Chapter 1: Steve
Tony slapped Steve hard on the back and spilled his coffee. “You dog, you! I saw the Black Russian sneaking out of your room last night. Go the US!” He high fived into empty air.
Steve shrugged and kept reading his newspaper. His friendship with Natasha had been… tentative at first, but somewhere along the way she seemed to have decided that he was alright, and somewhere else along the way that he was something of a safe space. Very occasionally – not often, but occasionally – he would wake in the middle of the night and find her curled up against his back. They were friends not lovers, but it was its own kind of amusing to let Tony think otherwise.
Tony kept his un-high fived hand in the air for a long moment. “Take her as your date to that thing in Washington! Come on – East-West relations for the win. Plus,” he said, “she’s hot.”
When Natasha sleeps, she curls her hands into fists and lies very still, except when she twitches. His mother’s cat had been like that. He’d always wondered what it dreamed of.
There was something tickling his bottom. He looked over his shoulder, and a small child with a paintbrush looked up and giggled. He craned his neck further – she’d painted a flower on his backside. He laughed and ruffled her cornrowed hair.
The flock of reporters clustered around them and snapped off flashes into her eyes. He made his face stay smiling, but he felt sick – that one personal moment turned into currency. He bent down and turned her away from the cameras, asked her to point out the bit of the mural she was painting, talked just too softly for the reporters to hear. She smiled shyly, and he patted her on the shoulder before moving on.
Public appearances like this were one of his new (old) duties. The general public needed to know him, the PR people had said. They needed to know that he (the Avengers!) could be trusted. So Steve capered and smiled his toothy white honest!Steve smile, and felt like a fool. He’d flat refused to wear his fighting costume. The PR people had compromised with a t-shirt the same solid deep blue of his uniform.
After the tour of the new school, and the mural was finished - smile/nod at each child who’d worked on it, genuine comment for each - he was ambushed by a small pack of reporters. He spent a few minutes answering bland questions about art and education and inner city poverty, and then the knives came out.
“Captain America – would you comment on allegations that the Avengers Initiative is employing known war criminals?”
They were going after Natasha. He kept his teeth carefully ungritted.
“I think there are a lot of people in the world with something on their slate they want to wipe clean. We all have different ways of doing that.”
“So you approve of the ‘rehabilitation’ and recruitment of Nazi scientists following World War II? Wernher von Braun and Operation Paperclip?”
“I think you should consult with the architects of Paperclip on that one – I was in Greenland at the time.” He cut off the lady reporter before she could ask another question. “Seriously, folks, this is an event about children and hope for the future. Do we have any more questions about the new school? No? Then I think we’re done here.”
One night, Steve woke up, and there was blood on his sheets.
He rolled over, looking for Natasha, and heard muffled swearing in Russian, and a light under the bathroom door. He pushed the door open a little, and there was Natasha, cursing her partner for not going to Medical. Hawkeye’s faded blue eyes were the picture of true exhaustion, but when he saw Steve his seamed face shuttered. Steve nodded at him, and held his eyes in a long steady gaze as he reached for the first aid kit under the counter.
In his bedroom, he phoned Bruce to come and, while he waited, stripped the sheets off his bed, remade the smooth linen with military precision and pin tight corners.
“The hell, Rogers?” Bruce was standing in his doorway in jeans, bare feet, a medical bag in his hand. He looked around the room, taking in the bloodied sheets and Natasha’s back in the bathroom doorway. “Seriously, what the hell?”
Steve jerked his head at the bathroom. “Hawkeye. Looks like he skipped the mandatory post mission checkup.”
When they’d finished cleaning Hawkeye up, Steve put him straight to bed in the new made sheets, Natasha curled up against him, and followed Bruce out into the common area.
“I’m sure there’s a story behind that, but I don’t really want to know,” Bruce said.
Steve nodded. Then a thought came to him, and he reached for the phone: “We’ve got your hawk,” he said. “He’s beat up, but we think he’ll be fine.”
“Understood,” he heard back.
He hung up the phone. “Good night, Bruce.”
The next morning, Tony was bouncing at breakfast. “I wronged you, man. I just want you to know that I wronged you. Virgin Steve, I thought. Vanilla, missionary Steve, I thought. But no! You showed me the error of your ways… You are a dude.”
Steve rubbed his eyes blearily. He’d ended up staying awake in an armchair, counting Hawkeye’s breaths – he needed more coffee than this to keep track of Tony’s free ranging conversation…
Tony slapped him on the back again. “Mystery assassin three ways… Blood on the sheets. Secret visits in the night from trained professionals… medical professionals… You’ve got Kink, man. Kink with a Capital K.”
Bruce squinted at him through his glasses. “Tony, you have some really funny ideas.”
“No, no, don’t try to pretend nothing happened – JARVIS Sees All.”
From the end of the table where Pepper was reading board papers, one long finger tapped against her coffee mug, as if idly, but Tony’s face fell as if the weight of a hundred earlier conversations had crashed around him: “Except for personal quarters! Because that would be a gross-intrusion-of-privacy…”
Steve shook his head and gathered up his breakfast things. As he was leaving, he heard one final wail from Tony: “But seriously! What does a man have to do to get propositioned around here!”
Their regular daily briefing was at 10. And it was routine, the people who are there joking around the table, Coulson running through intel that they were supposed to be aware of. Until the last bit:
“And on a final note,” he went on, “as of 0700, Specialist Barton became officially absent without leave. Unofficially, he’s been off S.H.I.E.L.D’s radar for close to 48 hours. Anyone want to tell me anything?”
Steve shared a long look with Bruce and Natasha. Finally: “Last night, he was in full possession of his faculties…”
Coulson sighed. “Let me know if he checks in.”
Bruce asked: “Has he… ever gone missing like this before?”
Natasha’s eyes dropped to the table. “One time.”
Darcy’s eyes gleamed. She slapped a DVD in a white paper envelope on the table. “To open the ante, I have video footage of that time Coulson’s daughter kicked Tony in the crotch. Anyone want to see me?”
Bruce dug around in his pocket and produced a memory stick. “I’ll raise you. That time Tony read the article Coulson’s daughter published refuting his theory about Einerson string theory. He goes purple,” he added helpfully.
“Oh, enough about me.” Tony waved airily. He flicked a memory stick of his own on the table. “I have semi-naked Bruce, Spider Lady in her nightie, and Robin Hood, jointly and separately converging on Captain Carrot’s quarters. In the middle of the night. Now why could that be?”
“Alas,” Thor boomed. “The Son of Odin has not the card-treasure to join battle, this hand.”
“Well, well, well,” Tony said. “It’s Steve’s turn to bet. What has he got? Don’t worry, Rogers, if you’re a little short of the ante, I’m happy to take Truth or Dare.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “Like, for instance, why exactly was Hawkeye bleeding when he walked into your room?”
Steve peeked at his cards. “I fold,” he smiled.
Steve dreamed that he was on a tropical island in a palm frond hut, heavy rains pounding around him, and the surf crashing on the beach. Above him, the roof was leaking slightly, and he kept brushing the dripping water from his forehead.
“Steve. Wake up. Come on! Wakeupwakeupwakeupwakeup.”
He blinked his eyes open. Hawkeye was crouched by his bed, a glass in one hand, flicking droplets of warm water at his face.
He turned his bedside light on and looked Barton up and down for more injuries. “You’re AWOL, and Coulson’s worried about you.”
Hill had been right when she’d said that Hawkeye had miserable eyebrows. His face was blank as a blank thing – but his eyebrows were miserable. “No time for that. Need your help with something.”
“You… didn’t ask Natasha.”
“Can’t. Coulson knows to watch her.”
The room – garret – that Hawkeye led him to was filthy and freezing. On a corner of the bare floor, a foam mattress held a body, ragged, beaten, curled in on itself. The greasy head lolled over towards him, and the mouth bared in a bloodied grin.
“Hey, Mr What-ya-call-em!”
“Mr What-ya-call-em” – these are the opening words to one version of the lyrics of In the Mood, a song popular in the 30s and 40s. My head-canon has it that it’s a song that was significant to Steve. (More in the story Someone Else's Memories earlier in the series.)
Einerson string theory – no such thing, I just needed some technobabble.
Chapter 2: Natasha
In the house where Natasha lived, her father had an icon.
It was a naked man against a field of gold, and sometimes she would sit on her father’s lap and he would hold her, and tell her about Basil the Blessed, the Fool for Christ, and the other Fools: Prokopiy and Francis, Xenia and John… The yurodivy who went naked in the streets, gave of their clothes to anyone who asked, who starved, who danced under the stars, the poor beggars who lived their lives in eternal, ever loving devotion.
In the fire, the icon was lost. Her father, also.
She sat at the table looking at her hands while her team mates left the room. She traced her fingers lightly, touching the edges of her hands, observing callouses and scars, the new lines in her skin, listening to the silences of the room and the breath and breath of her handler.
At last, she looked up, her eyes dark. “I won’t try to run away,” she said.
Coulson’s hand touched her hair, very briefly. “I know.”
In the Red Room, they wanted Fools. Not for Christ – religion was an opiate; nor the Communist ideal; not even for Mother Russia and the worker’s council. Only when the goals of the Red Room aligned, were its operatives sent on missions for these institutions, and Natasha and her sisters were taught what to say, so that the Room’s loyalties would be assumed beyond doubt. No, the Red Room wanted Fools for itself. All passion, all devotion was turned inward. Any girl who thought that things might be otherwise, very quickly disappeared from the Room.
When Natasha was thirteen, she realised that this was not enough for her. When she danced, she danced not only that her limbs might be strong and supple to further the Room’s purposes, but for the fierce joy of a perfect pirouette. When she studied language, she gained not just knowledge but the delight of interlocking pieces falling into place, a puzzle solved. When she was thirteen, she realised that this small piece of her must stay secret, an egg of precious self, hidden away.
So she had to be more than a Fool. More diligent, more passionate, more ruthless. She flung herself again and again into hopeless missions, came through the fire unscathed while her sisters fell around her… gained a reputation as the biggest Fool of all.
There is a tale they tell in Russia of Koschei the Deathless, who hid his diamond heart in a duck egg, inside a duck, inside a hare, inside an iron chest, buried under an oak tree on an island in the far ocean. The oak tree is green.
Natasha knows that there was no diamond, only the egg.
In the dark, she listened to the room shed its silences. Natasha wrapped her arms around her partner’s stocky torso and heard the harshness of breath upon breath.
In the dark, she whispered to him: Where did you go? Who is it that hurt you? He only shook his head.
In the morning, when she woke, Hawkeye was gone.
One time in Turkey, Barton went off book.
She remembered coming back to the incident room to find Agent Coulson having conniptions, which she knew because he was fidgeting at all, one thumb running over the fingers of his right hand, over and over and over. She remembered the cold, dead feeling of wondering if she was going to have to hunt Hawkeye down, as once he had hunted her.
So they tracked him, she and her handler, through Ankara and Izmir, Bursa and Adana, across the border to Georgia, back into Istanbul.
In the old Constantinople, she got her first good lead and dropped Coulson, traced her hawk to the Church of Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, the Logos. She found him there beneath the domes that floated on a haze of warm light. He was sprawled on the floor, gazing up at the deep blue mantle of the Theotokos, the Virgin and Child enthroned in a golden sky. She could smell on him blood and fear, gunsmoke and retribution.
Without looking at her, he passed her a package. “Sorry, it got burned.”
When she opened it, smelling of smoke, one corner slightly charred, there was a small icon – a naked man on a field of gold.
In India, one time, the Black Widow knew true fear.
It came in a self-effacing package, a bad suit, dry sarcasm. But Natasha knew a Fool when she saw one, saw blazing eyes and hands slamming the table, scrambled backwards and grabbed a useless sidearm. Held it together, but didn’t. Fool!
She saw the wild child inside Bruce, that would throw itself into the fire; what she could never, would never be.
Later: on the helicarrier, she saw that child again, and fought, and ran, and hid. She survived.
When you dance, you have to know where your centre is. When you fight, also.
When Natasha was sixteen, her supervisor called her and said that she was to be rewarded for her loyal service. A great warrior for the cause had once again been woken from the ice. She was to be assigned to him, as a trainee.
Ice, and snow, and fire.
“In the dark, she listened to the room shed its silences.” – This is a shout out to “Dismemberment: when in the dark” by Kapka Kassabova. (I just really like the poem, OK?)
Chapter 3: Phil
Coulson had kept his apartment.
When the Avengers had, one by one, all moved in with Stark, and an offer had been made – jokingly by Tony, kindly by Pepper – he had chosen to stay, because… boundaries. He wasn’t sorry. He saw most of the Avengers, most days, he didn’t need them crowding into his personal space as well. And the few who did, well, there were other ways of belonging to someone.
Which was why he was surprised to see Steven Rogers on his doorstep.
He opened the door: “Captain Rogers. Hello.”
The captain came in, an upright young man, awkwardly. As he walked, he turned his head from side to side, as if expecting to find Captain America memorabilia plastered over the walls instead of the gentle blues and greys and creams that Coulson favoured. He could see when Rogers had clocked the music corner – the oboe and the viola, the blink of surprise. Well.
“Coffee?” he asked.
Rogers followed him down the hall. He stopped at one of the open doors – here the walls were screaming pink and, while it was scrupulously tidy, the room was covered with music posters, the twin beds piled high with bright-coloured toys and patchwork cushions. And yes, there was a Captain America action figure, battered and much loved in pride of place on a bookshelf.
Phil explained: “My daughters’ room. When they’re in town.”
Steve nodded. “How is Amelia?”
“Good. She’s good. She healed up well.” In the kitchen, he handed Rogers a mortar and pestle and a bag of coffee beans. “We took a couple of weeks, after.” He felt the corners of his eyes crinkle in a secret smile. “She got herself a postgrad spot at Culver University. I hear she’s keeping the Faculty in fear.”
The coffee made, they settled in the living room. Coulson couldn’t help it, he could feel himself filling up the space, controlling the centre of the room. Stripped of the protective colouration of his work suit, he’d lost his ability to be self-effacing, also. Even his body felt looser, more at ease, in jeans and a black jersey and his home, and he spread his arms loose-limbed over the back of his couch, and waited for his visitor to speak.
Steve ran his fingers around his coffee mug for a few minutes, fussed with the cream. “I wanted to ask you something, but I wanted it to stay off the record. For now, at least.”
Coulson’s eyes narrowed, and he tilted his head slightly. “I can’t promise you anything.”
Steve was silent for a long moment. “What can you tell me about the Winter Soldier?”
Phil realised that he was rubbing his fingers together, one thumb over his right finger tips, his one tell. “Is this about Clint? Or Natasha.” he asked.
When he captured his hawk, pulled in a young criminal and remade him into something that S.H.I.E.L.D. could use, he’d always known to keep Barton on a light leash. Or no leash at all, when it counted.
He’d looked up the words once, the creance to teach a hawk to fly to a perch or your hand, the jesses to hold it tight, the hood to keep it dark and calm. Tiercels and haggards and passengers, the old old words. But he always knew: the hawk was only yours if you let it fly free and come back to you. You had to trust in the invisible thread that wound round their heart, and hope.
He listened to what Captain Rogers had to say, and was silent for a long time.
Then he opened a drawer, attached some electronic apparatus to his current backup phone, and dialled a number. “Fury.”
“Why the fuck are you not on leave yet, Coulson? You should be in fucking Vancouver by now.”
So, partly I’m basing off-duty Coulson on actor interviews with Clark Gregg. I’m kinda… I know that it’s an actor’s job to produce an illusion, but I still often get a surprise when I see the actor talking and moving as themselves, and realising how much of what I saw in the movie was pretend, how very complete the illusion was.
Amelia is an OC from Someone Else's Memories. She’s mentioned for consistency, but doesn’t figure in the story.
Chapter 4: Clint
If there was one thing that Francis Clinton Barton knew well, it was the feeling of fucking up.
It was never a Win/Lose situation, never one single moment where the outcome was known, the dice cast; just the creeping realisation over days and weeks that a call he’d made had been the wrong one, and the consequences were slowly crashing down on him.
He’d known that in Budapest, and – not in a research facility in New Mexico – but days later when in the roiling blue haze of necessary and right actions the accumulated weight of his choices added up to betraying everyone he worked with, and just not caring. And thoughts had floated through his head, about what Coulson would think, and Nat, and he’d realised that he should be moved and wasn’t, and then, that was the point he knew he’d fucked up, and he still didn’t care, not until a blow to a head and the sweet blessing of unconsciousness.
He’d known it in a warehouse when he’d come in from the rain, bringing in the assassin he’d been meant to kill, and the days and weeks of his handler standing up for him with the S.H.I.E.L.D. powers that be; the slow, painstaking patience that Coulson had shown with the Red Room agent, bringing her into the fold as she spit and cursed at them all. Wondering why, this one time, he hadn’t followed orders and taken his shot.
He knew that feeling now, chasing a shadowy figure over the rooftops of New York, leaping the narrow alleys, through fire escapes and along cranes, the precarious spines of half built towers, even an old web line left behind by the spider man. Following, always following, and the bright eyes of the creature he was chasing just grinning at him as he tried to line up for his shot. And it comes to him, somewhere along that track through the moonlit city that he should have called it in, let his handler choose, let his partner know, and that now he’s gone too far to report in.
For years after Romanov joined S.H.I.E.L.D, she was his partner because he was the only one who’d take her. And Coulson minding them both, because he was the only handler who would put up with either of them. They made a good team, strictly professional and fast, the trio that got called in when other strike units had messed up. He liked being a team.
He knew exactly when that had changed, when they’d started feeling like family. They’d been coming home from a job in Minnesota, right up near the border, and got snowed in in a two bit motel with bad heat. They were stuck there for days, with one of them up keeping watch and going out for food, the other two huddled in the bed under every blanket they could find. At first, they all lay there rigidly, pretending that this all wasn’t happening, cracking wise ass jokes. But somewhere along the way, sleep happened, and they curled up closer for warmth and animal comfort, and they started to talk: Clint telling them about the circus, about the days when you’re hurrying to pack up the camp on a frosty morning when the ice cuts your feet, so that you can move on to the next town and do it all again tomorrow; the teenage showgirls who are really prostitutes; the taste of day old candyfloss; the guy who taught Clint how to shoot. Coulson – “it’s ok, call me Phil” chimed in with his own stories, how he met his wife, what it was like in the Rangers, the long story about how he’d come to work for the formidable Margaret Hill. Natasha spoke the last and the least, but her hesitant words had the ring of honesty: the Red Room, and the drills; her teacher, the Winter Soldier – a force of nature built out of flesh and clockwork, how bright his eyes were… In the dark of the night, with Phil nodding in the chair by the door, she told Clint about the icon, St Basil and the Fools, and her father.
The next day, they were back in business, the roads clear and they piled back into the car, all professionalism again. But they were easy with each other now, and that mattered.
This one time, in Turkey, he dropped off the job. It was only meant to be a couple of hours, a day at most, a little side trip on a routine observation job, to pick up on a lead about a golden icon, a naked man on a field of gold, might be the Basil that Natasha had told him about. Because it mattered to her, because… because once in everyone’s life they should have someone do something unexpected and nice for them.
But there was a complication, and then another one, and as he was slowly tracing through rumour and misinformation, it came to him that he was being followed. By Coulson and his partner, yes, but also by strangers – whispers and skitters in the night, and that’s when he really droped off, because he had to stay off Nat and Phil’s radar, and keep them off the bad guys’ to boot. And he’d fucked up, fucked up so bad that the only way out was through the other side.
And the trail ended, abruptly, in a Turkish villa outside of Istanbul, and it turned out that the icon wasn’t a lie after all, and he grabbed it and torched the place, didn’t even try to trace the who and the what, just grabbed it and bugged out. In the hills, in the dark, in the silence, he saw a figure over the other side of the burning house, its eyes glittering, its grin mad, and the figure saluted him once before disappearing off into the dark. He recognised the face from a Class A list of kill on site targets, and all he could think was Shit, that was close, that was the Soldier.
Later, after a night of blood and fire and desperate measures, he was finally safe and lying in the Hagia Sophia, letting his heart float up into the warm ceiling, waiting for his people to come get him. Natasha came, and sats there with him, for hours just watching the light change.
And then his handler arrived, and sat cross legged on the floor with them both, then patted them both on the shoulder and took them home.
It took him a night and a day and another night, but finally he brought the Soldier down.
It would have been easier if he could have brought himself to just shoot to kill, take the shot when the elusive figure slips between obstacles taunting him. And he couldn't, because… because he was hung up on stories of redemption, and he knew that this guy matters to his partner. So he did it the slow way, picked off a bit of electronics here, a miniature EMP arrow there, tried to bleed the guy just enough that he wouldn't kill him; knowing that the Soldier was doing the exact same thing to him.
When he’d finally closed to grapple range, and he was about to knock the Soldier out, this guy just laughed at him. “You could,” he said, “but you’ll regret it later.” And Clint’s hand hesitated. Finally, he clocked the guy and dragged him to one of his holdout nests, a little room in an old tenement that’d been long forgotten about, tied him up and left him there while he went for help.
He got Steve there, and the captain’s eyes just widened. “Hawkeye? Why are you doing this for me?”
“Huh? For Tash.”
The Soldier rolled over and grinned. “Hiya, Stevie. Long time no see…”
Steve knelt and gently pulled the tangle of hair back from the prone man’s face. “Bucky?”
“Oh, Stevie, darling,” the Soldier said. “Have I got a deal for you!”
“the formidable Margaret Hill” – née Peggy Carter. (Head canon for me and Thimblerig is that she married twice, had an enormous family, and became the Agent’s Agent at the newly formed S.H.I.E.L.D, striking terror into the hearts of new recruits wherever she might go. But with class!)
Chapter 5: Tony
Jane poked her tongue in her cheek. “I’ll open with pictures of an Avenger in hot pink nail polish. With sparkles!” She put the envelope with photos in the centre of the table. “Identity undisclosed to keep things interesting.”
“Nuh-uh,” Tony protested. “Everyone knows Thor is your bitch.”
Darcy put her elbows on the table, her impressive cleavage being... impressive. “Dude, I was there. It totally isn't Thor.”
“I will see you - fanart of Tony as an Ironette show girl.” Bruce had pictures of his own.
Tony reached across the table and peeked at the contents of the envelope. “Ooh,” he said, “nice.” Foolish children, he thought, they keep on trying, but you can't embarrass a man entirely without shame. He slapped his own bid down. “Bruce's tragic college haircut.”
Darcy put in a memory stick and grinned. “I'm raising you all. That time Coulson's wife called him a warmonger.”
“O...kay.” Tony frowned. “I have no memory of such an event.”
Coulson settled back in his chair. “Rose went back to her maiden name after we divorced. Try Taliaferro.”
He searched his memory - he had a vague recollection...
“About ten years ago,” Darcy added helpfully. “I believe the exact phrase was ‘penny ante warmonger.’”
Tony sat bolt upright in his chair. “That was her?! Penny ante!!” He pointed accusingly at Coulson. “Spawn of your house!”
“Because I am a Research Ninja!” Darcy crowed.
Tony began digging frantically through his pockets: “Hawkeye in a kimono? Thor dancing the Macarena? Drunk Bruce trying not to fall asleep? Your GPA report card.”
She kept on shaking her head, her eyes dancing.
“Dammit! What do you want from me, woman?”
“I have needs. Serious needs.”
Bruce rolled his eyes. And grinned.
“Not those kinds of needs. I just want some strings pulled.” The poker game turned as one to look at her. “It’s Coulson’s fault, really. Way back before I started working for you guys, he sent his goons to kidnap me from defending my Master’s thesis. For my own protection, they said, during that big attack on New York.” Coulson shrugged. “So, I never got time to redo my defence – it’s all been busy busy busy agenting and paperworking and making you guys coffee.”
Tony stroked his beard thoughtfully. “So why bring this up now?”
“Because it’s my college reunion soon. All my Poli Sci classmates with their shiny degrees and jobs they can actually talk about… I need a Masters degree so badly it burns. Mamma needs something I can hold my head high about.”
“So that’s the string you want pulled?”
“It burns, Mister. It burns.”
He scribbled a marker on a piece of paper and threw it on the table. “Anyone else want to pay to see ‘em?” His eyebrows waggled. “My cards, I mean…”
Two days later, Tony was sitting in the kitchen of a large and popular restaurant, talking to A Guy.
“Thank you, honey,” he said to the sous-chef handing him a plate. He tucked his napkin in and smacked his lips noisily. “Gotta say, I love the lobster they do here.”
The man he was meeting with nodded. “Air lifted from Maine, they say.” He folded his hands earnestly in front of him. “Now, you understand why this isn’t going down on my books as a business expense, yes? This is a strictly off the record meeting…”
“I’m listening,” Tony said.
“There’s a… rumour going around Washington in certain specific circles. Actually, it’s more than a rumour, just with certain entities playing their cards very close to their chest right now.” He took a crunching mouthful of lobster. “The funding allocation for the Avengers is about to go out to open tender.”
“Yeah, I know what you’re thinking; your lot have a very specialised skill set. But you consume funding like nobody’s business, and separately and individually, you’re the loosest of loose screws. That’s not to mention the property damage bill. Put you all in the same room together – Norse gods, spies out of the USSR, petty criminals… you can see why certain committee members might be having some reservations about where they put their money. Word is, if they can develop some people to fill your niche – maybe not quite so good, but more reliable, there’ll be far fewer sleepless nights where it counts.” Tony tried to interrupt. “And your boss Fury knows that,” he added. “The exact phrase used by my contact was: ‘grow your own superheroes.’ That’s not a decision that gets made lightly.”
Stark’s eyes lidded and he leaned back in his chair. “I haven’t heard anything about this. I have lobbyists to do that for me.”
“Tony, Tony, Tony,” Anderson said. “You piss off senators and congressman as a minor hobby, they tend not to tell you stuff. But,” the white haired man leaned forward: “here’s what I’m proposing. With my biotech and your engineering and military contacts, we could make a credible bid. A very credible bid. I’ll act as front man, keep you away from the politics, let you spend more time in that lab of yours where you’re happy. If we position ourselves now, we can make a killing when this contract opens up.”
Tony rubbed his mouth considering, “I’ll needs some time to think about this.”
“You do that,” Anderson wiped butter sauce off his chin. “But my free and frank advice is – don’t take too long. The clock’s ticking on this one, and I have some secondary alliances I can be chasing up on. And I know already, there are some other interests working this angle. Don’t take too long to think about it.”
“Identity undisclosed to keep things interesting.” - but possible to deduce from Chapter 4 of here. :-)
“Fanart of Tony as an Ironette show girl.” – I got the idea from this set of pictures by Feriowind. Both very good and… kinda disturbing. Also, thanks to Thimblerig for suggestions about what might be the stakes at a session of Blackmail Poker.
Chapter 6: Bruce
The baby had strong lungs and a stronger digestive system. Bruce lifted it up and let it howl. “There you go, buddy. Let it all out.” With it back on the table, he snuck out his stethoscope and gave the boy a quick once over: heart, lungs, reflexes…
The child’s mother came back into the room with a stack of clean diapers. “Back to your old tricks, Bruce?” She handed him a cloth and made to wipe the vomit off his face and shirt.
He smiled and spread his hands in front of him, big, self-deprecating. “I have a few new ones, Betty.”
She laughed, and pecked him on the cheek.
Released into sunlight, he walked down the street, hands jammed into his pockets. At last, he pulled his phone out of his pocket, put it back in, took it out… manipulated the buttons with his heavy fingers.
I’m an honorary uncle, now. You want to have coffee with me?
To his surprise, she came. She lounged in her chair, in a white t-shirt and coloured skirt, dressed much like the first time he’d seen her. He raised his teacup to her in the thin spring light: “Here’s to the love of your life moving on.”
She laughed and raised her mug. “In the house where I lived, my father had an icon.”
He smiled. “We talking art history now?”
She shook her head. “No, I’ve just been thinking about it a lot lately.”
“You’re worried about Clint.”
She quirked an eyebrow. “He came back the last time. Just… with some dents and scratches on him.”
On the table, there was a small vase with some daisies. He plucked one out between two fingers and carefully tucked it behind her ear. “There. You always look better with flowers in your hair.”
The night before:
“Good night, Bruce.”
“No. Actually, no.”
Steve looked back at him, impossibly unrumpled in his t-shirt and shorts, hair smooth against his scalp.
“Steve.” Bruce rubbed his eyes, scrubbed his fingers through his hair, put his glasses back on. “I know Natasha’s your girl and I don’t know what the fuck you and Clint have got going on, but-” He realised he was breathing heavily, great rollocking gasps, sucking in oxygen, and he made himself slow down, breath through his nose; made his fists stop clenching.
“There was this girl I knew, at school, several girls; and women I knew later. They’d show up with bruises, and if you asked if they were okay, they’d always smile and say yes, but there’d be more bruises and more cuts and…” He sniffed hugely, breathed out. “And their boyfriends and husbands would be golden boys. Jocks and businessmen, people you looked up to, men you wanted to have a drink with, successful… ‘nice’ guys. Never who you’d think.”
“And you’d talk to these girls, and try to help them, help them get cleaned up, and tell them to leave, just go. And they wouldn’t because they weren’t ‘the kind of girl’ that stuff happened to, and sometimes they’d end up in hospital or…” the sentence stayed unspoken. “And the worst bit for them, the worst, it wasn’t getting hit, and it wasn’t losing their guy. It was people finding out about it.” Another enormous sniff of air. “’F’you asked any questions they’d lie; if you went round to visit, you made sure they had time to clean themselves up, because if you saw, they’d hate you for it. It always had to be a secret.
“And you’re a real nice guy, Steven Rogers, but those girls… that’s just how Clint and Natasha looked just now.” He raised his hands, big thick-fingered, and shook them out. “And there are consequences. I just need you to know that.”
“She’s not my girl.” Steve’s face was ghastly white and his eyes were huge. “Not like you mean. She’s not anyone’s.”
“Steve.” Bruce’s fists were balling up again.
“I don’t know who hurt Clint. But I’ll find out. I promise you, I’ll find out.”
The morning after:
Bruce was the last to leave the conference room. He turned once, looked back. Natasha was sitting, staring at the table, Coulson standing behind her, one hand cupping her hair.
A night and a day and another night later, he picked up his phone, dialled a number. “Come to Papua New Guinea with me.”
“I’m off to spend a couple of weeks field-training some newbie Doctors Without Borders. Come to PNG – you’ll like it there. Plus I dig a mean toilet.”
She hung up the phone.
Chapter 7: Darcy
“So, Darcy, what is it you do now?” Stacey had been brandishing her brand new assistantship to a minor congressman around the reunion; Darcy had been hearing her honk about it for the last half hour.
“Oh, I'm an analyst.”
“Doing what?” Chester perked up, his eyes bright, his teeth gleaming white.
“I... analyse stuff that... is... analysable...” she said, unpressingly. The wolves were starting to cluster.
“Honeybun!” Tony fucking Stark walked up behind her and clapped his hand on her ass. “Are these your college friends?”
“We are!” Stacey was smiling encouragingly at him. She’d always been pretty interested in stealing other girls’ boyfriends, Darcy thought, drifting off into a white heat rage at a past loss to the big toothed woman when in college. Oh hang on, Darcy thought, words are still coming out of the trollop’s mouth…
“But,” Stacey was saying, “aren’t the Avengers an example of a government-backed monopoly? Don’t you agree that it would be better for the American people to introduce some competition into the market? Why, Congressman Delwicky was saying only the other day that -”
“Honey,” Stark said easily, “I’ll be a private contractor until the day I die.”
“Say, Darcy, what was the deal with those guys in suits who took you away from your Masters’ presentation?” Lilian interrupted.
“Unpaid parking tickets,” she said promptly.
They all glanced at Stanley, fresh from his stint at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“But it all got sorted out okay,” she said.
“Oh, is that where you met Tony Stark? He’s got a red flag on his file at the DMV.”
“I’m sure he does,” she said sweetly. “Actually, I just need a quick word with him…” She wrapped her fingers in a vicelike grip around his arm and steered him toward the buffet table.
"What are you doing here, Tony fucking Stark?"
"You said you wanted to hold your head up high - I got you something better than a degree." He gestured to himself proudly: "I got you a lustworthy date!"
“Shaddup!” Darcy hissed. “There’s a new professor I want to meet.”
She whispered something to one of her former professors and was pointed at the far side of the room, a tiny woman, with ash-blond hair elaborately braided and pinned. She marched up, and said “Excuse me-”
“Well, well, well. Dr Taliaferro.” Tony made a point of kissing her hand, just a little too long. “It’s been a long time, but our first meeting was so… memorable.”
“Indeed,” she said. “But you haven’t introduced me to your friend.”
“Darcy Lewis,” Darcy said, shaking her hand vigorously. “And I want you to know, Professor, all your work with the UN – you are a personal hero of mine.”
“Miss Lewis,” the professor nodded. She had a warm rolling Virginia accent. “Your reputation precedes you in the faculty.”
Darcy felt her smile go a little bit rigid. “If this is about the thing with the day glo goat, there were totally extenuating circumstances.”
Taliaferro half-smiled – one corner of her mouth tweaking. “The Dean of Poli Sci told me that life in the department has been a lot less interesting since you moved on.”
“Oh, she’s very interesting. We say all the time at work about how we’d be lost without Lewis… person… agent, uh, girl.”
Darcy turned to Tony Stark. “You still can’t remember my first name? Really?”
“Of course I can!” he said, his eyes dropping slightly, a little panicked. “It’s Darcy!”
She sighed and shook her head, and opened her mouth to ask another question -
“Well, this has been nice. Mr Stark, Miss Lewis – congratulations on your graduation.” The professor cocked her head, eyes bird-bright. “Perhaps when you get back to New York you could ask Phil what he’s doing about the chapter of the Room setting itself up in Prince George County.” She took a sip of her champagne. “Remember me to Phil, would you? I always think of our time in St Petersburg and Sydney fondly.” She shook Darcy’s hand again, briefly.
“Abso. Lutely. We will do that. Thank you very much, professor.” Darcy made her escape, dragging Tony, perforce, with her.
Tony fucking Stark hadn't gone to Virginia on the train. Nor a plane, and definitely not a bus. No, no, he'd provided himself with a new model Maserati and Darcy Lewis, tricked out in heels and a floaty dress, was gunning it.
“So, you know, Darcy, someday you're going to have to - whoah, there! Do you know how to drive this thing?”
“Level 3 Hazardous Driving skills course-”
“I can't believe I gave you the keys to my car. What's the deal with you and Coulson and Bride of Coulson and all the city names?”
She switched lanes, flicking the stick shift and back again. “Petersburg is compromised communications.” She threw her handbag into his lap. “Here, get the tolls ready, I don't want to mess around at the booths.”
He rummaged for her wallet, throwing out Stuff: wet wipes, sanitary pads, a safe-sex kit, a forensic evidence kit, a prepaid phone still in its original packaging, three different hotel keys, clean socks and panties, rehydration powder, makeup, a plastic spoon, a stuffed toy… He waved the stuffed toy questioningly in the air for a moment. “Sydney, baby!”
She turned to him briefly, her eyes wide. “Sydney is suspected sleeper agents.”
He kept poking through her handbag – her wallet must be at the bottom – then paused, and grinned, and there was the devil in it. “Oh, Darcy fucking Lewis, I win Blackmail Poker for ever.”
“This is not the time, Tony fucking Stark,” she said, concentrating on her driving.
“Oh, yeah it is.” He pulled the item of interest out of her bag. “Because you are Darcy fucking Pregnant.”
“Because you are Darcy fucking Pregnant.” – this actually came out of nowhere, between one email to my beta reader and the next about stage business involving Darcy’s handbag. It just felt right. All she had to say was “What??” so I think she was a little bit surprised, too.
We’re about to have the finale! Oh boy! (Might be a day or two later to post on this one – it’s longer and more complicated than the earlier chapters.)
Chapter 8: Finale, Part One
Finale, Part One
This aye night.
Fire and fleet and candlelight. Fire… and the red dawn.
Tony was completely over letting women drive his car. And speed. That whole Ironman thing was overrated, and he was going to find a more sedentary hobby as soon as he got out of his car alive. Maybe beekeeping.
“So! Darce! Why are we rushing like this? We couldn’t just pick up a phone?”
In the dark, the headlights of other cars streaked past the window.
She laid it out for him like he was stupid: “S.H.I.E.L.D’s probably got eavesdroppers. Coulson’s not picking up his private line. Fury… if my spidey political sense is right, right now, Fury’s been given some high level orders I don’t want to have to deal with, so no talking to Fury. And you didn’t bring your suit. Who doesn’t bring their suit?”
“I like the suit I’m wearing. And where are we going?”
She waved a tissue thin slip of paper extracted from her sleeve. “Wife of Coulson slipped me the address of the new Red Room. It’s that school Steve was fundraising at in Maryland.”
“Would you please keep both hands on the wheel? Also, more importantly, who the fuck got you pregnant?”
It took them several days to plan. There was information to be got, scouting, equipment to source… he was on it. He laid it all out on a board in the little garret room, and talked through the plan with the Winter Soldier, checked that it all made sense when it was spoken, instead of just in his head: “This gives us our window of opportunity. The contractors were late on the job – the place got opened while the dormitories and living quarters were still being finished, so the students are there during the day only, coming in on buses. As of next Monday, that changes, and we’ll have to deal with a bunch of potential hostages if we wait until -”
The door opened and Rogers came in, followed by Phil Coulson. Hawkeye felt his face close up.
“Well, well, well,” Coulson said. “As I live and breathe, James Buchanan Barnes.”
The Soldier turned on his heel and grinned brilliantly, spread his ragged arms wide.
“You look a lot like your picture,” Phil went on, “the one Margaret Hill had, I mean, not the S.H.I.E.L.D. surveillance videos – they’re too grainy, and they blur your silhouette some.” He walked into the room, neatly setting his feet, catlike. “She used to speak of you fondly.”
“How is dear little Peggy now?”
“Passed away surrounded by a gaggle of adoring grandchildren; she lived a happy life. She would have been sad about what happened to you.”
“You mean taken in and healed by America’s noble ally? Joseph Stalin would weep that you think so poorly of his hospitality…”
“Bucky?” Steve said, sounding uncertain.
Coulson walked up to the planning board, inspected the data, ran the strategy through in his head. At last he nodded, and smiled just slightly: “No flying monkeys, this time?” Hawkeye shook his head.
Phil went on: “It’s a good plan.” He was dressed, unusually, in jeans and a black sweater, a leather jacket. He put his hand on Hawkeye’s shoulder briefly. “Clint, I’m not here to take you home. Not yet.”
The Soldier was enjoying himself.
As they rammed their way through the hallways of the school, he hummed to himself, turning on the balls of his feet to spike off a shot from the laser embedded in his wrist; half dancing as he took down another guard with a judo throw and a whine of servos – “In the mood, you really got it…”
“Don’t – sing that,” Steve gritted. “Just don’t.”
“Oh, Stevie darling, but that was our special song. Incoming.” He fired another laser shot over Coulson’s head. He stopped in front of a door. “And this, my sweets, will be the building control room.” He jazzed the lock open, and gestured Coulson in with a bow. “To you, my dear, the task of fragging the footage so that we may all remain in a state of happy plausible deniability…”
“Understood, Barnes. Steve, Clint – good hunting.”
In the room, he set up the security feeds so that he could monitor his strike force as they moved through the building, kept an eye on them and the demoralised security team trying to make sense of the incursion while he worked through the tapes and the backup tapes with a degausser. His old new job – tidying up.
As he flicked through the feeds, he saw Agent Lewis striding through the corridors, Tony Stark trailing behind her like an errant puppy. He twiddled the volume control on the audio:
“At least I know it's not me!” Then, worriedly: “It's not me, is it? That time we stayed up late drinking and you fell asleep on the couch?”
He dialled a number and saw Lewis pick up. “Agent Lewis,” he said.
“Is this a Vancouver situation, sir?”
“Confirmed. I’m located in the building control room, with Rogers and Barton travelling to the lab on level three-” He stopped and focused on movement in another monitor. “I have hostiles incoming. Use your judgement, Lewis.”
They were breaking through the door. He turned to meet them.
“Margaret Hill” – head canon for me and Thimblerig is that this is Peggy Carter’s married name.
“Is this a Vancouver situation, sir?” – on account of I explained all the other city codes in the text, Vancouver means “the boss has some orders he really doesn’t want to give you, so make sure he won’t have to.”
(It worked out better to split the Finale in two for reasons of length, next part will be up in a couple of days.)
Chapter 9: Finale, Part Two
They pulled up in front of a deserted set of buildings. There was a an enormous mural covering the front wall, a picture out of fairy tales, full of living things poking out of trees, a young winged woman in a blue dress presiding over the scene, “The Blue Fairy Residential School” blazoned cheerfully across the top. There were a couple of vehicles parked on the street – not just outside the school, but casually placed where they were convenient without being obvious. Pretty much where she would have parked if she could have, actually. She slid the Maserati around the corner to a more discreet spot and let Tony stagger out.
The vehicles – an unmarked van, and a battered old car she’d seen Hawkeye driving this one time, still had warm engines. Her friends were there, and still inside. She threw her taser to Stark, checked her gun, and headed out to find a way into the school.
Tony fucking Stark was an annoying person to break into a building with. As she padded through the darkened corridors, he kept up a running series of questions about her personal life, speculation about who she’d been spending time with lately, and leading questions about… performance issues. It was annoying.
Finally, Darcy gave up and pulled her sidearm on Tony.
“I'm not anything, OK? Right now, I'm the Immaculate fucking Conception. I'm Miss One Night Stand. I'm Mrs Lewis' daughter knows how to take care of herself better. Alright?” she snarled.
“Okay, okay,” Tony held up his hands placatingly. She fired.
He yelped. Then looked behind him at the body on the floor.
“Enough chit chat, we're working now,” she said.
They rounded a corner and found two more hostiles. Unfortunately for them, they were in her way while she was having a very bad day. Oh, and Tony helped, too.
Darcy stalked into the control room in stockinged feet.
Tony yelped again: “Yins- Coulson!” and hurried to the prone form. Darcy glanced quickly at the pair, then back to the Building Control System and its elaborate bank of monitors.
“Oh,” she said, flicking through the security feed. “I like this place.”
Coulson was telling him about the Winter Soldier – half-myth, half-nemesis, a Russian soldier ex-WWII, cyborged, bioengineered to hell; released from cryogenic sleep every now and then to wreak havoc on the world. Thought dead, since the Red Room was broken up.
“What if I told you he was Bucky Barnes?”
“James Barnes?” Coulson asked. Steve remembered that, once upon a time, Coulson had worked for Peggy Carter. Of course he would know about Bucky.
Coulson rubbed two fingers across his mouth. “He was only presumed dead, based on the evidence of the scene – which doesn’t mean much in this line of business. The kill order is still active on him, sorry.”
In the garret, Steve watched his handler kitting up out of the gym bag he’d brought with him. He was devastatingly non-regulation, old paint-stained fatigue pants, a battered Hawaiian shirt, a leather jacket that rivalled Fury’s in its glory; arcane weaponry that had to have come from a much loved private armoury. Phil glanced over his shoulder at him, holding an arcane piece of electronica. “If we’re going to go off book, we might as well do it in style.”
The man was twitching and there was buried glee behind his eyes. Steve remembered with horror that, once upon a time, Coulson had worked for Peggy Carter as a covert ops field agent. What buried repressions lurked inside the mild mannered bureaucrat?
Standing behind him, Hawkeye’s face was a picture of surprise, awe and secret admiration.
“We ride,” Coulson said.
He moved quickly through the hallways, keeping an eye out for trouble, Coulson whispering in his ear what he could glean from the security feed. Suddenly, Coulson’s voice cut out, and he could hear over his earpiece gunshots and explosions and choking.
“Coulson? Coulson. Are you alright?”
He dithered in existential dread – to go on, or return and help his handler. Then, more gunshots, and another voice whispered in his ear:
"Steve, honey, can you give me a situation report?"
Darcy? She was supposed to be in Virginia...
"What happened to Coulson?"
"Sleepy gas. Not the kind he's allergic to. He's stable." Darcy's voice was clipped and business-like, nothing like her usual leering drawl. "What's your location?"
He rattled off the directions.
"Right, I'm sending Stark to you. Keep moving to the centre."
Natasha eeled around the corner. It had taken her too long to track her partner down to this school, but she’d found him in the end. Loping along the corridor in smooth easy movements was a guy in a leather jacket – she took a bead, waited a moment to get an id, then –
“Coulson, you…” she choked. “You’re not in your suit.”
He flashed her a brilliant grin. “I’m on vacation. You’re not supposed to be here, but…” He flipped her a spare earpiece out of his pocket. She jammed it in: Agent Lewis’ voice was cheerfully burbling away, pointing out security guards.
“I got held up,” Coulson said. He tilted his head. “Party’s down this way.”
They emerged through the open doors, the glare of flame behind them, into a lab with bubbling vats and bleeping computer equipment. There, the Winter Solder was holding court, speaking to Rogers and Clint and Stark.
“Barnes-” Tony said in a horrified voice, “this equipment isn’t about lab tests and super serum enhancements.” He ran his hands over the banks of equipment: “these are incubators and in vitro units. These are for making babies from scratch with.” His hands dropped. “‘Grow your own superheroes…’”
“Enough already,” Clint interrupted. His hands were lightly held on his bow. “The deal was, we torch this place, then you get the hell out of dodge. And we pretend to ignore each other for ever.”
“Not quite yet.” The Soldier held up an admonitory finger. “I have some items to collect before we burn this place.” His eyes were very bright.
“That wasn’t part of the deal.”
“Oh, sweetheart. You’re such a trusting soul. I’m renegotiating the deal.” He looked up at the shadowed corner where Natasha stood. “And here we are, all the players now assembled.”
Natasha tilted her head at the Soldier and stepped forward into the light. Clint choked, almost despairing. “Nat. You’re not supposed to be here. I was keeping you out of this.”
Her phone was beeping, insistently, and she pulled it out of her pocket, held it to her ear as the Winter Soldier went on. For some reason, he was talking mostly to Steve, even as he gestured to her.
“Such trust. Such fear that after all these years I might still have my hand around her heart.” He smiled slowly. “But never mind, the monster must always return to its master.”
“Excuse me?” She flipped her phone closed.
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” he said conversationally to Steve. “We designed her that way.”
“Bucky…” Steve interrupted. “What are you talking about? Natasha’s an orphan.”
“Hah. Fooled you once! She’s a genetic construct. We designed her to be everything she is, and more. Even used a piece from the Tsar Nicholas, just for shits and giggles.” He waved a hand judiciously. “Not the haemophilia part.”
The Winter Soldier
It was delicious.
He moved swiftly through the banks of equipment, pulling gene samples here, some tech goodies there. Around him, his ‘partners,’ variously stood guard, helped lay shaped charges, and kibitzed.
“So! Barnes! You are Barnes, right?” Tony Stark followed him like a monkey with no impulse control, poking at the machines as he opened them out. “How do you know so much about this place?”
“Oh, I designed it.”
“You didn’t tell me that,” Barton said harshly.
“Need to know,” the Soldier shrugged. “I am, as they say, a third-party contractor. Go private enterprise!”
“Ngh.” Stark looked revolted. “So, let me get this straight. You were hired to help set up a new chapter of the Red Room in the U.S.…”
“Blue Room, Stark-baby. Where’s your patriotism?”
“And now you want to destroy it?”
The Soldier turned on his heel, waving his hands in the air. He pivoted again. “My masters are not gone, nor forgotten. They shall rise again.” He added spitefully: “Your congressmen and your senators may think they can make their own… franchise and believe it’s theirs, but the Room shall have no competitors.” For a moment, his voice took on the clipped tones of Peggy Carter: “Rather easier to blow it up from the inside, dear.” Pivot. “Embarrassing your own little ragtag band of heroes was just icing on the cake.”
Steve’s breath was ragged. “I never realised you hated me so much.”
“Oh, come now, Stevie.” The Soldier stood close, wrapped his hands, one clockwork, one flesh, through Rogers’ hair, close enough to kiss. He whispered: “Don’t you know I’m turning into you.”
“But enough about old times.” He opened a console, grabbed out a massive data storage cassette, lifted it triumphantly. “I have what I came for. One of the things I came for.”
“Barnes -” Tony said, “this equipment isn’t about lab tests and super serum enhancements. These are incubators and in vitro units. These are for making babies from scratch with. ‘Grow your own superheroes…’”
The Soldier laughed as he listened to them talk. His child had come back to him, exactly as planned. He glanced at Natasha and jerked his head. “Come along, lapushka, it’s time to go.”
“I don’t work for you anymore.” She had her gun out, not quite trained on him, but out.
“You still belong to me,” his voice was cold. “I made you, to be mine.” He rattled off in Russian: “In the house where Natasha lived, her father had an icon…”
“What?” He watched her hands slacken on the gun.
He grinned, and moved into the next words of the control sequence: “Prokopiy. Francis. Xenia…”
“No, wait,” Stark interrupted. “Why would you do that? I mean, why even bother with this. Russia had all the orphans it could want. Fuck, import them from Romania if you need to.”
“Because she’s a construct. A genetic chimera with fabricated memories to keep her emotionally stable.” Natasha punched him in the mouth. “Somewhat stable. John,” he added malevolently. “You see, my Steven, my sweet. Mother Russia knows from loyalty.”
“Brainwashing…” Steve interrupted.
“Loyalty. The Room has no use for mindless drones. Sure, we could vat raise kids, co-opt orphanage drones, build them to be stronger, faster, serum-junkies who’ll kamikaze on anyone’s say so. We wanted better than that… no, we deserved it. And I’ll tell you, Stevie, just one little piece of advice for free, if you want to own someone, really own someone, they have to have something worth giving up for you. Isidora.”
“Natasha,” Barton said urgently. “All those things that happened to you when you were a kid. None of them are you, you’re more than this stuff.”
The Winter Soldier huffed once, and backhanded the archer. He went down fast. “Grigory,” the Soldier said finally.
Natasha shot Tony Stark in the chest. The room was shockingly quiet. She held her gun down at her side, her finger not quite on the trigger. Around her, her friends’ faces were dreadful.
“That’s my girl, now,” the Soldier grinned evilly and held out a paternal arm to fold around her. She walked into his shadow, her head low, belonging to him again.
“Toodle pip, old thing!” He waved gaily at Steve. As his weight shifted, so did hers, smooth momentum and her gun lifted, found the sweet spot and fired into his lungs. As the Soldier’s legs buckled, she took his weight and let him down to the ground. “That was… unexpected.” he said.
She wrapped her hands around his face, leaned over him, her face wet – from the sprinklers. “Ten years,” she whispered. “Ten years I’ve not belonged to you, and you never thought I would find the back door you put in my head.” She kissed him. “Good-bye, father.”
Chapter 10: Epilogue
Tony struggled up: “You shot me in the chest!”
She half smiled. “I’ve always secretly wanted to, ever since met. Darcy?” she said into her earpiece. “Did you get the footage?”
“Oh, yeah, baby. Poker night is about to get really interesting.”
“But-” Tony poked a finger through the hole in his shirt. “There’s a dent in my arc reactor...”
When she went to Clint, his face was shuttered, but his eyebrows were miserable. Damn Hill. She was never going to be able to look at him the same way again. She thwapped him upside the head. “You idiot, Barton. Of course I wasn’t going to walk out on you. You’re my person.”
Coulson found her later, curled up on a window sill on an outer ledge with Clint’s arms wrapped around her, both of them watching the sun rise. He leaned on the ledge companionably. “Well,” he said, “the deconditioning worked okay.”
She laughed shakily. “I didn’t really think it would.”
He ruffled her hair and kissed her forehead. “That’s my girl.”
Steve stood in the open doorway watching his friends crowd in around Natasha. He leaned his head against the doorframe. It had been seventy years and change since he had someone to go to, without thought or question. And now they were gone again.
“Captain America?” Darcy Lewis was standing a few feet away. “So…” she said, “is there any chance of a hug? It’s, uh, been a very traumatic night.”
He smiled, and reached out a long arm to wrap around her shoulders. “Traumatic, huh?”
“Oh yeah,” she sighed happily as she buried her head into his shoulder. “Let me tell you what Stacey was wearing…”
The shouting was over, the dust was almost settled, and Coulson was back to his old job – cleanup. He adjusted his leather jacket regretfully, already, he could feel a metaphorical suit settling down upon his shoulders.
“Alright, people. The moral of this story is that we were never here. The survivors are knocked out out back – the video footage is gone, and the environment was dark, any claims they make as witnesses can be taken as strictly hearsay and wishful thinking. Captain Rogers, Natasha –” they looked up from the various corners they’d settled in, “I need you to leave in the next five minutes if you’re going to make the 10am briefing without comment – drive safely. Clint,” Hawkeye looked up from the wall he’d been holding up next to Natasha, “as agreed, you’ve been on a bender in Mexico for the last week. Which brings me to the two extras in our little rodeo. Mr Stark, Agent Lewis, I’d be obliged if you found yourselves a hotel in Virginia to be conspicuously discovered in – I’ll make it right with Miss Potts later.”
Tony smiled, slow, sure, and with malice aforethought. Lewis’ eyes narrowed balefully. “But what about you?”
Coulson glanced over his shoulder at the supine form of the Soldier, packed in ice for all it could do. “There’s something - someone - I need to take care of. And then,” a faint smile wreathed his face, and he adjusted the collar of his brightly coloured shirt, “I have a vacation to get to. I hear Vancouver is lovely this time of year.”
In Port Moresby, the surgery was crowded, and they were doing consults right there in front of the other people waiting. The new kid was just a little bit freaked out by this. Bruce ignored his fidgets, took the baby from her mother with a smile, and showed New Kid the kinds of tests you did when you couldn’t just shove the kid in a CAT scan and have a machine tell you all the answers.
A shadow stood in front of him, a young woman in a white t-shirt and a bright flower-patterned skirt, a vivid bloom in her hair. “I was promised toilets,” she said.
He smiled at her.