Tina was going to ask Mike to move in with her. She was going to propose.
Now he was dead in a hospital room that they wouldn't let her enter, and her memories were filled with blood.
As she walked down the cold sidewalk and ignored the passing taxis, she could feel Mike's sweat-slick skin and his warmth length filling and stretching her. She could feel his hands sliding through the damp hair between her legs, then sliding further down until his long, agile fingers gently worked her open. She could feel the weight of him in her mouth, the feel of his arms around her, the soft touch of his lips against her mouth and eyelids and throat. And with each new memory, his throat tore open and he died on top of her in a red waterfall.
That should have made her throw up. She should be screaming as she felt the subway car rumble below her feet, but she didn't even know which station she'd entered. Then she was on the sidewalks again, and she didn't remember getting off the train.
She was so calm, Tina acknowledged as she approached her destination. But, now that she knew that she could fix this, just like Finn had popped back to life and just like Kurt's body was walking around, why be sad? She couldn't afford to be sad. Sadness would only be a distraction from the job at hand.
The heavy metal door knocker of the Sanctum Sanctorum cracked like a gunshot when she announced herself. "Hi," Tina told the man at Doctor Strange's door when it opened. "I came by here a few weeks ago, to borrow a book. Can I come in?"
"It won't take long—"
"Doctor Strange is not currently in the dimension. No visitors are allowed. Please leave."
She forced a smile. "It's important."
"Many people come here, and their reasons are all important. Please leave."
Tina was left staring at the door as he shut it. Her fists balled and her jaw clenched. No. Don't get angry. You have a job to do.
Fine, she thought as she pounded down the steps. NYU students moved out of her way as she passed, even though her powers were safely contained. She looked dangerous enough despite that to clear a pathway ahead of her. I'll find another way.
* * *
"Excuse me," Tina said, just before closing time. That time, she'd taken a taxi.
The librarian looked up. "Yes, can I help you?"
She smiled. It felt like putting on armor. "Do you have any special sections? That might have really rare books?"
Doctor Strange had told her that magical books had filtered into the public library system. She intended to test that theory. Walking into the main branch of the New York Public Library had indeed felt a bit like finding some source of potential mystical power. Its stone face looked like a temple, with the lion carvings outside as its ancient guardians.
"The Rare Book Division keeps rare books, yes." The librarian adjusted her glasses. "What are you hoping to see? For most of the collection, they'll need to schedule an appointment with you or your institution. And some aren't available to the public, I'm afraid."
"I'm looking for...." Tina trailed off. She had no idea where to start. She couldn't very well ask for spellbooks; she'd sound ridiculous. "I'm taking a class on the occult. For school."
"Are you looking for the history of specific groups, or...?"
"Um." This had seemed so much easier, walking in. She needed to save Mike, the library might have the books to do it, and that was simply that. Why was this so hard? "I'm looking for the books they might read. You know, and think were really real? For the occult... stuff?"
The librarian kept smiling, but with a long-suffering tolerance that said she'd uncovered the truth. "Miss, our rare books collections won't teach you how to be Harry Potter."
I already used actual magic to open up actual dimensional walls for actual ghosts, you bitch, Tina thought, but bit her tongue. How could this woman act like Tina was being funny when she was trying to save Mike? "No, that's not what I meant. It's for a serious project."
"My apologies," the librarian said smoothly. "Do you have a title or author you're interested in pulling?"
What were the titles of spellbooks? Who wrote them? Where would she even start looking? "No," Tina said helplessly.
"Well," the librarian said, "it's nearly closing time, so they wouldn't be taking any new appointments, anyway. Why don't you go home and check your notes for your class? Then, once you have whatever information your professor gave you, you can come back here and find just the right book."
And if she didn't have that specific information, she was free to go fuck herself for wasting the library's time with silly games, Tina heard. "Right," she said hollowly. "I'll do that. Um. Are your rare books in your online catalog?" Maybe she could browse until she saw something that looked likely....
"Not the rarest ones, no."
Of course. Tina had no doubts that anything with usable spells would fall into that 'rarest' category, and they were all totally off-limits to her. Some people might have the occult knowledge to start a search, but she hadn't the faintest idea of where to look. Doctor Strange's library had everything that she needed, right down to knowing the color of those books' covers, but she couldn't get inside.
She walked back outside with heavy, steady steps. Mike was dead, and now she didn't know how she was going to fix that.
Tina stared out at the lamplit fog of Manhattan's skyline and broke out into giant, wracking sobs that the people passing by her ignored.
Mike's hands. Mike's mouth. Mike's heart. Mike. The man she'd wanted to spend the rest of her life with.
He was actually dead.
With each new cry as her emotions burst loose, his throat tore open anew in her mind. She wasn't sure how she got home. Maybe she'd taken the subway again, or maybe she'd called a taxi. But Mercedes was there with her arms open, and Tina fell into them like her best friend could somehow fix what she couldn't.
All Mercedes could do was stroke her hair. Because Mike was dead.
It took a while to percolate. He'd stayed overnight at Mercedes and Tina's apartment. The two of them had slept with Tina between them, like parents who might be able to fight off bad dreams. But they couldn't, of course, and every time he woke up she was crying softly.
Mike is dead, he'd thought as he stared at the ceiling and listened to Tina's quiet pain. Kurt came back and killed him. Am I sad or scared? I don't know. He was both, really, but he didn't know which he felt more strongly. Mostly, he felt a tight wormy feeling in his stomach. There was going to be another funeral. He'd be a pallbearer again, just like he'd carried an empty casket for the guy who'd killed this one's owner. Was that their life, now? Just being caught up in a cycle of death and destruction and failed dreams?
No. He refused to believe it. That sucked. They were young, they were friends, and some of them were even superheroes. The world should be at their feet. Instead, they were all being forced to their knees.
This isn't right, Sam thought as he'd stared at the ceiling and listened to Tina whimper softly in her sleep. This isn't how things were supposed to work.
That sad belief took up much of his mental energy the next morning. The rest was taken by having to find his way to work out of an apartment he rarely commuted from. Their investigative agency was closed for Mercedes and Tina, of course, but Sam still had to go in to the Bugle if he wanted to keep the job that paid for his expensive New York home. I don't have a roommate any more, Sam thought somewhat hysterically as he went through his inbox at the office. His hair was a rat's nest and he was in the same clothes as the day before. They smelled like the hospital. I won't be able to pay for my apartment, anyway.
"You doing okay, there?" Peter Parker asked as he came in with a new set of pictures to show to their eternally displeased boss.
Sam ran his hands through his hair. "No."
"You want to talk about it?"
"I don't know." His hands scrubbed his face. "Not right this second." He knew that much, at least.
"Okay," Peter said uncertainly. "Well, I'll go get yelled at by Jameson, and maybe you'll want to talk about things by then?"
"Maybe, sure. Thanks." Sam glanced at Peter as he left, and the little tickling in his brain finally fell into something recognizable. Tina. It was about what Tina had said. If she wanted to get the books to save Mike, she needed a title or author to give to the librarians. None of them knew where to even start with looking for such books, though.
Now he did. Thanks to his obsessive superhero and villain-obsessed brain, he suddenly knew where Tina could find a book of magic. But did he want to ask? Mercedes and Sam had disagreed on the ethics of superheroic resurrection over their months together, although they'd avoided the debate ever since Kurt had died. For Sam, heroes coming back to life was simply part of their larger-than-life mythos. He'd never really stopped to consider what it meant in the even bigger picture of souls and prayer. Mercedes had argued that a person dead was a person gone. After what had happened in the office yesterday, well... Sam couldn't really argue against that.
After all, Tina had told him how Kurt laughed. Laughed right after he killed Mike. Who was dead.
A shudder ran through Sam, and he didn't know if he was ready to be sick or start crying. He did know, though, that Tina must feel a million times worse than he did. Maybe this was a bad idea, but he didn't think it was right to make the decision for her. If he could tell her where to find a book, he owed her that. Maybe it wasn't even the right book. Maybe it wouldn't have any of the right information. But it'd be an author and title, at least, and she'd know where to start looking.
When Peter came out of Jameson's office, Sam tried to steel himself. He needed to sound focused, because he'd never get a "yes" answer to his question unless he sounded confident.
The intention and the execution didn't quite match up, though. "Seriously," Peter asked after Sam stared at him mutely. "You okay?"
No, Sam hadn't intended to wipe away that tear. But there it came. "Sorry. I just... man, this isn't how things were supposed to work."
Peter frowned, but said nothing.
"It's funny, you know," Sam said. "Back in Ohio, I heard that my friends were superheroes and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Like, I wanted to get powers, too. I wanted to be around them. I wanted to see everything right up close. There was another guy—you don't know him—who wanted to be more careful, but I thought he was just being a stick in the mud."
"Oh. Um. Did something happen to one of your friends?" Peter guessed. "I mean... another one of your friends?" he added, and winced. "Sorry. I forgot about that funeral you had to go to a while back."
"Yeah. And this one isn't hitting me as hard, because that first time... well, it was the first time. Someone died. Someone had a funeral. I'd never gone through that before. Ever." Sam laughed bitterly and began shredding the wrapper left over from his bagel. "I used to think everything was so simple. And it still feels like it should be, but it's like things just aren't quite working out, and I'm not sure how we're all supposed to fix them."
"I've been there," Peter said bitterly, but pulled quickly back. "Sorry, I'm not trying to make it sound like a competition."
Sam took it only as the sympathy it was intended. "Anyway. I’m pretty torn up over everything, because...." The words died in his throat. Peter made a career out of photographing superheroes—mostly Spider-Man—but he didn’t live as closely connected to that world as Sam did. How was Sam supposed to say that the first friend's death had been reversed, but as an evil killing machine who’d killed Sam’s roommate and been ferried off for healing while Mike died on the floor? No one here would understand all that, and so he went for the most basic description possible. "Mike was my roommate. And maybe my best friend by now. Yeah, I guess he was."
"Oh my god," Peter said. He pulled out a chair and straddled it. "I’m so sorry, man. Look, we’ll cover for you if you need to get away from work today. Seriously."
"Thanks." Sam let out a bitter laugh. He still needed to address Tina’s book, but now he found that he wanted to talk. "It’s funny, you know. Once I got captured, so I’d be bait for my friends. I was totally terrified of being Gwen Stacy. Now, it turns out that they were the ones who needed to worry."
"What?" Peter croaked.
"Well, it looked like I was going to die," Sam said. "To prove a point to my friends, or something." Peter had gone very still. Maybe he doesn’t know that story and is trying to figure out what I’m talking about? "Have you ever heard of her? I think that Spidey was in love with her, but she got kidnapped and he accidentally killed her trying to—"
"I know who Gwen Stacy is," Peter said, surprisingly harsh.
Sam blinked. "Oh. Okay."
"I... I have to go get some fresh air," Peter said, and stood.
Sam winced. What just happened? "Hey, there’s a picture you took that I need to check. Do you mind if—"
"Everything’s on my hard drive, knock yourself out," Peter said without looking back. He disappeared down the hallway leading to the elevator.
Sam frowned after him and sighed. Everyone was unhappy and he didn’t see ways to fix it for anyone. Superhero stories were a lot less fun when they were actually living them. Sadly, Sam turned around Peter’s laptop and opened it. There was a folder on the desktop clearly labeled as Bugle pictures, but it had over four thousand files inside. He must not throw away anything. That improved the chances of still having the picture he needed, but it would make it a lot harder to find.
When had Brittany fought that total loser who called himself the Eternal King of Super Hell, or whatever it was? Sam could still remember the library sticker on his 'spellbook.' He’d made fun of that at first, but with what Tina had told them about what lurked in the library system, it might actually be legit. The discussion had been before Kurt had died, Sam knew that much, and he tailored his hunt accordingly.
Photography, Sam soon learned, involved taking a ton of pictures and having most of them come out terribly. Peter’s work was filled with blurry cars and pedestrians walking into frame just as the camera went off. Maybe one photo out of every thirty was even worth showing to Jameson, and he might buy one out of ten. The hunt continued.
There were tons of pictures of Spider-Man, of course. That was Peter’s bread and butter at the paper and his files were filled accordingly. However it was that Peter had managed to befriend the superhero, he’d gotten some amazing close-ups out of the relationship. Sam would be a little jealous if not for how two friends’ deaths had taken the shine off the whole idea of superheroes, and he kept clicking past the Spider-Man pictures without much thought.
So deep was his haze that it took him a few seconds to realize what he’d just seen. Sam frowned, clicked backward, and studied the photograph to make sure that he wasn’t making things up.
Spider-Man was adjusting his mask after a fight, in an off-kilter picture that looked like the camera had fallen over at some crazy angle.
And Peter’s face was halfway visible.
Oh, Sam thought in shock. Well. Okay. Yeah. Peter Parker was Spider-Man. That explained the premium access and why Peter focused on him more than any other hero, didn’t it?
He’d just learned Spider-Man’s secret identity.
Should I be happy about this? Sam wondered, but instantly knew the answer. Thanks to knowing the identity of the Awesomes and being close to them, Sam had been kidnapped, thrown in a basement cell, and shot. He didn't want to know what he might suffer if anyone got the idea that he actually knew who Spider-Man was. With numb fingers, he jotted down a note, and then proceeded to hunt for the picture of Brittany's pathetic nerdy foe.
Once he'd found the picture, thankfully in a high enough resolution to make out the book's information, Sam closed the laptop, stood, and took the elevator down to the lobby. "Hey," he said when he found Peter on the sidewalk, red-eyed and... oh. Shit.
I just talked to Spider-Man about Gwen Stacy. I just said her death was his fault. Oh my god. Smooth move, Evans.
"Hey," Peter said.
"Uh." Sam struggled for words, and then jammed his hand in his pocket and pulled out the note. "You need to delete this picture. I wrote down the filename. I thought about doing it for you, but it's your stuff."
After a look up and down the sidewalk, Sam murmured, "Because you were pulling on your mask."
"It's cool. Don't worry about it." Sam hitched up one side of his shirt to reveal a faded but brutal scar running from his ribcage to his hip. It was where the doctors had opened him up to save his life after he'd served as the Awesomes' bait. He'd spent a long time in the hospital after that night. "I already went through this once. I'm really cool if no one ever, ever knows that I know this about you. Okay?"
Sam tucked his shirt back in. "Thanks for the other picture. I don't know if I can get the info I need from it or not, but it's a start." As Peter was still rigid and wide-eyed, Sam clapped him on the shoulder. "Seriously, I'm not going to tell anyone. And I'm super sorry for what I said about... her. But will you cover for me? I guess I'd like to get out of the office, after all, and get this to Tina."
Peter nodded with such fervor that he seemed to be taking it as a blackmail attempt. Whatever worked, Sam supposed. "Sure. I'll go delete that picture right now."
"And check for any others," Sam suggested as Peter darted back inside. His eyes roamed up the building and he realized that Peter could have swung up there on his webs, instead.
Yeah, this really isn't how I imagined my life.
"Hey," Puck said quietly, inside what had once been's Finn windowless bedroom. "It's Puckerman."
Javier, his co-worker, snorted. "Yeah, I noticed. Where the hell are you? The foreman's pissed, your shift started an hour ago."
"Yeah, I forgot."
"You forgot? Man, one day off for clean-up and—"
The man paused. "Wait, your guy? But, uh, you said he was...."
Puck didn't want to get into it. "Yeah, uh, the agency screwed up. He's a soldier, right? Well, they thought he was, um... but he wasn't. Yeah."
"Well, shit, man! Congrats!"
"Thanks. But he's." Puck's voice caught. "He's kind of messed up from everything that happened on the mission, and that's more important than me coming in. So if you can tell the boss, great. If he's an asshole about it, then I quit."
Javier hesitated, and Puck knew why. Though a good man to work under, their boss was hard-headed about showing up for shifts and only taking the sick time and vacation they'd officially accumulated. Workers who ran into personal issues got no sympathy from him, because he had a shipping yard to run. Excuses didn't move pallets. "I'll try."
"Thanks," Puck said, and meant it. He remembered thinking that everyone at that place judged his relationship like it wasn't real. The fact that this guy was sticking up for him, even if things didn't ultimately work out, gave him some little spot of hope. He'd found something better than expected there, so why couldn't he find it in Kurt's recovery, too? "Seriously, thanks."
"Sure. Good luck."
Smiling, Puck quietly retrieved soap and took it to the second bathroom. With its full shower, Puck wasn't sure how they'd ever believed that the apartment was really designed for one person with a home office. Whatever the list of reasons the government once had for keeping Finn there, Puck was glad that he wasn't there now. Now, Puck's precious studio space in Brooklyn was like some hell to which he never wanted to return; he'd move in all his belongings that day if he could. Hell, he'd propose to Kurt if he didn't know that it was just his sense of relief taking away all logic. It might not make sense, but right at that second Puck would do anything that left him feeling like Kurt would be there forever with him, and only him. Puck had been with other people. Being with anyone but Kurt wasn't what he wanted. He hadn't really questioned it before Kurt's death, but he knew it for certain now.
Besides, Finn was only a few floors away: close enough to hurry up if they ran into any problems, but far enough that Puck didn't feel like he was being chaperoned. Of course, maybe he could use some backup. Puck's hands slowed as he scrubbed his stubble-covered scalp, and with a frown he gently cleaned the stitches in his side. Noah Puckerman screwed up. That was the most reliable thing about him. Did he really want to be there alone with Kurt, as vulnerable as he was? Shit. Wanting Finn Hudson around for backup wasn't a good sign for anyone, but Finn did have that connection with his brother's brain. Rachel was good on the hugging and crying front, but as far as Puck knew, she was still out of the city.
But even so, he didn't want to call Finn up unless things got bad, and until he called Finn upstairs, it was just him. No matter that he'd run off and fucked other people like it was going out of style, or that he'd started throwing bad guys around so hard that they bled on police station floors. Admit it, Puck thought as he settled back into bed with a few pieces of toast. You're not good at this kind of stuff. But if you screw it up, dude, we're never going to forgive ourselves. Got it?
Kurt looked so damn tired even as he slept. He'd probably dropped ten pounds that he didn't really have to lose; the angles of his face were too sharp. He was as limp against the mattress as a cat in a sunbeam, except for his hands. They flexed in time with the fluttering of his eyelids. Sometimes his fingernails curled against the sheets. Sometimes it looked like he was holding a weapon.
Puck considered him as he swallowed the last of his toast, then set the plate on the nightstand near the windows. Very quietly, he moved the other nightstand into Kurt's oversized closet, and then inched the huge bed toward the open wall. Eventually the bed was flush with the wall and Kurt was nearly pressed up against it. Perfect. Puck climbed back into bed. A wall was behind Kurt and he was on the other side, and so it was like a bunker around Kurt that would keep him safe.
Content in what he'd at least tried to do, Puck slung his arm around Kurt and went back to sleep.
"You moved the bed," he eventually heard.
Puck blinked awake. Kurt was studying the wall right next to him. "No one's getting near you," Puck said simply.
Kurt studied it a few beats longer, felt Puck's arm where it curled around him, and then pressed against Puck and let out a shuddering sigh.
"I can't believe you're back," Puck finally said after breathing in the scent of him. Kurt smelled wrong. He hoped that'd fix itself now that he was back home and had those fucking bots out of him.
"It doesn't feel like I am." Kurt laid there for a few long breaths, then sat up. "Is all my bathroom stuff here?"
"I don't know," Puck said. "They got this place ready really quickly." The soap he'd found was one thing, but Puck had no idea of the full inventory that should be in those drawers to satisfy Kurt's toiletries obsession. S.H.I.E.L.D. might well have just shoved the bare necessities back into the apartment in time for Kurt's arrival. Puck wouldn't know the difference either way.
"Is there enough for a shower?"
Puck nodded. He'd seen shampoo and some other bottles around it, at least.
Kurt pushed himself out of bed. "Can you make me something? I'm hungry."
Though he'd been picturing holding Kurt as the hot water washed away what stress that it could, Puck nodded again. He wasn't anything like a good cook, but he could at least pull together more toast and a couple of scrambled eggs. "Sure."
It took Puck a while to remember how all the dials worked on Kurt's gas stove. Finding the eggs was another time-waster; S.H.I.E.L.D. had put together a surprisingly large stock of food in Kurt's fridge. Though eggs and toast was a quick meal to actually cook, it wasn't ready until Kurt was out of the shower and Puck heard the steady hum of his hair dryer. He managed to smile as he spread jam on the toast. It had to be a good sign that Kurt was actually doing his hair, right?
As the hairdryer hummed on and on, Puck frowned in the direction of the door. That he would support and embrace Kurt under the water had just been so obvious to him. Their bodies had been together before in showers; now, it felt like their hearts should be. But instead, he'd been sent out to make breakfast and Kurt was behind a closed door.
"Damn it," Puck muttered as he swallowed and realized he'd absently taken a bite from Kurt's cooling toast.
"What?" Kurt asked as he finally walked out wearing a simple outfit of black and grey. Puck wanted to gorge Kurt on ice cream and pizza until he got the weight back. As he looked at Kurt in that soft grey sweater, he wondered just how much its folds were hiding.
"I accidentally ate some of your food. Sorry." Yep. He was always a screw-up.
"How do you accidentally eat food?" Kurt asked with a smile, and Puck relaxed. Claiming the plates, Kurt nibbled delicately on his meal, even as Puck wanted him to inhale it. Puck watched him eat each bite: the arch of his wrist as he lifted a forkful of eggs, the movement of his jaw, the play of the muscles in his throat. He'd never stared at Kurt eating like that before, but he'd never needed to reassure himself that Kurt was simply alive before.
"Do you want coffee?" Puck asked. "I'll make coffee." He moved to start some before Kurt answered, but froze in confusion in front of the coffeemaker. He'd only ever ordered coffee from diners or takeout windows, or grabbed the free stuff in the employee break room. There was some kind of frilly filter that he was supposed to use, right?
"I'll do it," Kurt said, having come up beside him. Brow wrinkled in concentration, Puck watched each step and noted it for the future: the paper filter, the amount of grounds that it held, where the water went into a reservoir. "I haven't been able to do what I've wanted for a long time," Kurt said quietly as the coffeemaker sputtered into action. "Even eating something."
"What did he make you do?" Puck asked before he could help himself.
Kurt stared at the coffeemaker as it filled. "Do what he said. Stay alive. Hurt people." He looked down. "The first thing was... I killed the man who killed...."
"Who killed who?"
"Oh," Puck said, paling.
"I can't go back there," Kurt said. His hands tightened around the edge of the counter. "I've barely even started to understand everything that happened. I don't... this is going to be hard. But I can't go back to him. Ever."
"Okay," Puck promised, pulling Kurt in close. He smelled more like him already, after his shower. "You're safe. Okay?"
Kurt stepped back far enough to meet Puck's eyes. "Will you stop him from taking me, if he comes?"
"Yeah, of course. I told you, no one's getting through me."
"No." Kurt's eyes were sad. With a horrible thud in his stomach, Puck realized what he meant. "You wouldn't be able to stop him. But he wants revenge, Puck. He hates being shown up. And I got away. Even if they get rid of any last nanobots, one day I'll just be doing something else and I'll see that mask next to me... he'll be there... and he'll...."
"I can't do that," Puck whispered. If Kurt thought Puck couldn't stop Doom, then there was only one way to stop Doom from taking Kurt alive.
"You're right," Kurt said after a beat. "He'd just bring back the priests, if you killed me. It wouldn't do any good." And with that, he broke in front of Puck's eyes. It happened slowly, like snow beginning to slide down a mountain face: shoulders hunching, eyes scrunching up. The avalanche hit suddenly and Puck just swept Kurt into his arms as he collapsed where he stood. Kurt sounded like a wounded animal as he cried. Like something with its leg caught in a trap that had finally given up hope of escaping.
You were smiling yesterday, Puck thought helplessly as he kissed the crown of Kurt's head. Where'd that go?
"He's going to get me back, isn't he? One day, he will. I wasn't rescued. Not really."
"I don't know much about Doom," Puck allowed, "but he's got big, crazy plans, right? Babe, he's not going to obsess over you. You got away. You're safe." Please believe that you're safe. You need to. You need to smile.
Kurt whispered halting, broken sentences that didn't make any sense individually. Taken together, Puck saw Kurt's past two months unfold like some horrible mosaic. He picked Kurt up, slapped a button on the phone, and then sank onto the couch.
When Finn arrived, Kurt was curled up against Puck's chest so limply that they almost looked relaxed and happy. It was a cruel lie. "Hey," Finn said with a broad, forced smile. He looked pale after powering past the front hallway. "How're you doing?"
Kurt laughed bitterly. "I can't even die now, because he'd still just bring me back."
Puck's gut twisted at the talk of Kurt dying again. He met Finn's eyes over Kurt's hair, imploring him to somehow fix Kurt.
"How did the nanobots get turned off?" Kurt asked.
Finn and Puck froze mid-stare, then turned their gazes to Kurt.
"Something happened to me, didn't it? Something bad." Kurt's thin hands curled around Puck's shirt. "Something in the office. No. No, that's not it. I did something bad. I... oh god, what did I do?"
Finn was there in a second, kneeling in front of Kurt and grabbing his hands. Puck was startled to see his eyes glowing purple, but Kurt's brain was the one mind he trusted Finn to understand and deal with safely. "Dude, look at me. Look at me, okay?"
"Is that why Mercedes wasn't at the hospital?" Kurt whispered.
"She's fine. Mercedes is okay, I promise."
"Mike," Kurt said, even more softly. Sweat beaded on his upper lip and Puck could actually feel Kurt's heart pounding in his chest. As his breath sped, Kurt gulped, "I didn't mean to. Oh god. I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I'm sorry." He pulled a hand away from Finn and clutched his racing heart. Air began to wheeze as it passed through his throat. "Don't!" Kurt almost screamed when Puck tried to kiss him in some desperate attempt to calm his boyfriend, and he shoved himself away on the couch.
Only Finn's hands clamping down on his temples managed to get Kurt to go still. He sobbed, and silent tears trickled down Puck's cheeks, but the explosion they'd been heading for seemed to pass. "It's okay," Finn said. His eyes were still burning bright.
"It's not okay. It's never going to be okay. I am never going to be okay!" Kurt's breath began to rattle again. "I remember my body moving around me. I remember being dead. I remember the bullets and all the blood and... and I can't do this...."
Puck had never felt so helpless.
"Please, Finn," Kurt whispered.
"I don't know if it'll really help...."
Puck looked between them, wondering what he'd missed. Was he was heading into a panic attack, too? His chest felt tight. This wasn't what things were supposed to be like after he'd gotten Kurt back.
"Please," Kurt repeated. "Please do it, please, please."
With a bone-deep sigh, Finn nodded. His fingertips dimpled Kurt's skin and his eyes flashed like a thunderstorm. With each new bolt of lightning, Kurt breathed easier. His shoulders dropped. His tears stopped. The lines of tension in his face melted away, and finally he let out a long, shuddering sigh and pulled away from Finn's hands. "Thank you."
"What'd you do?" Puck demanded. "What'd you do to him?"
Finn glanced at him. I hid his memories.
What? You idiot! That worked out so fucking well before, didn't it? Puck thought back, glaring at him as he remembered how Finn had decided that all Kurt's memories of him needed to be locked away.
He asked me to. I didn't make the decision for him, okay? I reacted and flowed like Emma taught me. I patched up memories and then I saw how he was doing, and I only did another one if I needed to. Finn looked away. And I needed to.
Puck tried not to flinch, or stare too openly at Kurt breathing like he'd just finished a long race. How bad was he?
I don't know if he's going to be okay.
For how long?
I... don't know if he's going to be okay. Finn's eyes faded back to brown. There were dark circles underneath them. Doom did some really bad things.
The words rang in Puck's head, a horrible chorus like church bells tolling someone's death. "Babe?" he asked gently, fearing the reaction he might get.
Kurt slumped back onto him. Now, his hands curled up in affection rather than some desperate need to hold on, and a tired smile curled his mouth.
On the surface that was far better than where they'd been headed, but Puck still wanted to cry. After what Doom had done to Kurt, he thought it was more than fair that Kurt never had to deal with a single second of his memories. But they were still there. People outside that building still knew what he'd done, and might hold him accountable for it no matter how unfair it was.
"Hey," Finn said, a little too brightly. "You gonna be okay in here?"
I need to go tell this stuff to... to someone. Maybe Mom. You've got him?
I've got him, Puck thought, and hoped he was telling the truth.
"I need to go see Mom," Finn said out loud. Kurt nodded again. "Look, I don't know if you can keep those memories sealed off forever. People might need to ask you about them. Eventually. Not today."
"I know," Kurt said. He saw Puck's surprise. "I know bad things happened to me. I know Doom took me. Finn didn't wipe out everything. This way I just don't have to know the specifics, and he sealed off some of the worst emotions. I can handle it, now."
How about that, Hudson has gotten better at this. It's like what he did with the memories of us, except it's not a total hack job. I guess the training worked. "Cool." But the inevitable question lurked: how long would it last, though?
With a hug for his brother, Finn left them alone. Kurt sighed, loud and long, and slumped down until his head was pillowed in Puck's lap. Normally, the sensation of the material against his skin would make Puck hard; he was always ready at a second's notice. On that day, he was glad that his heart outweighed his libido, and he was able to stroke Kurt's hair gently with nothing more between them. "Whatever happens," Puck said, "you need to be okay, got it? Whatever you need to do."
Kurt nodded and said nothing.
"Hey, uh... can I kiss you, now? You freaked out before."
"That's why I kept you out of the shower," Kurt said. "If there are any of these things still in me...."
Oh. "We already went through this," Puck said, and bent down. After a few beats, Kurt lifted his head to meet Puck when he'd lowered as far as he could go, and kissed him with a closed mouth. Puck stayed where he was. "I'm never leaving you again. I mean it. You're stuck with me."
"They're going to make sure you're cured. They can do the same to me." Puck stroked the lines of Kurt's face with one finger. "I promised you that last night when you were freaking out. You think I don't mean it now that you're happier?" Even if it was just a temporary, false happiness. "Like I was just trying to cheer you up?"
"But if I hurt you...."
"Being apart hurt me worse than you ever could." Puck adjusted himself and used his strength to move Kurt until he was flat on the couch with Kurt sprawled on top of him. He let his grip stay loose enough that Kurt could have pushed himself away at any time. Kurt didn't. "Okay?" He searched Kurt's pale eyes for any sign of the worst trauma that Finn had hidden, and was pleased to see none. Kurt still looked tired, but no longer broken. Though it might return with a vengeance in the future, this finally felt like the reunion he'd craved ever since hearing that impossible discussion over his communicator.
He raised his head again. Kurt hesitated, but when he kissed Puck, his mouth was open. He felt light and warm and impossible on top of Puck. He felt like a fantasy, and Puck's hands finally tightened around him so that Kurt wouldn't have the chance to flee like some daydream. "I screwed up when you were gone," he admitted.
"That makes two of us." It was the grimmest joke Puck had ever heard.
"It was like every bad thing I could do, I did." Puck swallowed as he looked up at Kurt's eyes. "I hurt people who didn't deserve it."
"That makes two of us," Kurt repeated against Puck's chest.
Maybe Kurt wasn't as happy as he'd thought, even with Finn's patch job. "I slept with other people." He felt Kurt go still, but touching Kurt any more without sharing this would be another betrayal. "I hated myself after it. Hell, I hated myself during it. Some of them were nice, and that makes it worse. I never asked their names. I just wanted to feel something besides... pain. But it didn't help."
"Oh." The walls began to close behind Kurt's eyes, like he always did when he was hurt. Puck talked more quickly, so that he could get everything out while Kurt was still listening.
"I got stupid and drunk and did anything that I thought might help me feel better, because not having you any more was like someone ripping out my heart and shoving it in the disposal. And turning it on. I only wanted you. I only love you. Everything I did just showed me that more, and I still only want you for the rest of our lives." As Kurt's breath caught, Puck cupped his cheek. If Kurt was only okay for a while before Finn's mental patch job began to fade, then he was going to take advantage of that time and say the things he needed to say. "No one is ever going to hurt you again. I know you're scared, and that's okay. But I will rip a building in fucking half and use it as a baseball bat before anyone lays a hand on you."
Kurt smiled helplessly, and his eyes filled again with tears.
"I'll learn how to make coffee. I'll know all the stuff that you use on your hair, and I'll make sure it's always in the bathroom. I'll end my lease and move in here, and take a job that's closer. I'll stop screwing things up."
"You're not screwing anything up," Kurt said, and kissed him through his soft, snuffling attempts to control his emotions.
"I was. But maybe that's okay." Puck smiled tremulously. "Because I feel like I can stop all that crap, now. It's like... you make me want to be who you think that I am."
Kurt touched Puck's lips with his fingertips. "I love who you already are." He laid back against Puck's chest, as slack as he'd been on the bed, and said, "Grow your hair back. Please."
"You got it." Puck tugged a blanket over them. For now, at least, he could focus on what was in front of them and not fret over what was to come. No breakdowns. No being hunted by Doctor Doom. No confrontations with people that were angered over what Kurt had been forced to do, without caring that he was as much a victim. No outside world at all. It couldn't last, but he'd take it while it did. "I meant it, you know. I'll move in if you want me to."
"I don't want to be alone. I can't."
"You're not going to be," Puck promised, and with another kiss, wondered if some of those nanobots were already in his system. They'd be cleared soon if they were. Either way, it was worth it. It was all worth it.
"Well," he said with a shrug, "it was the only 'weapon' he had with him when he was trying to take on Brittany. I thought he was just kind of crazy before, but maybe it was actually a real magic book."
That was good enough, and Tina got to work. Though Mercedes tried to pull her back from the edge she was dancing increasingly near, Tina shoved her concerns out of her mind. Brittany had brought back Finn, and he was fine; Doctor Doom had brought back Kurt, and he was evil. The intention had to matter, and so she could save Mike. She could. She would.
Eventually Mercedes' complaints grew too loud, and Tina grabbed her laptop and found a coffeeshop that she seldom frequented and Mercedes would have no cause to check. New York City hosted tens thousands of criminals who'd been photographed and processed. Digging through them without direction and looking for a match would be fruitless. She had a rough date range, though, and she could make estimates about this man from his picture. He looked like a student. Western European features. Height, weight... all were assessed at a glance, and so when she began to dig through criminal booking records, she was able to narrow things down.
Reginald Metcalfe's number was unlisted. Investigators had ways of finding a person's apartment, too.
"Hello," Tina said sweetly, an hour after that.
The man from the picture stared at her cleavage. "Hi," he said to her breasts.
Great. Determined to not leave without the information she needed, Tina's voice turned into a purr and she stepped forward. "I'm trying to find someone who's really strong."
"I'm super strong," he said, still to her breasts.
"Have you ever tried to, like... make a name for yourself?" Tina laid a hand on his chest. "I could have sworn I've seen you somewhere."
"Totally. I was going to make enough money to let me buy stuff for some killer plans, but now I'm on probation." The words tumbled out like he didn't even know he was saying them, and Tina smiled. Just a tiny application of her powers could make someone more relaxed. Coupled with his idiotic and blatant ogling, this guy really had no chance of holding onto himself and not giving her everything she wanted to know.
"Yeah, I think I saw you. Did you fight a girl named...." Tina just caught herself. "Haywire?"
"I fought lots of people until the cops said I couldn't be the Immortal Lord of Super Hell any more," he said. "Now I have to wear an ankle bracelet."
Perfect. She'd definitely found him. Tina took another step forward and asked with a purr, "Can we take this inside?"
He looked up and grinned. "My name's Reggie."
"Hi, Reggie," Tina said as they stepped inside his apartment and she closed the door behind them. Her hand shot up and caught Reggie around the throat, just where she'd held Kurt as she drained his life and make him scream. Instead of killing Reggie, she drew just enough of his life energy to fill him with deep, burning terror. He fell to the ground in a desperate attempt to escape her, but she followed him down. "You checked out a book. Where is it?"
"Please let me go," Reggie cried.
"You used a spellbook when you were trying to be a big supervillain," Tina said, straddling him. "Where is it? What was the name? Have you given it back?" He whimpered and her grip tightened. "Don't make this harder than it needs to be. I just have a job to do, and I want to get it done."
"It's over there," Reggie said. He pointed in the direction of his coffee table. "I checked it out again. Please don't hurt me."
The police had their eyes on him, but let him check out that book a second time? That wasn't a good sign for the book actually being worth her time. Tina's heart sank. If it had been that rare in the first place, they wouldn't have even let him check it out. Remember how you had to make an appointment to visit the room? Still, the book did look useful for something, she thought as she found it under a scattering of textbooks and started flipping through. Reggie, abandoned on the floor, lay there helplessly.
These spells do look legitimate, Tina realized with a growing dismay. The book was only from the forties and didn't have the obvious rare aura that might intrigue a rare books room, which had to be why he'd been able to check it out. But it's all about hell and controlling demons. Doctor Strange said there's no reason that Mike should be in hell. This won't fix him.
Would this book point her on the right path, at least? She jotted down the author's name and book's title, but her hope barely fluttered. It might get her into the rare book room, at least. That had to be a start. What if the library didn't have any books like Doctor Strange's library, though?
"Please don't hurt me," Reggie whimpered again.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Tina snapped. Was it really that easy to terrify someone into submission, or was this guy that pathetic? She couldn't be unhappy that he hadn't given her any trouble in her hunt to get back Mike, but this was just embarrassing. "Don't tell anyone I came here," she said, and shoved the book into her bag. Maybe she'd missed something useful, flipping through the pages like she had.
"But I have to take that back to the library," Reggie whined.
"You tried to open an actual portal to hell in Chelsea and you're complaining about a library fine?" Tina looked askance at him as she shouldered her bag. "No wonder no one bothered to run a picture of you."
He let out another pathetic whine and she slammed the door behind her. Tina's boots clicked a rapid cadence as she hurried outside. She wasn't really worried that he'd track her; he had that police ankle bracelet, after all, and she doubted that he'd ever gotten a good look at her face. But she had a book in hand that promised actual portals to hell, and she hadn't exactly obtained it through legal methods. Every wall suddenly seemed to hold a hidden police camera and every car had red and blue lights on top. Calm down. This is working. You're doing it. You're saving Mike. Everything's going to be okay. She hurried two blocks away before she pulled out the book and started flipping through. You're still going to ask him to move in with you. You're still going to propose. You are still going to have a long and happy life together, and this book really is useless!
She nearly threw it to the ground as her eyes filled with tears. There were real spells in there, but not a single section of the book was devoted to resurrections. The memory of that title from Doctor Strange's library taunted her. Resurrections. Resurrections. It was exactly what she needed, and that stupid doorman was blocking her way. "I'll figure this out," Tina promised Mike as she shoved the book back into her bag. Already, she'd stopped thinking of his body. He wasn't a corpse, like she'd seen Finn fall to the ground as. Mike wasn't a slab of meat. That would mean he was dead, after all, and she no longer believed that.
He was not dead. He was just lost for a while, and she was going to bring him home.
As she finished rearranging her books, Tina's fingers brushed against something. A little scrap of paper, it shouldn't have caught her notice. She threw all sorts of things into her messenger bag, and would often pull out lunch receipts a month later. This felt different from a receipt. Stiff. Smaller.
Oh. It's one of those business cards Jesse gave me, she saw when she pulled it out. Tina crumpled it unthinkingly and looked around for a trash can, but then paused. With a smile, she unfolded the card she'd crushed and saw the number there. Her fingers danced across her cell's keys. "Hi, Jesse? It's Tina. Tina Cohen-Chang. Yes. The quiet one who doesn't put her talent to sufficient use." Whatever he wanted to say, she'd agree with. "Can I meet up with you somewhere? Somewhere private? I have a favor I need to ask."
"About getting those Broadway tickets?" Jesse asked. "Certainly, I'm glad that someone is finally taking me up on that offer. It's really a crime that all of you live in New York City and are letting spectacular cultural opportunities pass you by. Like seeing me."
"Absolutely. I totally, one hundred percent want you to get me in somewhere, Jesse. And trust me when I say that only you can do it."
He hesitated, probably as his ego battled with what little good sense he had. "What sort of tickets are we talking about?"
"It's somewhere very exclusive. Very... cultural." Very filled with the most powerful magical books in the world, and you're going to teleport in there and grab one for me. "I know it's a big thing to ask, Jesse, but I'll be really grateful." And I'm very convincing.