nothing,” he said. “Please go on.”

Okoye obediently lowered her dark eyes again. “Here are our potential targets,” she said, and the HYDRA buildings highlighted themselves on the map. “HYDRA is implanted in over twenty-seven countries. I’ve taken the liberty to narrow our choices down to four possibilities.”

She tapped at the map. “Uganda,” she said, “the closest to our own kingdom. Then China, Germany, and the United States.”

The reason for her choices was obvious—China, the place where Gao and Pierce had built a poisoned haven for their kind; Germany, Pierce’s birthplace and HYDRA’s headquarters; and the United States, where Nicholas Fury had died.

T’Challa could not focus on her logic; his body was tensing despite himself. He gritted his teeth and cursed this indignity to hell.

“We must pinpoint our target to a single location,” he said. “I cannot afford to split our forces up.”

He was aware that revenge was at the forefront of his mind, but his duties to his country were still clear. Two thirds of the Dora Milaje strength must always remain in Wakanda. The remaining squadron wasn’t enough to attack in more than one place at once.

Pierce himself was easy enough to locate; even if he hadn’t been, T’Chaka’s letter would have given his position away. But his Asset remained more shadowy than ever. If not for Nicholas Fury’s files, T’Challa might have never known he even existed. As for the other hunters—

Unwanted heat washed through him again, and he couldn’t help closing his eyes. This was almost worse than sharing Loki’s torture. They were his soul-siblings, and yet he was hurt and angry and wanted nothing to do with them—and he was desperately unhappy with himself for it.

“Your Majesty,” Okoye said, quietly.

“I’m listening,” T’Challa answered with effort. He would not let them in.

Soft lips ran up his neck, pressing reverent kisses on his skin. The lore was clear. We are the same when we feel the same. But he didn’t want love, or warmth, or reassurance. Right now he wanted nothing but to put his father’s soul to rest, so he could rest, himself. Rest and mourn.

He shut them all out. Their touch glided along the surface of his skin, but no arousal could reach him. Different layers of reality kept fluttering before his eyes; the most insistent one was a hospital room, with three fair-skinned silhouettes laced together. He could see himself in the middle of them, gazing down in indifference, and they looked like supplicants to a cold god. Other echoes vibrated close to his consciousness. He should be embracing it—embracing them. Every connection was a blessing. Every touch was an opportunity for joy and celebration.

But the lore was wrong. It must have been wrong. This was no blessing; only irrelevant filth intruding upon his duty.

He kept pushing them away, though it felt like caging his own heart in steel. Hands dragged over his chest, ran down his stomach. Voices murmured words he could not hear. They were all behind a pane of opaque glass.

“Your Majesty,” Okoye said again, and the faintest hint of suspicion had crept into her voice.

T’Challa straightened up. He could not let her guess that he had awaken into his siblinghood; and more than anything, he could not let her know they were calling to him now. Okoye knew the lore just as well as he did. She would have pointed out it was sacrilege to shun one’s siblings away, because their bond was a gift from the gods. She would have left the room so he could give them his full attention. But T’Challa needed her to stay with him—to distract him from the insistent call of their shared affection.

“You will select a third of your warriors,” he said. “You will take not the best, but the second best. They shall come with me aboard the Nengwe Omnyama.”

“What about myself?”

His eyes flitted up, meeting her for a split second. “You are second best to none. You will remain here and guard the country.”

“I am second best to you,” Okoye said in an undertone.

She was paying him no compliment; with the Black Panther suit he was nigh invulnerable in hand-to-hand combat. T’Challa had the uneasy feeling she had already guessed about his rebirth, but did not dare express her suspicions yet. Or maybe this was her subtle way to do so, by discussing his intentions to leave.

“I am my father’s son,” T’Challa said sharply. “I must do this myself.”

Fingers trailed up his spine and he shivered. He could sense a great warmth, a deep pool of desire, pulsating very close to him, ready to wash over him if he would only stop putting up walls. There was a woman standing behind him, with her hands on his shoulders. Kneeling in front of him was a man with sandy blond hair, gazing up at him with love and wonder. And by his side was Loki, gently tilting up T’Challa’s chin to look at him. All naked and beautiful like gods; their nudity no more offensive to him than his own. Their hands as desirable as his own hands.

T’Challa looked through them and they disappeared.

“I’ve made my decision,” he said. “It’s a sterile debate anyway. We’ll remain grounded as long as we cannot know for sure where to strike.”

Alexander Pierce was in Germany; it was likely that the Asset would be there too. But T’Challa could not risk an international conflict over a likelihood. It was bad enough that he would be acting unofficially; if any of his warriors were caught leading a military operation on foreign territory, it might end in war. Wakanda’s interests came first, always, always, always. He must be sure. He must do this alone.

“T’Challa,” Loki whispered in his ear, and T’Challa almost startled and pushed him out through sheer force of will.

He had always been alone—the only prince, the only heir, the only Black Panther. He would always be alone from now on. Already his people called him the Orphan King.

He could not let them in. He could not let anyone in. He pushed them away further still, and further, and further, until he could feel warmth no longer; only emptiness and cold.

Alone. How it must be.

“Keep your warriors ready to leave at any moment,” he said. “Go now.”

Okoye got up to bow, but she waited for a second before she did; and in that second he could feel the weight of her reproach and her doubt and her sorrow for him.

 

*

 

It was only just 8am when Steve walked into the precinct—he couldn’t really sleep, so he’d thought he might as well go to work early, catch up on the cases he’d neglected the day before. Fury’s suicide, for one thing, was worth investigating further.

He’d been backed into a corner by Alexander Pierce’s men. It meant they must have been present in the hotel just before the gunshot—or he wouldn’t have killed himself with such urgency, without welcoming the children of his soul.

There was a bank across the street, and Steve had asked for the tapes a few days ago; he pulled them up now and watched them, not really certain what he was looking for. A few people came in before the time of Fury’s death; a few of those people came back out after he’d died. He could maybe run a facial recognition software—see if any of them pinged in the database…

“Hey,” Sam said, startling him.

Steve looked over his shoulder, heart hammering. “Sam. You’re… you’re early.”

“So are you.”

There was an awkward silence. Steve had done his best to explain the night before; Sam had listened, and then gone home, ‘to think’.

Standing there, facing him, Steve realized he was horribly afraid Sam would think he was pulling some kind of prank. It might be even worse than Sam flat-out thinking Steve was crazy; Steve had been not-quite-sane for some time after Afghanistan, after all, and Sam had been there every step of the way. Without him, Steve wasn’t sure what he’d do.

He turned his chair around. “So,” he said, gathering every ounce of his courage. “Where… where do we stand?”

Sam’s dark eyes were trained on him; for a second, nothing moved. Then the lines of his face smoothed out into affectionate warmth. “Don’t you look at me like that, Rogers. Like I kicked your puppy, Christ.”

Steve couldn’t help smiling, though it was still wobbly around the edges. “You’d tell me,” he said, voice uneven, “if you thought I was going mad, right?”

“You’re aware it sounds crazy. No denial, no paranoia. If this is madness, you’re being awfully reasonable about it.” It didn’t mean that Sam believed him, and they were both aware of it; but already Sam’s eyes had moved to the screen behind Steve, appraised the hotel. “So that’s where it started. With that man Fury somehow… giving birth to all of you.”

Steve turned his chair again to look at the screen. “Yeah.”

“How?”

Steve fidgeted. “I don’t know, Sam. There’s still a lot of things I don’t know.”

“Uh-huh. And now you’re linked to… how many people again?”

“There’s eight of us,” Steve answered, almost apologetically. “That’s… that’s what Loki said, anyway. I haven’t met everyone yet.”

“Right. Because you’ve got an Asgardian prince in the mix. And the goddamn Wakandan king.” Sam scrubbed a hand over his mouth and muttered, “Can’t believe their soul stuff wasn’t just a pretty metaphor.”

Steve blinked up at him. “Wait. You know about the soul-sibling lore?”

Sam gave him an amused look Steve knew well; it was the face he got when he said something very white.

“Yeah, ‘course I do, Rogers. Almost impossible to grow up in Harlem without hearing some of it. Wakanda is… something special. Never been colonized, never lost a war. You know they say the Black Panthers named themselves after it—though there’s no historical proof.”

Steve realized he did know that, though it was just a faint half-scrubbed memory from high school; he’d never imagined he’d get connected to Wakanda so intimately.

“So, yeah. I get what you’re talking about, in theory. But shit, Steve.”

“I know. I really thought I was going crazy,” Steve said. “Until he talked to you on the phone.”

Sam looked at him. Then he gaped at him.

“Wait. That was him? The guy with a South African acc—oh fuck me, it wasn’t South African. Fuck me, it was Wakandan. It was the Wakandan king.” Suddenly he froze. “Is he watching us right now? Is he—here?”

Steve retreated into himself—not much; just by a metaphorical step, feeling around. T’Challa was there, distant and foreign, and yet so familiar. Steve felt a deep, unshakeable trust for him, mixed with almost painful empathy. Grief was blowing in like a cold draught.

“He isn’t,” he said, “he’s mourning his father.”

But there was something else; it pulsed deep and rose from within…

Color flushed Steve’s cheeks when it washed all over him. He grabbed the edge of the desk in front of him and held on tight.

“What about James?” Sam asked suddenly.

Steve startled as if he’d been accused of something. He was feeling very warm—and it didn’t get any better when he remembered James’ kiss, and how much space he’d been taking, pressing up against him. Steve was used to much smaller and lighter partners, and he couldn’t get the discrepancy out of his mind, wondered how it would feel to find himself under such a heavy body, to feel it take him.

There he went, making himself blush again—and overlaid with his arousal was a thickening anxiety, because James still wouldn’t show up, and Steve had a feeling it was on purpose now.

He suddenly realized he’d let himself be overwhelmed by the thought of James—as always—to the point of not answering Sam’s question. Much too late, he stammered, “What… what about him?”

“Exactly,” Sam said, “what about him? You’ve told me about Tony Stark and Loki Laufeyson and King T’Challa. But what about James? Who is he? I remember you telling me he was around all the time, but you don’t even know his last name.”

“I didn’t have time to think about it,” Steve said, his back prickling with phantom touches he desperately tried to ignore. “I didn’t know he was real then.”

But now he did know; and he remembered the only thing he’d seen from James’ side—a bare, claustrophobic room which looked horribly like a cell. James’ little smile had been apologetic and shameful. I like your apartment better. And the way he behaved—tentative, sometimes fearful, sometimes in awe, like everything was new to him. Like he’d been locked away for a very long time.

“I don’t know,” Steve said, closing his eyes, arousal and worry clashing in his mind, “I don’t know.”

There was a long silence.

“So,” Steve breathed, “you believe me?”

He couldn’t have gone longer without asking.

“Of course I believe you,” Sam said simply. “Hell, you even gave me proof.” He crossed his arms. “Now, subsidiary question. Why do you look like someone’s blowing you under that desk?”

Steve felt himself turn beet red. “Jesus, Sam.”

“What? Were you trying to hide it or something?” Sam raised an eyebrow, obviously intent on tackling this head-on. “I hope you’re not actually having psychic sex while I’m standing here talking to you.”

“I’m—I’m not,” Steve almost moaned, “but I think—I think the others might be.” He was sweating and clutching the desk white-knuckled now. “I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry.”

“I think it says something about us that this isn’t even the most awkward situation we’ve been in,” Sam said. He visibly hesitated, then jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “I’m going to make some coffee. Come back when you’re… ready.”

This was really humiliating and Steve supposed he would die of shame sometimes soon; but right now he could feel nothing but the insistent call of pleasure. The fact that he hadn’t had sex in two years wasn’t helping one bit. As soon as Sam was gone, Steve turned away and made a beeline for the locker rooms. The moment he was alone, the flimsy walls he’d put up tumbled down, and he was fully hard in instants.

“Christ,” he gasped out. When he opened his eyes, Loki was in front of him, smiling, his hand fisted in the front of Steve’s shirt; he pulled him close and kissed him, open-mouthed. It was a filthy, aggressive kiss, nothing like the mind-melding experience Steve had shared with James; but it almost made him come in his pants.

Then another body pressed against him from behind, and Steve suddenly remembered he was still very much attracted to women.

“You’re,” he began, but then she kissed him, too, and his mind shorted out for a second. “The woman from the hotel.” Her name came naturally to his lips. “Natasha.”

“Steve,” she echoed. “I’ve been trying to see you again. We’ve got a lot to talk about.”

“Now?” he gasped, and she laughed.

“No. Later.”

“Christ,” said another male voice, debauched and breathy, “who are you? Never seen you before—Christ, you’re gorgeous.”

“I’m,” Steve said stupidly, “Captain America.”

He had no idea why he’d said that—maybe because it was the name people knew the most; the name of his fame. But the newcomer, a sandy-haired man, didn’t seem to recognize the title—much to Steve’s relief. His name bubbled up between them, though. Clint. Steve knew it instinctively, remembered it as his own, maybe. Clint’s skin was sparkling with glitter; his pupils were blown, and somehow he was a vortex of focused pleasure, like it all radiated from him.

But there was an ache—a hollowness where James should have been. Steve knew he could feel what they all felt. He was a part of this, too. Where was he? Why was he staying away? What had Steve done wrong?

James, Steve thought helplessly as their bodies moved around him. They were all so real, so overwhelmingly present, and it only made James’ absence hurt more. Steve wanted him here with them. He wanted to know if he was alright. On a deeper, baser level, he wanted to touch him, and taste his skin, and feel him on his lips again. Desire intoxicated him—drowned out his thoughts—and all that was left was this dazed, anxious yearning, James, James, James, where are you?

 

*

 

Back in the hotel room he shared with his handler, curled up on the floor, James shook.

It had been almost twenty-four hours since the withdrawal symptoms had begun. During the night, he’d thrown up all he could and sweated through his clothes. His muscles cramped of their own volition; his heart was racing unevenly, stuttering at times, and James couldn’t stop shaking. Drops of sweat trembled off the tips of his darkened hair.

He could not undress and he could not take a shower. He couldn’t do anything that’d break his focus. It was all he could do to resist the call of the others. Even though Steve…

James screwed his eyes shut. He was having trouble breathing. He couldn’t think of Steve or his focus would slip. Despite everything he still felt them, the others, coming together and trying to pull him in, to share their love and desire and joy with him, like phantoms caressing him in ways he could only barely feel. Waves of pleasure crashed against the walls he’d built around himself.

His eyes were tightly shut but hot tears still squeezed out. He let out a hitching breath; then a few gasping sobs heaved out, but he quickly quashed them, pulling at his own hair, trying to breathe slowly despite the incessant shaking.

There was a redheaded woman—he’d seen her once before, maybe. Her mouth was soft against his lips; he parted them like a parched man seeking water. This was nothing like when he’d kissed Steve; it was a cobweb feeling, a flickering sensation, only barely there. For a second she could see him, but then she was gone. More silhouettes danced in front of him; long silky black hair, glittery skin—but through a renewed effort, he pulled away.

He didn’t know anymore why he served HYDRA, and it terrified him.

He’d come back to the hotel room so they’d find him; so they’d take the choice away from him. But his handler wasn’t there, and neither was the doctor; and now he’d been left alone for so long he was beginning to really think, through the blurry red veil of his agony. Slowly but surely, the scales of his indecision were tipping.

Another wave of wrongness washed through him, and he panted with effort and pain. As if to counteract it, he felt more pleasure come his way. It disoriented him; he didn’t know if he’d ever had sex. He didn’t even know his own name, or his own age, or where he came from. Only then was it starting to occur to him that this was not normal. The drugs had kept him from questioning anything; he had been fed a story and he’d accepted it for the truth. But now he didn’t know anything anymore.

A particular vibration told him Steve had joined the vortex of minds and bodies and souls, and he sobbed again. He wanted. More than anything, more than the drugs, he wanted Steve. He was craving comfort and love and reassurance like a lost little boy. Please come get me. Please come get me.

Was that a memory? He’d never had any memories, except for his name, and even that one didn’t sound quite right. But those words—he could clearly hear them, in his younger mind’s voice, as if he’d said them before. Hitching sobs in the dark, whispered pleas. Please come get me…

The door opened and he flinched. Finally, the handler and the doctor were back.

“It is him. He’s there by the bed—”

Rumlow strode to him, grabbed him—then let go with a cry of disgust. “Jesus Christ, he’s soaking wet. What’s going on? Hey!” He crouched in front of James, seized his jaw in a rough grip, tried to get him to look up. “Why the fuck did you come back here? Answer me.”

Zemo’s quiet, cold voice cut through the room. “Obviously some kind of malfunction. Look at him. Doesn’t it remind you of anything?”

There was a silence, during which James tried desperately to stop shaking, but all he could do was sit here.

“Withdrawal,” said Rumlow eventually. He let go of him and stood up, slamming his fist against the wall. “Fuck!”

James couldn’t breathe. He was so stupid. Why had he come back to the hotel room? Now he was at their mercy. Zemo had the drugs; he would feed them to him, and they would carve out what little of himself he’d retrieved. And then Steve—

“Something must be wrong with the drugs,” Zemo said. “I think they’re blanks. Remember—he took two more on the plane because he thought he needed them.”

James froze and held his breath. Could he be that lucky?

“You think someone swapped the pills? On purpose? That’s impossible.”

“So is what happened to the Red Room,” Zemo said.

James shut his eyes again, exhaling shakily, mentally thanking whoever had brought ruin to the Russian branch of the Khah.

Rumlow straightened up. “Great. So what do we do? The Khah will have our asses if the mission fails. The Asset never fails.”

“So we do it ourselves,” Zemo answered dryly. “I couldn’t understand why they brought the Asset in anyway. Rogers is just one veteran—and he’s a cop. There must be a hundred different ways we can lure him in.”

“Yeah.” Rumlow sounded pensive. “Yeah, that seems doable.”

“Besides, the evac team’s just downstairs; as soon as we have Rogers, we can stuff him in the truck and they’ll take him away.”

James made a noise.

They both looked at him, with frustration and disgust, like he was a stain on their good shirt.

“He needs his fix,” Zemo said. “Now.”

“Well, he can tough it out until Rogers’ dealt with,” Rumlow said, irritated. “We’ve got other problems.”

“I’d agree—but as a matter of fact he can’t. He’s on benzodiazepine, among other things. If we leave him like this he might start having seizures. Or even a heart attack.”

“Christ. What a fucking mess. You know what? I’m calling it in.”

James forced himself to reopen his eyes. Rumlow was typing in code on his laptop; Zemo was sitting on the bed rummaging through his own med kit, probably looking for medication that’d provide James with the molecule he needed. James thought of what they’d said, and finally, what he must do became clear.

His handlers were both engrossed in what they were doing—so much they didn’t notice him hoisting himself up on shaky legs. Or maybe they did. They must have; it was a small room. Maybe they thought he was going to the bathroom to vomit.

They’d left the bedroom door open. James closed it and turned the key; the click made them look up.

“What are you doing?”

He didn’t answer.

His metal hand wasn’t shaking, so it was the one he used to pull out his gun.

 

*

 

So they were doing the psychic orgy thing after all.

Tony had joked to Steve about it; now he couldn’t even smile. The waves of pleasure washed through him, and left him cold. And wasn’t that just hilarious? Tony Stark not wanting to join in an once-in-a-lifetime orgy?

What a week.

Ghost fingers were pulling his hand, and he automatically jerked away from the touch, turning his attention back to the screen. He’d been watching the video of the accident on repeat—but of course it was no accident, it had never been. There was a flash of reflecting light coming off of the silver arm around the third minute; Tony already had it memorized.

He was about to start it up again when a lingering of lips—a press of a hand—broke his focus once more. He swiveled around to hiss at them, but realized then that he was alone in the room.

And not just in mind. Pepper was gone, too.

Her blanket was on the couch, her heels abandoned on the floor. Tony looked around, feeling disoriented. The pale morning light had turned into the dull gloom of a clouded day. How long had he been watching the video? A glance at his watch told him it was—shit. He’d sat there for almost three hours.

Tony’s eyes were dry now, but he still wiped them in a mechanical move. “J, where’s Pep?”

“Tony? I’m here,” Pepper called before Jarvis could answer. A second later, she appeared at the door. “Just moved to another room. You looked like… you needed privacy.”

Tony stared at her. He hadn’t looked at her enough earlier. He never looked at her enough. She was barefoot, in jeans and a t-shirt, her hair disheveled and not for a fashion trend; she’d been sleeping on his couch ever since he’d come back from Afghanistan. He’d never seen her like this. It was almost domestic, and it twisted his very heart underneath the metal.

“Are you…” She visibly hesitated, glanced lightning-quick at the assassin on the screen, then back at him. “Tony, are you alright?”

Why are you wasting your time with me? Tony wanted to ask. I’m a wreck, you’ve known for a long while, and I might be falling to pieces for good this time—so why? But in his fragile, guilty state of self-awareness, he knew saying this would only bring more attention to himself. And he was so fucking tired of himself, in the crap eye of the goddamn shitstorm.

“Will you take one of the bedrooms?” he asked, instead of answering her.

“Oh—yes,” she said. “Yes, thank you.” She didn’t seem surprised he was avoiding the subject; he always did.

Tony took a deep breath.

“I am not alright. But you’re here, and that’s…” He had to physically push the words out then; as if through an intangible barrier. “You know—I don’t have anyone but you.”

She stared at him, for once at a loss for words; and Tony could still feel the others in the background, tangling together, and he was quietly astounded at how easy it was to ignore them. He would have happily given up on all kinds of sex if it meant he could stay here, still reeling from shock and grief, but with the softness of Pepper in this room, her bare feet and her loose hair.

His heart twisted again with something like agonized tenderness. Now this—this was an entirely different problem to have. Forget all about captivity trauma, murderous father figures, radiation poisoning, secret conspiracies and steel-armed assassins. Loving Pepper Potts was a problem he couldn’t hope to solve.

He was Tony Stark. If he told people he was in love, they would assume he was joking. If he told Pepper he loved her, she would quit at once.

“You’re all I have, too, you know,” she said suddenly.

Then she fled back to the other room.

Tony was so dumbstruck he let his guard down. A hand rested lightly on his shoulder and Natasha’s melodic voice rang through his ears.

“Since you won’t come to the party, I’m bringing the party to you.”

“I never RSVP’d to anything,” he murmured, still staring at the door. “Go away, I’m having a moment.”

His flippant tone did not fool her for one second. He knew she’d been naked until then; but when she walked around his chair to face him, she was fully dressed. Her expression melted away from a carefree grin to a concerned frown, and Tony almost felt bad. She had clearly been enjoying herself.

“What’s wrong?” Natasha asked, point-blank.

Tony shrugged and swiveled in his chair, trying to go for nonchalance. “Oh, you know. It’s just a little hard to get some work done with a bunch of people trying to fuck right in front of you.”

“Somehow I don’t think that’s your problem.”

“Well, that, and also my parents were murdered.”

It was like the words had come out on their own volition. He’d wanted to keep his casual tone but all of a sudden he sounded completely wrong.

“By HYDRA’s Asset,” he went on, his voice wavering dangerously. “To help out my godfather. I found out thanks to you, actually. So. You know. Thanks.”

Natasha took a step forward. Then another.

She wasn’t saying anything. Tony looked up to see her gaze was on something behind him, and he swiveled around to see that the footage on the screen was still playing.

“Found that digging through Stane’s files. I know I shouldn’t keep watching it, something about healthy coping methods—” Tony stopped his rambling when he saw Natasha’s face.

It was no rambling matter. Suddenly she’d gone paler than him.

“Natasha?”

Natasha reached out a hand towards to the screen, fingertips nearly touching the tiny figure of the Asset on his motorcycle. She paused at the third minute, just when the footage showed that bright gleam of light catching on the metal arm.

“He was there,” she whispered. “Just for a second. He was there with us. He had a prosthetic arm…”

“What do you mean?” Tony said, feeling on the brink of something—maybe a nervous breakdown—but he already knew, or else his stomach wouldn’t have dropped, “what do you mean, with us?”

“He’s with us.” She looked at him, so pale Tony felt her sickness and fear like an icy wave. “He’s one of us.”

 

*

 

Swimming up to consciousness was rough.

Blinking open his eyes, Bruce squinted against the overhead lights. A sharp pain lanced through him, echoing the throbbing in his fingers, the burning across his chest, the dull ache encircling his wrists.

When awareness started creeping in at last, Bruce realized he was lying in a hospital bed. A glance down showed a lack of handcuffs to the bed railing. Clearly he was in an actual hospital. That was nice.

“Hey there.” He was too dazed to startle, but his eyes snapped up at the opening door. It was a nurse in blue scrubs, with an undercut half-hidden under long brown hair. She gave him a smile. “Good to see you’re awake.”

Bruce looked down at his right hand, and saw that there was a monitor clipped around one of his uninjured fingers. He figured the change in heart rate must have tipped off the nurse.

“My name’s Claire. Do you know where you are?”

Bruce gave a noncommittal shrug, but she seemed to take it as a positive answer.

“How are you feeling? Can you speak?”

Bruce gave it a try, but he felt like his throat had been scraped bloody. All he could do was croak, “Hurts.”

“I can imagine, yeah. If you’re feeling up to it, we have a few questions for you—but first I’m gonna try to bring you up, alright? Let me know when you need me to stop.”

Bruce nodded when he realized she was waiting for a response. She pressed a button, and half his bed slowly lifted up to a sitting position. His chest pulled at the movement and he held back a wince of pain.

Eventually, the bed stopped. This slight elevation had made Bruce dizzier than ever, and his ears were buzzing.

“I can give you an injection for the pain, or some pills. They’ll kick in slower but last longer,” Claire said, slipping on a pair of blue nitrile gloves. “I suggest the injection, though. No one likes needles, but it’ll give you relief the fastest.”

Bruce began to nod, but stopped himself when it made his head ache. “Okay.”

He didn’t like hospitals, because they made him feel forlorn and scared and six years old again, and they hadn’t stopped his mom from dying anyway, and they were so expensive his father had been in a fouler mood than ever afterwards—to the point that someone had finally noticed Bruce’s bruises at school, and he’d been placed with his aunt…

But Bruce shook himself—this was the past; he must focus on the present, because he knew there was something wrong about this whole situation, him being in a hospital all of a sudden. His mind was too clouded with suffering to function properly. He needed the morphine.

Claire got up to fiddle with his saline bag. “You’re pretty dehydrated, Dr. Banner,” she said, "I had a hard time putting the drip in, your veins were so flat."

Bruce went cold with panic before he even understood why. And then he realized—he’d never told her his name.

The monitor snapped off his finger when he pushed himself off the bed, and there was a sharp sting as the IV needle was ripped out of his arm.

“Hey!” Claire yelled. "What the—” The bed was in her way; it gave Bruce the few seconds he needed to stumble out of the room and into a long white corridor.

There was a woman sitting on a plastic chair. He turned away from her, heard the nurse calling him again, but it suddenly felt like he was hearing her through a huge body of water. His head was spinning; darkness pressed down on him and he staggered, reaching blindly for support. He heard the plastic chair scrape back, and the woman hurried to him, taking part of his weight before he could collapse entirely.

He blinked the dark spots away from his eyes to look at her.

It was Betty Ross.

What a strange dream, Bruce thought to himself—just before the darkness returned and he passed out for good.

 

“Don’t ever do that again. Ripping out your IV? Who are you, Jason fucking Bourne? Christ.”

Bruce’s eyes fluttered open. He was back in bed, with the monitor clipped around his finger again, the IV needle back in—though in the other arm. Claire the nurse was busying herself across the room, grumbling under her breath. And Betty…

Betty was still there.

“Hey,” she said very softly.

Bruce couldn’t stop looking at her. He was still in a great deal of pain and confusion and fear, but he knew she was real. He could have never imagined someone like her.

“Betty,” he managed. “How—” but then he started coughing.

“Here,” said Claire, grudgingly pressing a glass of water in his hand. He accepted it with gratitude, and tasted blood when he drank.

“I went to high school with Claire, she’s an old friend,” Betty explained. “She recognized you and called me right away.”

She took the empty glass back from him. Looking past Betty with an effort, through the open door, Bruce saw the words CULVER HOSPITAL stenciled across the white corridor wall. They were still in Nevada. Betty had grown up here. She knew Claire. Claire knew him. It made sense. Did it really? His thoughts were so sluggish.

“I’d given her that picture of all of us—from that conference a year back,” Betty went on. “Remember? You’re on it.”

Bruce did remember. His anti-electron panel. Tony Stark was at that conference, too. Quite drunk, yet obviously brilliant. Was he in the picture, too?

“You looked healthier back then, but I’m pretty good with faces,” Claire intervened briskly. “Let’s try that morphine again, now, okay?”

Bruce couldn’t help tensing again when she got up to reach his IV bag.

“Hey,” Betty said, looking worried. “It’s okay. You’re doing great.”

“Do I get a sticker?” Bruce mumbled.

It made her laugh, and he couldn’t help smiling in return, despite everything.

Just then, he felt his body going loose and warm; when he looked over, he saw that Claire was sitting back down. A thick medical scent permeated the room with the first rush of morphine.

“Thank you,” Bruce said with intense relief. Then he crinkled his nose. “That smells—really strong.”

Betty looked puzzled, but Claire smiled. “Actually, you’re tasting it. It’s in your veins, remember?”

Of course. He knew that. This confusion of the senses reminded Bruce of similarly puzzling experiences. Body glitter in the sun; snow on his face; coffee on his tongue… And just then his pain truly began to abate, Clint’s face flashed through his mind, and it all came back to him.

“Wait. I was…”

The words dried up in his throat. It felt raw because he’d screamed himself raw. The cold water—the blaring music—shock hit him all over again and he heard his heart monitor stutter accordingly.

“It’s okay,” Betty said, lacing their fingers together with urgency, squeezing tight. “It’s okay.”

Her eyes were too bright, and when he saw the look on her face, Bruce realized she already knew what had happened to him. More importantly, she knew who was responsible. It wasn’t a very difficult guess.

Claire tactfully picked this moment to get up and announce that she had other patients to check up on. Before leaving, she made a point in saying she’d back in five minutes, and that Bruce was not to leave his bed or, God help her, tamper with his IV again.

Silence lingered after her. Then Bruce looked at Betty and said softly, “I don’t think your dad likes me very much.”

It drew a half-smile out of her, but it quickly turned into a trembling twist of her lips. She was holding his good hand in a bone-crushing grip. “I’m sorry, Bruce. God. If I’d thought he’d go this far—”

“It’s okay,” Bruce said at once, trying to think of something comforting—and failing tragically when he went on to say, “I’ve had much worse when I was a kid. Um, my dad…”

Betty’s wide-eyed look helped him realize he had to shut up. The morphine seemed to have put a dent in his inhibitions; if he didn’t watch himself, he was going to start rambling about Rick Jones next. He swallowed and tried again.

“I didn’t give Ross the hard drive,” This felt much more important than his injuries; she had to know he hadn’t completely failed her. “I didn’t tell him where it was. But—I don’t have it anymore.”

She held his hand even tighter. “It doesn’t matter right now. All that matters is that you’re safe.”

Safe, he thought. But why was he safe now? He’d been so certain they were going to kill him. Memories kept trickling back in a constant, ice cold stream. His thoughts, torn to shreds, by the onslaught of noise. He’d been praying for death after a while—since that was how it must end, then let it be quick, let the pain stop…

“Betty,” he asked. “How did I end up here?”

“Some guy named Clint brought you in. Said he’d found you on the side of the road, but Foggy’s pretty sure he was lying.”

Bruce stared at her.

“Clint?” he repeated weakly.

“Barton, I think. Why? Do you know him?”

Bruce’s head was spinning. His first thought was that he must be hallucinating this entire conversation—but no.

He couldn’t just keep trying to convince himself none of it was real. He’d somehow become fluent in Spanish, and that was real; he’d beaten up Ross’ henchmen, and that was real; and now he’d been rescued from certain death. And that was real.

It was all real.  

“Is he still here?” Bruce asked, heart rate audibly picking up again. “Is he still in the hospital?”

“I don’t know. I never saw him.”

Tentatively, Bruce did what he’d refused to do all week, telling himself it was a fantasy, telling himself he was making it up—he opened his mind and tried to feel for Clint.

It was new, confusing, still tainted with disbelief. The drugs and pain weren’t helping; and he was trembling with excitement and wonder and nervousness. He closed his eyes to concentrate, swallowing thickly around his aching throat.

“Bruce?”

“Hold on.”

He tried to push, until he felt them—distant and unclear, as if through tinted glass—but he felt them, and closest of all, Clint. Bruce was so ready to let him in; he had so many questions; and Clint was so close, so warm and so welcoming, close enough to see, to touch, to taste—

But then something shoved Bruce back, so hard he physically reared away.

“Bruce?” Betty repeated, looking puzzled.

“Uh—nothing,” he said, eyes blinking open. “Sorry, I just… sorry…”

He haphazardly tried to feel again for Clint, fumbling through this expanding space in his head, wary of whatever wall he’d run into. But this time he found nothing, only a blank emptiness. No obstacle anymore. Nobody, nothing at all.

 

*

 

“Brother,” said a distant voice. “We are nearing the shores of Germany.”

Loki barely heard the words; reality was just an afterthought next to what he was experiencing.

Somewhere in the back of his expanding mind, he registered Thor waiting for an answer, then turning away, his steps fading in the narrow corridor. The deep buzz of the engines had changed; they were slowing down. Loki didn’t care. He was barely in the boat anymore. His world was Clint and nothing but Clint.

Something had distracted Natasha, and she’d been left behind while they kept climbing higher and higher. Steve had climaxed moments after joining them, and desynchronized himself soon after, breathless and stunned, still very much unused to their bond. But Clint and Loki had accepted it from the start, and maybe this was why they could function with such intensity. They were alone now, and both of them were flowing unrestrictedly into the other. Because of Clint’s cravings, Loki dominated the exchange, controlled it, paced it—and it was making him quite drunk on power. Clint could feel it—could feel Loki’s exultation the more he restrained him, bound him, bent him to his will—and Loki could feel Clint’s own exultation at being restrained, and bound, and bent.

“Christ,” Clint breathed against his lips. He was lying on his back, in the hospital bed—in Loki’s bunk—naked in all conceivable ways, trembling violently with vulnerability and desire. In the real world, somewhere, he was in fact still wearing his clothes. But the real world was so far away. It had been almost two hours; impossibly riled up, Clint wanted to come, but he was beyond even begging; it was all he could do to wait for Loki’s mercy, if he deigned to grant it to him.

At first they had been pleasuring themselves physically, each on their own side, to maintain the arousal bringing them together; but as the bond tightened, their hands had fallen away, their bodies now unmoving save for their heaving chests. In that space between their worlds, between their minds, they were tangled together tighter than any embrace; they kept jumping from a fantasy to another, too fast to follow, until it all blurred into a shapeless race towards pleasure. But in all versions of their coupling, Loki was penetrating Clint in some way, forcing open his mind, pinning him under the weight of his will and sadistic enjoyment. Clint’s masochism rose beautifully in answer, taking ineffable pleasure in this invasion.

Someone tried to reach out then—a hesitant sibling Loki hadn’t met yet, but he savagely pushed him away. Not now. He’d been eager to meet others before; now all he wanted was to be left alone and see how far this single synergy could go. This liminal space was so wide open, and he could do so much in it; it was so unlike the isolation and powerlessness of his daily life.

“You’re mine. You’re me,” Loki said hoarsely. He was Clint; he was looking up at himself with blown-up pupils, feeling his own weight on top of his body.

“Yes,” Clint breathed shakily, “yes.”

Loki could not push any further; already he controlled Clint’s body, could make it move, could make it touch itself at a faster or slower pace, or touch itself not at all. But he wondered what would happen when he let Clint reach his orgasm—when the feverish remnants of his consciousness gave way to absolute bliss.

“Yes,” Clint said again, almost sobbing, sensing Loki’s intention, “oh, God, please.”

Loki took him whole, and Clint came.

The gates opened wide, and they melded into one another—now Loki controlled not only his body but his mind; could sense his tiniest, flimsiest emotions, even the ones Clint himself could not consciously acknowledge. Neurons talking to each other. Flashes of thought.

“Wait—”

Loki put down more roots, tethered himself, crushed him away, taking all the space. There was a last spark of protest—a hint of absolute terror—

And then nothing.

Loki opened his eyes.

Gaping, breathless, he pushed himself up to look around. He was not in Thor’s yacht anymore.

He was in an empty hospital room. He had sensed it before, of course; but this was different. This was not visiting. This was real.

The evidence of his pleasure was cooling rapidly on his skin. He sat up, shivering, then saw a box of tissues on the nightstand. He took a shaky fistful and wiped himself clean, balled them up, threw them away. He got up slowly, on weak legs that felt like they might give at any moment.

There was a window into another room; the other side of the glass was obscured with a blind. In this makeshift mirror, he saw himself—long dark hair, glazed eyes, ugly inflamed scarring around his mouth. When he looked at his hands, they were long and pale.

This appearance wasn’t real. He knew it wasn’t—if only because he could see his own useless, washed-out eyes. But try as he might, he could not make out Clint’s features. He had invaded this body so perfectly his mind projected his own image over what he saw.

Fear spiked in Loki’s stomach. This wasn’t what he’d meant to do. Or—well, maybe it was—maybe he’d gotten carried away—he had wanted to experiment, see how far he could go—but without fully realizing what it entailed. His first impulse was to call for Clint—to reach out for him—he couldn’t be far—could he?

But before he could attempt anything, his racing thoughts got ahead of him. If he was here, so fully here, then his original body, across the ocean, in the yacht, must be empty. Unresponsive. He knew for a fact there was no soul to animate it at the moment. So this blind, vacant shell was about to get to Germany. If Loki remained safely here, if he let himself play dead, Thor would think him ill; would certainly bring him to a hospital, where his lack of response would surely bring about a brain scan…

So—as he was now, supposing nothing got in the way, he had maybe forty-eight hours before Alexander Pierce detected him. HYDRA probably wouldn’t pass the opportunity of kidnapping the prince of Asgard, not when he’d been brought right to their door. And if Loki was right about them—

But he knew he was right. When he’d first thought about it, talking to Steve, it had been but a vague theory. Now he knew for certain what Alexander Pierce wanted from him and his siblings.

Because he’d just done it to Clint.

The puzzle was coming together before his mind’s eye. If he was very clever—if he played his cards well—

All of a sudden, he grabbed Clint’s jacket off the bed and went for the door.

 

There was no one in the hallway; few people in the waiting room, none of them interested in him. He left the building without trouble and, turning around the shadowed corner, found himself on top of a narrow flight of stairs, squinting against the glare of the Nevada sun. It was only just morning, without a cloud in sight.

Loki detailed his surroundings, shivering again.

Looking out through someone else’s eyes was one thing—but it wasn’t the real thing; more like a memory of the present. But as he was now, this body was his own, with his heart and lungs and eyes. He could see again, truly see, as if he’d never been injured at all, and it was taking his breath away.

Looking at himself again, he saw the persistent illusion of his self hadn’t extended to his clothing; he was wearing a purple t-shirt and grey jeans. He took another bracing breath, then went down the stairs.

A hot dry wind blew back his long black hair as he walked across the parking lot. The crunch of gravel under his feet was muffled; he absentmindedly rubbed at the hearing aids over his ears. They didn’t bother him. Hearing a little was better than seeing not at all.

He had no problem knowing his car—after all, he’d had it for years. Or part of him had, anyway. Odin had never made him take driving lessons, but Loki now felt it wouldn’t be a problem. When he sat behind the wheel, his phone started buzzing in the pocket of his jeans. He turned it off and put it in the glove box.

Then he started the car, backed out of his parking space, and drove away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

6.

 

“Almost there—!”     

The words are Russian; the woman is gritting her teeth in focus and effort. Her husband seems torn between terror and joy.

“She’s coming! My love—almost there—!”

Then the shrill wail of a baby.

“It’s a girl—it’s a girl—oh, she’s beautiful—oh, Natalia, Natashenka, you’re here, my baby, my little girl, welcome…”

The next second, Natasha was gasping for breath, waking up in her body, in her hotel room.

Her heart was racing. Something had happened—something had been removed, creating a vacuum. Reality had been blasted away from her. And now that she was back, a new clarity had come upon her, as if she’d gone to the end of their bond and back; she felt she could sense it whole.

She got up, wavering. Blood trickled down her thighs—overflowing—but she ignored it. The Asset caught on tape was still seared in her memory, still at the forefront, despite the scene she’d just witnessed in that muddled place between two realities. She could reach him if she wanted; she knew how he felt to her, because she’d met him, witnessed his deadly skill in the Culver Institute, and kissed him a moment ago, when she still didn’t know who he was. The affection she’d felt then—the love—it had all been swept away by the strange icy wind which had banged open all the doors in her mind. Her power flowed so unrestrictedly now, she had swum back to her own birth before she could master it.

She gritted her teeth, screwed her eyes shut, trying not to think about the adoration in her father’s voice. Her parents had been gone for twenty-six years. She had no right to miss them. It made no sense to miss her father’s voice so much—

When she reopened her eyes, she was standing in an obsidian palace, bathed in cold silver light.

She swiveled round. Out the great windows she could see emerald green, wrapped in tendrils of mist. This was new. Never before—but she knew this place. Not just from the bond. It was common knowledge. Like the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower. And it was like a stone in her stomach. The Khah was familiar with the Wakandan heritage, of course. But she hadn’t thought… the Asset was one thing, but the Wakandan heir… This wasn’t redemption after all.

This was punishment.

She turned round again, and there he was: King T’Challa, poring over an animated map of HYDRA’s main bases. When their minds came together, his black eyes flicked up, then down again.

“Please leave,” he said quietly. “I have no time to spare.”

So this was her purpose. This was why she’d been allowed in the cluster with them. To be a vessel for revenge—Tony’s revenge, T’Challa’s revenge. She was here to point them in the right direction so they’d finish destroying the Khah. Nothing more. She had never been anything more.

“He’s in Germany,” she said, tonelessly.

T’Challa looked up again. This time, he held her gaze.

“You’re looking for the Asset—aren’t you? He’s in Germany. I can give you his address. It’s a bank vault in Berlin.”

“How do you know this?”

“Because I am a hunter, too. You know what I mean, don’t you?” She waited for the glint of pain and fury in his eyes. “Yes, you do.”

This was it. The beginning of the end. And as always it would come from her.

 

“We’re wasting time,” she said.

“You will forgive me for not trusting you immediately,” T’Challa answered, surveying his smooth tablet, following the path of the drugs—the same thing which had led her to the Asset in the first place. Some part of her felt like this was betrayal. She and the Asset had been on the same side for years. But she must protect her cluster—didn’t she? But the Asset was also part of it—

This was all she could do with what she was given. Wreck it, one way or another.

There was an incredible woman in the room with them, taller than T’Challa, with a smoothly shaved head and large gold earrings. She was holding a spear, which was obviously ceremonial, but appeared quite deadly all the same. But none of that quite explained why Natasha found her so formidable; the true reason was the way she stared at T’Challa—darkly, like any second now her respect might give way to a sharp tongue and well aimed words.

T’Challa himself felt strange, too—bearing almost too much resemblance to the image Natasha had of a Wakandan king, so straight-laced in his own legend he disappeared almost completely behind it. No expression on his face, but single-minded focus; no emotion flowing from him, but determination. She felt like he was drowning in dark waters, and that if he would only reach out she might seize his hand and save him.

But he wasn’t reaching out, and she wouldn’t even be able to save him anyway. She had stayed alive to protect her soulmates; and in the end she was going to cause the death of at least one of them—and if not him, then all the others. There was no solution. There was no way out. From the moment she’d been reborn with them, they’d all been doomed.

“You’re telling the truth,” T’Challa said suddenly. “For now.”

He straightened up, turning away from the smooth black screen.

“Okoye—are your people ready?”

The woman, Okoye, raised her chin. “Yes, your Majesty.”

“Very well. We leave in half an hour.”

Okoye was now openly glaring at him; but yet again, she only said, “Yes, your Majesty.”

“What are you doing?” Natasha asked hurriedly. “What’s your plan?”

“They brought us war,” T’Challa answered, striding out of the room, “so we shall bring them war in turn.”

 

*

 

“Christ—Maria—it really fucking hurts—”

“Well of course it does! Did you think all women on earth were making it up—?”

“It’s like your period, but—so much worse—ohh, here comes another one—oh God—we’re having—a kid—!”

“I am having a kid!” Maria corrects through gritted teeth. “Don’t start with that ‘we’re pregnant’ crap!”

“We are the same person!” Howard shrieks.

“That terminology is debatable!” Maria bellows back. “Besides—we share a soul—not a womb—God!”

She pants, exhausted, then finds it in herself to push again, and then—

“Tony?”

Tony startled awake, eyes wide. Then he turned his head, without really thinking, still caught in what he’d just seen.

“I have to leave,” Pepper said. “I’m having lunch with Jennifer Walters. The lawyer,” she added when Tony failed to react. “I feel our case is solid enough—it’s time to get her on board.”

“Okay,” Tony answered automatically. “Okay, yes—excellent.”

For a moment Pepper seemed to struggle with something; then she shook her head and lowered her eyes, eyelashes fanning over her high cheekbones. Tony noticed she was perfectly professional again, from her silver-tipped stilettoes to her neatly-made bun.

“I like you better with your hair down,” Tony said. Seeing Pepper blink, he went on, “Not that—you’re gorgeous, you always are. Just, I meant, I’d never seen you barefoot or without lipstick before and—please, don’t sue me.”

She quirked a blood-red, lopsided smile. “Don’t worry, Mr. Stark. You couldn’t afford it.”

Then she spun on her sharp heel and walked out of the room. Tony rubbed his forehead for a long minute, before he looked at the screen again.

The video was still frozen where Natasha had stopped it, when the light glinted off the assassin’s arm.

Everything else—his feelings for Pepper, the upcoming trial against Obadiah Stane, but also the radiation spreading in his blood, the collider humming downstairs, the presences tangling in the back of his mind—everything seemed to fall in the background. Tony could only feel the low whirr of the reactor in his bones. It was the keystone holding his ribcage together, because he was in pieces, and somehow it all traced back to this man. The Asset. The killer.

Part of my soul.

Everything started with that double murder, with the horrible crash of the car against rain-wet wood. Fourteen years later, the Starks’ only son became soul-bonded with their murderer. Natasha had been wrong. This was not nature moving at random. This was the spirit of vengeance growling for reparation.

Tony got up, shaking with a very deep, very ancient pain resurfacing like foul water up a well. Could he kill someone through the bond? They could touch each other, he knew that. Could he will himself in the Asset’s presence—incapacitate him—strangle him? Would he feel that death? Would he die, himself?

Did he care?

“Tony,” said a hoarse voice.

Tony kept staring at the wall. “Not now, Bruce. It’s not you I’m trying to reach.

“I know you’re angry,” said Bruce. “I think… I think that’s why I’m here. We are the same when we feel the same.”

Because he wasn’t going away, Tony looked over his shoulder at him. “You know this is real, right? Me talking to you? Otherwise I definitely don’t have time for this.”

“Yes,” Bruce answered wanly. “Yes, um… I’ve become recently aware.”

He looked terrible, thinner than last time, with dark circles under his eyes and a thick bandage around three of his fingers. He was wearing an old, shabby sweater and sagging jeans; a hospital nightgown had been tucked hastily into them, peeking out in places.

“What happened to you?” Tony asked, then said, “never mind—if I hear about one more crisis my head will explode. Please go away. I need to—”

“Kill someone?” Bruce said softly.

Tony froze.

Bruce shrugged. “It’s a very specific emotion. I know it well.”

“Oh, so now you’re a murderer too,” Tony snarled. “Maybe all of us are—maybe that’s what this fucking bond is about—”

“What? Who’s a murderer?”

“Our fucking soulmate is a murderer,” Tony yelled, pointing at the screen. “And you’ve been so busy hiding your head in the sand, while the rest of us lost our minds, that you’ve managed to miss the fucking serial killer coming for all of us—and who’s already destroyed my parents!”

Bruce looked very small and lost, and for a horrible moment Tony regretted yelling at him. But then his anger returned. So what if he was mean to one of his soulmates? He wanted to kill another. The bond meant nothing. The bond would only make it easier for them to tear each other apart. Because people were not meant to be this close. Tony knew he wasn’t just chasing down a killer; he was running away from the fact that he was one, too. Most of all, he was running away from the judgement of Steve Rogers, whose moral compass Tony had failed to follow. When Steve saw Tony—when he really took the measure of him—what would he say? Tony had been much too slow to face the harm he was causing; and sure, he’d been trying to make up for it, but who was he kidding? It was too late. The only thing that could have salvaged his company—and saved his life at the same time—was poisoning his blood.

As metaphors went, it wasn’t even subtle.

Everything was falling apart. He just had to hold on long enough to avenge his parents, and then he could let go. He could let it all go.

“I’ve seen him,” Bruce said suddenly.

He was staring at the screen, like Natasha before him.

“He was on a plane… It’s so strange—I didn’t notice his arm then. I saw it, but I didn’t notice.”

“Yeah—a plane—I saw him then, too,” Tony said automatically. “Just for a few seconds. Lufthansa something something.”

Bruce’s eyes snapped to him. “You heard his flight designation?”

“I know it was a flight to DC, but I can’t remember the number, and we already know what he looks like anyway.”

“But with actual footage,” Bruce said like he was talking to himself, “it would be easy to find him...”

“What do you mean, find him?”

Bruce looked up at him, with a scared look on his face. “What?”

“You just said—”

“Oh—well,” Bruce said, now wringing his hands. “When I still taught in college, I had a… a colleague. Who was working on facial recognition software. Very advanced stuff, he ended up selling it to—but maybe you have similar software here with Jarvis?” he asked almost hopefully.

“No,” Tony said. “Jarvis is an AI, not some kind of futuristic supercomputer. He manages the Stark Industries network and that’s about it.”

Bruce deflated. He looked like he very much regretted his words, but now Tony was thinking. “We know the Asset was in the DC airport that day,” he said slowly. “On a plane coming from Berlin—can’t have been that many. I can hack into airport cameras—it’s child’s play, really. If I get you footage, can your friend use it?”

“He’s not my friend,” Bruce said in a small voice. “I shouldn’t have said anything, I—”

“No,” Tony said. You’re right—we can find the Asset—we know he’s in DC right now—if he’s in police records, we can find out who he is. Then we’ll be able to do this legally, even—put out a warrant—get him arrested—include this in my trial against Obie—”

But Bruce was actually, physically backing off now. “No, it’s—I’m really not sure it’s a good idea—”

“What? Then why would you even mention it?” Tony’s nerves were still very much frayed. “Bruce, Jesus Christ, you know we need him—otherwise you would have kept this under wraps. What’s wrong? Who is this guy—your friend, who is it?”

“His name is Rick Jones,” Bruce said weakly. “And… I almost killed him a few years ago.”

 

*

 

1 UNREAD MESSAGE:

From: barneybro

Received: [April 16, 2012; 8:34 AM]

Content: hey bro where’s the money? the egg carton was empty 2day. did u forget where ur supposed to leave the cash?

 

2 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: katiekate

Received: [April 16, 2012; 9:17 AM]

Content: Totally forgot you had the night off. Not used to daytime Clint! Weird! If you’re at the store buy milk

 

3 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: barneybro

Received: [April 16, 2012; 9:52 AM]

Content: clint u better be sleeping and not ignoring me

 

4 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: barneybro

Received: [April 16, 2012; 9:53 AM]

Content: i really need the money 2day call me

 

5 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: barneybro

Received: [April 16, 2012; 9:56 AM]

Content: cmon clint dont be like that wake up

 

6 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: barneybro

Received: [April 16, 2012; 10:04 AM]

Content: u gonna help ur bro or not? u owe me

 

7 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: barneybro

Received: [April 16, 2012; 10:05 AM]

Content: i took care of u changed ur diapers + fed u since u were a kid. i was there when u were born. i’m the one that got a asswhuppin tryn to protct u from dad u better not be ignoring me

 

8 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: katiekate

Received: [April 16, 2012; 10:13 AM]

Content: Are you still at the store? We need more TP too!

 

9 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: barneybro

Received: [April 16, 2012; 10:29 AM]

Content: fuck you clint! i’m gonna get in real trouble if u dont answer. i’m coming over

 

10 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: barneybro

Received: [April 16, 2012; 10:56 AM]

Content: i’m outside ur aprtment come out or i’m going in

 

11 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: barneybro

Received: [April 16, 2012; 11:02 AM]

Content: i’m coming in

 

12 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: katiekate

Received: [April 16, 2012; 11:08 AM]

Content: Clint, your brother was just here looking for you. Where are you?

 

13 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: barneybro

Received: [April 16, 2012; 11:10 AM]

Content: where the fuck r u???

 

1 MISSED CALL:

From: katiekate

Received: [April 16, 2012; 12:22 PM]

 

14 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: katiekate

Received: [April 16, 2012; 12:23 PM]

Content: Dude, are you coming home today? You gotta be back by 2 to take me to work, remember? If I’m late again, Jessica’s going to kill me…

 

2 MISSED CALLS:

From: barneybro

Received: [April 16, 2012; 1:13 PM]

Voicemail Transcript: Where the f**k are you, Clint? Did you lose your phone or something? Listen, I really need that money. I thought you were helping me out? You f*****g owe me, you a**hole. I thought brothers were supposed to watch each others’ backs and all. You just going to leave me out to hang? F**k you!

 

15 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: katiekate

Received: [April 16, 2012; 2:06 PM]

Content: Clint! Where are you? I’m going to be late! You said you’d take me today!!!

 

16 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: katiekate

Received: [April 16, 2012; 2:14 PM]

Content: Forget it, Clint. Malcolm’s giving me a ride.

 

3 MISSED CALLS:

From: barneybro

Received: [April 16, 2012; 3:33 PM]

Voicemail Transcript: C’mon Clint, it’s me, it’s Barney. I have until dark to do this thing. Just call me back, okay?

 

4 MISSED CALLS:

From: barneybro

Received: [April 16, 2012; 3:41 PM]

Voicemail Transcript: Pick up the f******g phone, Clint! I’m not messing around! F**k you! What the f**k is your problem, man? I thought we had a deal! What, you think you’re so f*****g good now? You think you’re too good for your own brother? You’re nothing! You’re just a whore living in delusion, shacking up with some teenager, you sick f**k. I can’t f*****g believe—

 

17 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: barneybro

Received: [April 16, 2012; 3:49 PM]

Content: i’m sorry clint. please call me

 

18 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: barneybro

Received: [April 16, 2012; 7:02 PM]

Content: ur dead to me

 

19 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: wandawitch

Received: [April 16, 2012; 7:47 PM]

Content: Dude, where are you? You’re hella late. Boss is getting pissed and I can’t cover you anymore. Get your ass to work.

 

20 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: wandawitch

Received: [April 16, 2012; 8:01 PM]

Content: I told Hill you’re sick. You better be, because you’re in deep shit otherwise.

 

21 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: ant-scott

Received: [April 16, 2012; 10:16 PM]

Content: You not coming in tonight? Better call Sitwell if you’re not

 

5 MISSED CALLS:

From: coulson (boss)

Received: [April 16, 2012; 12:32 PM]

Voicemail Transcript: Clint, this is Phil Coulson from the Blue Diamond. If you’re not here in the next ten minutes, I’m going to have to fire you. (…) Clint, listen. I know how much you need this job. I can work with you, but you have to pick up the phone or show up, man. Where are you?

 

22 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: sitwell (asshole boss)

Received: [April 17, 2012; 7:44 AM]

Content: Scott told me he had to cover for you all night. Don’t bother coming in. You’re fired.

 

23 UNREAD MESSAGES:

From: katiekate

Received: [April 17, 2012; 8:31 AM]

Content: Clint, for real, where the hell are you???

 

INBOX FULL

 

*

 

“It’s a boy.”

Rebecca instinctively reaches out when he’s carefully set down on her heaving breast. Her hair is disheveled, her skin gleaming with sweat, pink with effort. Black and blue in places, too, but the nurses pretend not to notice.

He is so tiny under her protective hands. She slowly rubs his back, then looks up at the door. There is a shadow behind the frosted glass window—her husband, pacing and pacing, complaining loudly that the birth took almost ten hours, that it’s outrageous, that modern medicine should be able to do better.

She looks back down, finally catching her breath.

“Hello, Bruce,” she murmurs, marveling at how small, how delicate he is. “It’s okay. I’m here. I won’t let him hurt you.”

Bruce gasped awake, instinctively reaching for his glasses on the nightstand. But they were gone, crushed somewhere in a Mexican bar. He hadn’t been asleep—and it hadn’t been a dream. A minute ago he’d been talking to Tony Stark—and suddenly…

At that moment, the door opened and he looked up guiltily, expecting to see Claire or another nurse; but thankfully, it was Betty.

“Oh, good, you’re dressed,” she said, quickly closing the door behind her. “Are you ready?”

“I—I think so,” Bruce answered, still disoriented by his vision. “You didn’t tell Claire anything, did you?”

“No, I didn’t think she’d approve,” Betty said, helping him up. “Your name is in the hospital files now. We’d better not linger.”

Bruce kept being bewildered at her very presence—somehow it was even stranger to him than the people in his mind. They hadn’t chosen to be linked to him; something else had brought them together. But Betty had gone to Mexico and back just to find him, out of her own free will; and now she was by his side, holding his hand so tight...

Because, Bruce belatedly realized, he was about to keel over.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, straightening up the best he could.

She looked anxious, but didn’t ask if he would prefer to stay. They couldn’t; Thaddeus Ross might appear any minute now. Betty helped him across the hospital, through an emergency exit door (“The alarm’s disabled—it’s where the nurses come to smoke”) and to the parking lot. The heat was brutal, but for once Bruce was thankful; he felt like he could never get warm. He was still in a state of deep exhaustion, and Tony’s words kept running through his head, intermingled with scenes from his own birth. What his mother had said—was it possible that a newborn brain would retain that information? More importantly, maybe, was it possible that Rebecca Banner had already foreseen her death at the hands of her husband, and sworn to protect their child from him?

Bruce’s vision was blurring, and he was glad when they got to Betty’s car.

“Sorry, it’s a furnace,” she said, fumbling with her keys, “I’ll put on the AC—”

They drove away, and Bruce reopened his eyes, staring at the road. He had a strong sense of déjà vu. Clint must have taken that same road a few hours ago. Why had he left so suddenly? Without even leaving a message?

Maybe he had more pressing matters to attend. Bruce scrubbed a hand across his face; the echo of Tony’s words came back to him. Fucking serial killer coming for all of us! he had yelled, pointing at the silver-armed man on the screen. While you were so busy hiding your head in the sand!

And if the Asset was in DC—on American territory—he could be anywhere by now...

Bruce’s heart started thumping like mad. His mother’s memory was still very vivid in his mind. She had been so brave—she had faced her husband’s anger every day. And there Bruce was, cowering from his own.

“Can you—can you please take the next exit,” he asked shakily.

“Why that one?”

“I have to get to Culver.”

Betty gaped at him. “You want to go back to the Culver Institute? Are you insane?”

“Not the Institute, the college—Culver U. I used to teach there...”

“Well,” she said, obviously puzzled but already changing lanes, “since we’re already running away, might as well go somewhere.”

Bruce hadn’t expected her to accept so easily, and wasn’t sure how to react. He tried to gather his mind in some semblance of order, but then he saw a CULVER U sign and found that he couldn’t quite manage; suddenly Rick Jones was taking up all the space.

They hadn’t seen each other since the incident, but Bruce knew he still worked there. He’d gotten tenure six months ago—Bruce was still on the emailing list and had been notified by mistake.

“Are you alright?” Betty asked.

“Yeah, just… nervous. I haven’t gone back there since they fired me.”

She blinked. “I didn’t know you’d been fired.”

Bruce debated whether to tell her the whole story. Less than a week ago, it would have been unthinkable. But a lot had changed, and he didn’t want her to sacrifice everything for him without even knowing who he was.

“Well, I got arrested for assault and battery,” he said, trying for casualness. “After that it all followed its natural course, really.”

There was a silence. He heard Betty take a deep breath, then let it out. “Why were you arrested?”

“Because I did it. I have… um, I have—intermittent explosive disorder. I don’t know if you’re… if you’re familiar with…”

His sentence trailed off. Betty was staring at the road.

Bruce took a deep breath. “I worked with a colleague—Richard Jones—and one night, he’d left his email open and I accidentally saw… he’d been gambling and… well, in short, he was skimming off the top of our funding to pay off personal debts.”

He started wringing his hands.

“I got so angry. I ran out after him to... confront him, I don’t know. I caught up to him in the parking lot and then... it just gets blurry.”

She glanced at him. Her face was unreadable. “You don’t remember?”

“It’s always like that,” he said quickly, “every time I have an episode—I just sort of check out. I come back to myself when it’s all over. And this time around, when I woke up… he was getting loaded in an ambulance, and I was getting arrested.”

He wouldn’t have even known what had happened exactly if not for the police report, stating he had nearly put Rick in a coma. Just thinking of it was enough to make him sick. Betty kept staring at the road.

“So you attacked him,” she said. “Your colleague. The man we’re going to see now.”

“Yes,” Bruce said in a wisp of voice. “I thought you should know.”

A minute passed by.

“A lot of things make sense now. I always wondered why you never let yourself get angry, even when my father treated you like crap.” She was smiling. “Honestly, I admired your self-control.”

Bruce just blinked at her. When she saw how tense he was awaiting her true reaction, her smile faded.

“It’s okay. Thanks for telling me, Bruce, but this doesn’t change anything.”

“It doesn’t?”

She paused for a moment, then said, “We’ve worked together for two years. In that time I’ve never heard you raise your voice once. You’ve always been respectful and patient with everyone, even on long days, hot days, tiring and frustrating days. And when I asked you to run away—when I asked you to break your contract and throw your career away and endanger your life—you did it, because I asked you to, because you agreed it was the right thing to do. They hunted you down, they tortured you, they almost killed you, and still you won’t even consider giving up, as if you were compelled to protect us all somehow.”

She swallowed hard. “So, no, Bruce. Whatever you did, it doesn’t change anything to who you are now.”

There was a long silence afterwards. Bruce simply couldn’t think of anything to say. All he could feel was surprise and something close to panic. She was putting too much faith in him, but he wasn’t sure what else he could tell her, how to make her understand that he couldn’t even trust himself.

 

“Bruce? We’re there.”

He hadn’t felt himself dozing off; coming around, he found his throat to be drier than ever, and had to blink several times before his eyes focused.

Culver University looked exactly like he remembered—and he felt a fresh pang of loss remembering his time there. It was the only time in his life when he’d been where he wanted to be; but of course he’d gone and ruined it, like he always did.

“He might not want to help me,” he said wanly.

In fact, he was positive Rick Jones wouldn’t even want to talk to him—but Bruce had to try. Tony had asked for his help, and now that Bruce had opened his mind to the others he could sense something like impending doom—like all of them were preparing themselves for a final assault, each in their own way. He had to do his part.

And deeper down, he’d always known he’d have to face Rick Jones one day. A crazy psychic bond was as good an excuse as any. Still, he wished he could have just driven away from this place, dozed off again in that small car, next to Betty, forever.

“Is this about the hard drive?” Betty asked, bringing him back to the moment.

“What? Oh—no, it’s safe for now. They wouldn’t have tortured me if they’d found it.”

Betty tensed, and Bruce felt guilty again. He shouldn’t have used such an offhanded tone.

“That… that wasn’t your fault,” he said uncertainly. “If anything, I’m the one who got us in this mess.”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “I’d rather blame my power-hungry pig of a father, but suit yourself.”

Bruce let out a startled huff of a laugh. She smiled back, then looked out the windshield again. “So why are we here, then?”

Bruce really didn’t want to lie to her, but he was also keenly aware now was not the time to start explaining his whole psychic mess—especially since he was still struggling to come to terms with it. A lifetime devoted to science hadn’t exactly prepared him for this to happen.

“The people who freed me,” he began cautiously. “I owe them… a favor. They’re looking for someone—and Rick can help me find him in time. He designed the CIA’s new facial recognition algorithm in this very university.”

Betty side-eyed him. “I have a feeling you won’t say more about who these people are?”

“I can’t,” said Bruce miserably, feeling like a self-important asshole in a B-rated movie. “Not right now. I’m—I’m sorry.”

Impatience flashed across her face, but it was gone in a moment. “Okay. Okay.” She took a deep breath. “Let’s go talk to him. But then we’d better get out of here.”

 

The corridors were awfully familiar, and as busy as Bruce remembered. He was so thin and pale his old students probably wouldn’t have recognized him. There couldn’t be many of them left. His broken fingers were throbbing, and so were the lacerations over his chest and sides. Most of all, he felt brittle with exhaustion and anxiety.

“Do you know where you’re going?” Betty asked.

“Yeah, it’s…” Bruce’s voice trailed off. Rick Jones’ office was gone; it had been turned into a broom closet. “Dammit—they gave him tenure, he must have gotten a better office. I have no idea where—”

“Banner?”

Bruce’s blood froze in his veins. If not for Betty’s hand convulsively grabbing his wrist, he might have fainted there and then. Feeling sick with fear, he turned around.

Rick Jones was the same wispy, chestnut-haired man Bruce remembered; but his nose now looked like it had been broken a few years ago—because of course it had been.

“Bruce Banner,” he repeated shakily. “It really is you.”

He was pale with fright. Bruce groped around for something to say, but before he could come up with anything, Rick started speaking very quickly.

“Look, I’m sorry to bring this up right away, but I gotta ask, I just gotta ask, I really hope you’re not here for…?”

His voice trailed off. Bruce waited for him to finish his sentence. Rick seemed to take it as a sign of doom.

“I mean, it was a long time ago,” he stammered. “And there’s really no point in digging it all up. Right? Besides, I always figured—”

“What?” Bruce said. “I don’t—”

“No no no, look, I get it,” Rick said quickly, raising both hands in a placating gesture. “It’s unforgivable. I know. I know. But—you never said anything, and you’d ended up in the Culver Institute, with military funding, so I always figured you were better off, maybe you wanted to let sleeping dogs lie—”

“What?” repeated Bruce in utter confusion.

“Or maybe not,” said Rick with increasing nervousness. “But, look—there’s no changing the past, right? But hey, if there’s anything I can do for you now, I’ll—”

“Actually, there is,” Betty interrupted.

Rick startled as if only realizing now that she was there.

“We don’t have much time,” she barreled on. “We came specifically to ask for your help.”

“You did?” said Rick with hysterical enthusiasm. “Well—then—of course—anything, anything at all!”

If not for Betty, Bruce might have tried to understand what the hell was going on; but he snapped out of it when he remembered they were short on time.

“Right,” he said, struggling to keep his thoughts in line. “Right—well, Rick—is your… is your algorithm still running?”

 

“Where did you get those files?” Rick said, impressed. “International police records—dating back to 1980?”

“My… my friend went a bit overboard,” Bruce said.

Tony had effortlessly extracted an image of the Asset from the DC airport footage, and gallantly provided him with a goldmine of data to parse through. Maybe through Steve—actual police records—Bruce wasn’t sure and didn’t care. Tony was now hovering behind his shoulder, dark eyes scanning the screen. Images were flickering too fast for the naked eye to follow. No matches yet—of course. Bruce was so busy staring at it he didn’t even register Rick’s weak interjection.

“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry, Bruce. I know this doesn’t change anything.”

Bruce looked up, making an aborted move to fiddle with glasses that weren't there. “Look—Rick," he began. "I have to say, I’m... I’m not sure what you mean.”

“I think I do,” Betty interjected.

Rick flinched again. She smiled at him, though her eyes stayed cold and deliberate. “So, Dr. Jones, tell me about this whole assault business. Does Bruce pack a punch? Great right hook, maybe?”

Bruce blinked at her. “B-Betty, um...”

“He didn’t attack me,” Rick said miserably.

“...Rick is helping us, maybe he doesn’t want to talk about—” Then Bruce's brain processed what he’d heard.

For some reason, his first reflex was to look at Tony, but the billionaire was gone. Shock was not good for Bruce’s focus. He went back to Rick, who was standing there looking like he was expecting a nuclear blast.

“What?” Bruce managed at last.

“Look—if it had happened differently—but when I woke up in the hospital, he’d confessed to everything already,” Rick said pleadingly, eyes flicking between Betty and Bruce. “I wasn’t going to contradict anything. I couldn’t, really. Shoot myself in the foot there. I have something of a… well, a gambling problem—”

“We know,” Betty said coldly. “I suppose you wanted that kept under wraps. Got tenure since then, I hear?”

“Exactly,” Rick cried out in agitated relief, “you understand!”

She scowled. "Wish I didn't. So what did happen?”

Rick spent nearly a minute fretting before the words tumbled out of his mouth. “I’d borrowed money from Duquesne… They got impatient, cornered me in the parking lot. Actually, Bruce—if you hadn’t turned up—well, he’s not exactly known for his leniency…”

Bruce felt like the world had tipped on its axis; like the room had moved a few inches, like the furniture had imperceptibly rearranged itself.

Genuine disgust was twisting Betty’s face now. “So he actually saved your sorry ass?”

“Bruce, please, I thought you knew,” Rick pleaded in increasing panic, “I thought you remembered, I thought you’d decided not to say anything!”

“Like hell,” Betty said, fury swelling in her voice. “You were only too happy he took all the blame, you cowardly little—”

That was when the computer beeped to signal a facial recognition match. Everyone jumped and looked at the screen.

“Oh—it’s a milk carton kid,” said Rick nervously. “Probably not what you’re looking for…”

Bruce pretended to get interested in the photograph—he could not process what he’d just heard, he needed a minute—just a minute to gather himself—so he leaned close to the screen to see without his glasses, turning his back to them, breathing deeply in the faint hope he could keep it together.

And then he couldn’t look away. Even through his blurry vision, something was calling to him. He couldn’t have said what or why. 

 “Oh, hey, we,” and then Bruce's throat closed. “Look, we… we have the same birthday.”

 

*

 

There is no sound; no encouragements, no words of advice, nothing but the hushed gasps of Sarah on her bed. Her face is gleaming with sweat, tense with focus. A ripple goes through her; when she arches, blood flows from between her legs to soak the already crimson coverlet.

“You know,” she pants, “I called an ambulance, they’ll be here any min—” but then she grits her teeth when the baby starts pushing through.

Her son is so very tiny that the birth is over in seconds. He is wailing with all his might, his little fists clenched up in rage over the bloodied sheets.

“Well,” she says, shaking with exertion and joy. “Weren’t you in a hurry?”

All of a sudden Steve had it all.

He couldn’t understand how it had happened; one minute he was going to the evidence room, the next he’d frozen up on the doorstep as his mind opened like a flower before the sun.

He didn’t even notice his body sliding to the ground like a puppet with cut strings. Somehow it was so easy to navigate the bond now, with the blood of his birth still fresh on his mind. He did not stop to think; there was only one person he wanted to reach—had tried to reach all day.

The world stretched around him, then snapped.

“James?” he called, looking around.

He was in what looked like a hotel room, with two single beds. Daylight filtered through thick, drawn curtains, obscuring most of the room. The atmosphere reeked of anxiety and sickness, but also something darker, like grim resolution. It was strange, like tasting James’ emotions in the air, though he was nowhere to be seen.

Opening the curtains seemed like a good idea, and Steve took a step forward—but stopped immediately when something squelched under his foot. It was sticky and thick and slippery, and his battle-worn subconscious recognized it before he even looked down.

His eyes slowly followed the trail of fresh blood, which disappeared under one of the beds. Steve walked around it, numb with fear.

But the body he found wasn’t James’. It was a man who looked strangely familiar, with pale eyes wide open in death. He’d been shot cleanly through the side of his head.

Steve looked up, then turned around on instinct to look at the fourth wall of the room, to which he’d had his back all this time. It was splattered with thick, dripping crimson—obviously the second man had put up more of a fight; his body lay crumpled in a corner, killed not with a gun but with a hunting knife if the huge, slashing wounds were anything to go by. He, too, looked familiar, even in snarling death.

Finally Steve looked at the bathroom door—half-open; he didn’t need to go in there to know there were more bodies, because the light reflected off the blood in the bathtub and cast scarlet shadows upon the white walls.

“They called for backup,” rasped a voice.

Steve turned around yet again. It seemed that James had been hiding within him—the reverse of what they’d done in the karaoke bar, leaving Steve to explore the room alone before showing himself.

He looked dreadful, gaunt and sleep-deprived, with limp hair and dark bags under his eyes. His shirt was wet with blood, and bright red glistened in the cracks of his left arm—it was a metal prosthetic. Steve had never noticed it before, like he wouldn’t have noticed the color of his own eyes, because part of him was James, and part of James was him. But horror had made him take a mental step back, and finally he saw James whole.

Though they were not entirely apart; they could never be. Steve could feel the chill of cold sweat on James’ skin, and the tremors coursing through his body.

“You wanted to see me,” James said. His voice was toneless; his eyes empty. “And you wanted to find the Asset. Well. Here I am.”

He sat on the bed, with his elbows on his knees. Droplets of blood were hanging from his metal fingers; he flicked them away.

“I’m at the Residence Inn, room 107, under the name of Arnold Roth.” His eyes were trained on Steve; Steve recognized them from serial killers, from veterans who’d gone over the edge, and from his own mirror, a lifetime ago, before Sam pulled him out of the pit.

“Come get me,” James said in an undertone. “I won’t run.”

There was another voice in the distance, sounding like it came through a huge body of water, like someone shouting from outside the hotel room, behind the wall or maybe within the wall, and then suddenly cranked up to the max, yelling in Steve’s ears, “Steve! Steve, wake up! Steve!”

Steve startled awake and wondered if his abandoned body had stopped breathing—because all of a sudden he was back in the evidence room and taking huge, gasping breaths, clutching so hard onto Sam’s arms he must be hurting him. His vision was blurred with what he belatedly realized were tears; he tried to speak, but the words came out jumbled and erratic.

“He—I was—it all opened—my mom, she—and I saw him—I really saw him—oh God, Sam—”

“Slow down,” Sam said, “slow down, slow down. Is it your psychic thing?”

Even Sam’s presence, even the fact that he believed Steve, couldn't make up for the pain tearing through his heart. It wasn’t just the fact that James was a killer—and not just any killer—the one T’Challa had been chasing all along—did you come for me? Steve had asked him, and James had answered, like it was a private joke, yeah, I did. What hurt Steve most, what stole his breath, was that for a few shining moments he’d glimpsed a different life; one where he wasn’t just getting by, where functional and well-adjusted were no longer his end goals. Loving James had made him feel like something good was coming his way—not a perfect future, never a life without nightmares and regrets, but something good.

Now it had all been ripped away, and Steve sobbed helplessly into Sam’s shirt, because he wasn’t used to this kind of grief, completely vulnerable in the face of lost hopes and lost love. It was all Sam could do to hold him; even at Steve’s lowest point, he’d never had to comfort him like this, because pain usually made Steve square-shouldered and silent.

“Steve, buddy,” Sam tried, and Steve could hear how freaked out he was. “Please, calm down.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, still gasping with tears but gathering himself together fast—he had to stop focusing on his broken heart. People had died.

“Steve—?”

“We have to send a team,” Steve said through gritted teeth. “At the Residence Inn. There’s been… there’s been a murder.”

Sam stiffened. “Did something happen to James?”

And the fact that he knew immediately what name to say—that he’d guessed how much Steve cared about him—it pushed fresh tears out of Steve’s eyes, and he scowled to hide them, screwing shut his burning eyes. He had always worn his heart on his sleeve, and Sam knew him better than anyone.

“No,” he said, and felt like he had to choke the words out, “no. He’s the one who… I saw two bodies, and at least another one in his bathroom.”

Sam said, “Oh.”

And for a terrible moment there was nothing else to add.

Then he got to his feet, offering a hand. “Let’s go. If this just happened then there’s no time to lose.”

Steve let himself be helped to his feet. “How are we going to explain that I knew—?”

“We can figure that out later.” Sam looked unusually grim. “For now, let’s go catch the son of a bitch.”

 

*

 

The parking lot is half-underground, with a heavy concrete ceiling, but wide open to the wind and cold; yet this is where the woman squats, opening her robes.

“Go on then,” she rasps in harsh Jotun. Her discomfort is obvious, but she holds still and lets her womb do the work, slowly pushing out a fragile body into the blood-warm snow.

There is a high-pitched cry, but no wailing; this seems to relieve her as she fastens her clothing again. Her son is ruddy-skinned like all newborn babes, but when she extends a hand to touch him, he looks incredibly pale next to the tightly-knit patterns of blue ink over her skin.

She curls her fingers before touching him, then straightens up and walks away. The baby does start wailing, then, in loud shrieks reverberating under the concrete ceiling. Still she does not look back; she grows more assured with every step, quicker and lighter now that she is rid of her burden.

Loki startled and swerved out of the way just in time; the truck roared past him, horn blaring, while his car came to a skidding halt off the road.

Gasping, shaking, he stared at his white-knuckled hands for two whole minutes before he realized he could let go of the wheel.

His own vision was seared into his mind, in photographic fragments—bright white, blood red, concrete grey. And the blue of his mother’s hand—his mother…

Though he’d sensed this might happen, his shock had been in no way lessened. Now he could contemplate his entire life; he might even remember the slightest details of his childhood and pore over them with an adult’s mind, should he wish to do so.

His body seized with horror at the very thought.

“Is this your revenge?” he said shakily.

But nobody answered; and when Loki looked into the rearview mirror, he saw only his obstinate reflection, pale-skinned and dark-haired, where he should have seen Clint’s tan face and sandy hair. He was not there. Loki was talking to himself.

 

In the end, Loki started the car again and drove to the nearest diner. He stumbled inside, asked for a coffee, and sat in the booth; by the time his cup arrived, his hands had almost stopped trembling.

He thought he would feel sick; but instead he was hollow, like an essential part of himself had been quashed away along with Clint’s soul. So his mother had abandoned him; he’d always known it, but to witness the callousness of it—did she know he’d survived? Had she realized he was the bastard prince, the Son-of-None, traitor to Asgardians and Jotuns alike?

The news was on above the bar, and Loki forced himself to watch it. There was a report of an earthquake, but his attention focused on the scrolling words at the bottom of the screen. Laufeyson fallen victim to mysterious illness. Once again, he had been right: the world had become infatuated with the tale of the rogue Asgardian princes, and the latest juicy bit had already made it across the ocean…

“I’ve known Loki since he was born,” Thor said, suddenly filling the screen, and Loki jumped. He had not realized the news would be discussed onscreen. “Until we arrived to Germany his health was solid as ever. Whatever happened to him—”

“Are you positive something’s happened to him?” asked the reporter doubtfully. “Some might say that in a bid to escape international justice, a convenient illness—”

But he shut up instantly when he saw the look on Thor’s face.

“Surely,” Thor said, thunder blooming in his voice with every word, “you do not suggest that my brother injured himself so very gravely to escape the law. Surely you do not assume that he can cheat hospital scanners—fake a deep coma—”

The screen hastily cut back to the newscaster, but Loki kept staring without seeing.

Yes, he was a runaway, a cheater, a faker. Yes, he was a killer, and possibly something even worse. Because Clint Barton, the companion of his soul, was not answering him, and Loki finally admitted to himself, with cold realization, that he wouldn’t. He remembered the last he’d felt of Clint—a hint of crushing terror before nothingness took its place. And this vacuum had sucked all doors open within the bond, pushing Loki’s power into full bloom; now there he sat, a virtual god, with cold wind blowing through his entire being.

A monster. Loki stared at his white hands, remembered his mother’s blue ones, and clutched them into fists. So let me be a monster.

He had no choice left anyway; his presence and his condition had just been revealed to the world at large—and to Alexander Pierce in particular. If he hadn’t known to pursue Loki before, he did now.

Loki knew he must act quickly; he wasn’t sure whether his consciousness would survive if something drastic happened to his body overseas. The problem was that he was here instead of there. He had to find a way to return to Germany, in Clint’s body—but even as he thought this, the impossibility of such an endeavor overwhelmed him. In this small Nevada diner, staring at his cooling coffee, he was no prince. He had no money, no resources, no way to travel—Clint hadn’t left Las Vegas in years, he must not have a passport, and certainly not in the glove box of his car…

But then, with a dizzying rush, the realization came again to Loki with full force: he was no longer blind. How could he possibly feel helpless? To be stuck on the wrong side of the ocean—to be under threat of imminent death—it was nothing, nothing, compared to what he had experienced in Odin’s palace, sightless and so profoundly alone, talking into the void at night so the illusion of being heard would keep him from going entirely mad. He had orchestrated the bombings in a desperate bid to change something, anything, to his situation—and had he not succeeded? Though at great cost—had he not freed himself?

He couldn’t stop now. Though he was thousands of miles away from his goal, he’d never been so close.

Leaving his untouched coffee behind him, he got up, trembling not from shock anymore, but with anticipation. Germany was just a flight away. He had no passport—so what? He was Loki Laufeyson.

Surely he could think of something.

 

Reaching the Vegas International Airport took him two hours.

Parking his car took him ten minutes.

Finding someone who looked like Clint Barton took him thirty seconds.

“I can’t believe it.” The man was right in the middle of the hall, staring up at the flight information screen and complaining out loud to no one in particular. “A five hour delay for New York? What am I going to do until then?”

“Make friends,” Loki offered. He waited for the man to startle and blink at him, then held out his hand. “I’m also on that flight. We might as well commiserate together.”

The man hesitated, then grimaced and shook his hand. “Danny Rand.”

His passport stuck out of his breast pocket. Loki smirked at him. “Let me buy you lunch, Danny.”

 

*

 

Blood spills onto the bed again.

“N’Yami, my love…”

N’Yami takes a rasping breath and gropes blindly for her husband’s hand. He grasps it tightly, brings it to his lips.

“Your Majesty, I must ask you to leave the room—”

“No.” N’Yami’s voice is a harsh rasp. “No, it’s no use.”

Shining chrome gleams across the room; sleek-lined machines glow in time with N’Yami’s heart; and yet she is, without a doubt, failing. T’Chaka is crying silently, holding onto her hand.

“Husband,” she says weakly, “will you love our son?”

“I will,” he chokes out.

“Then I do not die in vain.” She manages to smile. “Cherish him. Care for him. And, when you can no longer protect him, may he inherit the blessing of your bloodline. So he will never be alone, even in his darkest hour. So he will always be among those who love him.”

T’Challa blinked rapidly—to take hold of his surroundings, or to chase the wetness from his eyes, maybe. Though he knew the bond might take him into the past, he had not expected it to happen so suddenly, while he was doing all he could to slow down the blooming of his soul.

He tried to focus on the humming of the plane, on the attack he would soon have to lead.

“Why won’t you let them in?”

T’Challa startled violently—he’d been so caught up in his vision he hadn’t noticed the tall, dark silhouette standing at the door of his private cabin.

“Okoye?”

There was flat defiance on her face. Her words caught up with him, and tension seeped into his shoulders. When he spoke, it was in a very low voice.

“How did you know?”

She gave him a long, cool look. “You insult my intelligence.”

“And you insult me!” He rose from his chair. “You were to stay in Wakanda. You were to protect the kingdom.”

“That is what I am doing.” Her heavy-lidded gaze weighed on him. “By ensuring our leader is fit to lead.”

“You are overstepping your bounds.”

“And you are running away from your duties—to the kingdom and to the siblinghood.”

T’Challa opened his mouth to answer, but the Nengwe Omnyama hit the tarmac at that very moment, forcing him to bite the words back. Both he and Okoye remained firmly planted on their feet. She was still looking straight at him, daring him to protest, when the plane came to a halt.

“I am here to destroy the enemy of my kind,” he said at last, “and that is what I will do.”

“By shutting your kind away?”

“I like her,” said Natasha Romanov, standing at T’Challa’s right.

He clenched his jaw and made her fade away, then walked past Okoye. “If you are to come, then come. We are short on time.”

 

Officially, T’Challa’s visit was diplomatic; he would have to meet with the German chancellor the next day, though he hadn’t even thought of an issue to discuss. It did not matter; in politics, there was always plenty to talk about. What mattered was that he was now leaving the international airport with ten highly trained members of the Dora Milaje by his side—plus their uninvited captain, and the pale red-headed silhouette which kept flickering at the edge of his mind.

It was 9pm here in Berlin. T’Challa had people in this country—as in any other country—and two black, unmarked vans were already waiting for them in the parking lot. He climbed in and said, without looking at Natasha Romanov, “Your presence is not needed.”

“Your lady friend thinks otherwise.”

“This is why I must keep you away,” he said. “Twice betrayer. You gave me the Asset’s location, but you want me to spare him.”

“If you did not keep us away,” she whispered, “maybe you’d understand why I want you to spare him.” When he failed to answer, she went on, “He’s part of our soul. You might not like to think about it, but he is you, and you are him.”

Still he said nothing.

“What has he done for you to hate him so much?” she asked.

Outrage pushed the words out of his mouth. “He murdered my father’s soul-siblings—he obeyed the orders of a man set to destroy his own siblinghood!”

“Yes,” Natasha said quietly. “Are you not on your way to do the exact same thing?”

T’Challa abruptly shut up. Talking to her had been a mistake. She was a hunter, just like the prey he was after. He must not let her thwart his resolve; he must have his goal in mind, and nothing else.

The Asset, and Pierce. The Asset, and Pierce—

“Your Majesty,” called Okoye, “we’re here.”

T’Challa reached for the Black Panther helmet.

 

T’Challa’s warriors did not embarrass themselves with matters of subtlety or stealth—this was a storming of the castle, and their strategy relied primarily on surprise. And surprise was on their side; the Germans were thoroughly unprepared, and most of them unarmed. Security guards were quick to acknowledge how outgunned they were, and surrendered their weapons; all personnel was systematically subdued and restrained.

“Fan out,” T’Challa ordered as another level of the base fell to their hands. “Find them.”

“Your Majesty…”

It was Okoye. She was standing in front of a door marked Leichenhalle.

T’Challa pushed it open and walked into the icy morgue, bathed in blue and grey light like a bad dream. There were only three slabs, bearing people he recognized from his father’s old pictures. Erik Selvig. Gao Chang Wu. Nicholas Fury. All dead, nude and cold, bearing autopsy marks.

“Clear,” called a woman from the other room.

“Clear,” echoed another.

T’Challa reached out for Nicholas Fury; his fingers hovered over the smooth, icy forehead. Pierce had stolen his corpse from the American morgue.

Nothing could express what T’Challa felt in this moment. Any doubt Natasha Romanov might have stirred in him was extinguished at once. He turned back, walked out of the room, and down the last unexplored corridor—at the end of which Alexander Pierce must be. Hiding behind his Asset.

Without warning, T’Challa suddenly heard his mother’s words again, her blessing to him.

He will always be among those who love him…

“What are you doing?” Loki said.

T’Challa ignored him. Under the neon lights of the hallway, the Jotun prince looked paler than ever. There was fear on his face as he catalogued the place he was in—the German names on the door.

“Oh no, no, no, it’s too soon. T’Challa—you do not understand, you cannot kill him now—”

“You’re right, he can’t,” said another, milder voice. “Because he’s not here.”

Both men turned to the newest apparition. T’Challa recognized him. It was Banner—the man from the filthy cell, holding the picture of a gap-toothed child.

“You’re looking for the Asset, right? He’s not here,” he repeated. “They sent him back home.”

 

*

 

He wails, so loud, with his very first breath of air.

“Congratulations, Mrs. Barnes, it’s a beautiful boy.”

“A boy—” she gasps, “George—George, where are you going?”

George rushes out of the room, and from the corridor they hear him shout, “IT’S A BOY! WINIFRED JUST GAVE BIRTH TO A BABY BOY!”

There is an almighty clamor in answer, and a dozen people spill into the room, men and women and children, making the nurses yell at them, what are they thinking, this woman just delivered a baby, and there are health regulations—but Winifred is laughing, and her relatives are squealing, congratulating her, asking:

“What’s his name? Now you can tell us! Winnie, what’s his name?”

“We thought—James Buchanan,” she grins. “Like the p—”

“We’ll call him Jim!” shrieks one of the kids.

“Or Jimmy!”

“Or Jamie!”

“No, we’ll call him Bucky.” They all turn to a dark-haired little girl, who stares back at them. “I get to decide. It’s my baby brother.”

When he came back to himself, James half-expected to find a crowd of people around him still. But the hotel room was empty, save for the corpses.

He was ice cold, shuddering uncontrollably, and there was a sharp pain moving through his veins like thick syrup, clogging his arteries, building pressure inside his chest. A minute before it started happening, he understood what was going on.

The first twist of his heart was agony—but it wasn’t unexpected. Zemo had said so. If we leave him like this he could have a heart attack. James gasped for air, clutching at his chest, bunching his shirt in his blood-speckled fist. Maybe it was fitting. And maybe it was better to die now, before Steve found him.

Bucky, James thought with difficulty. The memory was blurring already, but those two syllables stayed. He’d wanted to die knowing his own name, and the name fitted at long last—but he could not call himself that, even in the dark privacy of his fever-addled mind. He didn’t remember the woman who must have been his—mother? And the little girl who’d named him. His sister? What was she called? There had been so many people around his bed, such a huge family, gathered to welcome him into this world. He remembered nothing of them. What happened? he thought shakily. When did I lose myself?

He could not retrace his steps—but it did not excuse anything. Somehow his choices had landed him here, in this hotel room reeking of sickness and death, and it was a fitting ending for the thing he was, barely a person at all. All he knew was that he’d lost his way, and that he was only realizing it now, much too late.

The pain tore at him more urgently, and he gritted his teeth, hot tears running down his cheeks. At least he would die with his own mind, or what little remained of it. And he knew that Steve and all the others were safe. It hadn’t all been for nothing.

“Fuck,” gasped a voice.

Shaking so much he could hardly control his body, James managed to look up, only to find another crumpled figure in front of him, clutching at his chest like he did. His skin was a sallow gray.

“Jarv—Jarvis, call Pep—Pepper—call P—” His huge dark eyes moved to James. “Fuck,” he gasped again. “We are the same when we feel the same—pretty fucking extreme way to—ahh…”

The pain stabbed at them both again.

“But you’re not like me,” Tony Stark gasped, “you don’t have—radiation—fucking waited too long—”

He screwed his eyes shut and suddenly they swapped. James was still having a heart attack, but it felt different; there was something heavy and metal in his chest, and a nauseating warmth making him sweat at the temples. When he opened his eyes, he was in the middle of a bright-lit workshop, all gleaming chrome and glowing plastic. A cleaner place to die, he thought.

“I know this feeling,” Tony Stark said thickly, in the dark hotel room. “I’m a fucking alcoholic, I know—withdrawal’s a bitch.” He let out a tremulous laugh. “So this is how you die? How we both die? What kind of fucking karma—”

“Oh God—Tony,” cried a woman from the other side of reality, “Tony, Tony—”

She was gripping James’ wrist, looking into his eyes, telling him to hold on, Tony, hold on, but it only desynchronized their failing hearts. Tony was stepping back from the abyss, now, gathering himself, while James kept suffocating alone in the dark. The pain had become unbearable, as if someone was physically reaching into his chest to twist his heart; it squeezed more tears out of his eyes, and from the depth of his memory rose again the little boy’s sobs, please come get me, please come get me, please, please—

“Steve,” he gasped out—

And that was when he heard the furious rattle of the doorknob.

There were voices on the other side. James screwed his eyes shut, but he wasn’t imagining them. He didn’t know anymore whether he wanted Steve to be too late or not. The pain was all-encompassing, robbing him from sight and thought. More rattling; then a shout to get back, and a huge slamming shock against the door, which creaked and resisted.

James’ heart twisted one last time, then stopped beating.

He lay there, staring at the ceiling with wide unmoving eyes. Another blow, then another. The wood split with a terrible crack. Another blow—and the door fully came off its hinges, crashing into the room. People ran inside—he couldn’t see their faces—his heart was still, but he could still think for a few more seconds, as the life drew back from his body, like a low tide—

Someone roughly turned him on his back, pushed at his chest, again, again, again, then forced his mouth open and blew air into his lungs. Then started pushing again, again, again, until a sharper pang of pain stabbed at James’ heart. It stuttered and then restarted, drawing an agonized gasp from his lips.

“He’s breathing, he’s—”

There was a hand on his face, making him turn his head. James’ eyes were wide and haunted, and for a second he couldn’t see a thing, but then the blurry shapes and colors dancing before his eyes resolved themselves into something he could recognize.

A man with blue eyes. With fair hair. James couldn’t look away.

“Oh, James,” said Alexander Pierce in a low, appreciative voice. “Look how far you’ve come.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

7.

 

“Bruce?”

Bruce blinked, then glanced at Betty, who was coming out of the bathroom with an inquiring look on her face.

“Sorry, I… was thinking of something else.”

“I can see that,” Betty said—then she stifled a laugh. “You look very nice.”

“If you say so.” Bruce tugged on his shirt with a smile. “I haven’t worn a t-shirt since my college days.”

It was lurid pink with a daisy on the front—he didn’t have spare clothes and it was too late in the evening to go shopping, so Betty had lent him some of the larger shirts she’d packed as pajamas. Though Bruce mourned the loss of his button-downs, he didn’t actually feel uncomfortable; as a matter of fact, he’d picked the most ridiculous t-shirt of the pile on purpose, hoping he would make Betty laugh. And it had. Which made it an excellent fashion choice.

She’d insisted he shower first, though she’d been the one driving all day to get them to Colorado. While she took her time in the tiny motel bathroom, he’d sat on the bed and let his thoughts wander—sometimes in a very literal sense. But now that she was back in the room with him, his mind was within bounds again.

Betty sat next to him, laughter still in her voice. “Really, you didn’t have to pick this one.”

“Ah, you know me. Always go for broke.”

“Yeah.” She took his hand—the broken one, very delicately. She wasn’t laughing anymore.

When Betty was so close to him, still warm from her shower, it made something tender bloom in Bruce’s chest, pain and relief all together.

“I guess we both learned a lot of things about me today,” he said.

“Hmm. And we learned that Dr. Richard Jones is a filthy liar.”

Bruce still didn’t know how to feel about that. Free of the burden of his greatest fault, he was disoriented, unused to the idea that he might not deserve his usual amount of self-loathing. It would take him some time to adjust. But mostly he was worried. He hadn’t forgotten how quickly Betty had glossed over his confession, and she seemed to treat him with even more levity now.

He softly pulled his hand from hers, to avoid further temptation.

“I may not have attacked him, but I did have that episode in Mexico. It’s how your father found me. I was in a bar—a fight broke out—I wrecked the place.”

“Bruce,” she began.

“No,” he said quickly. “You… you don’t see it, but I’m not safe to be around. I get angry. I lash out.”

She looked at him for a long while.

“You’re afraid you’re going to hurt me.”

Bruce nodded. Then, afraid he was hurting her now, he forced himself to go on, to say it all.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had this… this crush on you, since the day we met. If you suspected—well, you were right.” He smiled at the floor. “You can just… take it as flattery.”

Betty said nothing for a second more. Then she tipped Bruce’s chin up; he glanced at her, stupidly wondering if he had something on his face, and the next second she was kissing him.

Bruce’s brain froze. When Betty pulled back, she smiled at his wide-eyed expression.

“Sorry. I really wanted to do that.”

This past week, Bruce had survived twenty-four hours of torture thanks to the help of a panther king, a sleepwalking billionaire and a Russian spy. He had developed psychic powers and used them to almost-make-out with a handsome, glittery, very male circus performer, who had then proceeded to rescue Bruce from his own boss only to vanish into thin air. Bruce’s life was completely ludicrous.

Yet somehow this new experience topped the rest of them all in terms of sheer absurdity.

“Betty,” he stammered. “I…”

“I’ve liked you for a while. I thought maybe you did, too. But you always kept your distance.”

Bruce winced. Of course he did. He had good reason to.

“God," he said, "I shouldn’t have told you—”

“No, I’m glad you did. It doesn’t have to be life and death all the time, Bruce.”

“You don’t understand…”

“I think maybe it’s you who doesn’t. You say that you lash out. When you’re threatened, or scared, or hurt. I believe you. I don’t plan on making you feel any of these things.”

Bruce opened his mouth to protest, but once again, no words came. He knew he must say something to deter her, but he couldn’t think of another argument. More alarmingly, he had trouble remembering why he should find one.

“If you think this is a risk, then I’m taking it. And if something goes wrong, well. I’ll just walk away. But right now I trust you and that’s how things are.”

She waited for his answer, but he just kept sitting there, staring helplessly at her, and she huffed something slightly sadder than a laugh.

“Oh, Bruce—come here.”

She hugged him, and he pressed his face to the soft, warm skin of her neck. He couldn't help it. When she ran her fingers through his curly hair, he closed his eyes, sighing when she scratched at his scalp.

“This is a bad idea," he mumbled.

“Well. Surely not the worst we’ve had lately.”

Bruce started laughing, despite himself, and finally put his arms around her, too, clutching the back of her shirt. She hugged him tighter and pressed a kiss to his neck.

He had never been further from anger in his life.

 

They ordered pizza and ate it right in the hotel room, sitting cross-legged on the neatly made bed. Bruce felt dizzy. He was not sure what this meant for them both, what happened next, but for once he didn’t care. For once, he had no trouble at all living in the moment.

Sadly, the moment was not one to be lived in—Thaddeus Ross would not be long to track them down. Already they must decide what to do next. They hunched over Betty’s brand new phone (apparently she’d stolen it to avoid tracking, which impressed Bruce to no end) and pondered candidates. Bruce was amazed at his ability to chat calmly with Betty Ross as though she hadn’t kissed him less than two hours ago. As though she wasn’t planning to do it again.

“There is Reed Richards, of course,” Betty was saying through a mouthful of pizza, scrolling down the Google results page, “but I don’t really like the guy, and I don’t think he cares a lot about environmental research, you know? His wife might be amenable, though, and she’s got both the brains and the money…”

Bruce, all caught up in her closeness, shook himself. “Oh—um, Susan Storm? I don’t know. She kind of fell off the grid lately, it’s like she’s turned inv—”

The words dried in his mouth and for a moment he just sat there, stunned.

“Bruce?”

“I… I know who can be our buyer,” he said when he was able to speak again.

Betty blinked at him. “Really? Who?”

It was so obvious, in retrospect, that Bruce was astonished not to have thought of it earlier. But then again, this crazy whirlpool in the back of his mind had only been open for five days, and he’d encountered quite a lot of distractions in the meantime.

“Tony Stark.”

Betty’s eyes went round. “Tony Stark? As in, just-back-from-Afghanistan Tony-Stark? Sabotaging-his-own-company Tony-Stark? Emotionally-unbalanced-arms-dealer Tony-Stark?”

“Hey,” said a weak voice. “I resent… at least one of these things she said.” Tony winced. “Dammit, it was all true, wasn’t it.”

Bruce looked around the white room, the beeping machines, the bed on wheels. It was awfully familiar, seeing as he’d just left a hospital of his own less than a day ago.

“Jesus. Tony, what happened?”

“Karma, I guess,” Tony slurred. A smile tugged at his lips. “I never asked why you were in the hospital, after all. My mom always did tell me not to be rude.”

“Tony, don’t…” Bruce raised a hand to his chest, instinctively. Cables were sticking out of Tony’s, plugged into something that looked like a TENS unit. “Your reactor failed, didn’t it?”

“Pepper found me, it’s fine, it’s all fine. The good news is, I almost have enough vibranium to build two of the hundred and seven micro-components I need for the new one.” Tony coughed, weak and raspy, then fixed his bloodshot eyes on Bruce. “You saw him, right?”

The word vibranium was echoing in Bruce’s newly open mind, but Tony’s words drew his thoughts away from it. “Him? Who…”

“Barnes. You told me you saw Barnes. On the plane.”

“Oh—yes. Did you find him? I thought—”

“Did you see him take anything?” Tony interrupted. “Pills? Something like that?”

Bruce hesitated, then remembered. “Well—actually, yes, he was about to. But I startled him and he dropped them. Good thing, too. I wouldn’t wish that crap on my worst enemy.”

Tony’s eyes widened by a fraction. “Wait. You know about the… the LR17-something—you know what it does?”

“I knew them as SOLDAT pills.” Bruce pushed away memories of awful sickness and constant confusion and bare-boned despair. “They’re emotion suppressants. But they can cause bad amnesia and some serious mental imbalance in the long run. Of course, the people who usually seek them out don’t care about that.”

It made sense that an assassin would want them. Bruce hadn’t thought about them again since he’d seen James Barnes on that plane, but they did match everything someone like him would need. Less empathy, an easier propensity to violence, no guilt, no anxiety, all of it numbed…

“Wait,” Tony whispered. Then, “Shit.”

“Bruce?”

Bruce startled back to reality.

“You spaced out on me,” Betty said.

“I…” He stared at her. “I’m sorry. I keep doing that, don’t I?”

Part of him was surprised to see her there, as though she was the vision. But this was undeniably real—he could feel it: to come back to this motel room was like wading back into a warm pool after standing for an uncomfortable while on the chilly bank. His life had never been so messy, yet for the first time in years, he wouldn’t have wanted it to be any other way.

“Sorry,” he repeated, slightly giddy.

“You were talking about Stark…”

“Yes.” Bruce cleared his mind. “It’s going to be complicated—he’s got health problems on top of everything. But, Betty, if you can trust me,” and he knew it to be true on the deepest level, “then… then you can trust him, too.”

 

*

 

“Shit,” Tony said, then, “Bruce?” but Bruce was gone .

Tony swore again between his teeth, staring at the white ceiling, then pressing his eyelids shut. His chest was back to feeling like it had right after Yinsen’s emergency surgery—like it might dislocate with every breath. They had removed the fried-up reactor, leaving only a hole.

Yinsen. Tony hadn’t thought about him since he’d come back from Afghanistan. The body must still be there, half-buried in the collapsed cave. The thought hurt Tony so much he couldn’t breathe.

This must be why his mind had avoided the topic until then. Out of self-preservation. There was only so much he could take, and this week had been such a fucking shitfest.

Don’t waste it, Yinsen had said. Don’t waste your life. Because Tony, without family, was a man who has everything, and nothing.

“Fuck,” Tony said.

Bruce had gone to face his fears, for the sake of their cluster. And now, apparently, it was Tony’s fucking turn, because this was what family fucking did to you. You went to face your potentially judgmental soulmate to rescue your other, potentially lethal soulmate. Or whatever. He had no experience with this.

“Steve?” he whispered.

The beeps of the hospital machines lingered for a while, then vanished in the background.

When he looked around, Tony found himself in the middle of a crime scene, which was mildly funny to him, because he had never seen one before and it looked so much like TV. There were blood splatters on the ugly hotel wallpaper, and police tape everywhere.

“Dear Lord, you’re a cop,” he said. “Of course you’re a cop.”

Steve didn’t react at first, staring into space. After a few seconds, he looked up. “Oh. Tony.”

“That’s it?” Tony said, because sarcasm was always his first line of defense. “You won’t even startle? The novelty sure wore off fast with you.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t…” He seemed lost. “I don’t know what’s happening anymore.”

He said it so candidly and so desperately Tony’s shell cracked.

“Steve. Hey.” He stepped closer. “What’s going on?”

“James…” Steve rubbed his face. “Christ. Do you even know who James is?”

Tony scoffed. “Yeah, no, we’ve met. What has he done to you?”

“Not to me,” Steve said, voice muffled.

And that was when Tony saw the bodies, in neat black bags lined up against the wall. It finally clicked in his mind. This was a real crime scene. There was nothing funny at all about it.

“Shit.”

Steve looked at the scene like he was on another planet. “I thought I would find him here—we moved as fast as we could—but he was gone.”

“Who did he…” Tony found he could not say the k-word, or any softer equivalent. Some arms dealer he was. “Were they—patrons of the hotel?”

“No—well, yes, but—that’s the weird thing,” Steve sighed. “They looked familiar to me, and eventually I realized… I’ve seen them both on security footage from another hotel. A suicide, except it wasn’t a suicide—it’s a long story. The point is, they’re his teammates. I think.”

The world swayed around Tony for a second.

It was all making horrible sense at long last. He had all the pieces of the puzzle. He had been so far off the mark. They all had been.

“Tony?” said Steve—and then blinked at the white walls and beeping machines around them. “My God. What happened to you?”

“Oh, a great many things,” Tony rasped from his bed. “Long story, too. Listen. It’s important. If I’m not wrong—then maybe I can get something right for a change.”

With difficulty, he pulled himself up by a few inches. It didn’t make that big of a difference, but it was the thought that counted.

“James Buchanan Barnes,” he said. “Born in Brooklyn, same day, same year we all did. In 1989, he vanished—look…”

He reached for his phone on the nightstand. It pulled at his brittle ribcage, and for a moment he thought he could never grasp it; but then Bruce Banner reached out of nowhere and did it for him.

“God. Thanks.” Tony let his hand fall back. “How does that work? You’re not really here… yet it feels as if—”

“Questions for later, Tony.”

“Who…?” said Steve, sounding more puzzled than ever.

“Bruce Banner, hi.” Bruce handed him the phone. “Here. Look.”

Steve took it and stared without a word at the gap-toothed kid’s picture. Something cold trickled from him into the bond, like a ripple of ice.

“As I was saying.” Tony coughed. “We could construct an elaborate scenario where Barnes went extremist at the tender age of nine, but I’d rather assume he was abducted. By Alexander Pierce, obviously.”

“But why?” objected Bruce.

“Because he was a sensate,” Steve breathed.

They both blinked at him.

“Sorry?”

“Nothing.” Steve looked up; there was naked hope in his blue eyes. “Go on.”

“It just so happens that Alexander Pierce is the head of HYDRA, a pharmaceutical company which produces a drug called LR17 something—”

“LR17-DF9-BH1F,” Bruce said at once. His soft eyes lingered on Tony; he spoke slowly, obviously trying to see the big picture. “Suppressants. They numb the subject’s emotional responses—and keep him from fixing memories in his mind…”

Steve was not moving a muscle. Tony went on, the image in his head getting clearer and clearer as he spoke.

“Fast forward nine years. We know James has been drugged all this time. Probably forgot all about his old life. Also got trained to kill, so harshly he managed to lose an arm in the process. Now he’s 18, old enough for him to get out without attracting suspicion. And so they take him out for a test run.” His mouth quivered. “It’s successful. He takes down two others like us—”

“T’Chaka’s soul-siblings,” Steve whispered. Then his eyes widened in sudden realization. “Your parents.”

Bruce said nothing, but he was staring, too. Tony ignored them both. Now wasn’t the time.

“My parents,” he confirmed, trying to keep a steady voice. “Benefits my godfather Obadiah Stane, by the way, in repayment for the cutting edge prosthetic he gave to Pierce. So Pierce expands his network. Gets more men. Hunts more of us.”

Bruce was catching up. “Until the day—”

“Until the day we’re all collectively reborn into this clusterfuck, which they obviously hadn’t planned.” Tony swallowed. “Suddenly their pet killer sees the world through our eyes. Gets a taste of freedom. Must have really baffled him, too.”

“Yes.” Steve’s voice was a hollow breath. “It did.”

“Any idea why he came to DC?”

Steve seemed unable to speak for a second. “He was sent after me.”

A host of violent emotions pulsed beneath his quiet tone. Tony thought of his own hatred. It was still there, glowering like embers, along with the searing pain of grief. But Barnes was not its target anymore. He had been nothing but a puppet—in a terribly literal way.

“Well, I don’t know what happened on the way there,” Tony concluded, talking through the sour taste in his mouth. “The fact is that he stopped taking the drugs and immediately turned on his teammates. Went into pretty nasty withdrawal, too.”

Steve whipped round and his own reality snapped back into place, bloodied walls closing in on them again. “But where is he? He told me to come for him, he told me he wouldn’t run!”

“He couldn’t have,” Tony said. “He was in a bad state the last time I saw him...”

“He didn’t run,” intervened a fourth voice.

They all turned round.

In the middle of the room stood Natasha, her hair a brighter red than the blood on the walls.

“I was just in Germany. Alexander Pierce isn’t there anymore,” she said. Her face was pale. “If he looked James in the eye—then we’ve lost him.”

 

*

 

T’Challa felt nothing.

He had spent the past week feeling nothing, to protect himself from what he did not want to feel. But— we are the same when we feel the same— his emptiness had suddenly opened onto a pit of horrors.

He did not know where he was. Someone was holding his head down in a painful grip. It shouldn’t have been possible, his hair was too short for such a thing; evidently this was not his hair. Not his body. There was a loud buzzing in his ears, a painful, scraping sensation on his scalp. His head was being shaved. He tried moving, but he was bound tight. His open, vacant eyes were fixed on the blank floor. This reality, to whomever it belonged, had congealed around him like tar.

“All done.” The air was cold on his fuzzy, bald head. “Got the marker?”

“Here.”

“Okay, medial longitudinal fissure…”

Someone was drawing a line on his scalp. The pungent smell of the marker invaded his nose.

“Central sulcus… frontal lobe… parietal lobe… there.” The marker was capped with a click; then T’Challa was roughly brought to his feet.

“Back to the cell with him.”

“The cell? But the surgeon’s all set.”

“Pierce says we can’t do anything to him while he still has LR17 in his veins.”

“Why give him a shot of the stuff, then?”

“So he’d stop going into withdrawal, you fucking moron. Give me a hand already!”

Throughout all this, T’Challa’s horror remained purely intellectual. He kept feeling a great absence, with only a faint echo of weariness. It was as though there was nobody for T’Challa to share his soul with.

With a great effort, he found his own voice—the one only his sibling could hear.

“Who are you?” he whispered urgently. “Where are you? Tell me. I can help—”

There was a door opening, then they were thrown onto a bare cement floor. The shock was finally enough for T’Challa to slam back into his own reality.

He was in the antechamber of the German chancellor. He should have been preparing his speech. But now there was a man lying on the floor of the gilded room.

On this side of reality, he wasn’t bound; but he held himself like he was. His head had been badly shaved, with uneven patches tracing odd shadows there. Aggressively colored marker lines stood out against his pale scalp.

“T’Challa?” Okoye asked.

T’Challa met her gaze.

“I…” He forced the words out. “You were right. I should have let them in.” He swallowed. “I can only hope I am not too late.”

Something like satisfaction flitted through her dark eyes; without a word, she got up and left the room to give him his privacy. It was customary, and a distant part of T’Challa was enormously grateful.

Throughout this short exchange, the man in the corner had not moved an inch.

“Who are you?” T’Challa asked again, cursing himself for not learning the name and location of all his soul-siblings. But of course, this was his own doing; he had wanted to keep them at arm’s length. “Were you taken? Was it the Asset?”

His sibling lay there, motionless. Then he spoke in a hoarse murmur.

“I am the Asset.”

Silence expanded between them.

Back in the cell, T’Challa slowly sank to his knees, next to the bound man on the floor. An echo sounded through his mind; he had already lived a similar scene—or maybe another of his siblings had. Maybe more than one. It felt like an endless loop of déjà vu, this moment where he knelt next to part of his soul, while it was in helpless pain.

This was only fair, somehow. In his blindness, in his foolishness, he had neglected the wisdom of his ancestors, the warnings of his siblings, and the advice of his father. He should have opened himself to his soul-siblings, known them, loved them. He had pursued his vengeance instead. He was a powerful, strong-willed man, and so he had gotten to the right place, but—as he now started to realize—through the wrong path.

“I don’t know,” the Asset said suddenly.

T’Challa frowned. The words had been unprompted; they did not seem to make sense.

The Asset was staring at the antechamber’s wall. Out of nowhere he spoke again. “Sir, I don’t know who he is.”

T’Challa reared back. This was the Asset. In direct psychic contact with Pierce. He must not stay here—

Yet he couldn’t help it. This was the man he had been looking for. Now he had found him, and he must act. But too many things confused him. First of all, why was he being treated like a prisoner?

The answer came to him at once, and chilled him to the bone. Because he was born, of course. Pierce’s attack dog had finally come into his powers; Pierce himself had noticed it—invaded his mind at once—and so they were going to lobotomize him like they had all the others.

Something strange was happening to T’Challa’s heart. He did not wish to feel compassion for his enemy. This was all he deserved. But this might not even be compassion; only the awful premonition that Natasha Romanov had been right. She was a hunter, after all. She knew more about the Asset’s circumstances than T’Challa did.

This slightest thought was enough. Without sound or movement, Natasha was sitting cross-legged on the bare floor of the cell, looking at the bound Asset with his shaved head.

She was red-eyed.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I tried to stop this from happening.”

The Asset slowly turned his head to her. “Who are you?”

He’s like me, T’Challa realized with a blow to the heart. He shut them out. And now here they all were: a man robbed of his vengeance, another bound for the rack, and the woman they had not known to listen, until it was too late.

“I’m a—” She smiled wryly, her eyes still wet. “I’m a big fan.”

The Asset twitched, as if inching away from an invisible presence. Pierce must still be hovering, silent to the rest of them, murmuring to him. T’Challa should have been glad, to see his enemies destroying each other. But in truth he had not felt much of anything since his father had died, and his numbness was now crumbling into a wasteland of regret.

This very despondency roused him into rebellion. Surely something could be done.

“You’re a hunter,” he said to Natasha. “Don’t you know where he’s being held?”

She looked at him, her face unreadable. “So you can destroy him?”

“So we can help.”

“Why the change of heart?”

T’Challa swallowed. He couldn’t answer this question; his heart was ahead of his mind.

She shook her head. “He did commit the murders you blamed him for. Your anger’s not unjustified.”

“Isn’t it?” T’Challa asked, surprising himself with the force of it. Now that someone was finally taking his side, he wouldn’t let them. He did not want to destroy his family of soul; but he’d acknowledged it too late. “You are a hunter, too. You must have committed murders as well—were you willing? Were you glad?”

“She wasn’t.”

They both turned to the Asset, lying in the corner of the gilded room. He had stopped looking at the wall; he was looking at Natasha.

Ubijca,” he said. It meant contract killer, but he made it sound like a term of endearment. “Were you the one who destroyed the Red Room?”

She looked him in the eye, and they knew her answer.

The Asset did not smile, but a shadow lifted from his pale gaze. He rested his head on the floor, staring at the wall again.

“You did your part,” he said. “Hopefully I’m doing mine.”

“I can find you,” T’Challa insisted. He walked forward, knelt down again, and seized the Asset’s human hand in both of his. “Ubuthi, I can find you. The power I brought to destroy you—let me put it in your service instead.”

“You don’t need to find me,” the Asset said. “I know exactly where I am. This is where I was supposed to bring Steve.”

He was so awfully calm. For the first time, it occurred to T’Challa this was not natural. The detachment he felt—it was a chemical running through his soul-sibling’s veins. They had drugged him, and restrained him, and now they were going to kill him.

“T’Challa’s right,” Natasha protested. “Tell us! There is still time to—”

“No,” said the Asset, and all at once they saw it—a white shadow pacing in circles behind him, getting closer every time, though never enough to be seen clearly. “It’s too dangerous. He will get you too.”

With an effort, he vanished from sight.

T’Challa stood there, breathless. Think. He had to do something. Think, think. What could he do? What could be done? He was too far, even with the supersonic Nengwe Omnyama, and he couldn’t just leave the German chancellor without a word, not even to save part of his soul, he was too far

But maybe the others were not.

T’Challa turned to Natasha, and reached out. “Come with me,” he said.

Without a word, she seized his hand. He took a deep breath, then closed his eyes.

He was not the Black Panther now. He was an orphan child running against time and space. This world was his own. This forest was his own. His heritage had deep roots in the fertile soil of their shared connection. He knew the lore, he knew the way, if he could only follow it.

There was Natasha, close to him, and he used her as his first connection point, a guideline to find the others, so he knew what to look for. Now that he was keeping his senses open, he could feel six other nodes of energy in the darkness of his inside realm.

He pressed, pushed, and felt them on a geographical scale. He felt Natasha, close to him in mind but so far away in body. He went westwards, towards the distant glowing point of the Asset in his cell. Who was closest? Surely Steve Rogers. He was a police officer in DC. And T’Challa knew him—could warn him quickly—

But Steve Rogers was not the closest to the Asset. There was another one on their way there.

In fact, they’d already entered the building.

 

*

 

“You did it,” Natasha breathed, looking around the facility. It seemed like a regular clinic; but she’d been in similar places and her blood chilled with recognition. “We can still—”

All of a sudden T’Challa swore. His head swiveled to something she could not see. “Too late. The German chancellor is asking for me.”

“Can’t you stall him?”

“My country’s diplomacy is in the balance. It is my own fault for coming to Germany. I will be back as soon as I can.” He vanished from the bond, leaving her alone in the gleaming corridors of a foreign building.

But of course, she wasn’t alone; someone had led them here. She was seeing through his eyes right now. And indeed, in the middle of the hallway stood—

“Loki?” she said incredulously.

He froze and turned to look at her—but for a second she saw him wrong, like there was another silhouette superimposed to his. Someone less tall, less thin, less dark.

In an instant she forgot all about the Asset.

“What did you do?”

“It was an accident.” His gaze snapped to the side. “Did you hear—”

And with that swift movement of his head, she saw it again, two human images disassociating for a split second before they came together again; one was his, and the other was…

“What did you do to Clint?”

“Well, he was the one who let me in,” Loki said, slightly out of breath. He set off again, walking up a sterile corridor with hurried strides. “His fault, really.”

Natasha threw herself at him.

It did not sway him physically, but she pushed at something within, as though she had stretched apart the superimposed souls for a second. Loki cried out and stumbled back, bumping into the wall. “Are you insane?—no!” He dived to the side when she hurled herself at him again. “Don’t do that! Stop and think for a second, you foolish woman!”

She followed his advice—gave up on physical attacks for now and stood still, targeting him with his mind instead, trying to switch places with him in the hope that it might push his soul out of Clint’s body. But it did not work; intentionally or not, he was resisting possession.

“Think!” Loki yelled again. “I came here for a reason! I cannot just—”

“What reason?” she snarled, vibrating with wrath. “Talk fast.”

“I’m in enemy territory!” he protested. “I can hardly stop for a chat—

“Good idea, let’s start here. Where are you? And by you, I don’t mean your comatose body in that German hospital. We need your position, that is what we came for, start talking now !”

Loki obviously wanted to protest again, but a threatening gesture on her part made him raise his hands in surrender. “All right, all right! I am in the outskirts of Washington DC, if you must know. The Roanoke clinic!”

Natasha made her mind porous—let the information seep through. She felt Steve’s soul move when the knowledge touched it, but she had no time to actually visit him and explain. What she had before her was just too monstrous.

“How did you even get Clint here? He was in Nevada only yesterday!”

“Took a plane,” Loki answered shortly. “I was supposed to go to Germany, but I changed my mind when T’Challa wreaked havoc there. It’s a good thing he did, too. If not for him, I would have never tried to look for this place—”

“And how did you find it?”

Here Loki looked unbearably smug. “Can you not navigate the bond like I do? Pity. We have a physical resonance, you see—”

“Oh my God , I know,” she spat, “how do you think we found you? Forget it. What are you doing here? This is Clint you’re putting at risk! Do you know how dangerous this is? If his eyes meet Pierce’s—”

“Pierce is here, then?” Loki said quickly. “Excellent. Just as I thought.”

She launched herself at him again, and he dodged with an indignant cry. “For Hel’s sake! Listen to me to the end!”

“Then keep talking,” she snarled. “Because right now all I want is to wrench you out of him!”

When she stared hard at him, she could see that it was, in fact, Clint Barton’s face staring back; but his demeanor was so much like Loki’s that it was easier to see the pale-faced, dark-haired illusion.

“If you must know,” Loki said again, “this is a rescue mission, and you’re being quite successful in hindering it!”

She blinked. She had no idea he’d been on the same case all this time. Of course it was the only explanation that made sense, but—“You’ve come to rescue Barnes?”

“Barnes?” Loki looked as nonplussed as her. “No. I don’t even know who—oh. The one I traced here, obviously.”

Natasha almost pounced on him again. “Then what the fuck do you—”

“I came to rescue all of us,” he shouted over her, “from the threat of HYDRA! Don’t you see?” He pressed his fist into the chest of this strange superposition of himself. “This is what Alexander Pierce wants! Puppets! Bodies he can inhabit at will! But he cannot possess someone who is not part of his cluster. Their bond is not strong enough; the living mind of an outsider resists his control. He has to neutralize it first—hence the lobotomies!”

Loki spun round, opening his arms to encompass the facility he was in—the sterile hallways, the doors stamped with warning signs, the medical supplies visible through glass walls. “And this is where they do it. As to why— the possibilities are endless! Eternal health. Eternal youth. Eternal life. Obedient armies!”

“Is that why you are here?”

Loki turned to her and grinned, wide and sharp.

“I am here,” he said, “to strike two birds with one stone. And everything is going just as planned.”

Which was when a security guard tackled him to the floor.

Loki yelped and fought back like a maniac; he managed to throw the man off him, but more of them were coming. Of course—the idiot had been standing there shouting for anyone to hear. Gritting her teeth, Natasha did the psychic equivalent of elbowing her way in; regardless of Loki’s plans, she had to get Clint out of here.

She felt Loki’s power bend and give, but even then, she had the nasty feeling he was letting her do it, because he knew he needed her help. When they got back up, she was the one in command.

The guards were not dressed for heavy combat; there was no body armor to soften her blows, and her remorse at using Clint’s hands to kill had faded. It was him she was trying to save this time. She punched and kicked and snarled at them. If these were really Alexander Pierce’s men, then she must destroy them. Loki she could deal with later. He was in the background now, but still firmly lodged in Clint’s brain, extinguishing all other conscious thought.

For the first time, it occurred to Natasha that maybe Clint’s soul had been entirely snuffed out. But no—she could not think about this now. She must believe she had something to fight for, or she could not fight.

Her hands were beginning to ache, knuckles split and bleeding; she picked up one of the guards’ batons and slammed her way through half a dozen new opponents. An alarm had begun to sound overhead; soon there would be more.

“How do I get out of here?” she shouted.

“Let me.” With surprising force, Loki shoved her out and regained full control of Clint’s body. He didn’t even need a second to get his bearings—he was darting out into the hallway already.

“Where are you going?” she yelled, running by his side. “This is where they’ve been coming from!”

The alarm was still screaming overhead. Loki was panting, but his sharp features radiated savage exhilaration. “Oh yes,” he said, “I do hope to find the queen bee lurking around here somewhere.”

He stopped in front of a door marked SURGERY WARD. “Ah. This looks promising.”

“Don’t go in there!” Natasha struggled for control again, but when it came to the bond, his power was unparalleled.

He reached out and opened the door.

Inside was a short, plump man with watering eyes and an unfortunate nose. He was wearing surgical scrubs; surprise made him freeze up in the process of washing his hands.

“Yes? Hello?”

“You are not Alexander Pierce,” said Loki.

“Indeed no. I’m Dr. Zola.” He dried his hands. “And you must be the intruder responsible for these dreadful alarms.”

He didn’t look worried; there was nothing but interest on his face. “Were you looking for your friend? I am afraid the procedure has already started. But it is good of you, to have come yourself. Saves us a lot of trouble. A lot of money.”

Natasha’s every instinct was screaming. But Loki’s power was iron-cast, his focus was so intense he apparently hadn’t noticed that the hallway behind him had gone silent. No more blaring alarms. No feet stomping down the corridors.

Something else was coming.

“No,” Loki said slowly. “I suppose it is you I wanted to find first. Though now that I have, I am hard-pressed to think of a bargain for us.” He clenched his fists. “I shall have to threaten you.”

“Threaten me, indeed!” The surgeon seemed to find it highly amusing. “To what end?”

“Yes,” said another, debonair voice, coming from behind Loki. “I would also like to find out.”

 

*

 

He’s not here, Bucky thought on a loop, staring at the ceiling. He’s not here. He’s not here.

An alarm started blaring. Alexander Pierce looked up. “Ah! Friends of yours, probably. I should go say hi.”

He glanced at Bucky’s shaved head, then tapped him, three times, on the forehead. “After I enter your mind, I’ll be linked to all of them, of course. But a preview’s always nice.”

Bucky could feel his finger on his skin. No, he’s not here. He’s not here. He’s not here.

Pierce peered at Bucky with dispassionate curiosity. “Do you even have a mind to speak of? I often wondered. The SOLDAT drug isn’t known to favor brain cell development—and no handler of yours ever reported any sort of intelligence.” He turned away. “But you are functional. I suppose that’s what matters most.”

He’s not here. He’s not here. He’s not here. Bucky’s freshly shaved scalp was prickling; his paper gown made him feel completely exposed. He slowly pulled at his restraints, in a grounding gesture, and closed his eyes. I am walking in the sun with Steve. We are going to a karaoke bar.

“I can see your friend talking to Zola,” Pierce said, though of course he wasn’t budging from his spot. Really he was out there somewhere, stalking the hallways of the clinic. But he also was here with Bucky. He would be with him until the end. “Before I meet him, I should know—what’s his name? Tell me.”

The drug had almost left Bucky’s veins, and the ache of withdrawal was threatening again; but for now it was still nothing in the face of his terror. Pierce could not control his body yet, could not visit or possess the others, but he could already access Bucky’s knowledge, and from there all the others’ knowledge as well.

“Clint Barton? How quaint.”

Bucky closed his eyes against the neon lights. He’s not here. He’s not here. I am in the karaoke bar. There’s a song I know. I’m singing it for Steve. It starts with the word ‘yesterday’...

There was a rustle of clothing, and Bucky couldn’t help reopening his eyes. A medical attendant had just moved into the room. Of course, she couldn’t see Pierce, who existed only for Bucky. The woman fiddled outside of Bucky’s line of sight for a second, then came back, bringing a plastic mask close to Bucky’s face.

Bucky felt a fresh rush of adrenaline. This was it. He would fall asleep and never wake up.

He struggled against his restraints and screwed his eyes shut when the elastic band was wrapped around his head. The song. Remember the lyrics of the song.

Yesterday I had the longest ever dream

The mask came down over his face. It smelled of sterile latex.

That the world was endless with possibility

The hiss of the gas filled his hearing. Though it was childish, Bucky did not breathe in. He wanted to finish the song in his head.

It had me thinking, we should never forget

That there are wonders we haven’t seen yet

But of course it was impossible not to breathe in sleeping gas; a bit of it always came in, and then you got sloppy, breathed in the rest, and it was over already.

The world is full of magic

Darkness began to overtake him. At least there would be no Alexander Pierce anymore. There would not be anything anymore.

The world is full of magic

The world…

 

*

 

Loki froze.

He hadn’t imagined Pierce would be the one to find him. He hadn’t even heard him coming.

But no. This was too early. He had planned to find the surgeon and threaten him—bribe him, maybe? All he needed was someone with medical expertise on his side. But now that push had come to shove, he still didn’t know how to make Zola do his bidding, and he was all out of time.

He could feel Pierce standing behind him. His mind was racing, looking for a way out. But he already knew there was none. His plan had failed.

“Clint Barton, I presume.” A hand landed on his shoulder, with deceptive softness. “Do you mind turning around?”

Loki’s hands began to shake, but he would not let panic overtake him. I can do this, he thought. I am a blind man. I can do this. He had spent ten years navigating the world without eyes. He could use this now; keep his eyelids firmly shut, shove past the bogeyman, and run back the way he’d come from. This was frustrating—he had come so close—but at the very least there was still time to retreat, and find another angle, and succeed in another way.

Focused as he was on his plan, he did not notice Natasha edging in again until it was too late.

“No—!” but the shout did not leave his lips; he had lost control. Clint’s body moved seemingly on its own, grabbed the fire extinguisher by the handle, swung round and slammed Alexander Pierce around the head.

The man hit the wall, then crumpled down to the floor. Behind them, Zola shrieked.

“No—” Loki clawed his way back in, but he knew it was too late. “No, no, curse you, this wasn’t the plan—”

The surgeon fled the room; moments later, a second alarm began to wail, louder and shriller than the first. Loki didn’t care. He dropped the fire extinguisher to the floor, staggering closer to the crumpled body.

He slowly knelt down, turned Pierce on his back—and felt an odd, obscene thrill. Pierce was obviously in very bad shape, his head almost caved in.

But he was still breathing.

Loki’s shock morphed into something else; a mixture of disbelief and anticipated hope. He could not be so lucky. He never had been. Then again, the past five days had proved that his luck may turn if he applied himself enough.

“Get up.” It was Natasha. “Give me control! We need to run!”

“No,” Loki said very softly.

He cradled Pierce’s face, almost tenderly. Even sticky with blood and wrinkled with age, the man retained something of his past handsomeness. He looked stately, paternal—trustworthy, even; no wonder he had been able to build such an empire of torture and dehumanization. Odin had the same look about him.

All in all, Loki would have preferred someone else. But this had been his plan, though he had succeeded almost by accident. Even now, he could not be certain that this was the right thing to do.

But it wasn’t in his nature not to try.

With both thumbs, he lifted Pierce’s eyelids and met his pale gaze.

As he suspected, the body did not matter. What mattered what the spirit; and it was Loki’s intelligence, not Clint’s, meeting the dwindling spark in those dying eyes.

Alexander Pierce would have put up a fight on an ordinary day. But today, his head had been bashed in. Arrogant bastard; so confident in his ability to dominate the mind, he had never worried about the body, until this fateful attack. Now there he lay, weakened, half-dying, his consciousness loose and floating.

Not as clean as a lobotomy, but it’ll do.

Loki poured himself into him. It was the mental equivalent of shoving his way down a thick, narrow rubber tube, uncomfortable and stifling almost to the point of panic. The whole process was a far cry from the height of orgasmic joy he had reached when possessing Clint; this was a combination of cold-blooded intent, willful obstinacy, and painful effort.

Inch by inch Loki clawed his way in, like a parasite through rotten flesh. Then Pierce’s body closed upon him, and it all went dark.

 

*

 

Clint came round to a pristine floor—then to a growing pool of blood which almost reached the tip of his outstretched fingers.

There was a dead old man lying on the floor next to him. The blood was coming from his caved-in skull, leaking steadily from his ear.

Okay. This looks bad.

Screams sounded from the hallway, stuff Clint would expect to hear in a Die Hard movie, such as The police are here! and The chopper is ready! and Someone evacuate Mr. Pierce! complete with the occasional German accent, along with the sound of boots stomping around.

Clint was paralyzed, like he couldn’t remember which levers to pull to get his body moving. He couldn’t even look away. The pool of blood was almost touching his fingers now. But his hand stayed still and his eyes kept staring.

Then the corpse moved.

Clint would have scrambled back in a panic, but he still couldn’t figure out how to do it. He had to stare helplessly—probably very cadaver-like himself—while the man with the caved-in skull got up, straightened up his dapper clothing, and walked away.

The sound of boots and screams died down shortly after his departure, and Clint remained alone. There was an alarm shrieking overhead. Even through his hearing aids, it corkscrewed into his brain. He had to move. He had to move. Move! Why couldn’t he move? How had he gotten here? And where was here anyway?

Spinning images flashed across his vision like a burned out film reel. Nothing seemed to make much sense; the only common thread he could parse out was a tall, dark-haired figure, something that enveloped him whole and pushed him down into oblivion. In his foggy memories, he both loved it with an orgasmic passion and feared it like imminent death.

“Loki,” he slurred.

He was shocked to realize he’d said it out loud.

When he tried flexing his fingers, it worked; his body had finally caught the Wi-Fi signal to his brain, or something, and his range of motion was coming back. With slow, clumsy movements, Clint got himself sitting upright. When he was done, he was able to look around and take in the sterile surroundings and surgery beds. He couldn’t see from this angle, but he just knew that there were some sharp tools on the carts.

Even a white man in a horror movie would have taken the hint. If Clint hadn’t already decided to haul ass out of here before, he did now. Getting up on his feet, though… Right now, it seemed like an insurmountable feat.

Come on, Clint. You can do it. You’re a psychic superhero guy. He took a deep breath, brought his legs under him, pushed himself to his feet with a cry of victory—then miserably fell back down when pain shot up his leg.

He tried again, but no dice. His knee was well and truly busted.

A voice made him startle.

“No, no, no, I didn’t feel anything break—”

Clint swiveled round with deep relief. “Nat! Hey! What the hell is going on? What is this place?”

She didn’t answer; she wasn’t looking at him, and he could feel shame radiating from her.

“Nat? Hey—I’m not mad about the knee. Doesn’t even hurt.”

It was hard to be convincing when he didn’t know what was happening. Also, it did hurt like fuck, and he knew she could feel it. But why was he hurt?

Then he looked at his hands.

Judging by the state of them, he had recently fought his way through a small army. That wasn’t all—he wasn’t wearing the clothes he last remembered, and the ones he had on were splattered with blood and what he really hoped wasn’t brain matter. Clint swallowed. It seemed more and more obvious that his body had been wandering around on its own.

And it had been busy.

He looked up at Natasha again. “Did I… did I do something?”

But then Natasha’s eyes snapped to him. “No,” she said, anger spreading like heat waves. “You didn’t do anything. It was all Loki.” Her voice wavered. “He used you and I didn’t even know. I should have felt it.”

“Wha—hey, don’t blame yourself,” Clint protested even through his confusion. “You’re the one who told me the bond was too young to feel everything all the time. Right?”

Even as he spoke, his stomach clenched unpleasantly. Some of his warped dark memories were beginning to make sense. Used you. For what? But no—couldn’t think about it now. He should run first and think later.

Except now he couldn’t run.

Very cautiously, he got up on one foot and reached for the bed for balance. And because such was his life, he missed it—his arms pin-wheeled desperately, trying to grab on to something, but Natasha steadied him before he fell down.

“Thanks,” he muttered, blinking up at her. “Uh—how can you do that? Like… I know you’re not really here—”

“Experiments later. We have to leave.”

Clint nodded distractedly, because this was all well and good, but he wasn’t going anywhere and they both knew it. With an injury like that he couldn't even crawl. Exhaustion was catching up with him; he wondered when he’d last slept. He was about to make some vague joke about bad luck when Natasha gritted her teeth and switched with him.

It was nothing like Loki, consuming him to the point of non-existence. It was just regular bodyswap—and how, exactly, was this Clint’s life? Regular bodyswap? What the fuck. It didn’t even matter, because now Clint felt no pain.

Natasha did.

And Natasha was limping out of the room, on her twisted knee, thanks to a combination of ingenious weight distribution and sheer fucking willpower.

“Uh—Nat?” Clint squeaked, hurrying by her side. “Nat, you—”

“I’m getting you out of here,” she said through her tightly locked jaw. “I don’t care what else happens.”

Clint was all out of words.

Slowly, they made their way out of the room. The stabs of red pain were so huge it baffled Clint; if he had been the one in command, he’d have been curled on the floor sobbing before he could take half a step. Natasha scared him—he would have stopped her if she’d been the one pushing herself to such extremes. But this was his body, even if she was borrowing his pain for now. So he said nothing and let her focus.

When they reached the hallway, Clint saw bodies littering the floor and immediately closed his eyes. He really did not want to know if they were unconscious or dead.

“Did I—did I break into another secret base?” he asked.

She didn’t answer, but the alarms spoke volumes.

“I should really stop doing that,” Clint went on. “It’s not a good habit to pick up.”

He reopened his eyes when he felt fresh air hit his face, and he realized they’d made it outside. The strange clinic seemed to be standing in the middle of nowhere, though Clint could distinguish a town’s lights in the distance. This didn’t look like Vegas or Culver.

This didn’t even look like Nevada.

“So… where am I, anyway?”

“Washington DC,” Natasha answered, out of breath.

“Sure,” said Clint, whose confusion was rapidly approaching critical mass.

“Your ride is over there.” She hobbled around the corner, and all of a sudden there was a great flurry of red-and-blue lights. Squinting, Clint made out a dozen of police cars parked haphazardly in front of the building, like they’d skidded to a halt so their drivers could leap directly into the clinic, guns at the ready. A couple of ambulances were waiting a few paces away.

There weren’t many actual people in sight, except for a dark-skinned man who was clearly police—which wasn’t necessarily good news. He hadn’t seen Clint yet, but it was only a matter of time.

“That’s Sam Wilson. A friend of Steve’s,” Natasha said. “He’ll get you home.”

“Oh, yay. Which one was Steve again?”

Before she could answer, ‘Sam’ finally turned and caught sight of him. Clint really hoped he was just a cop. Then again, he didn’t have such a good history with cops. In fact, he’d been tazed a lot.

“Are you Sam Wilson?” he called out. Either way, please don’t taze me.

When he heard his own name, Sam’s posture went less cop-like and much more concerned. He jogged over, still cautiously—Clint was all too aware he looked like a beat-up thug—but thankfully not at all murderous.

“Do I know you?”

“No, but I’m—I’m a friend of Steve?” Clint tried.

These words washed the guardedness off Sam’s face. “So it’s you,” he said. “Everything alright?”

Natasha chose that moment to vanish; Clint staggered under his own weight when the aches of his own body flooded back in.

“Whoa—no it’s not, c’mere,” said Sam, grabbing Clint before he could fall over again. Clint felt like a damsel in distress, getting caught by all these ridiculously gorgeous people. Not that he was complaining, necessarily.

“Let’s move this way, c’mon.” They hobbled a few steps and Sam clearly reconsidered the amount of help Clint needed. “Jesus Christ, man, how were you walking on that leg?”

“No idea,” Clint lied, trying to breathe through the pain. “The adrenaline? Is that a thing? I don’t know.”

“Well, hold tight, there’s an ambulance right over here.”

“That’s good to hear.” Clint was beginning to see dark spots.

“So. James, is it?” Sam said as he steered Clint across the parking lot.

“What? No, I’m Clint.”

“What?” Sam echoed. “I thought you were Steve’s soulmate. Which—sounds really weird if you’re not. Fuck it—who the hell are you, then?”

“No no, that’s cool, I am Steve’s soulmate. One of them.”

Sam abruptly stopped walking, causing Clint to stumble a step. “Okay, seriously, what the fuck,” he said, sounding so indignant it just made Clint start laughing.

And keep laughing.

Finally, he was able to get himself under control, wiping away tears from his eyes that he wasn’t all too sure were only from mirth. “What the fuck, indeed.”

“Y’all are crazy. C’mon.” Sam started walking again, and Clint hobbled alongside. Maybe it was the endorphins and the tiredness talking, but he felt giddy.

“Wait wait wait. Is Steve the really hot blond one?”

“Guess that sounds about right.”

Clint beamed at him. “Oh, man, then we totally banged!”

Sam stopped again to stare at him and opened his mouth like a man who has quite a lot to say—but his commentary was lost when Clint’s crappy hearing aids were suddenly flooded with a buzzing storm of noise. When they both looked up, they saw the heavy silhouette of a helicopter overhead, blades slicing through the night. In less than a minute, it melted into the darkness and sped away.

“Well, damn,” Sam said. “Looks like the big fish got away.”

 

*

 

Steve had been a soldier until he’d realized all he did was take lives, and fail to save others.

He very clearly remembered it—he had been standing in the crackling sun, and yet all of a sudden the icy coldness of his realization had washed over him, inevitable, despite his frantic efforts to make himself believe he could still go on. He hadn’t been able to get warm for three days afterwards, operating with freezing limbs and a frosted heart, in a state of constant lucidity, of constant naked horror.

Much later, when Sam found out, he said it was normal, that a lowered body temperature was one of the symptoms of an anxiety attack.

Running through the empty hallways of the clinic, Steve was back in the ice of that day—trying again to fight the coldness climbing up his limbs. But his fingers were numb already. There was a thought plaguing him and he couldn’t get rid of it.

I’m too late.

There had been no time to explain the truth to his squad; as soon as the Roanoke clinic had entered his mind, Steve had ordered everyone to go there, arrest everyone they’d find and ask questions later. On the way there, he’d clumsily tried to explain what was going on to Sam; but the cold terror also ate up his words, and he wasn’t sure all had been said before they finally got there and he rushed into the building.

I’m too late. I’m too late.

“James,” he gasped, “James, please, God—” He was getting nowhere. The hallways were empty and dark. If he kept running around aimlessly he was going to get shot, by the enemy or by his own people.

He forced himself to stop and close his eyes. His hands were so cold. He ignored it, closed his eyes, tried breathlessly to find the invisible threads in his mind. James, James, James—

“You can’t be here,” said a frightened voice.

Steve snapped his eyes open.

It was a shock to see James standing there. In addition to the sickly sheen of his skin and the dark rings under his eyes, his head had been shaved and he was wearing a paper gown. He looked like a ghost—like something out of a horror movie.

“You’re too late,” he said.

“Tell me where you are,” Steve panted. “Tell me!”

His voice echoed in the empty corridor. James eyed Steve’s gun. “I don’t want it to be you.”

“What?”

“I thought it was sleeping gas.” His voice was distant, like he was in shock. “But it was just to numb the pain. They want me to be awake.”

“James, please, you have to focus, if you can just tell me—”

“No,” said James. He sounded close to tears. “I don’t want it to be you.”

“I don’t understand what you mean —” and then it happened for the first time: Steve’s mind vibrated along James’ exact frequency for a split second, enough for him to understand him without words.

He did not read his thoughts, exactly; it felt more like guessing the end of a sentence. Horror washed over him all the same.

“No,” he breathed. He holstered his gun without thinking. “James, James, I’m not here to kill you.”

He wished to God that James could feel Steve’s thoughts—feel the love and the urgency tearing at him. But he had always been terrible at opening up, and this seemed to prove true even in the face of the supernatural.

“Please,” he begged again. “You have to tell me where you…”

Then he froze. Behind James, on the wall, was a series of signs.

One of them said SURGERY WARD.

Steve started running again.

“Steve—”

“I’m coming to get you,” Steve gasped. “I’m coming to get you.”

James fell silent, then vanished like a flame. Steve kept running. The hallway seemed endless, like those found in nightmares, but he could see it at the far end—the little red sign indicating the door he’d been looking for. As he got closer, the cold in his chest deepened. James had been brought there knowing full well what awaited him inside; it was as though his terror was pouring down the hallways, like Steve had to swim upstream a waterfall rush.

When he pushed the door open, he heard nothing but his own heart and his own breath and his own steps. He was so loud it was like he was sending signals. James was so close. Steve could have sobbed with it—he was almost there, chest tightening, tears filling up his eyes. It was like moving closer to a great fiery blaze of core emotion, and it hurt almost too much, but it was a pain he sought blindly, a fire he needed to live.

“James,” he called hoarsely. “James—”

A clanging noise made him startle; he hurried into the direction of the noise—he was still a cop, and if he could catch the people responsible for this—but he stopped in his tracks almost immediately. There was another room opening to his left.

And this was where it was all pouring from, the terror and the worry and the confusion and the deepest ache of love.

Steve passed the threshold in a daze.

He could barely see through his tears—or was it just the dazzling nearness of another part of his soul? His thoughts were melting away, leaving only the inevitability of what came now.

James was there, strapped to a surgery table. Seeing him for real was scrambling the signals in Steve’s brain. He could hear his heartbeat in double time. Instant echo. Their minds were vibrating ever closer to a state of unity. He was walking into the room, but he was also on the table. He was both. He was one.

Time slipped by Steve in a sudden burst; somehow, he had torn the plastic mask away, unfastened the leather restraints; now his fevered hands were trembling an inch away from James’ skin. He had to help him up, but he didn’t dare touch him. He was so afraid. All he could hear was their twin heartbeat.

“It’s me,” he managed. “It’s Steve.”

James took a deeper breath, filling his lungs with oxygen instead of gas. Then he turned his head, ever so slowly, to look at Steve. His eyes were glazed and vacant, and Steve could feel how hard it was for him to come back, to make sense of what he was seeing.

Then he spoke, his voice an inaudible rasp. “Steve?”

“Yeah,” Steve breathed out, shaking for good now, tears rolling down his cheeks. “Yes, it’s me. Come on, just…”

And then he did it—touched him for the first time, rested his hand on his bare arm, and in one great big pulse it felt like their blood was now running across both their bodies, like they were a single organism, breathing as one, living as one.

“Steve,” James gasped. He sat up clumsily but decidedly, pushing through his drowsiness; Steve grabbed his other arm to help him, and James clutched at his shirt, tugged him close, eyes welling up too.

“You’re here,” he whispered. “You’re really here?”

“I thought I dreamed you,” Steve breathed, “I thought you weren’t real—”

“Steve,” James was grabbing fistfuls of his clothes now, winding his fingers into the fabric, drawing him ever closer. “Steve.”

“God, I love you,” Steve didn’t even know what he was saying anymore, “I love you so much—can you feel it—? Can you feel what I—”

Then James’ burning mouth was pressing over his, and Steve’s mind whited out. He kissed back, open-mouthed, losing himself. When they parted for breath, it was a struggle to get his mind in working order, to remember where he was, who he was.

“Steve,” James was holding onto him now, clutching at him desperately, “Steve, please—please don’t leave me here, I want out, please—”

“Never,” Steve breathed fervently, wrapping his arms around him, helping him off the table, “Never, James, never, I’m taking you with me.”

“I think—” his voice wavered and cracked, “I think my name’s Bucky.”

 

“Jesus,” Morita said when he saw Steve come out of the elevator, Bucky’s arm slung over his shoulders. He had passed out halfway down the stairs. “Do you need a—? Yeah—ambulance’s that way.”

Steve hobbled toward the ambulance and carefully sat Bucky in the back, letting him lean against him. He would have to answer questions, lots of questions—but right now it didn’t matter. All that mattered was laying an emergency blanket over Bucky’s mismatched shoulders and keeping him close. Steve grabbed for his hand and felt a little thrill—he had caught the metal one, so oddly smooth against his skin.

“Oh.”

Steve looked up. T’Challa was standing in the flickering lights. For the first time since Steve had met him, he couldn’t control his emotions, and there was relief in every line of his face. “You did it. You saved him.”

“We all saved him,” said Steve.

T’Challa gave him the shadow of a smile. “Almost despite myself.”

“Do you know—I mean, everything that happened…”

“Yes,” T’Challa said. “I know everything you know. I know everything all of us know. It’s very strange.” For the first time, too, he sounded hesitant. “I was a fool to think it would not unsettle me.”

“I’d say you’re doing okay,” Steve said weakly, “I almost went crazy once or twice this past week.”

T’Challa smiled again. He sat next to Steve in the ambulance and looked at the police cars and their spinning lights.

“I must go home and mourn my father,” he said quietly. “But as soon as I get there I will set to work.” He looked at Bucky. “This is going to be a complicated situation. He will need all the legal help he can get.”

Steve tightened his grip on Bucky’s metal hand. “Is there anything you can do?”

“I’m the ruler of Wakanda,” T’Challa said with dry humor. “There is very little I cannot do.”

There was another pause, longer this time. Steve cleared his throat.

“T’Challa, I wanted to say, I’m… I’m sorry for your loss.”

T’Challa said nothing. Then a hand rested on his shoulder, and he looked up in surprise. Natasha was smiling down at him.

Slowly, they all came out of the shadows, in thin halos of flickering red-and-blue lights. Bruce was first, looking very hesitant until Natasha squeezed his hand in reassurance. Next was Clint, looking so dazed he had to rest against Bruce and grab Natasha’s shoulder to stay upright.

Then Tony appeared, his eyes dark and guarded. When Steve looked past him, into the obscurity, he found Loki hanging back, the scars on his lips vivid against pale skin. His eyes moved to Bucky.

The other’s gazes followed, one by one, until they were all standing in a circle, looking at him.

As if called back to the surface, Bucky stirred and blinked. He could not speak, could barely move, could only look hazily at Steve. His eyes were grey as a storm-washed sky; and, looking into them, Steve felt the great inevitability of their eight lives tightening into a single knot, as they took their first collective step into the future.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

.

 

 

“Clint!”

Clint should have expected it but was still caught unawares. He dropped his bag just in time—Kate ran into his arms and hugged him so hard his bruised ribs protested vigorously.

Then she stepped back and punched him in the shoulder.

“What the fuck?”

“Ow—”

“You just vanish for three days and then you text me saying you were in DC and you’re coming back from the airport and I shouldn’t worry?”

“Kate, I—”

“What happened to you?” She welled up as she looked at the cuts and bruises on his face. “You were gone, I didn’t know where you were, you weren’t even answering your phone, and you—”

Tears swallowed her words and Clint pulled her back into his arms. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Katie-Kate, I’m here now, I’m back, I’m sorry.”

They just hugged for a little while. Then Kate took a deep breath and moved away from him, blinking fast, without meeting his eyes.

“Tell me what happened,” she demanded wetly.

“Could we—uh, can we get coffee first?” Clint said, hopeful.

 

“A guy?” she repeated over her iced macchiato.

Clint blinked, which wasn’t that easy with a black eye. “Yes? Wait, you knew I was bi. Right? Am I—am I coming out to you right now?”

Kate seemed scandalized. “What the fuck are you talking about? I’m the one who covered for you when you banged that Logan dude in the Circus Circus bathroom.”

“Oh,” he said, reassured. “Yeah, that’s right.”

She shook her head, then nervously flicked her straw. “I just… Clint…” She bit her lip. “You were gone for three days because—because of a hook-up?”

His stomach twisted. “Not… not exactly. That guy, he, um... Well, he sort of kidnapped me.”

She stared at him.

Clint really didn’t feel comfortable talking about his sex life with her, but he owed her at least part of the truth. “It was a BDSM thing, you know? Tie up and pretend? At first it was really great but then it got kind of… out of control.”

“Out of control,” she repeated. She looked at him, his bruised face, his wrapped ankle and the awkward way he held himself.

He knew what she was imagining. But he couldn’t even tell her she had it wrong, because—she kinda didn’t. Except for the details. And he really couldn’t get into the details right now, for so many reasons.

“Yeah. S’not as bad as you think. He took me to DC, and after he’d gotten what he wanted, he just—he just let me go.” Clint looked down. “I’m really sorry about this. I’ve been really stupid, he didn’t even give me a safeword and I didn’t care, I was so—”

“Stop,” she said, tears rolling down again. “It’s not your fault, you dummy—oh my God, Clint…”

“Aw, Katie, no—oh, wow, alright,” he said when she pushed back her chair to come hug him again. “Hey, I’m okay, girly-girl. Really. It wasn’t much fun but it’s over—it’s over now.”

Thankfully, she was as bad at feelings as he was, so she let him go after a moment and sat back on her chair, furiously wiping her eyes.

“Where’s that guy now?” she asked in a hard voice. “Is he still in DC?”

Incredibly, Clint managed to sort of tell the truth again. “Germany, I think.”

“He left the country?” Kate exclaimed. “No way—you gotta press charges, you can’t let him get away with it!”

“It’s more complicated than—” Clint swallowed. “Look, I agreed to a lot of things before it got bad. And… and I don’t have the best rapport with the police, you know that.”

“Did you make a deposition in DC?”

“God no,” Clint said with a shiver of horror. Even Sam Wilson would have probably tried to have him committed, especially after he confessed to all the murders.

As for Steve, he had been—otherwise engaged, and Clint really had not wanted to find out what happened when three soulmates found themselves within one yard of each other. Two had been bad enough. He’d been jittery ever since Steve and James had gone nova in the clinic, bursts of all-encompassing love startling him like acid flashbacks.

“No, I just walked out of the hospital as soon as I could, and… I took the first flight home.”

“But how did you even do that? You didn't have your ID with you!”

Clint produced Danny Rand's passport from his pocket. "Apparently I'm this guy now."

Kate blinked at it, then at him. For a while they just sat there in silence.

Eventually, she pushed her iced coffee away, rubbing her eyes with both hands. It was the weary gesture of an adult woman, and Clint’s heart twisted at the sight. She shouldn’t have these kind of worries. Certainly not about him. He should have told her the truth. But how could he possibly do that? And was the truth any better anyway?

“Do you know you got fired?” she asked, unable to look at him. “From all your jobs?”

He winced. “Yeah, I got my phone back from—um, I was able to catch up. It was nice of Coulson to give me a chance, but I don’t blame him, he’s got a business to run.” He frowned at his coffee. “Sitwell can suck my dick, though.”

She huffed a laugh, probably so she wouldn’t start crying again.

Clint cleared his throat. “Did… did Barney really come to the apartment?”

“Yeah. He was such an asshole. All he cared about was the money.”

“Well, I have $6000 stashed away,” Clint sighed, “that’s enough to cover him and pay the bills for a coupla months more. Hopefully I can find something else by then.”

Kate looked at him for a long while.

“Clint, I think we should leave.”

He made a move to pull back his chair. “Yeah, good idea, I could use a nap and—”

“No, I mean let’s leave Vegas.”

He was so surprised he just sat back all at once.

“What?”

She kept looking at him.

“Katie,” he said, “what are you talking about—I can’t just… I can’t leave Vegas.”

“Why not?”

Clint blinked. Kate went on, “You hate it here. You don’t have a job now, so what’s holding you back?”

“Barney—”

“Fuck Barney,” Kate said. “No—seriously, listen to me. All this time he’s been taking your money just because he—he protected you when you were kids, or whatever. But you don’t owe him for doing the right thing. You always think people are good even when they do bad things to you again and again.”

“Katie—”

“No, Clint, just—tell me. That guy who took you to DC, do you hate him now? Tell me the truth.”

Clint squirmed on his chair, extremely uncomfortable. Loki had not really meant to hurt him. And what he’d done afterwards had been to save himself. It had sucked. All the way. But it was alright now. Clint was pretty sure it would be alright.

“Kate, he’s… It’s more complicated than you know—no, like, really, in ways I can’t explain... And I’m not sure—I mean, he didn’t really understand what he was doing at the time—”

“Of course he did! You don’t treat someone like a fucking toy on accident! ” Her hands clenched into fists, which didn’t keep her voice from wobbling. “Fuck that guy and fuck Barney and fuck Sitwell and fuck even Coulson and Hill! Fuck everyone who just keeps— taking stuff from you just because you’re too kind to fuck them back!”

He sat there gaping at her.

“And—and—and you know what?” Kate went on wetly. “I can be an asshole too. How about—I want to leave Vegas. I want you to let Barney pay his own goddamn debts. I want us to go to fucking California or whatever, and live in a tent on the beach, and find stupid retail jobs we can work while we sort our shit out. Why not?”

“Kate—”

“Why not, Clint? I know Barney’s your family.” She was crying for good again. “But you’re my family too. You’ve done enough. For everyone. For ages. You have to let me do this for you. I can’t watch you pretend everything’s alright anymore.”

Clint was completely at a loss for words.

Someone leaned in front of him to take a sip from his coffee. “You should hold on to that kid.”

Tony was in full hospital garb, complete with cables sticking out of his chest. “The mouth on her, though. Did you teach her to curse like that?”

He waited for an answer, but didn’t get one, so he settled for patting Clint’s shoulder.

“Alright, you’re having a moment, I get it.” He straightened up. “But she’s not your only family, you know. We got your back too. Most of us, anyway.”

Clint still couldn’t think of something to say, but Katie was still wiping tears off her face, and it sucked, so he got up from his chair to go hug her. Again. She laughed through her tears and hugged back. They were really doing a lot of that today, but hey, whatever. They could have a hug day. It was allowed, maybe. Once in a while.

 

*

 

For the first time in his life, Steve used his influence without a shred of remorse and got Bucky admitted to the Nathan Summers Army Clinic, which included a rehab center and a psychiatry ward. They usually did not admit civilians, but Bucky needed care most hospitals couldn’t give, and it was Steve Rogers asking.

Anything for Captain America.

As soon as he got there, Bucky was put on a drip of benzodiazepine to prevent another heart attack. Of course, it was a weak dosage designed for detox, but it was enough for him to spend most of his time in a restless daze, startling awake at random intervals. Clearly he didn’t know where he was or how he’d gotten there. The worst part was that despite his fear, he didn’t even try to resist, apparently assuming it was impossible. All he knew was to brace himself for whatever he must endure.

Whenever Steve was around, Bucky was better for a little while, more grounded in their common reality. He couldn’t shake his fear of the IV in his arm, though; every time he surfaced, he asked Steve about it.

“It’s for your detox, Bucky,” Steve said, every time. “I’m here. I won’t let a thing happen to you. Okay?”

Bucky’s eyes were huge and desperate for reassurance. He nodded shakily, holding onto Steve’s hand whenever he could. He was so exhausted he couldn’t stay awake more than half an hour at a time. His shaved head made Steve want to cry. Everything about Bucky made him want to cry, with happiness and misery and overwhelming love.

The shock of their mutual presence had lessened from that first time in the clinic, but not by much. Whenever Steve was at Bucky’s bedside, he felt like his senses were sharpened—because of course he was seeing everything, hearing everything, feeling everything with two bodies at once. From up close, their blurry emotions poured into each other, a back-and-forth of love and worry and comfort. Disbelief was a constant between them, too. Steve couldn’t believe Bucky was really here; as for Bucky, he couldn’t believe he had been rescued. No one had helped him in twenty-two years.

Even Sam—who seemed to take Bucky’s physical existence as a personal insult to his belief system—had a hard time spending more than five minutes in his room without losing his composure. Which was why he regularly insisted Steve go with him to with him to grab some coffee across the street. It did help Steve keep his head on straight; the overwhelming emotion pulsing in his heart sometimes pushed him to the point of mania.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea for you guys to stay together?” Sam asked him for the third time that week. “Every time you’re in the same room, you get… a little intense.”

“Where else is he gonna go?” Steve answered, for the third time, too.

“He’s probably got family left.”

“Of course we’ll look it up, Sam. But not right now —Jesus, we can’t dump him on them out of the blue. He got kidnapped when he was nine, he—” Steve shook his head, horror clogging up his throat. “No. No, he’s got to stay with me. If that’s still what you want,” he added uncertainly, looking to his left.

“Yes,” Bucky answered at once, sitting at the Starbucks table in his hospital gown. He was wide-eyed with worry, as if Steve might change his mind. “Yes. Please. I do want that.”

Sam looked scandalized. “Wait, he’s here? I can’t believe—go back to the hospital, shoo!”

“I am in the hospital,” Bucky said through Steve’s mouth.

“Okay, first of all? Don’t do that,” Sam said, pointing at him. “I’m just—no offense, but I’m gonna really need you to stop doing that. I’m only being sincere with you here: it gives me the fucking creeps.”

Steve smiled. “You can tell?”

“Of course I can tell! Your face gets all—” Sam scowled and made a gesture that could mean anything. “Look, I wanna ask you something. In private. Is he gone?”

“Not far, but yeah,” Steve said. “What is it?”

“Aren’t you—isn’t it invasive?”

Steve blinked.

“Rogers, if everything you’ve told me true, then it means you won’t… you won’t ever be alone in your life again. Do you realize that? And there are six others in the mix.”

Steve contemplated this. He hadn’t really given it a lot of thought, because it felt like a non-issue to him. But he could understand why Sam would worry about it.

“I know it’ll take some getting used to, but—I mean… I’m not afraid of it. T’Challa says we’re an entire paraspecies, you know?”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning we’re… we’re hardwired to exist that way. In clusters. And…”

Steve didn’t follow up on the idea he’d just had, because it sounded too much like wishful thinking. Maybe he’d had so much trouble adjusting in his life because he didn’t have his cluster yet. All this time he’d been missing pieces.

Sam decided to change the subject. “Carter get back to you?”

“Yeah. I’m suspended with pay,” Steve said with a little smile. “She said she’d love to pin a medal on me for busting a human trafficking ring, but also that I won’t get one because I broke into a building without probable cause and I’m lucky I still have a job.”

“I knew she was a sensible woman.”

“Bucky will be released from inpatient care in a month,” Steve went on. “If everything goes well.”

“Did I ask? Fucking one-track mind,” Sam mumbled in his coffee.

“I’m just saying, things should get a lot calmer then. That and the administrative procedure to get him his identity back are the most urgent things on our list.”

“He should take his chance to get a cooler one. Who calls their kid James Buchanan Barnes anyway? Ugh,” Sam added when Steve beamed at the name. “Enough of that face. I liked you a lot better when everything was simpler and you were still miserable.”

“No you didn’t,” Steve said confidently.

 

Bucky was released from inpatient care a month and a half later.

His hair had grown into a buzzcut, and he still had dark rings under his eyes. He looked at everything with anxious wonder. The hospital had made him restless, but Steve knew it had also been familiar, looking very much like the facilities in which he’d been detained. A last buffer before the future.

But now there was nothing else between Bucky and the world, and he hesitated for a long time in front of the automatic doors.

“I still don’t remember anything, you know.” He looked at Steve. “My memories start with—with you.”

“You’ve got time, Buck. To get them back, or to make new ones.”

He smiled weakly. “Yeah.”

Someone cleared their throat, making them turn to look. It was Bruce.

“Hi. Sorry. Just want to say, I’ve… I’ve been there. Well—maybe not exactly like you—but, being released from a place like this—I’m, it’s familiar.” He smiled. “It’s worth it, you know. I would’ve never believed it only a year ago, but, well. Look at where we are now.”

“Yeah,” Bucky repeated. He inhaled deeply, then looked at Steve. “We should probably go before everyone else shows up to cheer me on.”

Steve loved him so much he couldn’t breathe. “Whenever you’re ready, Bucky.”

“I’m okay. I think.” He still reached for Steve’s hand.

Steve laced their fingers at once, relishing the stomach-twisting rush he still got whenever he touched him. Bucky squeezed tight, and Steve wanted to kiss him, right now, standing right here in everyone’s way.

Bucky’s eyes crinkled at the corners, a real smile this time.

“You know I can feel that,” he said.

 

*

 

One day, T’Challa opened his eyes and realized his father had been dead for almost two months.

It both shocked and didn’t shock him; he felt like everything and nothing had changed since then.

Getting up, he went to wash his face to shake off the last dregs of sleep. Through the open window came the hot, damp exhale of the dark earth; soon the heat would be stifling, but for now the sun wasn’t up. T’Challa walked out of the bathroom, completely nude, and reached for the tunic waiting on his bed. It was funereal clothing, black with gold embroidery. He considered it pensively.

Eight weeks.

The agony of his father’s passing had subsided. But the feeling of loss was still there. It felt good, to dress accordingly.

T’Challa slipped the garment over his head, pulled it over his naked body, then said, “Hello, Tony.”

“Hi,” Tony answered, casual as ever.

“How’s your reactor?”

“It’s great. Peachy. Thanks.”

T’Challa said nothing more. Tony’s restlessness could be sensed from across the room; after a few seconds of forced silence, he finally blurted, “You know, I really thought your wallpaper would be tiny gilded panthers.”

“What time is it for you?” T’Challa inquired. He knew, of course—it was 1am on the American East Coast—but he wanted Tony to acknowledge the tiredness weighing both of them down.

Of course, it didn’t happen. “Doesn’t matter,” Tony said. “I’m all charged up thanks to you.”

He tapped at the reactor embedded in his chest. It was much lighter than the previous one, and less alien too, thanks to the vibranium’s capacity of absorbing vibrations; yet it still hurt. It couldn’t not —there was a gaping hole in Tony’s sternum and not much could change that.

T’Challa rubbed at his own chest. He didn’t need to tell Tony his deflection was poor at best, especially when trying to wave away the concerns of a soul-sibling. Sharing one’s mind really made for strange conversations, where answers went missing and questions popped up seemingly unprompted.

Across the ocean, Tony turned on his back. At least he was in bed. There was someone by his side—a woman—but he pointedly didn’t think about her, pushing his dark bedroom away to recall T’Challa’s side of reality.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so early in the morning. Is this really a king’s room? It’s kinda plain.”

“It is my room,” T’Challa said. “Will you come with me?”

“Sure,” Tony said, sauntering after him. “Do you have a beauty routine? What does the Wakandan leader do first thing in the morning?”

“Pray for the dead.”

Tony blinked.

A hushed voice came out of nowhere. “Can I come?"

They both turned their heads. James had appeared in the corner, peering anxiously at them both. Before T’Challa could even process it, Tony was already running off at the mouth.

“Jesus Christ. What is this, the club of former enemies?”

James looked away; his unease pervaded the room and made the other two wince. T’Challa wanted to say he was welcome, but his words would be stilted, though he meant them. At least he believed he would mean them.

His father had had it wrong. Sharing your mind with people did not mean you could love them as unthinkingly and unrestrictedly at the lore purposed. It took work. It always did.

Tony picked up on that thought, sour regret mixing in with hot rancor and just a dash of self-loathing. “Don’t listen to me, I—” He winced. “You know not to listen to me.”

“I can leave,” James said, though he was unsure—they all had trouble controlling their visits even eight weeks in. Except for Loki. But as always, Loki was a special case.

“Stay,” T’Challa finally managed to say. “Please, stay.” He wished Natasha was there, but she must be deeply asleep, because he could sense very little of her. “Come,” he said again, and led them both out of the bedroom.

They followed him, staying at a cautious distance from each other, tense like identical magnets brought too close together.

“I don’t know who you pray to,” James said in a subdued voice.

His gaze wandered up the huge crystal windows stretching up the east side of the palace. They opened on the gardens in full bloom; the heat of summer thickened the smell of flowers and fruit into intoxicating fragrances. A vague sense of hostility thrummed into the air like the buzz of a distant swarm. T’Challa couldn’t tell if it was his, or Tony’s.

“There is Bast who builds and Sekhmet who destroys,” T’Challa explained. “Together they keep all cycles in the world unbroken.”

He wished he wouldn’t sound so formal. He used to be sanguine, but loss had made him melancholic; he was relearning the new colors of himself, found that they suited him better than he would have thought, but he felt guilty about his soulmates, who must endure his grave mood at all times. He wished he could share plentiful, explosive chunks of emotion like they did, be it anger or love or pain or bliss.

“You very religious?” Tony asked distractedly, his mind still plagued with tangled thoughts of James.

“Not at all, actually. But my father was. I pray because he can no longer pray.”

T’Challa ducked into the overstuffed altar room. After the wide, open air of the gigantic hallways, it felt like crawling under the earth. The walls were black stone, shining with dampness, and sticks of golden incense glistened in the dark, some of them smoking and others still lit with tiny flames, like thin elongated candles. Embossed over them stood Bast and Sekhmet, joining hands to form a perfect, stylized circle.

They sat cross-legged in front of the altar. James looked at the goddesses; Tony seemed more interested in the incense sticks, wondering what they were made of.

“I’m not religious either,” he said all of a sudden.

“Neither am I,” James added quietly. “I don’t think.”

T’Challa looked at them both with a raised eyebrow. “Are you asking me how to pray?”

They both stared back at him, with the exact same look of childish defiance. They were so similar. Of course they were—because all of them were the same at their deepest core. T’Challa was surprised to find himself almost smiling.

“I don’t know how either,” he said. “Usually I just sit in silence and think of my father.”

They both seemed perplexed by that. Tony was very clearly uneasy—certainly he did not often sit still and reminisce about his family.

T’Challa closed his eyes. The incense drew golden spirals inside his mind. At first, he thought of T’Chaka, but quickly enough—maybe because his soul-siblings were next to him, joining him—he found himself thinking about Nick Fury.

“I wish we could have met him,” Tony said in a low voice.

T’Challa almost reopened his eyes, but instead tried to sink deeper into his meditative state. If he cleared all thoughts from his mind, nothing remained but what the other two brought to their communion.

An Arabic-looking man floated through T’Challa’s consciousness; he had never seen him before, but he knew who it was.

“Yinsen?” James said.

Tony drew back from their shared headspace at once, reopening his eyes.

After a few seconds, he said out loud, “Yeah. I don’t want to think about Obie. I don’t even want to think about my parents.” He swallowed. “Yinsen was the only one who was sincere with me—who tried to get me to be someone.”

“You’re someone now,” James said candidly. “If you weren’t before.”

Tony’s thoughts turned to him, amplifying T’Challa’s own perception like two magnifying glasses on top of each other. James had nobody on his mind, just vague thoughts of blood and violence, all of them hopelessly corrupt after two decades of heavy medication. It twisted something in T’Challa’s heart—to feel him try to pray for victims he did not even remember.

Something came loose on Tony’s side as well. He hadn’t been uneasy only about sitting still: it had been James again bothering him, James’ silent presence weighing on him, as they all sat together, focusing on each other’s thoughts. Yet unexpectedly the tension was now unspooling.

“Don’t you have anything more specific?” Tony said in the abrasive tone he used to prevent emotion. “What about your family? I know they still live in Brooklyn. I checked. They’re on Facebook.”

James’s mind was still. He had an eerie capacity to think of nothing at all, letting his thoughts run empty like a transparent stream. Maybe a consequence of the benzodiazepine again—or maybe a skill he’d had to develop in order to survive in captivity for so long.

“We’re going to visit them,” James said at last. “Soon. Eventually.” The stream of his thoughts turned glacial with fear.

T’Challa moved without thinking, but instead of grabbing James’ hand, he accidentally grabbed Tony’s—they’d both had the same impulse, both reached out to comfort him. Tony let go at once like he’d burned himself, but his intention remained. So did T’Challa’s.

They had both wanted to kill James, once; and now they all sat together in a dark room and quietly chatted before the day begun. Maybe, T’Challa thought, this was what the beginning of wisdom felt like.

He reopened his eyes. In the dusty golden glow of the incense sticks, Tony looked warmer and more vulnerable than he did by the sole blue light of the piece of machinery in his chest. He looked at James, then away.

“Can we get out of here?”

T’Challa realized he was breathless with damp heat; his tunic was sticking to his skin, and sweat was trickling in rivulets down his back. He got up, staggered out of the room and walked the hallways until he was outside, into the blinding sun.

His private apartments ended there; across the courtyard, in the rosewood pavilion, sat the Dora Milaje waiting for him to take the first bite of his breakfast so they could eat in turn. Then the day would truly start. Half-way across sat a clear, ornamental pool, gleaming like a mirror. Sacred blue lilies floated idly on the surface.

T’Challa took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. James was looking at the pool. Tony was, too; a sudden impulse flitted through their joined minds—it was Tony’s and he would have repressed it; but before it could vanish, T’Challa acted on it without thinking. He ran into the sun, feeling the scalding stones under his bare feet and leaped over the edge of the pool.

For a moment he saw his own suspended shadow over the water; then he splashed into it and felt the shock of cold.

A huge wave sloshed across the pool, sending the water lilies away. When T’Challa resurfaced, shaking droplets from his face, Tony was sputtering, clutching at the stone edge. Something sharp and dark passed in his mind like a shark—the suffocating anxiety of waterboarding; but James took the memory for himself, folded it away with the rest of them, to leave only the childlike joy of having done something so unkingly.

Tony gasped, then relaxed in the water. “God damn.”

“I’m sorry,” T’Challa said.

“No. No, fuck, it was my idea, wasn’t it? I just didn’t think—” He swallowed. “I didn’t think I could ever do something like that again.”

James ran a hand into his hair to comb the wetness out. Two months in, it was looking less and less like a buzzcut.

“Technically, it wasn’t you,” he pointed out.

“Don’t ‘technically’ me,” Tony bit out. Then he took a deep breath. “Thanks.”

James closed his eyes, silently enjoying the freshness of the water, the fragmented light and the soft lapping sounds of it over the stone. “You’re welcome.”

T’Challa closed his eyes. Nothing permeated him but good things; James and Tony were waiting at the threshold to open their minds in silence again. This time they shared a single state of mind, the relief of the man who stops running and takes his first deep breath in hours, relishing the effort, the fatigue, the greater rest to come.

The hardest part—the forgiveness, the will to move on—was done. They were linked by a sense of duty and debt—the reason T’Challa had given Tony the vibranium he needed to leave the hospital for good; the reason they’d both helped to reinsert James, pulling strings when necessary. Duty and debt. It was a start. It didn’t matter if they did not love each other quite yet. What mattered was that right now, in the fresh quiet of water, T’Challa felt the possibility of love.

Something else shook him out of their featureless mindscape; someone who wasn’t him in any way was crossing the courtyard. It was Okoye, coming from the rosewood pavilion.

“Ohh,” Tony said, grinning. “Someone ’s getting scolded.”

“Yes, it seems I’m late,” T’Challa said.

He rose, feeling the soaked fabric of the mourning tunic on his body. Already the black cloth was heating up in the sun, weight literally lifting from his shoulders as the water evaporated. The freshness remained, deep in his limbs.

“Isn’t she gonna wonder why you jumped into an ornamental pool?” Tony asked.

“No. Wakandan kings are expected to do mad things every once in a while.” T’Challa smiled at them both. “It comes with the territory.”

Okoye had reached him.

“Hello, ubuthi,” she said. “I hate to disturb you, but the Dora Milaje are growing hungry.”

T’Challa stepped out of the pool. “I’ll apologize to them.”

She smiled at him. She knew exactly why he’d jumped in the water, and he must look happy, because she did, too.

“Come,” she said. “We’re all eager to start the day.”

Across the ocean, Tony turned to his side and finally sank into sleep. Maybe James did as well. T’Challa couldn’t always know for sure, and didn’t have to know for sure; like a cat, he had plenty of lives.

 

*

 

“Oh, boy,” Tony mumbled, waking up for good. “Here it comes again.”

The girl next to him turned and let out a muffled noise. What was her name? He’d forgotten again. But it didn’t matter. The plan was to see whether he could still bear to get naked with another human being, even with the thing in his chest. For experimental purposes, of course—not that he was planning on anything serious, with anyone, at all, ever—but whatever. It was working. Actually, his reactor was turning out to be a real chick magnet.

Ha ha. Magnet.

A shiver rushed over Tony. He moaned and hid his head under his pillow. “Please, God, have mercy.”

“Tony?” muttered Steve, rubbing his eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“Jesus Christ, you don’t even know, do you? Just—you can’t give out this much raw emotion on a Tuesday morning. It’s just not polite.”

Bucky presumably did something—snuffled a bit loud in his sleep, or whatever—and there it was, a wave of love so overwhelming Tony could have choked on it.

“Stop that!”

“I’m sorry.” Steve was not sorry. Steve was so happy it permeated everything around him like nuclear radiation. Steve was also a complete asshole.

“Some of us are just trying to live nice, egotistical lives,” Tony gasped under his pillow. “Do you have to be perfect in every way?”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you about that.” Steve got up and—thank God— left his bed, putting some distance between him and Bucky.

Because of course Bucky and Steve shared a bed. Steve, ever the gentleman, had tried to give him his room and sleep on the couch. Bucky had sat on the bed, hugging a pillow to his chest, looking at him with those immense eyes. Do we have to? Steve had been embarrassed, of course. We can do anything you want, Buck. I don’t wanna crowd you is all. The corner of Bucky’s mouth had ticked up in a lethal half-smile, and Steve had shaken his head with a laugh, because yeah, it was silly. Soul-sharing and all.

Of course it was normal to fear something unhealthy, something co-dependent. But there was no room for mistakes, no chance for misinterpretation, when they could literally feel each other’s longings; as for co-dependency, they had it by nature now. Bit inevitable. And so they had agreed to sleep side by side. All very platonic, of course.

As if. Steve could rant about trauma and boundaries all he wanted. Tony was part of this cluster, too, he knew where it was all headed. It was going to happen, and he wasn’t sure he would survive it when they finally—

“Are you listening to me?” Steve asked.

“No.” Tony let his head fall on the mattress. “Would you consider moving to Antarctica? I’ll cover all expenses. You’ll meet some nice penguins.”

“Stop moaning. He isn’t even awake.” Steve’s coffee was ready, which meant Tony also got to drink it by proxy. That almost made up for all the lovey-dovey stuff. “As I was saying. Why do you keep calling me perfect?”

“See, the worst part is that this isn’t even you fishing for compliments here.” Tony turned on his back, rubbing grit out of his eyes. “Just one of my thousand goddamn neuroses, let’s not talk about it.”

“I want to talk about it,” Steve said quietly. “Today.”

“Why today?”

“Because today you’re going on the stand.”

Tony froze.

It was true. His trial against Obadiah had been going on for a week, and he was going to testify today, which was why he’d gone to sleep at a reasonable hour—though still with a bedmate. He wasn’t that reasonable.

He’d done a pretty good job of not thinking about the fucking trial until now.

“What—what does it have to do with anything?”

“You’re after some kind of punishment. If not from me, then from them. But I’m not perfect.” Steve took another sip of coffee. “I killed people.”

“Sure, for God, your country, and the American way. Hand-crafted murder, practically vegan. Do I really need to remind you of my nickname? Merchant of Death? Ring a bell?”

“What do you want me to say, Tony?”

There was a silence.

Steve’s fridge hummed. His kitchen was very peaceful, bathed in sunlight. He’d started drawing again, and there were watercolors everywhere, some of them lying on the floor like artsy rugs. A few of them, outsider-like and slightly unsettling, were by Bucky’s hand—he was interested in everything, to sometimes worrying extents, like he was trying to make up for lost time.

“Do you want me to tell you that you can’t fix things? Maybe you can’t. Not all the way. But you can go further than anyone else.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “So that’s it. That’s all. I get off scot-free. How edifying for—”

“I don’t know about scot-free. Seems to me you got a rough time of it.”

Tony felt helpless, restless, and of course Steve felt it too.

“Look,” he went on, “the only reason we’re even talking about this is because you’ve been expecting me to—lecture you, or something. I don’t have the authority to do that.”

“Sure you do, buddy. You’re Captain America.”

Steve raised an eyebrow, annoyance trickling into the bond. “Alright. You want me to lecture you? Here it comes. Keep working on renewable energy, you’ll save the world that way.”

Tony waited. And waited.

“Is that all?” he asked incredulously.

“No. Tell the truth when you get on that stand today. Tell people that Stane tried to have you killed so he could keep selling weapons.” He finished his coffee. “Also: stop bugging me about Bucky when you’re pining all over the place for that Potts lady.”

Tony buried his head under his pillow again. The worst part was that he could only blame himself here. He’d literally asked for all of this.

 

“How do I look, Pep? I don’t—”

“You’re fine, Tony. Stop fidgeting.”

“Does the reactor show? It does, doesn’t it? I should make it opaque, change the casing—”

She took both his hands in hers and looked him in the eye. “Mr. Stark. The reactor is fine. It’s not like you can remove it, anyway.”

“Of course I can remove it.” He looked at the great mahogany doors. Why did court rooms always have to look so stately? Another minute of this and he was going to sweat through his freshly-pressed shirt. “Is Obie already there, do you think?”

“What do you mean, you—”

“Because if he’s there, I—look, I almost died from radiation poisoning not two months ago, I could tell them I’m sick and no one would—”

“Tony,” Pepper snapped.

He blinked at her. “Sorry. What?”

“What do you mean, you can remove the reactor?”

“I—which word don’t you understand?” He genuinely didn’t get what she was asking. “It’s not welded to my chest. Just the magnet. Yinsen used cables and a car battery to power it. They did something similar in the hospital. But that would be kind of unfashionable in court—”

“Hold up. I don’t get it.” She took a step back. “You were dying from that thing . I literally had to give you CPR in your lab. If you knew—then why didn’t you just take it out? Why didn’t you replace it with a regular electromagnet, until you could find a more permanent solution?”

Tony stared at her for a whole minute.

“See,” he said eventually. “This is why I need you.”

“Oh my God,” Pepper shouted. “It didn’t even occur to you?”

“Look, I’m a futurist, I don’t usually go for the less technologically advanced solution—please stop pacing and huffing, people will believe we’re here for a divorce. Pepper, I had issues, okay? There was the whole murder video thing, too, and—”

“You almost died,” Pepper said. She exhaled deeply. “You almost died. So please.” She took his hands again. “Tony. Look me in the eye.”

He did. It was intimidating, sort of. She had really nice eyes. He couldn’t help smiling a little, like they were playing a game. Was she flirting with him? No. Bad. Stop. Could the others hear him rambling all the time? He hoped not, or they’d mind-kill him within the year—

“Repeat after me. I swear…”

“I swear,” he said, puzzled. Was she marrying them?

“That the evidence I shall give will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

Tony dutifully repeated the oath. Then he blinked. “What was that for?”

“You almost died,” she said, for the third time. Very quickly, like she hoped he wouldn’t notice, she brushed her thumb over his cheek. “So tell the truth on that stand. Don’t sabotage yourself. You just swore it to me.”

“What is it with you people today,” Tony mumbled under his breath.

“Sorry?”

He exhaled, then smiled. “Nothing. Okay. You’re right.” He closed his eyes. “I’ll try. I swear.”

The doors opened and a clerk called his name. Tony got up. His heart raced madly against the reactor. His sternum ached, his lungs strained. It hurt to breathe.

But that did mean he was still breathing. He might as well try and do something with his life, while he was around.

 

*

 

I DO WHAT I WANT! shouted the crowd, and Loki dropped the bass.

The club blew up with movement, feet stomping hard enough that he could feel it through the vibrations of the floor. He could not see the lights slicing through the darkness, but he knew they were following the beat. When he slowed it down, the frantic flashes would mellow into lazy swipes over the raised fingertips of the crowd. Slower…

He let himself breathe, adjusted his gold headphones, enjoying the break. Then he started the build-up towards the second drop.

The excitement of his public grew along. The increasing pace of the beat was getting under his own skin. His fingers were slightly shaking as he found the right dials, added a few Jotun wind-kite sounds for sheer pleasure, as a way to needle the crowd before the second explosion. His music was heavily inspired by the Frost Giant heritage; it had become his signature.

He started the vocal track. I do wha—I do wha—I do what I do what I do what I do—

The stuttering lyrics added more and more to the build-up; the anticipation of the crowd spiraled to insane heights. Loki’s body couldn’t help swaying along, which wasn’t new—what was new was his smile. He used to mix for himself. Now he mixed for all of Berlin. For all the world very soon, if he played his cards well.

The build-up had reached critical mass; the beat was so rapid it resembled the staccato of a machine gun. Loki looked up to grin at the crowd.

“Are you ready?” he shouted into the reverberating mike.

Indistinct shouts of enthusiasm answered him. His grin grew sharper , and his voice lowered to a purr. “Then you know what to say.”

He cut off the sound for a split second, heard them scream again the chorus— I DO WHAT I WANT!  and, laughing, he finally dropped the bass.

Once again a wave of pure energy washed over him from them all. He could never get tired of this. It was feeding him. In moments like these, he felt like this was all he would ever need.

 

When he left his decks behind at long last, he was so breathless he could barely speak when he stumbled into the adjoining studio, feeling his way forward. Noh-Varr, the manager of the Kree Klub, touched his arm to guide him and pushed a pair of headphones into his hand, while he kept talking into his own mike.

“That was DJ Chaos, live from your very own Kree Klub here in Berlin! And there he is, the man himself—Loki, thoughts for your fans?”

Loki was trying to catch his breath when the sudden taste of coffee filled his mouth. Black, no sugar. Clint was having breakfast.

“Loki?” prompted Noh-Varr.

Loki shook himself. “Yes. I, ah—I could feel the crowd’s energy. Your energy. As always, there’s—no greater feeling in the world. Just like magic.”

“You’ve become one of Berlin’s pet DJs in less than three months. People are just loving artists from the cold these day, don’t they? Think you’re a fashion trend? Like Aleksander Vinter?”

“I have a lot of respect for Vinter.” It was true, which made him wince. Nobody needed to know his actual taste in music. “And I think you know exactly why people like me.”

“Really?”

“Of course. The fallen prince shtick.” And the tons of money Loki hemorrhaged wherever he went, but nobody was going to mention that out loud, never mind on air. Privately, he knew he was a decent DJ, but he could have been terrible and his rise to fame would have been just as meteoric.

“Guess that’s true,” Noh-Varr said. “Speaking of which—love your tats.”

Loki rubbed nervously at his forearms. He’d had both sleeves done first thing after he’d been released from the hospital.

“I’m not sure why you’re establishing a connection here,” he said. “This is merely aesthetic.”

“Really? But you can’t even see them.”

On the other side of the ocean, Clint snorted. Loki blinked fast, trying to focus on the here and now.

“Ah, so, uh—I’m being told that that wasn’t a very PC thing to say,” Noh-Varr went on quickly.

“That’s alright. I’d been warned you were a bit of an asshole.” Loki got up with a grin. “Always wonderful to be heard, Noh-Varr. See you soon.”

As if on cue, Alexander Pierce pushed open the studio door. Loki could now see the inside of the room, which was a relief after a long night of blindness.

Maneuvering Pierce’s body and Loki’s own at the same time had taken a bit of practice, but he’d had plenty of that in the past three months. Now he managed well enough, though he still couldn’t have two simultaneous conversations—he’d tried it only once, with such incoherent results that Pierce was now rumored to be an afternoon drinker.

Of course, to Noh-Varr and to everyone else, Loki remained blind. And he was, most of the time. “Pierce” had his own life to lead, and Loki couldn’t keep the body by his side 24/7.

Noh-Varr reached out again to press on his arm, signaling him that he could go. “Short but sweet—DJ Chaos proves again to be a wanted man, listeners. It’s bye-bye for now. But hey, if you haven’t gotten enough of him, feel free to check his channel on—”

Loki left the studio with relief. Through the eyes of his proxy, he could see where he was going; there was nobody else around, no need to pretend. The silence buzzed in his ears as they walked across the unadorned hallways to reach the back of the club.

“What a night,” Loki sighed, pressing the elevator button.

Pierce did not answer, unsurprisingly. After all, he was quite dead.

The days after Loki’s little bodyswap trick had flowed with surprising ease. After returning to Berlin under the comfortable identity of HYDRA’s CEO, Loki had offered to treat “the fallen prince”, claiming to be an expert in what ailed him. (Which wasn’t much of a lie.) Thor had of course consented to it. Annoyingly, he’d then proceeded to stay by Loki’s side day and night. Under the guise of Pierce, Loki had tried to coax him away from the clinic, in vain. Eventually, he’d had no choice but to reintegrate his body during one of Thor’s rare bathroom breaks.

He was getting out of bed, ready to make a quick escape, when a nurse noticed him and screamed so loud that Thor came back running into the room to see who had been murdered. Instead he found a healthy Loki. The subsequent hug was inevitable.

“Gods, you oaf,” Loki said, pushing Thor away. “You’ll put me right back into a coma.”

Thor blinked. “How do you know you were in a coma?”

As always when he needed a quick lie, Loki told a half-truth. “I could hear everything around me.”

Thor went very still. He had made quite a few tearful confessions by Loki’s bedside, and they were both keenly aware of it. Most of what he’d said had been regrets for the past, but there had been promises for the future as well.

Loki caught his breath. “Did you mean any of it?”

“I—yes,” Thor stammered. “Yes. I swear. Once I’m king—”

“Shall you be king, then?” Loki asked mercilessly. “I thought we were both to be outcasts now.”

Thor was stumped.

Loki sighed. “Go back to Asgard, you fool. Ask for Odin’s pardon. He will only be too happy to give it.”

“I cannot leave you—”

“But you must leave me. Don’t you see? If I ever return, honor compels Odin to throw me back into the dungeons. But I promise you he’d rather not. The international community did not look kindly on my last punishment.” Loki smiled, feeling the stretch of his puncture scars. “For now he cannot relent; he needs an heir. But once he has you back, there will be nothing but token attempts to retrieve me. I was never supposed to be part of the family.”

Thor stared at him for a long time. Loki almost asked if he wanted the whole reasoning in writing so he would understand better. But, for once in his life, his brother surprised him.

“Was this your plan from the start?”

Loki was quick to recover; he grinned. “How could I have possibly planned it? Or managed it, for that matter?”

“You couldn’t,” Thor said quietly, “but I’ve always known you to do impossible things.”

When his weight moved away from the bed, Loki stupidly wanted to call him back. But he resisted the impulse, and it only lasted for a second anyway. The strangers who’d found their way into Loki’s head had done more for him than his adopted family ever had.

And I betrayed them too.

Well, that was a good thing. Loki could never make again the mistake of putting someone else’s needs before his own. He had paid too high a price the last time, when he’d gone back for Thor in the refinery, buried under the rubble. Loki had had to lean down to pull him up, exposing his own face to the trickle of fluid from the broken pipes overhead. In that moment he hadn’t realized what it was. He’d assumed it was water.

They should not have been down there in the first place, of course. That had been Loki’s idea. He never had anyone to blame but himself. And that was how he must go on.

“Finally,” said a voice, startling him back to the present.

Loki’s eyes snapped at the intruder, then winced. Of course.

“Some peace and quiet. You’re making it hard to sleep on long flights,” Natasha went on. She tilted her head to the side. “Still got your pet corpse, I see.”

Loki didn’t even look at Pierce. “He deserves it all and more.”

“Oh, I’m not arguing that.”

And she really wasn’t. That was one thing they had in common. Nobody else in the cluster shared that ability to remove humanity from the equation—which was a shame, as it made one’s life much easier as a general rule.

“It’s more about what you deserve,” she went on. “About what you keep him around for.”

“Why are you here?” he asked dryly. “You should have no complaints. I’ve been taking care of things.”

Under his careful guidance, HYDRA was slowly and steadily going down the drain. He was working quickly to dismantle the secret clinics—their number was staggering—but he was also undermining the actual company, selling shares left and right and pocketing the profits. On various levels, the others were all aware he was doing it. They had no legal or supernatural ways to stop him. It was very convenient for everyone. Except for Natasha bloody Romanov who wouldn’t leave well enough alone.

“Sometimes it’s hard believing you’re the same person as Steve Rogers,” Natasha said, as if she’d been following his train of thoughts.

“That is T’Challa’s gospel. The Jotun lore merely speaks of separate minds dreaming in unison.”

“Oh yes.” She arched an eloquent eyebrow. “I forgot you were all about the Jotun lore, now.”

In spite of himself, Loki raised a hand to the infinity sign tattooed on his nape. Almost nobody knew it was there. His hair was supposed to hide it. But of course the other dream walkers would know.

“Are you ever going to let Pierce die?” she asked bluntly.

Loki kept staring straight ahead. “Why should I?”

“A matter of dignity, I think. Not his, but ours.”

“I will keep my sight over your dignity,” Loki said coldly.

Privately, he still hated possessing Pierce, but for all his repulsion, it had its perks. And besides, what did anyone care? Pierce was already dead. He did not even have close ones, no partner and no children—if he had, he might have slaughtered them in his labs anyway.

“You know, this was supposed to be a rebirth,” Natasha said quietly.

Her tone was not exactly disappointed. It was more like Loki too had lost his humanity in her eyes. Now he was just a variable to be observed and added to the equation of her life.

Loki liked it that way. It was cleaner.

“Have I not been reborn?” He pressed the elevator button again. It could not get here fast enough. “Perhaps not in the way you liked.”

Clint’s name was rising to the surface of their shared consciousness. Loki mentally waved it away. It had been months. Could they not move on from this?

“Real talk, though.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “You could pick any name and you pick DJ Chaos?”

He finally looked at her in exasperation—but of course she was gone. The wretched woman was getting quite good at navigating the bond.

The doors of the elevator finally opened and Loki got on, Pierce docilely following. Loki told himself to forget about it all. Enough of everyone. He had survived in a gilded cage for most of his life. He had come so close to complete disaster. Now he wanted to try living. He’d paid high enough a cost. Damn him. Damn them all.

 

*

 

“Yo, Dr. B! I’m heading out, you want anything from Starbucks?”

Bruce looked up from his computer in surprise. “Uh—no,” he said. “Thank you, Miles.”

“I don’t mean coffee. I know you don’t drink coffee. I meant, like, a pastry or whatever.”

“I’d like coffee,” said Betty cheerfully, coming out of the bathroom. “And a donut, please!”

After Morales had left, she crossed the room and leaned against Bruce’s back, resting her elbows on his shoulders, winding her fingers in his hair. “I hope you’re not overworking yourself.”

“I—no,” Bruce said hoarsely. He cleared his throat, then craned his head back to smile at her. “No, I’m good.”

From the corner of his eye, he could see Tony, straddling a chair like a teenager. “You guys are so cute together.”

Bruce was careful to answer with his mind’s voice so Betty wouldn’t hear. “My old boss didn’t spy on his employees, Tony.”

“Sure, but he did kidnap and torture you, so I think I still win. Besides, I’m a cool boss. Wanna take the afternoon? Take it! Hell, take the rest of the week, what do I care. Dr. Ross here is right, Brucey, any work is overwork when you’ve already changed the world.”

“Disagree.”

Betty scratching softly at his scalp brought him back to reality. “Earth to Bruce?”

He took off his new glasses with a soft laugh. “Sorry,” he said. “Still trying to get used to… all of this.”

The hard drive had been stupidly easy to retrieve, still stuck under the ratty bed of the Mexican hotel; some lady named Potts had gone there to get it back, and then Bruce had sold out to Stark Industries in open defiance of his ongoing contract with Culver. Which meant Thaddeus Ross could get him thrown in a military prison at any time.

But he had tried to kill Bruce. And Tony Stark had very powerful lawyers, as Obadiah Stane (ex-CEO) could testify.

So for now they were all stuck in a stand-off. It was a stressful, uncertain situation; yet Bruce found he didn’t care very much, which as astounding all on its own. Now that he finally had a true Damocles sword over his head, he was too otherwise happy to be bothered with it.

He liked California. He liked that nobody here actively tried to make him miserable. He liked that the intern unthinkingly offered to get him something from Starbucks. And he loved Betty.

“You’re right, I work too much,” he murmured, and reopened his eyes. “Want to get out of here?”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “Right now?”

“Right now. Tony gave us the week. But if you wanted to finish something, I—”

Betty grinned at him and kissed him on the lips. “I love you. Let’s go to the beach.”

 

“I don’t know,” Bruce said, walking along the sea. “Sometimes it seems too good to be true. I mean, biologically speaking, what’s happening to us—it shouldn’t be possible.”

“You must come to Wakanda one day,” T’Challa said. He was barefoot like him, his dark feet in high contrast with the blinding sand. “Plenty of interesting research for you to peruse.”

“I’d love that.”

They walked in silence for a while. T’Challa seemed to enjoy the endless beach and the people-watching. Bruce liked him a lot. He was quiet and thoughtful, appreciated long conversations about obfuscating science, and strove to keep his emotions under control. A kindred spirit in more ways than one.

We are the same when we feel the same.

“Does she know?” T’Challa said in his smooth voice.

Bruce glanced over his shoulder at Betty in the distance, tanning on her towel, reading a book. He couldn’t help smiling whenever he looked at her.

“No,” he said, turning back to look ahead. “I’ll find a way to tell her everything. There’s still time.” His gaze went back to T’Challa. “What about you? Did you tell Okoye?”

T’Challa stiffened, so slightly Bruce wouldn’t have noticed without the bond. The Wakandan king still wasn’t used to his soul-siblings knowing every aspect of his private life.

“She knows. Of course.” Then he sighed and added dismally, “She likes Natasha.”

 

Coming back to their tiny rental, salt in his hair, bare feet covered in sand, Bruce pushed open the door and blinked when he found himself in a completely different place—newly painted and smelling of white varnish.

“You always look so surprised when that happens,” Clint grinned.

“Ah, well.” Bruce pushed up his new glasses with a smile. “I’ve never had a good handle on my inner life.”

“At least it’s taking you to new and exciting places.”

Bruce looked out the window. “I’m not so sure.”

“What do you mean?”

“Are you in California? This is—I’ve just moved to Silicon Valley, you know.”

“Wow,” Clint said with wide open eyes. “Crazy coincidence. It’s like we’re soulmates or something.”

“Har har.”

“But seriously,” Clint grinned. “We’re still neighbors! That’s awesome! We could meet for real. Again. You might even be conscious this time!”

“Maybe not the best idea,” Bruce smiled. He wasn’t sure how Steve and Bucky were keeping their sanity, but he was certain his own mind would tear like wet cardboard if he ever experienced that kind of ultra-resonance.

“No fun.” But something like relief emanated from Clint, too. “Maybe one day, though?”

“Maybe one day,” Bruce echoed. He looked around the room. There were boxes everywhere. “So what is this place?”

Clint sat on the floor, drew a box closer and flicked open his craft knife. He didn’t open it, though, fiddling with the knife and drumming on the box with his free hand.

“Not much. Not yet. But—I mean, it’s a good place.”

Bruce just looked at him.

“I mean, sure, it’s small, but it won’t be too hard to finish up all the touches, and Kate’s got all that advertising and social media stuff under her belt—or under…somewhere, I don’t know, and I already talked with the lawyer, and all the paperwork is good, and I got all the licenses needed, and I couldn’t keep Tony from buying me all this equipment and T’Challa gave me a fucking loan and I—”

He trailed off, realizing he was rambling and waving his craft knife around like a madman. Exhaling, he went still and looked almost pleadingly at Bruce. “It’s… We thought we might—it’s an archery school? And I know, I know it sounds like a stupid idea, but—”

“No. God. It doesn’t.” Bruce was surprised at how delighted he felt. “It’s perfect.”

Clint radiated embarrassment. Bruce hesitated, unsure what to do, then decided to be brave for once in his life.

He sat next to Clint, reached out—almost bailed—and then ran his fingers through Clint’s short hair, soft and slow. It felt natural, like they’d been lovers a long time ago. Maybe childhood sweethearts. Something like family. Like home.

Clint smiled crookedly, rubbing at his temple to hide his eyes. “S’ dumb.”

“No.” Bruce looked around the room.  “This is going to be so much fun.”

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s what we’re going for.”

There was a silence.

“Thank you for saving my life,” Bruce said quietly. “I just realized. I never said it.”

Clint gave a one-shoulder shrug. “S’nothing.”

Privately amazed at his own audacity, Bruce put his hand on the back of Clint’s neck, rubbing circles into his skin. It felt awkward to him, but psychic feedback told him Clint liked this kind of possessive touch. Even after everything.

“It’s not,” Bruce said. “And I know—” His voice betrayed him. “I know you were hurt afterwards. If you hadn’t been so frazzled from rescuing me—”

“Hardly hurt,” said another voice.

They both gaped at Loki, who was standing there like he hadn’t been skirting around almost everyone for the past couple of months.

“Excuse me?” Bruce said at last, but Clint talked over him.

“I thought—” He was off-balance and miserably glad to see Loki. It squeezed at Bruce’s heart. “I thought you weren’t talking to me.”

“You’re the one who—” Loki cut himself off, then folded back all of his tension into a tight little ball. Bruce understood better why his therapists had kept telling him not to do that. It really didn’t feel healthy.

Clint and Loki had tried to cut each other off, at that. But like a rubber band getting stretched too far, they always seemed to snap back together. Bruce could feel them coming into contact every time, sparking like quick jolts of electricity, moving away at once, pretending it hadn’t happened. Maybe they could have loved each other like Steve and Bucky did. But there was nature, and then there was nurture. At least that was how Bruce had come to think of it.

He wondered if he should go. But Clint sensed his intention and mentally held him back. Don’t leave me alone with him. It was a feeling Bruce could identify very well.

So he sat back down. He could talk his way through a bad situation, he could stay calm. That was what he did. Or what he strove to do.

“So.” He folded his glasses. “Why the visit?”

Loki looked out the window. His restlessness strung up everyone’s nerves.

“I really needed to clarify that—” He swallowed. “I never meant to harm anybody. You must know that already. And it was for the best in the end, there is no denying it.”

His own words rang in the air, so woefully inadequate it seemed to spur him on.

“Look—look, must I really—if anything, your pain is also my pain, it would be idiotic of me to—”

“Pierce killed his own siblings,” Bruce reminded him in a low voice.

And I killed Pierce!” Loki was suddenly enraged. “Don’t you dare compare me to that man—if you knew—”

Clint found his voice at last. “Did you come here to yell at me?”

Everything Loki was projecting deflated all at once. Even his face changed. Prominent scars dug grooves around his mouth, and the color washed out of his eyes. He stood there, thin and dark, vulnerable for the first time.

This too Bruce recognized. Sometimes his dad had felt regret, as well.

“No,” Loki said very quietly. “No.”

He swallowed.

“What I did—” His voice was clipped and strange, like the wounds on his lips were still raw. “I would do it again. You cannot make me lie about that.”

Bruce said nothing. He did understand Loki—that was the worst part. He knew that moment, that feeling, on the knife’s edge of desperation. To keep hurting, or to wreck it all trying to make it stop. Of course Loki would seize the only chance he’d ever had to break away from his rotten hellscape of a life. A few days’ ride in Clint’s body had done the trick. No more. Was it not worth it? Was it not worth it?

But nobody could answer that question. Or maybe they all knew the answer already.

“You know,” Clint said slowly, “I cut things with my brother. Basically kicked him out of my life until he could get his shit together.”

Loki gave him a undecipherable look. “I suppose that sounds sensible.”

“Yeah, but it sucks. It sucks a lot. I’d really rather not do that again.”

There was a silence.

“But you’re still gonna make me, aren’t you?” Clint asked.

Bruce squeezed his shoulder for comfort. That, more than anything, made Loki take a step back. His features grew flawless again, his eyes filling back with life, glamor coming over him like armor.

“Whatever you say, Barton. Look, I really must go now—”

“Thanks, though,” Clint said under his breath.

Loki stopped. “What for?”

“Telling the truth. Even when it won’t get you what you want.”

For a second it looked like Loki’s face would reveal something again; but before it could be decided, he vanished for good.

Clint exhaled all at once.

“Being responsible for myself sucks,” he said miserably. “Kate never told me how much it would suck.”

Bruce squeezed the back of his neck, which made Clint sigh again and lean into him.

“Do you think…” He swallowed. “Do you think he’ll come back?”

“I don’t know,” Bruce said softly.

And if he ever tries, I’ll be there to watch him. Clint trusted people in ways Bruce couldn’t, not anymore. In other circumstances it would just make him jaded and broken. But now it meant he could be the one protecting his own. He knew the signs. He’d been down that road. He would know.

The front door slammed, startling them both.

“Shit,” Clint said absently. Then, blinking, “Oh, shit—”

“I’m home!” Kate yelled. “Did you unpack everything yet?”

“Nearly!” Clint called back on automatic pilot.

Sighing, he looked around at the dozens of untouched boxes. “Oh man. She’s going to kill me when she sees all of this.”

“I could come by,” Bruce said innocently. “Give you a hand. Say hi to Kate. We’re neighbors after all.”

“Very funny. That’s helping a lot, Dr. Banner, thank you.”

But then Clint grabbed the craft knife again and set to work, slicing open the first box, starting at long last to unpack his new life.

 

*

 

Yesterday, I had the longest ever dream ,” Natasha sang under her breath as she snipped her hair, strand after strand. “ That the word was endless with possibilities…”

“Why do we all know this song?” Steve muttered, shuffling papers at his kitchen table. “It’s always on everyone’s mind.”

It had me thinking, we should never forget ,” Natasha sang louder. “ That there are wonders we haven’t seen yet!”

“You’re not helping.”

“Help me, then. How do I look?”

Steve stared balefully at her from the mirror, as she made her shorter hair puff around her head. Then he cracked a smile. “Good, Nat. You always do.”

And she knew he wasn’t lying.

“Where are you these days?” he asked.

“Paris. Quiet now, I’m gonna take a dive.”

“Be my guest.”

Natasha closed her eyes. She was getting better at this. The trick was not to lose track of anyone.

Steve is shuffling papers, trying to focus on his paperwork. His mind keeps drifting to James in the other room. The sound of his shower. From somewhere else comes the smell of new paint, the slickness of it, like white varnish. The crackle of a radio, the taste of chai. A memory of the day, a cat dashing across the road at noon. The rustle of thick, glossy green leaves, the miraculous relief of a fresh breeze as the night sets in. Charcoal smoke, the blazing heat of a brazier, fading just a step away. Droplets of water sliding down metal plates. Voices, voices, voices, jokes and chatter and mindless questions, in Xhosa and English and German and Russian. A commercial on TV, the sudden burst of remembrance, when I was a kid we always— and short-lived nostalgia, fading like footprints in a snowstorm. Now the memory of snow. In the streets of New York, in the black sky of Russia, snow never seen before, or long forgotten. A sharp intake of breath, a deep exhale from someone else, like wind sweeping through a portal, carried to the ends of the earth. A heartbeat. When they are at rest their eight hearts beat exactly at the same time, something that Steve and James were of course the first to find out. It’s strange, to know this, strange not to be alone like humans are. Stranger still to be all the more human for it. They don’t know who they are. But they know what they are not. Steve is not perfect and James is not broken and Clint is not trash and Tony is not irredeemable and T’Challa is not unfeeling and Bruce is not a waste of space and Loki is not even evil and Natasha is not even a monster. Neither of them is any of these things, because they are so endlessly complex, so much more than the sum of all their parts—

Natasha reopened her eyes and smiled at herself in the mirror. Whenever she dipped into the flowing bond, it invariably brought her back to contemplating her selves, like an echo chamber.

Well. Time to get to work, anyway.

 

These days Natasha was collecting people. Not the way Alexander Pierce had. Not the way T’Chaka, Gao and Selvig wanted it, either. Natasha didn’t remember her biological dad, but her soul-father was Fury and growled for secret in every fiber of her being. Natasha liked secret, deception, new hair, new faces and new names. And her mind was the safest meeting place of all.

She had sixteen people in her head now, and she was looking to find her seventeenth.

She left her hotel and took the scenic route, riding the métro, buying lollipops in the street, trying to read the French newspapers. She’d never seen the Eiffel Tower, not from up close. It was strange to be here. It was strange to be anywhere. She still remembered how she’d felt after blowing up the Red Room—profoundly empty like a carved-out crab. There had been just enough humanity left in her to destroy everything, as her only act of decency.

But all of a sudden, just when she’d been about to let herself go for good, life had flooded back in.

She was like a new continent, once frozen and dead, now newly thawing, uncharted, full of possibilities, ready to grow unexpected life. Natasha tried on names like she tried on hats; she changed her hair color, her clothing, her smile and her voice, so much that she could have lost track of the truth—but it was alright. She had seven soulmates to anchor her to herself when needed.

Four days prior, a fifteen-year-old Pakistani girl from Seine-Saint-Denis had been injured and fell unconscious. Her anxious parents had rushed her to the hospital, fearing a concussion or worse. There had been brain scans.

Natasha had installed the algorithm on her phone, like a fancy new app. It had pinged while she was in China, visiting the ruins of T’Chaka and Gao’s utopian city.

Now she walked down the streets of a neighborhood that reminded some confused parts of her—mostly Steve, a little bit of Clint—of New Jersey. She stopped and asked for directions several times, just for the pleasure of speaking French. (It was Clint’s French, patchy but still preferable to T’Challa’s French, which was textbook but with a Nigerian accent which made her too noticeable.)

In the end she found the place easily enough. Someone had written Khan in elegant letters, on a piece of paper underneath several layers of transparent tape. When she pressed the doorbell, it didn’t make a sound; but she heard voices and footsteps inside the apartment.

A wary, brown-eyed girl with wild hair opened the door.

“Kamala Khan?” asked Natasha. The girl looked at her, and Natasha felt herself reeling when their eyes met. This teenager had nothing to do with her. And yet in that moment—as they looked at each other for the first time—they were one; not the same person, but the same species.

The seventeenth.

Kamala opened the door wider.

“So are you the fairy godmother or the man in black?” she asked.

She was speaking Russian. Like it was her native language. It must be someone’s native language in her cluster, anyway.

“What?” Natasha said.

Kamala tapped at her head. “For the past three weeks I’ve been seeing people. Not dead people. Just… people. And, look—when this kind of thing happens in the movies,” she was talking very fast now, “there’s always someone who shows up afterwards. Someone who knows everything and who can explain everything. And who asks for the hero creepily like you just did. Kamala Khan? Like, you could have just gone with Sarah Connor? Same thing. And anyway, when they’re good it’s like a fairy godmother thing. When they’re bad it’s the scary man in black who wants to lock you in a lab. So which one are you?”

Natasha grinned. She couldn’t help it. “We took care of the men in black.”

“Oh,” said Kamala.

“Yeah.”

“I wasn’t serious about that.”

“I was. They’re gone. I made sure of it. And then a few friends helped me finish the job.”

“Are you sure you’re a fairy godmother?”

“I’m Natasha.” She tilted her head to the side. “You’re psychic. Now can I come in?”

Finally Kamala grinned and stepped back. “Yeah. Holy shit, yes, you can come in.”

 

“It went well,” Bucky said in his low voice.

Natasha had climbed on the roof of her fancy hotel. In the distance, the Eiffel Tower lit up with scintillating lights; it did that every hour.

“Yeah. I didn’t expect it to go that well, to be honest.”

“Kids can accept a lot of things,” Bucky said very quietly. “I’m not surprised she was excited. It’s how it should be. We were special cases.”

“Yeah, we were.” Natasha stared pensively at the darkened city. A siren rose in the distance, then stopped.

“You know,” he said. “It’s been five months, and you still haven’t come to see any of us.”

The problem with psychic bonds that it was very difficult to change the topic. Natasha shifted on her plastic chair. “We’re not meant to be in the same place. It’s redundant.”

Bucky said nothing. He was excellent at meaningful silences; those had been his only outlet for years, after all. The strangest thing was that he was exactly how Natasha had always dreamed he would be. The Asset, in the dark, who didn’t even need to speak to make her face her own truths.

“I’ll come. I’ll visit you.” She was rubbing her fingertips together in complex patterns, as if to ward off something. “But later. We’re still too close to—we’re still not done sorting everything out.”

Again, he said nothing, but she felt him shudder. Which reminded her. How could she forget?

“It’s tomorrow, isn’t it?”

Bucky swallowed. “Yeah.”

His fear was cool and crisp like ice. She took his metal hand, enjoying its foreign smoothness, the way the plates all fit together.

“Steve will be with you.”

“I know.” He couldn’t speak for a few seconds. “But what if—what if she hates me?”

Natasha was helpless against that kind of fear. But she squeezed his hand and smiled. “Please, Barnes. Not even Tony can hate you these days.”

 

*

 

Five months in, Bucky’s hair had grown back to a fair length, soft to the touch. The rest of him felt stretched thin like the detox had bleached him inside, worn him down to paper skin. He dreamed of sunlight glowing right through him. Steve knew, because they swapped dreams when they slept too close to each other, which was all the time. But neither of them were worried. They knew it was a mostly good dream.

During the day he wandered the city. Walking without a destination was like a drug to him. Sometimes Steve went too, in a totally different direction, so they could explore two places at once. People-watching, sharing discoveries, Bucky recalling how certain things worked, needing Steve’s help for others. The world had changed a lot since he’d last been free.

When the sun started going down they played find the thimble. Sensing each other to find their way back. Hot. Cold. It got easier every day. Hey, you just got on a bus! Not fair! The closer they got, the more urgent it felt, until they were almost running to get there, onlookers be damned. And when Bucky turned a corner and saw Steve for real, it was like the first time all over again, and they hurried towards each other, both of them stupidly emotional as if they hadn’t touched in years, exhaling shakily when they finally embraced in the middle of the street.

Sam was unimpressed. Sam was also highly suspicious of Bucky whom he called freakishly well-adjusted. But of course his standard was for humans, which Bucky wasn’t anymore, not exactly. It was like singing in a choir: maybe he couldn’t have carried a tune on his own, but he had seven others voices backing him up, so most of the time he felt solid enough.

He did have odd days—empty days where he just stared at the wall for hours. Or days where he lost time and found himself standing in places he didn’t remember going. Sam said he must be on the dissociating spectrum, which was a classic symptom of severe child abuse. Bucky wasn’t sure, though. He remembered nothing about his past. He didn’t even know how or when he’d gotten his prosthetic arm. And how to be sure the whole thing wasn’t just a side-effect of the bond anyway?

Clint said it was okay to dissociate, said Bucky’s brain just needed a lot of time-outs to process his shit. Signing out while wandering the streets could be dangerous, though—so when it happened Clint took over, driving his body home. Natasha or Bruce also helped out in a pinch. Bucky was pretty sure T’Challa did it once, too.

At night he fell asleep in Steve’s arms, feeling like he was dissolving in his warmth until there was nothing left. Bucky could see it scared Sam when he told him about it. He didn’t know how to make Sam understand it was the best feeling in the world.

 

“Hey,” Steve whispered, running a hand through Bucky’s hair.

Bucky could sense him floating up to consciousness, slow and glorious like a sunrise. He shifted closer. He hadn’t slept at all and Steve knew it.

Bucky had been there while Steve and Sam made the phone call. You’d better sit down. Professional, reasonable, steadfast. I want you to know you don’t have to make a decision right away. But of course she’d made the decision right away. Tonight? Steve hadn’t even needed to look at Bucky. I’m afraid that’s a bit sudden. They had decided on Friday. See you tomorrow then. And Bucky hadn’t been able to sleep all night.

“Bet she didn’t sleep either,” Steve said. “Come on. When you’re that afraid you have to keep your mind off things. Keep busy.”

They took their shower together. Another thing Sam would’ve disagreed with, talking of co-dependency and boundaries. But even though he knew about the bond, it was difficult to make him understand that a shower was nothing next to waking up hard because an ex-Vegas stripper was having a wet dream. Or being intimately acquainted with the menstrual cycle of a Russian exile. Or feeling hungry all week because the Wakandan king was fasting to honor his Muslim subjects.

Bucky closed his eyes under the warm stream. After a lifetime of cold showers, he couldn’t get enough of this feeling. He felt a smidge of worry coming from Steve, which loosened the knot in his chest by a fraction. Even now, he sometimes forgot he was not alone, in anything.

“I’ll always want to stay with you, you know,” he said quietly over the running water.

Steve’s shame was like a sting of ice. “I’m sorry. You weren’t supposed to feel that.”

“Steve—”

“It’s okay.” Steve poured soap into his hand, with too much care. “You don’t have to take that decision right away. But if you do end up wanting to move out—it’s okay. We’ll always have the bond. Living together is—what’s Nat’s word?”

“Redundant.”

“Redundant,” Steve repeated, staring hard at the swirling water on the tile. “Your own life should be spent—should be spent getting to know your own.”

“You’re an idiot.”

Bucky treated insults like pearls and diamonds. He’d integrated them to his authorized vocabulary only recently.

“Even if I was a normal guy I wouldn’t break up with my boyfriend to reconnect with my family.”

“You are a normal guy,” Steve said with blinding sincerity. Then he frowned, and looked down. “Am I your boyfriend? You don’t have to—not by default—”

“I don’t feel that by default.” Even Steve’s noble attempts at self-sacrifice couldn’t hold in the face of telepathic truth. “I want to stay with you.”

This time Steve knew Bucky was expressing his heart’s desire. A wave of relief washed from him, along with retroactive fear as well—he gave up all pretense of washing himself and pulled Bucky close, exhaling when Bucky hugged back.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said shakily. “You really weren’t supposed to feel that.”

Bucky just held him. Even with the bond it was sometimes difficult to find the right words.

 

They took a bus to New York.

Usually Bucky would have been all eyes during such a trip, but fear glued his gaze to the seat in front of him. Steve held his hand, knowing he couldn’t do much more.

“What am I even going to tell her,” Bucky rasped after two hours on the road.

“The truth. As much as we can.” Steve’s thumb was rubbing circles on the back of his hand. Bucky focused on the motion. If only he could visit T’Challa’s gardens. Or even just dissociate. But his mind was stuck to himself, stuck into the here and now.

They pulled up in the Port Authority bus terminal around noon. Reaching Brooklyn took them another hour. Steve half-heartedly suggested they grab sandwiches on the way, without taking issue with the lack of answer—he knew Bucky wasn’t hungry.

They got out of the subway into the hot, early September sun. The joy washing in from Steve was staggering. He had grown up in those streets after all. Bucky blinked at him, almost said something about how they didn’t have to keep living in DC—but maybe that was a conversation for another time. Already Steve was leading him forward.

“It’s that way…”

They took a few turns, walked a few blocks, and there they were. 616 Brubaker Lane. Bucky stared at the door from the other side of the street, rooted to the spot.

“Oh, please,” said a low, smooth voice.

Loki obviously didn’t like the heat; he was flat against the building to seek the narrow shade.

“Do you know how lucky you are?”

Bucky looked at him, too scared to feel anything else than confusion. “Lucky?”

“Consider the rest of us. What we would give to experience this, if it meant someone was waiting behind the door. Such a fear is infinitely better than…” He shrugged. “Well. Than nothing.”

“You have a way of making it about yourself,” Steve said, annoyed.

But Bucky managed to take a deeper breath. Loki had a point. And it felt nice to think of himself as lucky, considering.

“There you are,” Loki murmured, sensing the shift in his determination.

Steve stepped forward again to put his hand on Bucky’s shoulder, the metal one under its black sleeve. Bucky had decided to hide his arm. Better to explain it all bit by bit.

“Ready to cross that street?” Steve asked.

Bucky took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”

It felt like crossing an ocean. By the time Bucky stepped onto the opposite sidewalk, empires had risen and fallen. He climbed up the three steps leading up to the porch and rang the electronic doorbell.

A deadly silence answered him. Then locks turning—it made him jump; someone had obviously waited for them right behind the door.

The door opened on a woman in her sixties, grey-haired with a few dark streaks still visible, thin lines at the corner of her eyes, around her mouth. She had huge anxious eyes, clutching white-knuckled at the door knob. Steve was standing there in all the shining glory of his blond hair and fair skin under the sun; but her eyes went directly to Bucky.

She opened her mouth, but her voice cracked and she had to try again.

“James?”

“I—” He was here, now, feeling the cool air from inside the house, watching her face. “Yes. Um. I mean. Bucky? I thought...”

She let go of the door and flung her arms around him. He flinched like a spooked cat, hands going to her wrists to break her embrace, and he opened his mouth to plead Mrs. Barnes— but his voice stumbled on “M—”

He remembered her smell. The feel of her hair.

“M-Mom.”

She was crying, in silent shaky sobs, and he let go of her hands, hugged her back, clutched at her, tears streaming down his face, eyes wide open. “Mom,” he said again and again, feeling nine years old again, like a gaping fracture in time had just closed.

Steve had moved away a few steps to let his own tears fall, and all around the world they all wept with him, turning their faces towards the same sky to feel the sun or the stars, thinking of Bucky, thinking of each other. I’m home, their hearts sang, beating in time as the world turned. I’m home, I’m home, I’m home.