I see your hurt, I feel your pain,
All of our dirt is washed in the rain.
I've walked that road, I've felt that shame,
No place is home but times, they are changin'
---Welshly Arms, Sanctuary
Jim stepped out of the shower, cursorily toweling himself. He was spent and sore from his workout, but his body was still ringing with adrenaline from sparring with Natasha. He had slowly purpling splotches of bruising on his chest and thighs where she'd felt the need to remind him to pay more attention. Jim tended to be in a fair amount of pain after sparring with her lately, since she'd stopped pulling her punches. It seemed like a funny thing to be proud of - being in pain - but it was satisfying. It meant progress. Hell, the fact she was no longer worried about accidentally killing him was pretty cool.
Besides, the bruises wouldn't stay for long. Sentinel healing was great for that, even if it wasn't as good as being a Super Soldier. Or a Super Soldier and Sentinel, like his grandfather and aunt. But yeah, Jim wasn't going to complain.
He grinned. His aunt (half aunt? It was such a weird thought since they were almost the same age, at least physically) was pretty badass, and her Guide Sam was the kind of person Jim wished he'd known as a kid.
The Trio, as everyone had started calling them, hadn't been there to spar this time. Bucky, Steve and Tony were meeting with Ellie, the Guide from the Hague who'd made sure all the S-G Centers worldwide had been trying to help Bucky instead of hunting him, and Alex. Alex was apparently another Guide and grandkid of Bucky, which made him Jim's cousin. Or something. They were related, anyway. Another thought that took some getting used to.
Jim slung the towel around his hips and walked out of the bathroom in search for Clint. His Guide had left him alone with Natasha, saying that Jim didn't need Clint around all the time to ground him anymore. They might be separated during a battle, he'd said, and Jimmy would have to function on his own then, too.
It was...it wasn't scary, sparring without Clint being right there in case anything went wrong. Jim hadn't been afraid. Nervous, maybe. Just a little. He liked Natasha, but she'd been Clint's Sentinel, before him. And it wasn't like Clint was going to drop Jim for her. Even if Natasha hadn't been bonded to Sam, Jim knew Clint wouldn't do that. It was just, they were both Sentinels, and they'd both had the same Guide. And sometimes, even with Clint's calming presence, just being near her made a possessive heat rise up in Jim's chest.
He'd been worried that without Clint there, that possessiveness would make him go feral, or make his senses spike at the wrong moment or something. But he'd ended up so focused on avoiding getting his ass handed to him that he'd forgotten to be worried about anything other than her next hit.
He'd still lost, badly. But when Natasha had said she was proud of him, he knew she'd meant it. He'd been pretty proud of himself, too.
Truthfully, Jim hadn't even been thinking about missions with the Avengers, let alone maybe not being with Clint in a fight. His life was so different than what he'd been living in Los Angeles that it was easy to forget there was even more to it than training with S.H.I.E.L.D., learning how to use his senses, or sparring with the most dangerous people on Earth. There was a larger purpose he was part of now, even more than the S.W.A.T. team he'd left behind. Those fights had often been life-or-death, but life-or-death in L.A. The Avengers fought to protect the entire planet.
If he was being honest with himself, he hadn't been thinking about it because the idea of it was so overwhelming. He was just a cop. A cop who was part of an elite unit, sure. But at the end of the day, he was a police officer, not a superhero. Even if Clint and Sam insisted he was just like them, Jim knew that wasn't true. Sam had flown into combat zones using experimental wings. Clint had been a spy and a mercenary, and he'd joined S.H.I.E.L.D. already trained to a degree of skill difficult to imagine. And those were the two Avengers without superpowers of their own, beyond their abilities as Guides. (Tony's genius was his superpower, Jim figured, no matter what he said.) How the hell was Jim supposed to even keep up with that, let alone be an asset in a fight against aliens, monsters or gods?
He was just a cop. He would probably have never even spoken to an Avenger, if Clint hadn't nearly fucked up his mission in order to bond with him.
But he was an Avenger now, no matter how outclassed he felt. And he'd managed a full hour of sparring with Nat without losing too badly, and he'd even been okay without his Guide. And Natasha said she was proud of him. So, maybe he wasn't quite as outclassed as he figured?
Clint would tell him for sure, at least. His Guide wouldn't lie to him, and he wouldn't sugarcoat it if he didn't think Jim was ready for the big time. And, well. It wasn't like Jim had missed him or anything - it'd only been a couple hours - but he was looking forward to seeing him anyway. Maybe it was the relatively new bond still, or maybe he just had it bad for his Guide. Jim didn't really care.
Unfortunately, he didn't know where Clint was. He thought about stretching out his senses to find his heartbeat, but that seemed a little excessive when he could feel him easily through the bond. Clint wasn't thrilled with whatever situation he was in, but there was nothing remotely wrong.
"Clint?" Jim called out as he made his way through the living room, dripping a little onto the hardwood floor. Clint wasn't in the kitchen either, though there was a plastic container of chocolate chip cookies on the counter, with the sticky note stuck to the lid: Got called into a meeting. BBL if I don't die of boredom. Don't eat all the cookies.
Jim grinned at the note, warmed to his bones. He stuck the note to the fridge, then opened the box and took out a cookie and ate it, still smiling to himself as he chewed. He sent Clint his appreciation along their bond, as well as his happiness, warm and soft as a favorite sweater. He knew his love for Clint was carried along as well, and he grinned even wider to feel Clint basking in it like a purring cat.
Clint's response was a wordless complaint about how bored he was, coupled with a demand for entertainment, clear as a toddler yanking on his arm. Jim laughed and shook his head, sending back a fond denial. Then he stopped, biting his tongue in amusement as he got a sudden, very wicked idea and fought to keep it out of the bond.
He'd just come out of the shower, and he had a really good Stark Phone, and he knew for a fact that Clint would be sneaking peeks at his under the table, because he hated meetings like some kids hated school. Worse, actually. Clint had once laughingly told Jim that at least at school sometimes you accidentally learned something.
So, Clint would be sneaking peeks at his phone, and Jim had a great idea of what he could send him to look at. Jim was chuckling to himself as he put the cookies away and wandered back into the bedroom. He'd left his phone on the bed. Convenient.
He was so focused on his prank-slash-promise-for-later to Clint, and especially keeping his anticipation quiet that when his phone rang for a moment Jim was sure it was Clint on the line; that he'd somehow figured out exactly what Jim was planning and was either going to scold him or tell him to go through with it. Jim chuckled as he swiped up the phone. Honestly, with Clint it was probably both -
But it wasn't Clint's name or the picture Jim had taken of him blinking blearily over his mug of coffee. He didn't know the number, but he knew that Los Angeles area code.
Heart pounding now, all trace of his mischievous happiness gone, he answered.
"Hello, sweetheart, I've missed you," his mom said.
Clint felt like shit. He'd just had his first big fight, his first real fight with Jimmy, and now his stubborn Sentinel had run off in a snit. No, that wasn't fair. Jimmy had run off because he was upset, not 'cause he was having a snit. Just like Clint wasn't brooding. He wasn't. He just really liked it up in the rafters, everyone knew that. Hell, Stark had even made sure he'd have space to hide in there. It was the perfect place to think. (Think, not brood.)
So, what if Clint had climbed up there to get away from everyone for a while, after butting heads with his stubborn as a mule Sentinel?
Okay, maybe he really was brooding.
But what the fuck else was he supposed to do? As soon as Clint got back from the godawful, interminable fucking S.H.I.E.L.D. meeting, Jimmy had bounded in from the bedroom, kissed Clint to within an inch of his life, and said his mom had just been released from prison and had asked that Jimmy visit her in L.A.
And Clint had said 'no'.
It wasn't like he'd wanted to say no... Okay, yes, he had. Karen Street was manipulative and emotionally abusive as fuck, to the extent that Jimmy pretty much felt guilty for existing, let alone for having been beat on by his dad. Not to mention that Karen was Hydra. There was no way Clint wanted his Sentinel in the same state as her, let alone agreeing to meet face to face.
Jimmy hadn't appreciated that sentiment much. In fact, he'd stormed out of their suite and gone right back to the gym, and was currently beating the shit out of a heavy bag. Something Clint only knew because J.A.R.V.I.S. had been kind enough to tell him. Because Jimmy, in his rage, had shut his end of their bond down, too.
And Clint got that rage. He did. He hadn't really had parents, but that didn't mean he couldn't understand what a kid might feel about his mom. And he knew Karen Street had been Jimmy's only family until he'd found Bucky and Nat and all of his cousins. It didn't matter to Jimmy that Karen had treated him like shit his whole life. He loved her the way any kid would love their mom, of course, but he'd also idolized her as an avenging angel who'd sacrificed everything except her life to save him from his abusive father. Bad enough that she might not be perfect, the idea that she might actually have been a Nazi had pulled the world out from under him.
Jimmy had flat out refused to even hear it, at first. He'd accused Tony, Bucky and Steve of lying to him, and even after he'd reluctantly believed it, he'd kept insisting that she couldn't be Hydra anymore, or that she wasn't really Hydra in the first place. Like, she'd gone along with them because she didn't know any better, or because they'd forced her to, not because it was anything she wanted.
Clint hadn't been able to convince him otherwise, and truth to tell he hadn't really wanted to. Jimmy had clung to his illusions about his mom so hard that Clint was more than a little worried that shattering them completely would be more than his Sentinel could take. And besides, he didn't know Karen Street. He couldn't say for sure what was in her heart, or how deep those Nazi claws went. Maybe she was a proud, card-carrying, guzzled-the-Kool-Aid Hydra; maybe she wasn't. J.A.R.V.I.S. had found proof her motivation for shooting her husband was at least as much about his wanting to take Jimmy to a Hydra cell in Siberia as it was about the physical abuse. On the other hand, Bucky had been adamant that not being in Siberia had saved Jimmy from a fate worse than death. Maybe she really had shot Jimmy's dad out of the kindness in her soul. Even if she used her subsequent conviction and jail time as a guilt-bludgeon to beat her kid with for the rest of his Goddamn life.
Unfortunately, Karen had done such a great job of it that Jimmy was convinced he owed her. And he was loyal enough to be willing to drop everything and cross the fucking country to meet her in L.A. It didn't matter that Clint could feel as much trepidation as eagerness vibrating through their bond. It didn't matter that Jimmy admitted outright that he was scared of what she'd say to him. He was terrified she'd accuse him of not caring about her, since he'd fucked off to the other side of the country. The fact that he'd had exactly zero choice about it wouldn't matter.
Jimmy was also scared about her being Hydra, about accidentally letting her know that he knew. About other members of Hydra coming after her, now that her son was online. About her doing something that would prove she was exactly as bad as the other Avengers thought she was.
He'd been practically vibrating with anxiety about all of it, and Clint hadn't been able to make him feel better because he'd completely agreed with him. The only thing Clint had wanted to do in the whole world was protect his Sentinel.
So, he'd said 'no'.
He was, he could admit in the current unwelcome privacy of his own head, very much regretting that decision now.
"Fuck," Clint sighed. He was on his back staring at the dusty ceiling, balanced on the very thick beam holding the roof up in the Tower's penthouse. It was a little dusty; he could see motes swirling languidly in the afternoon sunlight. He'd brought Jimmy up here just a couple days ago, and they'd spent the afternoon laying with their crowns touching and talking about nothing in particular. Their bond had thrummed between them full of warmth and life, and Tweety had been preening Lucky's stomach below them on the floor.
Clint hadn't been happier in his life, and he'd been pretty sure Jimmy felt the same. And then less than twenty-four hours later, bam: Hellsville, next handbasket exit.
He shouldn't have said 'no'. He really, really should not have said 'no'.
"Fuck!" Clint smacked his fist against his forehead, then winced at the pain. He automatically dampened his side of the bond, only to get yet another miserable reminder that it didn't matter; Jimmy couldn't feel him anyway.
If he'd said 'yes', Jimmy would still be with him right now, instead of off sulking and probably hating Clint's guts. And Clint already missed Jimmy like a fucking limb, and he could only imagine how rejected his Sentinel felt. And Clint had really screwed the pooch on this one, hadn't he?
"I really screwed the pooch, didn't I, J.A.R.V.I.S.?" he said out loud. "Why the fuck didn't I just agree to go with him to see his stupid mom? Why the hell did I say 'no' when he needed me?"
"I am sure you had your reasons, Agent Barton," J.A.R.V.I.S. said.
"Yeah," Clint sighed. "His mom's Hydra. Well, you know that. But, that should've been a big, fucking 'no way in hell' right there. And he was worried about seeing her, anyway, J. Even above and beyond the Nazi bullshit. I mean, he told me he was sure she was gonna say something bitchy to him, and make him feel lousy for leaving California. Like he couldn't bond with other Guides on purpose, or something. And what if her Hydra buddies come after him? Or her for whatever reason? How could I possibly agree to any of that?
"It seems quite reasonable that you would not," J.A.R.V.I.S. said.
"Exactly." Clint pointed at the ceiling. "So, we already know she's been manipulating him right out the gate. And don't forget she's Hydra, so that guarantees that she's evil. And why the hell would I want my Sentinel to go see someone manipulating and evil, huh? What kind of Guide would I be if I did that?"
"A singularly careless one, I should say," J.A.R.V.I.S. said.
"Thanks, J," Clint said, a little mollified. "But I really hurt him, when I said 'no'. He feels betrayed. And I keep thinking that if I'd agreed, he would've been happy. And, if we went, I could've had his back. Just, done what he wanted and still kept him safe."
"If I may, Agent Barton," J.A.R.V.I.S. said, "having delved through the available Hydra files on Karen Street, I believe that you made the best choice you could, given the circumstances."
"Then why does it feel like I made the wrong one?" Clint rubbed his forehead, feeling the slowly tightening band of a headache. "Why does it feel like I've fucked up everything?"
"It is difficult to see those we care about in pain, especially when we ourselves caused it," J.A.R.V.I.S. said. "But I feel I should also remind you that occasionally it is cruel to be kind."
"Yeah," Clint said on a sigh. "I don't think he'd agree about the kindness part, though."
"Most likely not," J.A.R.V.I.S. said. "I am certain he will forgive you eventually, however."
"Eventually," Clint repeated. Eventually felt like a very, very long time. And that was leaving aside the broken trust Clint would have to rebuild, if he even could. Jimmy had been hurt too much to trust easily. Hell, it'd been over a month since they'd bonded, and it was only recently that Jimmy finally really believed it when Clint said he loved him.
Clint really didn't want to lose that.
He took a breath, already making plans to hopefully keep this from being the stupidest decision of a life peppered with stupid decisions. "J? Could you please let Jimmy know where I am, and that I've been thinking about it and I changed my mind?"
"Immediately, Agent Barton," J.A.R.V.I.S. said. Clint was absolutely certain that the A.I. sounded pleased.
"Thanks," Clint said, wishing he felt more than sickly relief and dread himself.
A moment later the bond reopened, and Jimmy was so damn happy Clint could almost tell himself he'd done the right thing.
Luckily, because they had access to a Quinjet instead of needing to use a regular airplane, the flight was so ridiculously fast Clint was only able to waffle about his decision about 100 times instead of several thousand. It didn't help much that Jimmy went quieter and quieter and more and more restless the closer they got to California, until he was pacing up and down the narrow jet their bond was hissing with his anxiety like a pissed off tiger. Clint sent him as much reassurance as he could, which unfortunately wasn't much.
"You know we can just turn around and go home," he said, not for the first time. He was in the pilot's seat, but sitting sideways and leaning out so he was watching Jimmy quietly freaking out rather than doing any flying. J.A.R.V.I.S. had that covered until they got close to the L.A. branch of Stark Industries, where Pepper had kindly arranged for them to land the jet and borrow a company car. They wouldn't arrive for at least another couple minutes. Plenty of time to change their minds. "We don't have to do this," he added, making his voice as gentle as he could. "You don't owe her anything, Jimmy."
"You know I do," Jimmy said tightly. "She gave up everything for me. She's spent most of my life in prison."
Clint swallowed a sigh. "You don't owe her for protecting you. That's what parents are supposed to do. And you really don't owe her for shooting your dad. She didn't have to do that. That was her choice. And you know it was at least partly because of their Hydra affiliation -"
"His Hydra affiliation," Jimmy snapped. "Not hers! She did it to keep me away from him! She had no choice! Of course I owe her for that!"
Clint bit his tongue so he wouldn't argue. There was no point in arguing, he reminded himself. There hadn't been any point in arguing since the first time they'd had this argument and Clint had realized there was no point in arguing. Either Jimmy would figure out Clint was right, or he wouldn't; there was nothing Clint could do to facilitate that. Saying the same shit over and over was not going to get him a different result, not matter how true the shit was.
"I just don't want her to hurt you again," Clint said at last, because that was really the point, after all. "She makes you feel like crap, and you don't deserve it. I just want you to...not feel like crap. Ever. Especially not because of your mom."
That, at least, got him a half-smile. "Thanks," Jimmy said, "but I'll be fine." He pulled in a deep breath, squaring his shoulders as if that would guarantee his fineness. "We're just going to have dinner at her house so she can meet you and see that I'm all right. And then we can leave."
He sounded like he was promising it to himself, which was just heartbreaking.
"That's right," Clint said. "And then we can have a real vacation. We can hang out with your cop buddies, you can show me your hometown…It'll be great." He made his grin big and wide, sending Jimmy as much confidence and reassurance as he could. And he didn't say, and then we can go home and you'll never have to see your mother again. He definitely didn't say anything about how Clint had made sure she was on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s watch list. Or how he'd already primed J.A.R.V.I.S. to be listening on their phones, so that if anything hinky went down they'd know about it in New York.
It wasn't that Clint didn't trust Jimmy to keep that last part a secret, 'cause he absolutely did. He just didn't want Jimmy to be upset by Clint's assumption that his mom was planning something. It wasn't like Clint figured she would, really. Mostly. It was just, better safe than sorry. Especially when it came to Hydra. They'd all already learned that the hard way back in April, when S.H.I.E.L.D. went tits-up in the most pyrokinetically way possible.
And if J.A.R.V.I.S. listened in on nothing but a pleasant dinner with Karen Street, no harm, no foul, right?
"Yeah, it'll be great," Jimmy said. His smile wasn't anywhere as big or as hopeful as Clint's, and his side of the bond was so tense it felt like overstretched elastic. "You never really got a chance to meet my old team, before. I'd like them to know who my Guide is." His smile widened a little. "I mean, I'm bonded to an Avenger. How cool is that?"
Clint laughed, pleased when it made Jimmy chuckle in return. "Aw, you think I'm cool."
"Well, the Avengers are pretty cool," Jimmy said. He walked back to the cockpit and sat in the copilot's seat. He leaned back with his hands behind his head, like he didn't have a care in the world. His bond belied that, of course, since he was still anxious as hell, but Clint was happy not to mention it. "I'm not sure about that Hawkguy, though. I hear he's a bit of a dork."
"Oh, yeah. What a loser," Clint said, nodding with mock sobriety. "Who uses a bow as their main weapon anymore? Really?"
Street nudged him with his foot, then. "Don't call my Guide a loser."
"We are arriving at Stark Industries," J.A.R.V.I.S. said, and immediately all the levity drained from the cockpit.
Jimmy slowly sat up, dropping his arms. He clenched his hands in his lap. Clint could practically feel his heartbeat spiking.
"We could just take the car and do a road trip," Clint murmured.
"I know," Jimmy said. "But she's waiting for us."
That's what I'm afraid of, Clint thought, but he didn't say it.
Karen Street's house was in a remarkably upmarket neighborhood for someone who'd just gotten out of prison, Clint thought, tracking their progress towards the cozy little suburb as Jimmy drove with his usual manic precision. "These are all million-dollar homes," he said, looking up at Jimmy. "How can she afford a million-dollar home?"
"She's renting." Jimmy's jaw was set, his eyes focused on the road like he wished they were in a police cruiser with full lights and sirens. "She earned some money in prison. Like, you know, the slave-labor stuff. And I've been sending some of my pay to her."
"Oh," Clint said, feeling like an idiot. He should have figured that. He quickly shoved down the flare of anger that Jimmy had been sending his mother money all this time, like he was somehow responsible for her. The whole reason they were in California right now was because Jimmy felt he was responsible for her. At least an Avenger's salary was much higher than a cop's, even a S.W.A.T. team officer in L.A. At least Jimmy could afford to send his mom money now; Clint just hated that he felt he had to, especially 'cause Clint would bet anything Jimmy had never actually wanted to do it. "You know," he said carefully, "since we're bonded, I'd be happy to set aside some of my salary for her too."
Jimmy blinked, then took his eyes off the road long enough to gape at him. Their bond sparked with his surprise. "Really? You'd do that?"
"Of course I would," Clint said, kind of amazed to realize it was the complete truth. "She's your mom, and she's important to you. And you're important to me. That means she's important to me, too. So, that means I'll help, if you want. Help her keep this swank house without it being such a hassle for you."
"It wasn't a hassle," Jimmy said, exactly the way Clint knew he would. But some of the tension around his eyes eased, and the tightness in his jaw melted into a soft, fond smile. "But, thanks. That's...that's really amazing."
"Yeah, well, I'm a pretty amazing guy," he said, making sure to grin so Jimmy would roll his eyes. He reached across the seat, so he could clasp his hand around Jimmy's nape. He loved touching him anyway, especially for how it made their bond sing with what they felt for each other. "You're lucky to have me."
"Yes I am," Jimmy said, and Clint could feel exactly how much he meant it.
They parked at the end of a long driveway leading to a small house with blue paint that had faded and blistered under the California sun. It seemed pleasant enough, despite the cracked and pitted driveway and chain link fence. It wasn't secluded, which was nice, but it wasn't quite near enough to the neighbors that, say, screaming for help would do any good.
Clint rubbed his forehead, biting his tongue so he wouldn't tell Jimmy yet again that he didn't have to do this. Instead he just sent him more reassurance and caressed the back of Jimmy's neck with his thumb. "It's going to be okay," he said, because their bond felt so brittle and shaky. Clint hated it, but other than somehow forcing him to turn the car around there wasn't anything else he could do. And Clint wasn't about to force Jimmy to do anything.
Jimmy swallowed, but nodded, giving Clint a wan smile. "I just...it's been a long time, you know? 'Guess I thought I was more prepared for it than I am."
"Hey, I hear ya." Clint pulled him closer for an awkward half-hug over the parking brake. "I'll be right there. And, whatever nasty shit she says to you isn't true, okay? Just keep that in your head going in: whatever she says to you isn't true." He forced a smirk. "Well, unless it's nice. If she says something nice then it's totally true."
Jimmy's smirk was a lot more bitter. "I can't really imagine her saying anything nice."
Ouch. "Then it's all lies," Clint said with authority. He leaned in a bit more and kissed Jimmy, doing his best to flood their bond with love and support. "I'll be right there," he said again when they broke apart. "I'm not leaving you. And you're an adult now, and you've got an awesome Guide and you're a fucking Avenger. She can't hurt you anymore. All she's got are words, and words aren't anything, okay? You're an Avenger and I love you more than anything and she can't hurt you."
Jimmy's breath hitched over a sudden, tiny sob. He smiled at Clint, though now his eyes were red and a little wet. "Thanks," he said, voice rough. "Me too."
"I know." Clint smiled back at him. He sighed. "If we're actually doing this thing, we should probably get out of the car. How are your levels? Wanna get the lay of the land before we commit? Say, take your hearing up to cruising speed?"
Jimmy wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand. "Sure." He concentrated, stretching out his hearing until the car, the distance to the house and the walls separating them from Karen Street became irrelevant. Clint kept his hand on the back of Jimmy's neck, making sure Jimmy stayed grounded despite the stress he was under. Jimmy had been less agitated than this the first time he'd met Nick Fury, but family had a way of ratcheting up anxiety like nothing else.
Their bond spiked with alarm just before Jimmy sucked in a sharp breath, his eyes widening. "Shit. She's not alone in there. Three men. She's tied up."
"Well, that's not good," Clint murmured. He took a quick look up and down the street, automatically searching for one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s black Humvees before remembering that Hydra didn't have access to those anymore. "They must've parked in someone else's driveway." There was only one, unassuming little hatchback near to Karen's house and Clint figured it had to be hers. "Are they Hydra?"
"I don't know," Jimmy said, voice tight with tension. His hands were in a death grip on the steering wheel, like he was thinking about ramming the house. "They keep talking about her owing them money."
"What money?" Clint said, though that was mostly rhetorical. "J," he said quietly, knowing the A.I. in his phone would pick it up, "you're getting this, right?"
"Yes, Agent Barton," J.A.R.V.I.S. answered. "I am relaying your conversation to Sir right now."
"Great." Clint patted his phone. "Just a precaution," he said to Jimmy, who was eyeing him with surprised confusion. "Okay. If those guys in there are Hydra, the last thing we want is to call the cops. Even if the local S.W.A.T. here is as good as your guys, they'll just kill everyone. We don't want that."
"Right," Jimmy said tersely. "I don't think they know we're here."
"Great," Clint said again. "Question is, can we get in with them still not knowing we're here?"
"Maybe through the back door," Jimmy said. He reached and grabbed their duffel from the backseat, zipping it open. One of the perks of having their own transportation was being able to carry their preferred weapons without permits or awkward conversations with TSA people. Jimmy handed Clint his bow, which was brand new courtesy of Tony and folded up to the size of a hardback novel. His quiver full of arrows came next while Jimmy took out the case with his Glock. Jimmy unlocked it and removed his gun, then loaded it and pocketed a couple spare magazines.
Clint nudged his door open, climbed silently out of the car and eased the door shut without making it click. Jimmy did the same, then waited while Clint telescoped his bow to proper length and got his quiver ready on his back. "Think you can find an open door for us?" he whispered.
Jimmy made a face like he had no idea, but concentrated again. "I think there's an open window this way," he said softly, pointing with a jut of his chin.
Clint let him take the lead, since this was exactly what he'd been trained for. He followed behind, stepping carefully and ducking under the windows, though he noted the blinds were drawn on all of them. Probably to keep anyone from accidentally noticing the felony going on inside.
There was, indeed, a half-open window in the back of the house, near enough to the back door that if one of them climbed in halfway they could probably unlock it. Clint nudged Jimmy's shoulder then gave him a small smile and firm nod, in lieu of whooping or clapping him on the back. Jimmy just gave Clint a slight nod in return, acknowledging the praise but focused on the mission.
But Clint stopped Jimmy with a hand on his arm before he could holster his gun and hoist himself through the window, sending enough concern and suspicion down their bond to make his Sentinel look at him.
"Convenient," Clint said, so softly he barely formed the word. He gestured at the window, which was also the only one they'd seen without the blinds drawn. Like it'd been left like that precisely for them. Of course, it was on the lower level of a two-story house, but still. Clint had learned a long time ago never to trust convenience.
Jimmy hesitated - God knew he didn't trust convenience either - but then spread his hands, leaning close enough to speak directly into Clint's ear. "The only people are upstairs."
"You sure?" Clint whispered back.
Jimmy nodded, then touched his nose and ear and shook his head, silently saying he couldn't smell or hear anyone else.
Their bond was hot with Jimmy's certainty, and that was good enough for Clint. He nodded, pointed at the window then gave a thumbs up.
Jimmy gave him a flicker of a smile, then went back to the window, wiped his hands on his pant legs, then grabbed the windowsill and boosted himself through. Then cried out as his body was yanked the rest of the way inside, like a letter through a mail slot. Their bond flared like a bonfire with Jimmy's shock and alarm.
"NO!" Clint lifted his bow, arrow already notched, backpedaling as the basement door flew open. Jimmy had stopped making noise, his side of the bond going quiet and dark as he slid into unconsciousness. Whatever they'd done to him had been terrifyingly quick.
The man who rushed out was dressed like a fucking astronaut from a Ridley Scott movie. Every move he made was soundless, like being attacked by a ghost. Clint had no doubt the suit had kept Jimmy from scenting him either.
Which meant the whole thing about Karen being attacked in her home wasn't an unfortunate coincidence, but a trap. A trap specifically made and baited for one particular Sentinel. Which meant his mom was probably in on it. Jesus Christ.
Clint released the arrow. From this close it went straight through the man in the spacesuit, spinning him to the left as it pierced his heart. Clint grabbed the dying man's arm and yanked him out of the way, leaving him to finish bleeding out on the ground. Clint notched another arrow, hooked the closing door back open with his foot and ran in, ready to perforate anyone who wasn't his Sentinel.
He shot the first thing he saw moving then notched another arrow before the answering scream, turning to the next target.
Who was Karen, pointing a gun at her child's head. "Stop or I swear to God I will shoot him."
Jimmy was on his side on the floor, so close to the window his feet were touching the wall. He was out cold, could've been dead except for the solid reassurance of their bond. A spent hypodermic lay next to him. He looked like he'd been drugged and then just dropped when he went limp, like an unwanted doll.
"What did you do to him?" Clint snarled. The second spacesuit was down with an arrow in his neck, but there was still one more spacesuit and two men in civvies, flanking Karen. That left one man upstairs, probably making sure no other Avengers showed up.
The two men with Karen had guns pointed at him too, but he really didn't give a shit. "Answer me!"
"Put down your bow," Karen said. She hadn't moved her gun. The detached calm in her voice only spiked Clint's rage.
"I can hit you before you fire," Clint said.
Karen just smiled. It looked so much like Jimmy's that Clint wanted to rip it off her face. "And then you'll be shot dead and when your Sentinel wakes up, he'll die in agony. Is that what you want?"
Clint's jaw worked as he ground his teeth. "If you really wanted either of us dead you'd've already killed us."
"Oh, absolutely," Karen said. Then she shot Jimmy in the arm.
Clint screamed in horror. For a second his bond with Jimmy jolted with muted pain, which at least quickly faded into the murky black of unconsciousness. "You bitch! You fucking bitch!" He almost shot her: an immediate, animal instinct to destroy the threat to his Sentinel. He managed to stop himself, barely, by remembering that the men with her would kill him, and then Jimmy would die.
Karen huffed and rolled her eyes. "Relax. It's just a flesh wound. Did you really think I'd hurt my own son? He'll be fine."
Clint glanced at Jimmy. There was a sizable puddle of blood spreading under his left arm. It was his dominant arm, too, the cunt. At least it was just a deep graze like she'd said, though Clint had no idea if that was Karen's aim or blind luck. With proper medical care and Jimmy's Sentinel healing he'd probably be fine. Provided either of them survived this at all.
"He's not fine," Clint said tightly, "you fucking shot him!"
Karen ignored him, turning to one of her three men, though her gun stayed aimed squarely at Jimmy's back. "Kyle, get the first aid kit and patch him up, will you? Adam and Don can take care of Clint if he decides to be stupid. Now, Clint," she said pleasantly, looking back at him. "Put down the bow or my next shot goes through his lung."
Clint gaped at her. "You just said you wouldn't hurt him! He's your son! "
She shrugged. "He's unconscious. He won't feel it, so it won't hurt him. And, yes. He is my son. He's mine. And I'd rather kill him than let him leave here with you. So put down your bow, now. Or I make sure he doesn't leave."
She might have been bluffing. Then again, she'd already shot her own kid while he lay helpless on the floor. Clint slowly knelt and put his bow down, then his quiver, holding eye contact with her the whole time. "I'm going to kill you," he told her. If he could have turned his fury into a weapon, she and the three men helping her would already be dead.
Karen just smirked. "No, you really won't. No, no," she added when Clint was going to stand up again. "You stay right there. Adam, deal with him. Remember, Clint, you move and it's Jimmy's lung."
Clint stayed in a crouch as Adam zip-tied his wrists behind his back, seething with fear and rage. He could have taken Adam down easily, even from that position, but the risk to Jimmy wasn't worth it. Clint had no idea what they'd drugged him with, but he still hadn't moved. It barely looked like he was breathing.
Clint watched Kyle bandaging Jimmy's arm, trembling with the need to wrench the man away from his Sentinel. At least Kyle was careful and thorough, which boded well in the sense that ultimately it meant Karen preferred her son alive. But for what?
That question was even more terrifying than seeing Jimmy completely vulnerable like this. Clint hadn't missed that proprietary snarl before, or how she'd rather Jimmy died than leave. It made him think of cyro chambers and chairs that ripped your mind apart.
He wanted very badly to think that Karen would never let that happen to her son. But he didn't know. He didn't know and that scared him more than anything else had in his entire life.
"You saw what a good job I did, right, Ms. Street?" Adam said, holding Clint's arms to present him like a kid at Show-And-Tell. He'd made the zip-tie tight enough that it dug into Clint's skin, but the guy was obviously an amateur at tying people up, because he'd let Clint cross his wrists, which would give Clint more room later to get them off. Hopefully he'd have the opportunity. "I told you I'd know when they got here, so we'd be ready for 'em."
Oh. Adam was another fucking Sentinel, something Clint probably would've noticed, if he'd given enough of a shit to pay attention to anything besides Jimmy on the floor and who to put on his kill list for causing it.
"Wow. Great sense of hearing, Adam," he snarled. "You're what? Level one?"
"Shut up!" Adam cuffed Clint on the back of the head, hard enough to knock him over. "I'm level two, asshole! That's why Ms. Street's gonna be my Guide!"
"Sure thing, honey." Karen smiled, then shot Adam right through the middle of his forehead.
Kyle and the other guy in the spacesuit startled. Clint had seen that coming though, and he rolled to his feet immediately, planning his attack.
Karen pointed the gun at Jimmy's back again. "I still have plenty of bullets, Clint," she said. "Sit down or I'll use them."
"Good." Karen gave him a thin, predator's smile. "Kyle, if you've finished with my boy, could you take care of Clint, please?"
Clint thought that she meant standing him up plus more threats and glaring. It wasn't until Kyle grabbed his hair that it even occurred to Clint they were going to drug him too. He'd assumed they'd want him conscious to help carry Jimmy, especially now that Karen was short a piece-of-shit minion to do it.
But he saw Karen still holding the gun to Jimmy's back, and he gritted his teeth and stayed still and let Kyle sink the needle into the meat of his shoulder.
He held onto the feel of his bond with Jimmy until he couldn't feel anything at all.
"Okay, that's everything J.A.R.V.I.S. was able to transmit before they destroyed the phones," Steve said. "J.A.R.V.I.S. is doing his best to track Clint and Jimmy via satellite and CCTV cameras, but so far he hasn't found anything. Local law enforcement is already on scene, and they've promised to convey whatever information they find about where Clint and Street might've been taken." He was standing with his hands on the long, oval table in the boardroom, back and arms rigid as he surveyed everyone else in the room. He wasn't tense, exactly, but to Tony Steve's part of their bond felt like a pacing tiger, ready to rip off someone's arm.
Not too terribly far from how he and Bucky were also feeling, really, though Bucky's not-exactly-tension felt more like the cold, icy stillness of a winter's night. And Tony would readily admit to anyone that he was tense as hell.
Two of their own were missing, under pretty fucking dire circumstances. He had every right to be tense, though truthfully he preferred the anger thrashing like a snake under his skin. Street and Clint were Avengers. More than that, they were his friends. His family. Maybe not blood kin, like Bucky and Street were, but close enough.
"Do the police have a Sentinel with them?" Sebastian Berger asked. He and his wife Ellie Delfont-Bogard were sitting next to Alex Karev. Sebastian and Ellie were police themselves: international cops dealing with pan-European crime for the Hague. Alex was a pediatrician from Seattle who Ellie had sort of adopted because they were both Healer Guides. Kind of like how Tony was a Guide Augment only entirely different.
The three of them had come to New York to meet Bucky, since he was Alex's grandfather and Ellie's great-grandfather, respectively. So much for the meet-n-greet. Though Sebastian-the-Sentinel did raise an interesting point.
"No," Tony filled in, because he'd been the one doing the liaising via J.A.R.V.I.S. "The local P.D. has a Guide on payroll, but no Sentinels. They're trying to get a S-G pair from another county."
Sebastian grimaced. "I have a portable scanning device, the ScanGen, that can get information from crime scenes that even Sentinels aren't always able to pick up. I can have it couriered -"
"We don't have time," Bucky growled. He was next to Tony, completely still with his hands in fists on the table. Tony had his hand on Bucky's leg, trying to ground him. The Sentinel's side of their bond was so cold Tony could practically feel it in his fingers, like frostbite. "We should already be in a jet on our way there now. I know what Hydra will do to them. If we don't find 'em now there won't be anything left to find."
"You don't actually know that," Sam said. He was with Natasha, who was sitting as still as Bucky, hands clasped in front of her. Sam's hand was wrapped around her nearer forearm. "We don't even know for sure that Hydra's even involved."
"Wait," Alex put in. "You mean, Mrs. Street planned to abduct her own kid?"
"What part of J.A.R.V.I.S.' recording made you think she was coerced?" Natasha asked, voice mild enough to be scathing.
"But, he's her kid," Alex protested. He looked at all of them like he was silently begging for someone to tell him otherwise. "I thought...I was sure she was playing along."
"That wasn't playacting," Natasha snapped. "Naivete like that is going to get you killed."
"It's not naive to want to see the best of people, Nat," Sam said.
"If Hydra's not involved," Ellie cut in, "from everything I've researched, that might actually be worse."
"How could it be worse?" Bucky demanded. "Sure as shit Hydra wants to turn Clint and Street into new Winter Soldiers! What the hell could be worse than that?"
Sebastian shot Bucky a glare, moving his body so his wife was less in Bucky's line of sight. Ellie put her hand on the back of his neck and murmured something to him. Sebastian relaxed, but still watched Bucky warily.
"This is just speculation," Ellie said, "but, Mrs. Street has already shown herself to be overly attached to her son, and dangerously possessive of him. And she's also a Guide."
It took a moment for that to sink in. Then everyone stared at her.
"Come on," Sam said, but he looked like he was going to be sick.
"You're saying she'll...do what? Kill Clint and try to take over his bond?" Steve asked. He looked about as horrified as Sam. "Is that even possible?"
"Of course it isn't possible," Tony said, nearly snapping the words himself. He didn't mean to be rude, but the idea was so awful that just imagining it made him want to hit something. Being brusque was a much milder reaction. "Street can't bond with anyone else. He'll just die, end of story."
"Most Sentinels die when their Guides do, anyway," Bucky said. "Hell, they want to." He looked at Steve and his eyes held decades' worth of pain. "I wanted to. I would've, if I could."
"I know," Steve said. He smiled, but his eyes looked just the same as Bucky's. "I'm so glad you didn't, but...I know. I wanted to die too."
"Most Sentinels do die, yes. And I have no doubt that James Street would normally be one of them," Ellie said. "Unfortunately, I'm afraid that there's another bond you're forgetting about, which is pertinent here." She drew a breath, but Alex beat her to the punch, mostly by going white.
"You're talking about a parental bond," he said. "You think Karen Street's going to try to force a bond with Jim based on genetic compatibility. But...that's not possible," he added, sounding desperate. "That bond only works with children. James is an adult."
"There have been cases where a Guide was able to impose a parental bond on their adult Sentinel child, to stabilize them after the death of their bonded Guide," Ellie said. "Not many but...it's possible."
"Okay. Okay. But...you'd need drugs, though," Alex said, looking more and more stricken as he talked about it. "To undo the psychic changes in Sentinels after adolescence. And those drugs are highly regulated, because they're dangerous as hell. And they'd have to be administered by specially trained physicians, because of the risk of brain damage or even death…." He trailed off, looking at Ellie helplessly. "She wouldn't do that, would she? Would she really do that?"
"She shot him while he was lying unconscious on the floor," Bucky growled. "So, yeah. I really think she'd fucking do that."
Sam scrubbed his face. "I'm sorry," he said. He really looked like he was trying not to throw up. "It's just...I'm a Guide, and…." He shook his head, then stood. "I'm sorry. I'll be wherever you need me, whenever that is. I just...I need some air. I really need some air." He stalked out.
Natasha quietly pushed away from the table and followed him.
Tony watched them leave, then turned back to the others. "A plan would be really good right about now, Steve."
"I know." Steve ducked his head and rubbed the back of his neck, then pulled in a breath and straightened. "J.A.R.V.I.S., please let Sam know he's got ten minutes to settle his stomach and grab his gear, then we're meeting on the landing platform. We've got the flight to California to see if J.A.R.V.I.S. or the police can turn up anything useful. Otherwise, I do have a plan." He looked at Tony. "It's going to depend on you, though."
Tony blinked at him. "Me? Of course, but...I can't do more than J.A.R.V.I.S. is already. I mean…" He gestured in Sebastian's direction with his thumb, "I've got my own ScanGen-type stuff built into the suit we can use when we get there, but -"
"I mean as a Guide Augment," Steve said. "I'm hoping you can use your gift to connect to Street and find out where they've taken him and Clint."
Jim drifted back to consciousness, nauseous and disoriented. He touched his bond automatically, but just that slight mental effort made his head ache like someone had been driving nails through his eyeballs. Had he been hit? His left arm hurt pretty badly, too, but he had no idea how that could've happened. The last thing he remembered was going through a window because his mom -
He sucked in a breath, which made his head flare with pain. His mom was in danger. There were men with her, in her house.
Jim tried to sit up, but he couldn't. His wrists were secured in cuffs and there were restraints securing his chest and ankles as well. He was strapped down to something like a medical cot, only more like the ones in horror movies.
Okay, okay. He forced himself to stay calm. Even thinking hurt. First thing: find his Guide. Then they could figure out what the hell had happened, rescue his mom and get the fuck out of here -
Only...only something was wrong with his bond. It was…It felt sick. Sick, and weak and brittle. That was the only way Jim could describe it, like it was about to break.
That was terrifying enough. What was even worse was how when he frantically reached for Clint, for a moment he couldn't find him. Like there wasn't enough of a bond left to even allow an awareness of Clint's presence.
Jim gasped in fear and reached harder, pushing until the pain got so bad his vision went white. But he finally found him - Thank God. Oh, thank God - except it felt murky and distant, like a really bad radio transmission where you had to scream to be heard at all. Clint wasn't conscious, either. At least as far as Jim could tell. There was the same lack of awareness of sleep, but none of the gentle resonance. Like maybe Clint was dying.
No! No, no, no! It couldn't be. This couldn't be real. His Guide had to be okay, because if Clint wasn't then…Then Jim was dying too. And he didn't want to live without Clint anyhow, but...he still felt alright.
He was still alright. So it didn't matter if his bond felt brittle or weird or wrong (not breaking. It couldn't be breaking), because Clint was alive and Jim just had to calm the fuck down, get the fuck off this table and find him.
Okay. So. Assess the situation. There was an I.V. taped to the back of his right hand. Whatever was in it hurt, like liquid fire dripping into his veins. He followed the line up to the bag hanging on a nearby stand, but trying to read the label on it just made his eyes blur with pain.
Well, he'd survived worse than this. Dying from lack of a Guide had been worse, and he'd made it out of that one. He'd make it out of this, too. Find Clint and get the hell out of here.
He was testing the restraints, gritting his teeth because every move caused red flashes of agony behind his eyes, when his mom came in.
"Mom!" Jim managed to smile despite the pain, incredibly relieved to see her. "Thank God you're okay! What happened?" Even talking hurt, each word rattling in his skull like stones. "Where's Clint? I need to find him; I think he's hurt. Can you untie me? Please?"
She smiled back, bright and happy, but she didn't touch the restraints. She just pushed back the damp hair from his forehead. "Shh. It's fine, sweetheart. Everything's just fine. It'll be over soon."
"Mom?" 'Over soon'? What was she talking about? A shiver ran down his spine. Something was wrong. She should be helping him. Why wasn't she helping him? Where was Clint? It was so hard to think when his head was a sea of pain. He reached for Clint again, but Clint was still unconscious. And every time Jim touched their bond it...it felt like it was crumbling. Like ashes sifting through his fingers.
"No. Please. Mom. Mom, help. Help me," he tried. "Something's wrong. I can barely feel Clint anymore. Please, I need to find Clint. Please, help me."
"Oh baby. I know you're confused, but I promise there is nothing to worry about," Karen said, still smiling. "I know the drug is a bit uncomfortable for you, and I hate to see you in pain, sweetheart. But it's for the best. You don't need Barton. He's a useless, low-level Guide who isn't worthy of you anyway. You'll be much happier with me, baby. I promise."
"What?" It was so hard to think. "No. I want...I need Clint. He's my Guide. I can't-"
"Of course you can," she snapped, eyes going flinty as her expression darkened in anger. "You just think you need him, because he got into your head and made you think you can't bond with another Guide. But that's not true." She caressed Jim's face. He flinched, couldn't help it. Her touch felt like insects crawling on him. "I've got medicine that'll fix that, so I can bond with you the way it should've been."
It took a very long time for her words to leak far enough through the pain to mean anything. And then…no. He couldn't believe it. She couldn't mean that. There was no way she would purposely destroy his bond with Clint and replace it with her own. She would never do that to him. She was his mom.
He forced himself to breathe past the block of ice that had lodged in his chest, ignoring the agony in his head and the wild banging of his heart. He had to stay calm. Clint was still alive. And J.A.R.V.I.S. must have alerted the Avengers that something had happened. They'd come and rescue them. They would. They just needed some time.
This is your fault, Jimmy. Clint didn't want you to go. Jim tried to ignore the voice hissing in the back of his head, but he couldn't. If Clint died -
If he dies, it'll be because of you.
"Please. Please don't break my bond with him. I need Clint. He's…It's just him. There's no one else. I'll die." His tongue felt thick, the words tripping over each other as they stumbled out of his mouth. He didn't say, I love him, or, I don't want to live without him, because he knew she wouldn't understand. "I'll die without him. Please." He was in so much pain now every thought felt like a sledgehammer inside his skull. "Let me go. I promise...I promise I won't get you in trouble. Just...Please. Please, untie me."
She caressed his face again. "Oh Jimmy," she said, like he'd done something mildly annoying. "Of course you won't get me in trouble. You're a good boy. Now, no more of that crap about you dying. I won't let that happen, trust me." She deftly removed the empty I.V. bag from the stand next to the table she'd strapped him to, then dis-attached it from the H.E.P. lock in his hand. "You just need a bit more medicine and then we're all set." She petted his sweat-soaked hair, more insects on his skin. He tried to dial down his senses so he couldn't feel it, but it did nothing but cause another spike of pain.
And now Jim could feel the power of Karen's mind, pushing at his weakening shields like an awl. It hurt: icy and sharp, with a slithery, sickly feeling behind it, like sticking his hand inside a semi-frozen corpse. His headache had spread so now even his teeth hurt, but he clenched his aching jaw and pushed back, trying to force her away.
"Clint!" Jim renewed his struggling against the restraints, giving in to panic. "Clint! Clint, help me! Clint! CLINT! CLINT!"
He felt him. For just a second, his Guide was there. It felt like he was on the other side or a chasm, but he was awake and warm and comforting inside his head, soothing Jimmy's panic like a beacon in the dark. Jim reached for him, still calling. "CLINT! I'm here! I'm here! Where are you?"
But there was no answer. And then Karen snapped "shut up!" and grabbed his jaw. She forced his mouth shut, then held his nose closed. Normally, it would have been a ludicrous way to keep him quiet, except he was lashed down and in so much pain he could barely move. He couldn't fight her like this, or even jerk his head out of her grip. He was suffocating. There was no air. The world around him dimmed, going black at the edges -
She let him go and he gasped, sucking in roaring lungfuls that felt like claws raking every nerve in his head. Clint's fear for him was like the faint humming of distant wires.
"Are you going to stop screaming now?" Karen sounded like she was speaking to a badly-behaved child.
Jim just stared at her, chest heaving. He was lightheaded, but he didn't know if it was from lack of oxygen or the pain. He felt disconnected, like part of him was floating above his body. He tried to send Clint reassurance that he was still alive. "W-why…?"
He wasn't sure he'd managed to form the word, but Karen looked disappointed, so maybe he had. "Because you abandoned me to run off and bond with Barton, that's why," she said, no hint of a smile anymore. "If you hadn't been selfish and done that, we could've bonded the way we were supposed to. But, no. You only ever think of yourself, don't you? There I was, rotting in prison because of you,, and how do you repay me? The instant you come online you bond to the first Guide you see, like some kind of fucking slut. But you're mine." She grabbed a fistful of his wet hair, using it to pin his head in place so he could only look up at her. "You should have been mine all along. But of course not even watching me shoot that waste of skin you called a father made you come online. You piece of Sentinel shit."
Jim was so used to those kinds of insults he barely heard them anymore. But the rest…It was so hard to focus, but...Did she really say… "You...you shot dad...for me?"
He meant, Did you shoot my father to bring me online? but his mother just snorted like she understood. "Of course I did. What else was I going to keep him around for, after he betrayed both of us? He was going to run away with you, honey," she cooed. "He was going to take you from me. I was never going to let him do that. Take my little boy from me? No way in hell."
Jim blinked his blurring eyes and tears ran down his face. "You...you said…."
"That he hurt me?" She smirked. "God, you really did get your brains from him. Of course he hurt me. He was going to take you away. There's no worse pain for a mother than that." She fisted his hair a little more tightly; Jim could barely feel it over the pain he was already in. The agony was spreading into his body now, traveling with the drug through his veins. "It also hurt when you didn't come online, you know. You can't even imagine what kind of a betrayal that was. Not even the death of your father was good enough for you. What kind of sick, selfish fuck does that make you, huh?" She sneered at him, jerking his head.
He couldn't help the tiny sound of pain.
She ignored it. "It's because of Barnes, I'm sure. You're freaks, the whole lot of you. How much more trauma could you have possibly needed, anyway? Wasn't it enough that he beat you? That I let him beat me? Where was your Sentinel protective instinct when your mother needed it? What's wrong with you that you didn't come online then? Things would've been so much easier if you had. But, no. You've always been a selfish prick and now I have to force a parental bond with you. It didn't have to be like this. It's all your fault."
He blinked more tears out of his eyes, but now his vision wouldn't stop swimming. He was in hell. This had to be hell. There was no way anything his mother was saying could be true. "...Mom?"
"What the fuck are you crying for?" She made a face like she was watching something unpleasant. "Man up, for Christ's sake. You're a goddamned Sentinel, not some spineless whore like your father. You know I always hated him," she said conversationally. "I only married him because those were my orders. At least he was a Carrier, or I would never have let him even touch me." She shuddered, making a disgusted noise. "I mean, they said he was Latent, but that was bullshit. He was just weak.
"You on the other hand…." She finally let go of his hair to put her hand on his chest. The slight pressure of her hand hurt, like he had a bad fever. "You were perfect." She grimaced. "Except I couldn't make you come online. I can't believe you made me wait twenty years, Jimmy. But don't worry, I'm here now. I'll set things right."
"Don't. Please." He could barely speak anymore, could only watch in dull, aching horror as she hung another I.V. bag and attached the line to the port in his hand. This bag had the Hydra skull on it.
"Stop whining." His mother carded her fingers through his hair. Everywhere she touched felt like knives. "It'll be over soon, I promise."
No. He was going to lose Clint. She was taking his Guide from him. Jim started struggling again, adrenaline racing the drug through his veins. He tried to jerk his wrist through the restraint, use it to dislodge the needle, but he had no leverage and the wrist cuff was too tight. And then the pain started.
It had hurt before. It had been awful before. But that pain was nothing compared to this. He was vaguely aware he was screaming, thrashing mindlessly as he instinctively tried to escape the agony consuming him.
He felt it as his bond died, as the drugs obliterated it. He frantically tried to gather what was left, but they fell away like powder in wind and then there was nothing at all. Clint was gone.
Jim screamed, horror ripping the air from his lungs. It didn't even hurt anymore. This was beyond pain: a clawing, freezing emptiness where his Guide had been and was now just a void as black and endlessly cold as the depths of the ocean. Jim was a fragment drifting in the icy dark, connected to nothing. He was completely, utterly, alone.
This time, when Karen pushed against his shields, Jimmy couldn't stop her. He tried, but he was alone and drifting and aware of nothing but the empty space where his bond had been. It was like trying to stop a bullet with a piece of paper. The shields Clint made for him splintered like glass as his mother smashed her way through.
He went feral, fleeing from her and the black absence where his Guide had been. She caught him and hauled him back. Without shields, the second he was present again he fell into Sensory Overload. She hauled him back from that too.
Then she slapped her own shields around him, saving him from the Overload by trapping him like a mouse in a bowl. But now she was inside with him, in his head. In his mind. He couldn't escape from her. He couldn't push her away or shut her out. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide from her. And Karen - his mother - was….
When Jim was a little boy and in foster care for the first time, he had a recurring nightmare about being at the beach and watching a tidal wave come rolling out of the ocean. In his dream it was so gigantic it blocked out the sun. He always woke gasping before it crashed down on him, trembling with fear. Years later he figured out it represented the subconscious helplessness he'd felt: scared, alone and overwhelmed with the weight of his terror crashing down on him.
He'd never told anyone about that dream, not even Clint. He'd all but forgotten it by the time they'd met anyway; Nowadays his nightmares weren't metaphors.
This was every tsunami nightmare he'd ever had, only he couldn't wake up before the wave hit and drowned him.
He was drowning. He fought for the surface with every shred of strength he had left, but his mother kept pulling him back down. She held him there, drowning him in the bond she'd created. There was no warmth, no light, no safety. Nothing but icy, terrifying darkness he couldn't escape. He thought, distantly, that he was still calling for Clint, but he couldn't hear himself. He couldn't see or feel anything. Just the freezing darkness that was Karen Street, flooding every part of his being, like water through a crumbling wall.
Jim was dimly, vaguely aware that it wasn't supposed to be like this. Bonds were light and warmth and welcome. Two separate, distinct pieces joined into a whole. But this...this was backwards. Wrong. He was being submerged. Consumed. Drowned. She was everywhere. And he didn't want it, but he couldn't fight, couldn't break free. He was sinking, being dragged down, down, down. Until he was…he was….
"That's it. That's better now. You're part of me again. My sweet little baby."
Jimmy opened his eyes, blinking. "Mommy?"
She smiled down at him, caressed his face. His cheeks were wet. "I'm right here, baby. Mommy's right here. I'm never leaving you again."
He smiled back at her, because he was part of her and she was happy, so he was happy too.
Clint woke up hanging by his wrists with his Sentinel screaming for him.
He was still groggy and disoriented - nothing like being drugged and fucking strung up to mess with your equilibrium - but he'd never heard Jimmy that desperate or scared, ever. At least the flood of adrenaline that came with hearing it cleared Clint's head.
He was in what was probably an unfinished basement, going by the rough concrete, exposed beams and wiring. His toes (bare, of course) were just brushing the floor with his arms stretched up in a nice 'V'. His wrists were trapped in leather cuffs that hadn't sliced him up yet, but had definitely cut off his circulation. His hands were that awful cold crunchy-numb feeling like when he'd slept wrong, only multiplied by being tied to the fucking ceiling. And he had a gag in his mouth, so he couldn't even scream back, let Jimmy know he was there. That he was alive.
That wasn't the worst part, though. The worst part wasn't even Kyle and two more assholes Clint didn't know giving him shit-eating grins like he was a pinata at a kids' birthday party. Or how one of them even had a baseball bat.
Nope. The worst part was how when Clint tried to reach Jimmy through their bond, he almost couldn't. It was like they were at opposite ends of a really, really long tunnel, and all he could see of his Sentinel was a tiny, frantic flicker of light.
That wasn't right. That was all kinds of wrong, in fact. No wonder Jimmy was screaming for him. And Clint was in the fucking basement with a goddamn gag over his mouth, so he couldn't respond. And whatever Karen Street was doing to her kid was F.U.B.A.R.ing their bond all to hell. Which meant not only could Clint feel how scared Jimmy was, and how much pain he was in, but he could feel Jimmy dying. Actually dying.
Don't panic, Clint. Don't you dare fucking panic. It was very hard not to. The need to get to his Sentinel and help him was like razor wire looped around his spine, and his heart was already going bang bang bang like a drunk with an assault rifle. But he couldn't breathe through the fucking gag, and the last thing Clint needed was to use more air than he could suck in through his nose.
So Clint didn't panic. He breathed slow and steady and sent Jimmy as much comfort and reassurance as he could. And he still didn't panic when he had all of a second to echo Jimmy's relief when his terrible, helpless screaming cut off so abruptly that for a second Clint was absolutely certain Karen had killed him. Clint couldn't help his own horrified cry, though it came out like a wet squeak through the gag.
Baseball Bat sniggered.
Jimmy was still there, though. Still alive. He'd blacked out - Clint had felt the break in his consciousness like a slamming door - but came to almost instantly. Clint's breath stuttered in relief, wet and hot against the gag in his mouth. He sent Jimmy more reassurance, but wasn't sure he felt it.
Baseball tilted his head and studied Clint like a chicken might a bug, then looked at Kyle. "What'd ya think? Miz Street said we could do what we wanted with the Guide once the bond was broken. That sure sounds like a broken bond to me."
"Like you'd fuckin' know," the second new asshole snorted. Clint wondered which of them had been in the spacesuit. This guy looked like Kyle and BB, in that he was thickly muscled, close-shaved and obviously prone to violence. He was also wearing the same generic paid-thug gear of military surplus store pants and boots, topped by an olive drab tee-shirt and black tactical vest. He probably thought he looked cool.
"Shut up," Kyle said. He sounded bored. "S'not worth risking it. You kill him too early and there'll be hell to pay."
"He wouldn't be screaming if he still had a bond. I know that much." BB flipped the bat in his hand sulkily. "Sentinels always scream like that when their bond's broken."
"Just 'cause you killed some fuckin' Guides don't make you an expert." New Asshole rolled his eyes. He sauntered closer to Clint, peering into Clint's glare. "What'd you think, Barton? You still feelin' your fudge-packin' Sentinel buddy?
Clint grabbed the ropes that'd been tied to the cuffs on his wrists, then pulled up his psionic energy and dropped NA like a fucking brick.
He didn't do that much. Mostly 'cause it was unethical as fuck, inflicting his Guide powers on normals. Then again, needs must. And it wasn't exactly like these guys were big on loving kindness.
Of course, the other reason he didn't do that much was because he wasn't an Alpha and it kind of fucked him up a bit, basically using his mind like a battering ram. The instant Clint hit New Asshole with his abilities he got a headache like a grenade exploded in his sinuses. But he was expecting that, so he kept the pain away from Jimmy, then just gritted his teeth and worked past it.
Meaning that he used his grip on the ropes to swing up his legs and kick New Asshole in the chest as his legs gave out, sending him into Baseball Bat like a flailing sack of shit. That just left Clint's good buddy Kyle, who shouted 'Hey!' and aimed his gun at Clint's swinging body with all the clenched-jaw waffling of someone who knew just how screwed he was if he fired.
Clint took brutal advantage of that, pumping his legs and swinging right for the guy, betting on the hesitation lasting long enough for Clint to kick Kyle's head right into the wall he'd been leaning against. He was almost right. Kyle didn't shoot, bless his indecisive, timid little heart. But he did drop his gun and grab Clint's nearer ankle when it got close enough.
Clint kicked at his head with his free leg, but the angle was bad and he didn't have much leverage. Meanwhile, Baseball Bat had managed to shove the unconscious asshole off him and peeled himself off the floor. And he had his bat, which was really not good. Especially when it turned out that Kyle was holding Clint still so BB could hit him.
Well, fuck that. Clint heaved on the rope, half hoping it'd bring the whole ceiling down. It didn't, but he still pulled Kyle off balance and then finally managed to kick him in the face when he stumbled. Kyle let go, staggering back with his hands over his face. Clint pumped his legs again, swinging away from the wall and twisting his body to avoid BB's attempt at a home run. Then he yanked his legs up and wrapped them around BB's neck a-la Natasha.
Normally he'd finish the move by using his body weight to carry BB to the floor. He couldn't do that here, so instead he just crossed his ankles and clenched his thighs to choke the guy out.
He was doing a great job, too. Natasha would've been proud. And then Jimmy started screaming like his soul got ripped out. And their bond disintegrated like wood in an explosion.
Clint lost his grip on BB, flailing in sudden agony that wasn't pain so much as an absence like the end of the world. He couldn't feel Jimmy. He could hear him screaming but he couldn't feel him. Their bond was gone and it hurt. It hurt so bad that Clint was still reeling when BB stood up again and swung his bat like an axe into Clint's ribs.
And then Clint was trying too hard to breathe through the real, actual pain to do anything but dangle like a fish on a line as BB hit him again, and again, and again.
When Clint finally passed out, he welcomed it.
There was just nothing there.
The local police had come up with about as much as J.A.R.V.I.S. had been able to find, which was exactly diddly-squat. There was no CCTV footage, no eyewitnesses, no traces other than the destroyed cell phones and two spent hypodermic needles left behind.
The house had also been sprayed liberally with bleach, everywhere there might have been any kind of evidence. It gave all three Sentinels headaches. Bucky's was so bad he had to go stand outside for a few minutes, because of course he'd pushed his senses to the bare edge of spiking. Steve got a sympathetic headache from doing the Guide equivalent of holding Bucky's ankles while he dangled off the edge of a sensory cliff.
Tony was fine. Then again, his analogies were getting weird. Maybe it was the anxiety.
Because there was nothing. Not one damn piece of evidence they could use to figure out where Street's crazy mom had taken him and Clint. Nothing the Sentinels or Tony's suit could pick up. Even Sebastian Berger couldn't help, and he was pretty much an expert in this kind of shit. He did curse impressively in German and throw a kitchen chair across the room, which Tony could totally get behind. But it still left them with sweet fuck-all to go on.
Well, S.F.A. other than Steve's...kind of crazy idea of Tony using his abilities as a Guide Augment to find Street.
Tony was reasonably sure that it wasn't even possible.
It wasn't as if there was a manual or anything: "How to find missing and tortured Sentinels you aren't bonded to and only had brief mental contact with 101". Yeah, no. He told Steve as much.
"It's not 'brief', Tony. You helped Danny Williams keep him from going feral," Steve said with the kind of patience Tony might associate with people balancing on window ledges. He was probably picking up Bucky's anxiety, which was kind of like a marching band playing Ride of the Valkyries right behind them in a closet. Bucky was trying to keep it down, Tony could tell. But there really wasn't any way to stop feeling it short of closing the bond. And there was no way in hell any of the three of them would do that.
Not that Tony and Steve weren't anxious enough on their own, of course. Two members of their family were missing. But Bucky seemed to be feeling it worse. Maybe because Street was blood kin, or maybe because for decades Bucky had been strongly encouraged not to feel anything at all. Tony figured that kind of shit built up eventually.
But, yeah. Anyway. Here he was, sitting on one of the remaining kitchen chairs in a room that smelled of bleach with three Sentinels and three Guides all staring at him with various levels of hope and concern.
"Yes, it is brief!" Tony retorted hotly, mostly because he was absolutely certain he couldn't do this and wanted to at least get that part out of the way. "Not only was it over a month ago, but I really don't think my helping Danny to infiltrate the kid's head once while he was semi-feral counts! As anything!"
"You're the only one of us whose been that close to him at all, other than Clint or Danny," Bucky said, in a voice that he probably thought sounded reasonable. He looked at Ellie, who was standing next to her husband like a small, blonde lion tamer. "You can help him, right?"
"I don't know," she said, with distressing honesty. "Everything I know about Guide Augments has been theoretical or from having met Tony. But I do have a lot of experience working with augmented Guides in general, like Alex. I'll do everything I can."
"I won't let you hurt yourself," Sebastian growled.
"Nobody's going to let anyone hurt themselves," Sam said. He was looking a little pinched around the eyes, probably enjoying the secondhand bleach sauna as much as the rest of the Guides. "Though I think we should do whatever it is in the Quinjet. I don't know about you guys, but I'd really rather not keep breathing poison."
Natasha squeezed Sam's hand. "Clint was my T.A.G. I could try to find him too." She shrugged fluidly. "It might work."
Steve nodded. "It can't hurt." He managed something close to a smile. "Thank you, Natasha."
"They're my family too," she said.
It was a lot more comfortable in the Quinjet for sure, even if it was a little cramped. Steve stayed behind, thanking the cops who had let them into the crime scene.
Alex Karev, who'd stayed in the jet because he was a pediatrician, stood up when they trooped sadly back in. His face was alight with hope, only to look crushed the next second when Ellie shook her head.
"Plan B," Tony said. "Or, C. Or X. Or whatever we're up to."
"You're going to try to find them?" Alex asked, because of course he'd been at Steve's briefing.
Tony nodded. "Exactly. No pressure." He sighed and took a seat, then waited while the others settled and Steve came in.
J.A.R.V.I.S. shut the hatch behind Steve and turned the air conditioning to high, so at least the jet was more comfortable than the bleached house.
Ellie sat next to him, with Sebastian on her other side. Natasha sat elsewhere with Sam. "All right," she said, in her light, cultured accent. "I'll talk you through it as best I can." She looked at Sam and Natasha. "This should work for you as well, though I honestly have no idea if it'll allow either of you to find Clint or James."
"Yeah, well. That makes all of us," Tony said. He dutifully got comfortable and closed his eyes, wondering if he should cross his legs or something.
"I need you to think of James and Clint. Remember how it felt being connected to them. Remember how their presence felt, their psionic energy. Natasha, you need to find the remnants of the bond you had with Clint. If there are still traces of it present, you might be able to follow it to him," Ellie said.
It sounded simple enough, sure. Tony knew intimately how it felt to be connected to Bucky and Steve, after all. Theoretically he should be able to remember what it had felt like to be connected to Jimmy too.
Only, 'theoretically' was as far as it went. Tony had no idea; he couldn't remember.
He hadn't even had all of his gifts yet when he'd helped Danny Williams. It hadn't been a conscious decision, to worm his way into the semi-feral kid's mind and keep him from going ballistic. Just more of the typical impulsive bullshit he was so famous for.
He was about to admit it out loud: We're fucked; I can't do this, when Natasha made an unhappy noise at the front of the jet.
"I'm sorry," she said, sounding stricken, "but I don't think this will work. The connection I had to Clint has been overridden by my bond with Sam. There's just nothing there any more. I can't feel him." Her voice broke.
Tony opened his eyes in time to see Sam wrap her in his arms. "It's okay," he said. "You did your best. It was a long shot anyway."
"I don't think I can do it either," Tony blurted. He kept his eyes on the bulkhead across from him, wishing he could just crawl into it and disappear. "I can't...I don't remember anything about being connected to Jimmy. Every time I try all I can think of is Bucky and Steve. I can't even remember what I did when I helped Danny," Tony went on miserably. "I can't remember what Street even feels like, psionically. I'm trying, but I can't, okay? I can't! I'm not…strong enough or, or talented enough. Or, whatever you need me to be. We're wasting our time. There has to be another way." It all came out in a rush, with his heart hammering and his breath catching in his throat. Helpless frustration burned in his chest, like someone had shoved the arc reactor back through his breastbone.
"Hey, it's okay, Tony," Steve said. He and Bucky had been standing near the hatch, and their tension sure as hell hadn't helped Tony's confidence. Now Steve squeezed Bucky's hand, then sat on Tony's other side, sandwiching him between Steve and Ellie. He put his arm around Tony's shoulders. "You can do this. Bucky and I know you can. You can feel that, right? Or faith in you?"
Tony swallowed, then nodded. He could. Of course he could. But that didn't change how he felt. All his partners' confidence in the world couldn't do anything about how he was kind of a fuckup who was going to fail right when everybody was depending on him.
"Yeah, well. Maybe you have too much faith in me," he rasped.
"No such thing," Bucky said. He didn't come any closer, but the smile he gave Tony could've warmed him to his soul even without the bond. "You saved both our lives, Tony. And you're so fuckin' powerful you didn't even register as a Guide. You got this. I know you do."
Tony managed a pained smirk for him. "I got nothing, Lefty."
Ellie delicately cleared her throat. "Perhaps I can help with that," she said.
"I doubt it," Tony said.
"Let her try, Tony," Steve said.
Tony sighed, but nodded again. "Yeah. Sorry."
Ellie gave him a sweet, forgiving smile, then took both Tony's hands. "All right, let's try this. I know you think you don't know what it felt like to be connected to James, but you do. Your subconscious knows, even if you're not aware of it. Trust your instincts."
Tony blinked at her in disbelief. "Trust my instincts?" he parroted, "what instincts? I don't have instincts! What are you talking about?"
"How 'bout you shut your trap and listen?" Bucky said, not unkindly.
Tony threw him a mild glare - echoed by Steve because Steve was the best Guide - but Tony stopped talking.
"When you design new gear, or new technology, how do you do it?" Ellie asked him. "Do you always have a plan? Do you know exactly what you have to do to make it work?"
She sounded genuinely curious, so it didn't quite get Tony's back up, even though he knew she was manipulating him. "Well, no," he said, answering honestly. "I'm a genius, I figure it out. I try different things, change stuff around until it works and..." Tony broke off. "Oh. You think I just need to do what? Follow my gut? Is that it?"
"I think you need to trust yourself that you can," Ellie explained, "because you can. You've just never used your gifts that way. But that's fine. All the technology you invented didn't exist before either, did it? This is just the same. You're doing something new, but you're good at that. This will work." She sounded absolutely certain.
"You know she's right," Bucky said. He smiled warmly when Tony looked at him. The anxiety Tony could feel churning through Bucky's part of the bond was exactly the same, but his faith, and Steve's faith, shone like a light. "You can do this, Tony. You can do anything."
Steve leaned over and kissed Tony's temple. "What he said."
Tony took a deep breath, swallowed. "Okay."
Ellie beamed at him. "Excellent. Now, close your eyes, try to relax and just think back to the time you were in James' mind. Remember where you were, what was happening, how you felt."
"He was with Clint. They were both injured," Tony said, picturing it behind his closed eyelids. "I was in the medical suite with Bucky, who'd gone feral. Jimmy and Clint had just bonded, and being near a feral Sentinel was freaking Jimmy the fuck out. Clint was too hurt to calm Jimmy down. Danny came in with his Sentinel, but that just made things worse."
"So, you instinctively used your abilities to help," Ellie said, which had to be a total guess on her part but was basically the truth. "How did that feel?"
"Weird," Tony said automatically. But he was really thinking about the way Bucky had pushed Tony behind him, protecting him from Jimmy; and the longing, guilt and worry Tony had felt, thinking he couldn't have either Bucky or Steve and that he shouldn't want to, and that neither of them might survive anyway. Then he thought of how the mind of the then-unknown Sentinel had felt: fiercely protective and so confused and afraid. The way Jimmy's senses had felt during the moment when Tony had been in his head, like an overly of violent, slashing color and light -
Something inside of Tony thrummed with sudden recognition.
He gasped, eyes flying open. "Oh my God, I think I figured it out." He turned to Ellie, grabbing her arms. Sebastian made a small, angry noise and Tony let go immediately. "I can feel him! Or, I can remember it! How do I use that? How do I find him?"
"Shh." Ellie took his hands. "You're doing brilliantly, Tony. Just relax."
"Okay. Relax. Right." Tony closed his eyes again, did his best to just breathe. "Now what?"
"Now you just cast out your senses as far as you can and search for him. Find that feeling you had of him again."
Dread crept back into Tony's guts. "How? He could be anywhere."
"It doesn't matter where he is. You'll find him. And we're here to support you. We're a team, remember?" Steve's voice was warm and full of all the love Tony could feel from both him and Bucky over their bond. Both of his mates wrapped him in a psychic embrace, lending him their confidence and strength.
"Yeah, okay," Tony murmured. "Sure. I can do this. Piece of cake."
Mentally surrounded by Bucky and Steve, Tony reached out to search for one other familiar mind, somewhere out there in the wilds of California. At first it just felt like...stretching. Like standing on his tippy-toes to grab something off a higher shelf. Then it felt like the last reps of a difficult exercise. Then it felt like the last mile of a marathon.
It hurt. Tony was vaguely aware he was sweating, clenching his teeth with effort. He was squeezing someone's hands in his sweat-damp palms, but couldn't tell whose. He had a dim hope he wasn't hurting them.
He could feel Steve and Bucky with him, lending him their strength as he pushed his abilities further and further out. Steve was the chain to follow back, and Bucky was the anchor, keeping him safe. It allowed Tony to push that much harder, and harder still, until he felt thin and taut as a wire and his head hurt like the family reunion of all migraines.
And then, finally, he found Jimmy.
He gasped, jerking in shock as he caught the briefest flash of the Sentinel's unique sensory pattern overlaying his own. He felt so different from Bucky - too bright and too wild, slashes of color, light and sound where Bucky was all cool, stark control - that Tony almost recoiled from it; fled back to the safety of bond partners.
Tony didn't. He caught at it instead, held on to the alien feeling as hard as he could, until he felt like it was burned into his psyche and he could follow it like a north star.
"I got him," he said, a little surprised at how badly his words were slurring. "I can track him. I know where he is."
It hurt too much to open his eyes. But he knew Ellie was gone and he was nestled between his bond partners.
"You did so good, Tony," Bucky said, voice a gentle rumble next to his ear. "Thank you. I'm so proud of you. I love you so much."
"We love you so much," Steve corrected from his other side. "And I'm incredibly proud of you too. I knew you could find him. Now we just need you to lead us there."
Tony managed a hum in agreement, basking in the soothing warmth of their bond even while his head spiked in pain. He tried to keep it away from their sides of the bond, but he was too tired.
"Don't worry, we've got you," Steve said. "Don't worry about the pain. We can handle it. It's all right. Just concentrate on bringing us to Jimmy."
"Everything's gonna be just fine, sweetheart," Bucky said, and for the first time Tony actually believed it.
Kyle stomped upstairs scowling and rubbing his cheek. He was pretty sure he had a bruise the size and shape of Barton's foot on the side of his face, the fucker. He'd given that back and then some, but it didn't make it hurt any less, or lessen the sting of humiliation. Barton had been tied up, for fuck's sakes. And he'd still managed to take out all three of them.
God, Kyle fucking hated the Avengers.
Mrs. Street glanced up at him as he wandered into the kitchen, though he couldn't tell if her expression was mildly impressed or mildly concerned. "Is Barton taken care of?" was all she said. She was busy pouring a glass of milk.
Jimmy was sitting at the table with his hands on either side of a plate holding a crappy looking peanut butter sandwich on cheap white bread. He was sort of staring at it except it was more like he wasn't seeing anything.
Kyle shuddered and looked at Mrs. Street instead. "Sure," he said. He rubbed his face again then grimaced. He went to the counter and reached for the freshly-poured milk.
Mrs. Street pulled it away from him with a glare, then walked it over to the table and put it next to her kid's right hand. Kyle didn't bother reminding her Jimmy was a southpaw. "Here you go, honey," she said to her son, petting his hair. It was dark with drying sweat, and his shirt was soaked through. He was probably freezing.
He shivered a little when she touched him, maybe from the cold. But he didn't say anything and he didn't reach for the milk or the crappy sandwich.
Kyle grabbed his own glass from the cupboard, grimaced at the dust in it, then rinsed it out in the sink. He kept glancing at Jimmy while he poured his own milk, waiting for him to do anything other than blink and breathe. "He, uh...he can think, right?"
Mrs. Street smiled, petting her son's head again. "He can do anything I tell him. Eat your sandwich, sweetheart."
Jimmy smiled up at her like a besotted toddler, then picked up his sandwich and took a big bite. He watched Mrs. Street while he chewed, like he was waiting for Mommy's approval.
Kyle looked away again as he drank his milk, feeling a little sick.
"That's my good boy," Mrs. Street murmured. She came back to the counter, leaning on it while she fondly watched her son manage to chew and swallow. "I'm going to need you to dump the body," she said. "Sure as shit the Avengers are looking for their teammates. I have to get Jimmy back to Hydra before they find him."
Kyle shrugged. "As long as we get paid." She'd been good on giving the first half up front, so he wasn't too worried. Then again, he hadn't exactly expected her to shoot Adam, even if he was dumb as a bag of hammers. Maybe he did need to worry a little.
She nodded. "I'll make arrangements as soon as Jimmy and I are safe."
"Uh-huh." Yeah, that sounded like an awfully convenient way to screw him and the others over. It wasn't like the three of them were fucking Hydra. He doubted she'd just leave a forwarding address so they could find her. Kyle finished his milk, wondering if he should just shoot the both of them and leave with whatever was in the safehouse and her wallet.
He put his class on the counter, then eased away from it, quietly dropping his hand to his thigh holster.
Jimmy swung his head towards him, then stood up with all the slow menace of an angry bear and growled.
"My goodness," Mrs. Street said, while Kyle's balls were shriveling into his abdomen. "He can hear your heartbeat, you know. And smell if you're stressed." She deliberately took a step towards him, her pretty face darkening into a scowl. "I think you've made him angry."
Kyle backed up, showing his palms. "Whoa. Whoa. Nothing to be angry about," he said quickly. "I was just thinking about Hawkeye, awright? He was hanging from the fucking ceiling and the asshole still managed to beat the shit out of me. We need to make sure Barton-"
It was so slight it was barely even a movement. Kyle probably wouldn't have even noticed it if he wasn't looking right at the guy. He doubted Mrs. Street saw it at all.
So. Maybe there was still something left of the actual Jimmy Street, buried beneath this terrifying man-baby his mom had turned him into. That could get awkward.
"Make sure Barton what?" Mrs. Street snapped. "Spit it out."
Jimmy's eyes fastened on his mother as soon as she said the name, too. Just for a second, but Kyle still saw it.
Yeah. There was definitely gonna be a problem there. Too bad for Karen.
"Make sure he's dead," Kyle said smoothly, watching the Sentinel's face. Jimmy didn't react. Maybe it was just that whatever single brain cell he had left recognized the name.
Mrs. Street arched her eyebrows. "He's not dead? I thought you said he was."
Kyle shrugged, allowing himself to relax a little now that his boss' guard dog wasn't actively going for him. "He will be. But he was still breathing before I came upstairs."
"As long as he dies." Mrs. Street smiled, then caressed her son's face. "You don't need that bad Guide anymore, do you, sweetheart? It's just you and me, now. I'll take care of you."
Kyle managed not to gag visibly. Not my circus, not my monkeys, he thought. Karen could have her adult baby forever and a day, for all the fucks Kyle gave about it. As long as he got paid. Which might still be an issue, since Mrs. Street was planning on bugging out with her fucked up Sentinel.
Well, maybe Kyle could still shoot them both. He considered, making sure it was a pleasant, not at all hostile thought about a bullet hole blossoming between Mrs. Street's eyes. Hell, the world would probably thank him.
"I can fight," Tony said again. As if to prove it he shoved himself upright, only to immediately collapse again. His head bounced on Bucky's thigh.
Bucky slapped his hand on Tony's shoulder to keep him from sliding onto the deck of the Quinjet. "You can't even fight gravity right now. If you come with us, you're gonna get shot."
"Nuh-uh. I've got armor," Tony said. He tried to push himself up again, but couldn't manage to counter the very light pressure Bucky was putting on his side. Tony rubbed his forehead, grimacing. "Fuck."
"Then one of us'll get shot from a ricochet you couldn't prevent," Steve said. He carded his fingers through Tony's damp hair. "I know you want to help. But you've already done that. You found Street, which hopefully means we'll find Clint too. It's okay to sit this one out."
Tony took Steve's hand and clasped it. "I hate you two fighting without me."
"We know," Bucky said, amused and fond despite his anxiety for Clint and Jimmy and the rage that'd been simmering in his guts since J.A.R.V.I.S. told them his family had been taken. "We hate fighting without you too." That was half true - Bucky always preferred his partners to be safe, even if that meant he had to go into battle without them. Then again, he knew Steve and Tony felt the exact same way. "But you're dead on your feet, and Steve and I can feel how bad your headache is. We got Falcon and Widow with us. We'll be fine."
"I'm sorry," Tony said, not for the first time since he found Street. "I didn't know it was going to take so much out of me. I should've -"
"Tony, stop. None of us knew. Not even the expert," Sam said, gesturing at Ellie. "You and Ellie did the best you could with the information you had. And we found them, didn't we? That's the only thing that matters. We know where they are and we're going to get them."
"I want to help," Sebastian said. "I've been on police raids before, and you're a man down. Let me help."
"You are helping," Steve said. "You're staying here and protecting the Guides." He made a gesture that took in Tony, Ellie and Alex. "Alex isn't a combatant, and Tony can't even sit up right now. You and Ellie need to be here in case anyone gets past us."
Sebastian didn't look happy about it, but he glanced at his wife, then nodded. He sighed out another creative curse in German - Bucky wondered if Sebastian knew that both he and Natasha were fluent - then wrapped his arm around Ellie. "Fine. I understand."
"Thanks." Steve gave him a genuine smile that only looked a little pained, despite the anxiety Bucky could feel slamming around inside their bond. It wasn't a bad anxiety, though. Bucky recognized it from back in the War, just before Captain America would lead the Howlies on a raid. That was just Steve wanting to be sure there wasn't anything he'd missed that would cost injuries or lives. Bucky knew there wasn't, just like he knew Steve wouldn't relax until the jet finally landed and they were about to go in.
Bucky wasn't anxious anymore. He was just angry.
"We're cloaked, but if we land anywhere nearby they're still going to notice," Natasha said. She was flying, Sam in the copilot seat.
"I know," Steve said grimly. That was one of the things they'd discussed, and argued over, after Tony led them to this part of California. Bucky had emphatically been on the side of not giving a fuck who noticed, which he knew was why Natasha had mentioned it. "We'll stick with the plan of landing on the other side of the hills nearby, then sneak in."
Bucky clenched his jaw, but he didn't say anything. He knew everyone wanted their family back just as badly as he did. But landing next to Karen Street's house would only make things harder. And might get Clint and Jimmy killed.
"If Karen Street really did take over her son's bond, she might have him standing sentry," Sebastian said. "He'll know we're coming anyway."
"That's the chance we're taking," Steve said. "If Karen's bonded with Jimmy right now, hopefully she won't be paranoid enough to have him using his senses like that."
"He may find it difficult to control his senses, if she did force a bond," Alex put in. "He'll be rebelling, at least subconsciously, like a body rejecting a foreign object."
"So, either this plan will work perfectly, or it'll explode spectacularly in our faces," Tony said tiredly. His head was still on Bucky's thigh. "Sounds about par for the course."
"It's a little late for cold feet now," Natasha said. "We're almost where you said Jimmy was."
"My feet aren't cold," Tony said. "I just don't want anyone's feet to be blown off."
"Don't worry, Tony," Sam said, "I'm sure they'll be aiming for our heads."
"Oh, ha, ha," Tony groused. "Why the hell am I friends with you again?"
"Quiet," Bucky said. "Jimmy might be able to hear you."
They all shut up immediately. The Quinjet was plunged into eerie, anticipating silence.
Bucky strained his ears as far as he could without risking a spike, sure Natasha and even Sebastian were doing the same. He thought...maybe...that he could hear Jimmy's heartbeat, only it was sharp and erratic, like he was sick. Maybe it wasn't him.
Bucky couldn't hear Clint at all.
Steve, sensing his unease, wordlessly put his arm around him. Tony wrapped his hand around Bucky's knee. He could feel them both trying to reassure him. It didn't really work, but he appreciated it.
The jet glided low over the hills and found a place to land. Soon, he promised himself. Just a little longer and he'd have his family back.
The fucking brat was fighting her.
Karen glared at him, delicately wiping the sweat off her forehead. It was so fucking hot in this dump. If she'd known this was the best safehouse Hydra had to offer she would've just found something of her own. Hell, the only reason she hadn't stayed in the house Jimmy had rented for her was because she knew the Avengers would be swarming it sooner rather than later. Too bad; it'd been a nice house.
Jimmy didn't notice her glaring at him. He didn't actually look like he was noticing anything at all. She'd moved him to the living room and put him on the couch while she tried to find any of her contacts who were still out of police or F.B.I. custody and alive. It turned out that the remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D. had been very, very thorough. So far the only Hydra cells she'd been able to make contact with were Hive worshipers, for fuck's sake. She gleefully told the guy who wanted to recruit her that no, their Inhuman god-thing really wasn't coming back and to go fuck themselves. How the hell people who considered freaks of nature gods could also consider themselves followers of the visionaries Johann Schmidt and Arnim Zola was a mystery she had no interest in unraveling.
It did make things more difficult, though. Especially since she wasn't sure how long she'd be able to stay off the Avengers' radar without help. Jimmy did everything she told him to, but there was no way she could take him out in public without drawing attention. And he wouldn't stop fighting her.
Karen sighed in annoyance, crossing her arms as she watched him from the other side of the room. There were no outward signs of his truculence. Jimmy just stayed wherever she put him, staring into space like a large, breathing doll. Part of that was because his personality - not that it'd ever been much in the first place - had been subsumed under hers. Karen hadn't intended that, but then again she'd always preferred it when Jimmy was quiet and obedient.
Except he wasn't quiet and obedient. Not really.
Under the placid surface her little boy was seething. He kept yanking at their bond, trying to dislodge it. It was as clumsy and uncoordinated as a baby trying to pull off his booties, but it was relentless and wearying all the same. Karen kept having to quell it, either with bursts of warmth and approval (it was pathetic, how easily that worked), or by forcing him: using their bond like a weapon. She hated having to jerk him back into compliance like a dog on a chain. It was tiring, making their bond hurt him. But at least it made him go completely still, inside and out, like hitting him had when he was a child.
Still, she was going to have to do something about this rebellion of his. She didn't want to have to expend the energy to police him all the time. And she wasn't going to impress anyone if they could see her constantly fighting him for control.
She sighed, frustrated. This wasn't what she'd expected; she could admit that, at least to herself. She'd wanted a normal bond. She hadn't really wanted her son to be this silent, staring automaton. She'd just wanted him to be hers. And, yes, she could accept a certain amount of sacrifice with that (order came from pain after all, hail Hydra), but it wasn't much fun to have to command her kid to eat a fucking sandwich.
Figured he couldn't even handle a goddamn bond properly. What a disappointment.
Karen uncrossed her arms, wiped her forehead again and walked over to the couch. She sat beside Jimmy and ran her fingers through his hair, grimacing inwardly at how filthy it was after he'd been sweating so much. She glanced at his left arm, but the bullet wound seemed fine under the bandage. Not that Jimmy would complain about it anyway. Hell, he probably wouldn't even feel it unless she told him to.
Jimmy shuddered when she touched him, but then leaned into it, grinning at her like she'd hung the sun and the moon. That part she definitely liked.
"My sweet little boy," she murmured to him. "You need to stop fighting me, okay? I know it feels strange. That's just the way it's going to be for a bit. You'll get used to it and then everything will be fine. But you need to be a good boy and stop trying to get rid of the bond. You can't. You know that. The bond is forever. But every time you fight it's very frustrating for me. I need you to stop, or I'll have to hurt you again."
His eyes widened a little. All his emotions felt muted and dark, but his fear was still palpable.
"Yeah. You don't want that, do you? You don't like it when I hurt you." She purposely did it again, honing her side of the bond into something cold and sharp and then shoved it at him. She smiled grimly when he gasped and tried to recoil in pain. "I don't like doing that either. But if you keep trying to fight me, I will. And I won't stop." She pulled on his hair, hard enough that she could sense a trickle of pain. "So stop trying to dislodge the bond right now or I'll hurt you again. Do you understand?"
She smiled at the panicked flare of his acquiescence. "That's better." She started petting his hair again, then kissed his clammy forehead, grimacing at the sweat on her lips. Hopefully he'd be able to shower without her needing -
He sucked in a tiny breath, eyes widening. Then his head snapped up like a hound.
Karen straightened, letting go of him. She hadn't told him to expand his senses, since it'd been enough of a bitch keeping him in line. Making sure he didn't spike or overload wasn't anything she'd wanted to deal with. But Sentinels always tended to run a little over baseline. "What? What is it?"
He tilted his head, obviously listening. Karen strained her ears as well, but she couldn't hear anything out of the ordinary. This subdivision hadn't done well after the housing bubble burst, and there weren't that many people around. No sirens, anyway.
"What?" She grabbed a hank of his hair again and pulled, completely out of patience. "What is it, Jimmy? Tell me!"
Jimmy blinked at her, like he didn't quite know what she was asking. Then his mouth curved in a trace of a smile.
"Family," Jimmy said.
It was embarrassingly easy to get to the house where Karen Street was keeping Clint and Jimmy. It reminded Natasha of infiltrating the Lemurian Star, only it was so much easier than that it was absolutely appalling. At least the satellite ship had a larger and more vicious crew of hijackers. There was nobody fanned out in the streets of the partly-abandoned subdivision waiting for them.
Well, it wasn't like Natasha had a problem with easy. Anything that got Clint and Jimmy back.
She, Bucky and Steve inched their way from building to building in the sad community of dilapidated houses and failed dreams. Her Guide soared overhead, doing a slow loop of the target's house.
"Nothing visible from up here," he said. It was unpleasant because she could hear his voice fine, but also got an echo of it from the comm in her ear. For the Sentinels the comms were just backup and mostly unneeded, but Steve preferred them to keep them on, just in case. The echo wasn't terrible, but a little annoying.
"Copy that," Steve said. "Sam, I want you to circle -"
Natasha heard Sam's startled gasp a split second before his voice filled her comm. "Shit! I've been made," he said, voice tight with urgency. "He's got a fucking RPG -!"
She was running before she heard the explosion, Steve and Bucky less than a heartbeat behind. She mercilessly shut down her side of the bond so she could still function, even if...even if her Guide couldn't.
They had been almost in sight of the house, waiting hidden in a side street that led to an unassuming cul-de-sac. She wanted very badly to just charge down the middle of the deserted street, find her Guide and kill anyone who'd dared hurt him. But she stayed out of sight in the back yards, swinging herself over the fences that Steve and Bucky leapt. Even if their element of surprise was gone, you couldn't shoot what you couldn't see.
Natasha kept her senses carefully reigned in to baseline, because she could feel how close to the edge she was, poised between falling into overload or going feral.
The one time she'd ever gone feral was when Clint had been shot in front of her. Her Avengers teammates had witnessed it. She might not entirely remember what she'd done, but she would never forget all the blood, afterwards. She would never forget the looks of awe on her team's faces, either. Awe, and no little fear.
She hated being out of control, and she never wanted to see those expressions again. And she'd be damned if she left Sam injured and defenseless at the mercy of Karen Street because she couldn't keep her shit together. So she would, that was all. She would.
As long as Sam was alive, she'd keep herself Present or die trying.
Steve saw her Guide first. "There!" he shouted pointing at a nearby roof of an abandoned house. It was horribly obvious that someone had crashed right through it into what was probably an upstairs bedroom.
"Sam!" She couldn't help the horrified gasp of his name. She kept running, scrambled over the last fence between her and Steve, in time to watch him smash the front door open with his shield.
"Go, take care of him." Steve stood back and let her run inside.
Natasha barely gave him a nod as she raced into the building and up the stairs. She opened her senses, just enough to get a whiff of dust, mildew and mold, and the rich, welcome scent of her Guide, beneath his stress, sweat and blood. And to hear his breathing, and the glorious thump of his heartbeat, quick with adrenaline and pain, but steady. Alive. Her beloved Guide was alive.
"Sam!" She rushed to the wall of the empty bedroom where he'd obviously dragged himself. She leaped over his abandoned harness and crooked, broken wings, then threw herself to her knees next to him and pulled him into her arms.
"Ow," he said, but hugged her back just as fiercely, even though his arms were scraped and bleeding and he was trembling with shock and fatigue. "I'm fine. Really. Just bruised. I dodged the fucking RPG but hit the roof. But I swear I'm okay."
"Liar," she said, still hugging him. "I can hear two cracked ribs. And you probably have a concussion."
"Okay. Maybe more than bruised." He carded his fingers through her hair. "But I'm okay, I promise. I'm going to be fine. Do you think you could open your side of the bond for me, babe? That way you'll know for sure."
She hesitated, blindsided by sudden fear that the instant she opened her bond something terrible would happen to him. But he was right here, alive and safe in her arms, and she was stronger than her fear.
Natasha opened her bond and let herself feel his pain, as well as his love and relief.
"I got worried, when I suddenly couldn't feel you," he said. "'Thought maybe you'd been hit too."
"I'm fine," she said. "I didn't want to lose control if they'd killed you. Not before I killed them all first."
His chuckle was more like a pained grunt, but she felt the warm puff of his laugh against the bare skin of her neck. "That's my Sentinel."
"Damn right." She ducked her head to his nape, scenting him, then indulging herself with a quick dab of her tongue to his skin. He tasted coppery and sour, but nothing worse than that. She let out a breath, allowed herself a moment to just be with him, revel in the living warmth and solidity of her Guide. And then she gave him a quick, chaste kiss on his lips and forced herself to let go. "You'll be okay until I get back." It was an order, not a question.
"I'll be fine," Sam said seriously. "I'll be right here."
"Good." She turned and ran back down the stairs. She didn't look back.
She didn't say, "I love you," either; Sam already knew.
Steve left Natasha to look after Sam, then shoved his concern for him to the back of his mind. Sam was his friend, but the Avengers had a mission that still wasn't completed. Steve spending energy worrying about something he couldn't change wouldn't do any of them a damn bit of good. Besides, God help anyone who got between Nat and her Guide.
Sam was as safe as humanly possible right now; Jimmy and Clint weren't.
He leapt the final fence between him and where Tony had pinpointed Jim Street. He'd expected to be dealing with the kind of mayhem he'd endured back on that highway in D.C., where he and Natasha had nearly died. You didn't need an army to take out a superhero, as long as they had big enough guns.
Instead he stumbled to a halt an arm's length from Bucky, who'd gone completely still. Because Jimmy was right there, standing in front of his mother with his teeth bared and fists clenched, trembling like a dog being held back from a fight.
Nearby but not nearly close enough, were three men dressed like the Russian mercenaries on the D.C. bridge. Two had AR-15s pointed at Bucky and Steve. One of them looked a little unsteady on his feet, though Steve couldn't see bruises on him, unlike the other two. But he held his weapon competently enough. And he was glaring at Clint like he had a personal grudge against him.
The last man was holding Clint in a chokehold, with the barrel of his sidearm to Clint's head.
Clint was hanging limply in the man's grip, held up only by the thick 'V' of the arm around his neck. Blood covered half of Clint's face from a cut on his temple, the rest of him a competing mass of bruises. Steve glanced at Bucky, who nodded minutely, a thread of reassurance in their bond: Clint was still breathing.
"Try anything at all and the Guide dies," Karen said. She had a sidearm as well. It'd been pointed at Bucky but now she was aiming at Steve, far too close to Jimmy's side for Steve's comfort.
"If you touch him, we'll kill you," Bucky snarled at her. Then, "Jimmy! Jimmy, can you hear me? It's Bucky! C'mon, buddy, I'm right here!"
Karen just laughed. Jimmy gave a minute, full-body shudder, like her voice had just sent electricity up his spine. Steve wondered if she noticed. "He can't hear you, Asset," she sneered. "And we both know you won't kill me because I'm a Guide, and Sentinels don't do that."
"I've hurt Guides before," Bucky said. The frisson of revulsion along their bond was the only indication of what that had cost Bucky's soul.
"I know, Dad," Karen said, smiling sweetly. "But you still won't do anything. Because if you kill me, then both Jimmy's Guides will be dead, which means he dies too. And pretty horribly. And I really don't think you want that."
"You're right. We don't," Steve said. "I think we all want what's best for Jimmy, here." He really doubted that, but hoped he could appeal to whatever maternal feelings Karen might've still had anyway. "Which means you need to let him go so he can rebond with Clint."
Jimmy's eyes widened fractionally, like that was a name he recognized but didn't know from where.
Karen was behind her son, so she didn't see it, but Steve and Bucky both did. Maybe Karen's hold on Jimmy wasn't as total as she thought.
Bucky jumped on that. "Clint's your Guide, Jimmy," he said, voice staccato with urgency. "He's practically next to you, but he's in a lot of trouble and he needs your help. You gotta - "
"Shut up!" Karen barked. Jimmy actually growled, like he was going feral. "I'm his Guide. Not Hawkeye." Her voice dripped with contempt.
"Yeah? Then how come he looks half dead and he can't even speak?" Bucky snapped back at her. His bond with Steve sizzled with anger and concern. "Jimmy!" he tried again, louder. "Jimmy, come on! Clint needs you! Your Guide's dying! You gotta help him!"
"Shut up!" Karen moved her arm so now her gun was aimed squarely at Jimmy's back. "One more word and I kill him, I swear!" Steve had no idea if Bucky had been goading her on purpose, but she was practically frothing with rage. "Now, this is what's going to happen," she said, voice trembling. "You're going to drop all your weapons. Then you're going to call the jet I know you flew in on over here. You're going to tell the pilot to land, and whoever's inside will get out. Then me, my son, my associates and Hawkeye are going to get on it. You won't try to stop us, or I promise you Jimmy and Clint are dead."
Bucky side-eyed Steve, who gave him a nod. Their reflexes were faster than Karen or her men, including Jimmy, but she was standing so close to her son if she shot him it'd be just about point blank. Even if she missed his spine, the hole she'd blow into him wouldn't be survivable. And of course, Clint already looked barely alive, and there was a gun to his head.
Steve let his shield slide off his arm to the ground, then touched the comm in his ear. "We need the jet," he said, knowing J.A.R.V.I.S. would pick up. He had no intention of letting Karen get on it with Jimmy or Clint, or putting anyone on board in danger. But letting her think they were complying would buy them some time.
Bucky's jaw worked, but he pulled the strap holding his rifle over his head and slowly crouched to lay it on the ground, glaring at Karen the whole time. He carefully pulled his sidearms and lay them next to the rifle. He stood just as slowly, palms up.
"You're no Guide," he spat at her. "A real Guide would never threaten to kill their Sentinel. He's your son. What kind of fuckin' sick monster does that make you? You think Clint would do that to him?" Steve was sure Bucky was deliberately using the Guide's name, just like he kept goading Karen. Hopefully it would make her stupid. "Hell, we both know the only reason you haven't killed Clint already is 'cause you know you can't keep hold of Jimmy like this and Clint's your only backup plan."
"I told you to SHUT UP!" Karen was visibly quivering with anger now. "Jimmy, sweetheart?" she said to him, voice saccharine. "Kill Clint Barton for me. Show the Asset who's your real Guide."
Steve had no idea if that had been Bucky's goal or not, but Steve couldn't prevent the "No!" from tumbling out his mouth.
Jimmy looked at Clint, took a step towards him, but stopped. He looked back at his mother in pained confusion. "Guide," he said. His voice sounded strained, like it was difficult for him to speak.
"I'm your Guide, Jimmy," Karen said tightly. "I told you to kill him."
Jimmy's mouth moved like he was fighting to form the word. "No," he said.
"Kill him!" Karen shouted. She gritted her teeth and Jimmy's whole body jerked like she'd yanked on an invisible leash. He took another step towards Clint, stumbling now like his body was barely under his control.
Steve edged closer to Karen. He could use his Guide abilities to incapacitate her, but he had no idea what that would do to Jimmy. "Sentinels don't hurt Guides, Jimmy, you know that," he said. "And Clint is your Guide. Not Karen. You know that too. You need to fight this, Jimmy. You need to save Clint and have your Guide back."
"Clint's not his Guide!" Karen was practically screaming now. "Kill him! Just fucking kill him!"
Jimmy took another, swaying step towards Clint. Steve saw Bucky tense out of the corner of his eye, ready to tackle Jimmy even if it meant getting shot. Jimmy was panting, face screwed up in incomprehension and pain. A dot of blood formed under one nostril, then trickled down to his lip. He reached for Clint with both hands - and ripped the gun away from his Guide's head.
Then a few things happened at once.
Steve heard Karen shriek "No!", but he was busy scooping his shield off the ground so he could fling it at the 'associate' of Karen with the hate-on for Clint. That guy went down with a dent in his face.
The man holding Clint yelped when Jimmy grabbed his gun. He fired reflexively, but Bucky jerked out of the way. He turned the move into a smooth, athletic flip that carried him over the spray from the remaining man's AR-15. Bucky punched the gunner in the head as he landed, using his left fist. The man didn't move again.
Which only left Karen and the man holding Clint, who was struggling to get the gun back from Jimmy.
"Jimmy, stop! Stop it!" Karen kept shrieking. It might've been funny except she was still aiming at her son. Steve saw her finger move on the trigger; knew he was going to be too late even as he leapt; that she was still close enough to Jimmy for wherever she hit to be fatal -
Only for Karen's head to snap back, taking the rest of her with it. Her gun fired harmlessly into the air as she fell.
Steve tucked into a roll, rocketed back to his feet and whirled. He saw Natasha, stalking across the street with her gun still aimed at Karen, ready to shoot her again.
Steve whirled again. All three of the thugs were down now, poor Clint in a crumpled heap on the ground where he'd been dropped. And Bucky, holding Jimmy in his arms as the Sentinel trembled violently in the grips of a seizure. Thick gouts of blood ran from his nostrils, mixing with the foam at the corners of his mouth. His lips were turning blue.
He was still shaking as the Quinjet landed and the two healers rushed out.
"They need you," Sebastian said to the healers just before the back hatch opened. Tony didn't need a bond with the guy to know it was something really, really bad; he could see Sebastian's face. "Jimmy's seizing."
"Oh, God." Tony, who'd managed to sit up when J.A.R.V.I.S. said that Steve had called for the jet, tried to bolt to his feet only to slump back, groaning and holding his head. "I'm fine! I'm fine!" he said immediately, when Alex hesitated instead of rushing out of the open jet after Ellie and her Sentinel. "I have a headache, I'm not dying. Help Jimmy!"
Alex, bless his pediatric little heart, didn't need to be told twice.
Tony lurched back to his feet once the healers were safely out of the vehicle and couldn't see him flailing around. He still felt like crap on fire, but that was a minor inconvenience compared to having a seizure. The last thing he wanted was to take their focus from Jimmy.
He stumbled out into the fading daylight and almost directly into Steve's arms. "You should be resting," Steve said, even as he dragged Tony closer to everyone else. His side of the bond had gone smooth and cool as polished stone, which underscored how upset he was. This was Steve being Strong for Everyone Else.
Well, Tony could live with that a lot more easily than Bucky's side of their triangle, which currently felt like the kind of blizzard that includes lightning. Someday Tony would have to ask Steve if Bucky had always tended towards the wintry when he was upset, or if it was among the unexpected Winter Soldier legacies.
Not important right now. What was important was the unconscious Sentinel-Guide pair laid out side-by-side on the grass.
"Jesus Christ," Tony breathed, watching Jimmy lie there like, well, a corpse. Bucky was crouched next to him with his eyes closed, obviously using his Sentinel abilities to listen for him breathing. There was a mess of dried blood under his nose, pink streaks on either side of his mouth.
Clint was better off only in that he was more obviously breathing. He had dark purple bruises circling his swollen throat, and the rest of him had pretty much been beaten to a bloody pulp. Both of his eyes were mostly swollen shut, his lip split, a profusely bleeding cut on his brow had turned one half of his face into a sticky mess. Parts of his shirt had been torn away and what Tony could see was so covered in cuts, scrapes and contusions he dreaded seeing the damage that was still hidden. Neither man looked like they were going to survive the next few minutes.
"Jimmy's breathing, and his heart's beating," Bucky said, voice heavy with relief. He looked at the healers, stricken. "But he's fading. And I'm pretty sure Clint's bleeding internally. They're both dying."
"Put them next to each other," Ellie ordered. "Proximity will enhance their healing capacity." She looked at Alex. "Alex, I need you to help Clint."
Alex nodded and went to Bucky, helping him gently move the two men closer together. They made sure Clint and Jimmy's bare arms were touching, then linked their hands. Alex knelt down next to Clint and ripped open what was left of his shirt to assess his injuries.
A deep frown appeared on Alex' face as he checked Clint over. "There is a lot of blunt force trauma. Lots of contusions and abrasions, a few bruises that look like they might be shoe prints. His ribs are cracked but not broken." He looked at Bucky. "I can't tell if there's internal bleeding, but you said there was so I believe you. I can probably stop it when I heal him." Alex carefully placed his hands flat on Clint's ribcage. He swallowed and licked his lips. "This isn't...this won't be much fun for me. But I'll be fine," he said. He looked like even he wasn't entirely sure about that. "Just, hold on to me. It'll help."
"Hold onto you?" Bucky repeated, but he obediently moved so he could take Alex's nearer arm. "This okay?"
Alex nodded. "Yeah. Um. Just give me a sec." He closed his eyes, breathing deeply. "God, this is gonna suck."
"You can do this, Alex," Ellie said. "You have to. Clint is depending on you," she added gently. "Just remember your limits." She had already knelt next to Jimmy, her tiny hands circling his forehead. She turned to Tony and Steve, unsuccessfully hiding a grimace. "What's the status of their bond?"
Tony knew if he checked he'd probably collapse. "Stevie?"
He felt Steve go still as he concentrated, then Tony saw him wince out of the corner of his eye. "Nothing," Steve said. "It's just...blank. Empty."
Ellie's let out an unhappy breath through her teeth.
"He's dying," Bucky said tightly. He kept glancing at Alex, but aside from kneeling with his eyes closed and his hands on Clint's chest, Tony had no idea what the Guide was doing. "Can you help him?"
"Yes. But it won't be pretty," Ellie said. She exchanged a silent glance with Sebastian, who nodded. He knelt next to her and put his hand on the back of her neck.
"Remember your limits, Liebling," Sebastian said.
"Always, darling." Ellie gave him a quick, warm smile before she took a deep breath and closed her eyes the way Alex had.
The rest of them watched and waited, barely daring to breathe as the two Healer Guides did...whatever it was they were actually doing. There wasn't anything to see, no way to tell if it was working or not. It was maddening.
At least at first. And then Alex's breathing changed. It went labored like he'd been running, then raspy, then he was wheezing badly enough that Tony had the sudden, crazy thought Alex had asthma but had just never mentioned it.
"Baz, I need to close our bond for a second," Ellie said suddenly. Her voice was weak, and her already pale skin had gone terrifyingly white. "I can't keep this away from you anymore."
Steve looked at Tony, eyes huge.
Tony just shook his head, bewildered. What the hell was Ellie getting from Jimmy's mind?
"No." Sebastian's voice was quiet but firm. "I don't care if it hurts, I'm staying with you."
Ellie's eyes opened and for a moment she focused on her husband. "As you wish, Sentinel." Somehow, she made it sound like, "we will be discussing this later, and you won't like it," but she just turned her attention back to Jimmy.
Next to Clint, Alex's already ugly breathing hitched, and then bruises bloomed on his face, right where Clint's had been. The bruises on Clint's face faded at the same time, like watching a painting in time lapse.
"What the fuck?"
"They're taking on part of their wounds," Sebastian said, grim. He was holding his wife's shoulders, looking every bit as pale as she was now. For his part, Alex looked like only Bucky was keeping him upright. Tony was increasingly concerned they were going to be dealing with three more casualties.
"We need to stop this," Steve said, voicing Tony's fear.
"If you touch them now, you are risking Jimmy and Clint's lives," Sebastian said tightly. "Alex and Ellie know what they're doing. They'll be fine."
That might've been easier to believe if Sebastian didn't sound like he was about to keel over himself, but Tony and Steve just shared another glance and said nothing. Bucky had both his arms wrapped around Alex now, definitely holding him upright. The healer had his eyes and teeth clenched, panting like he was climbing a mountain.
"His heartrate's sky high," Bucky said.
"I'm fine," Alex gritted. "I just…."
"Alex, that's enough. Stop. You too, Ellie," Sebastian added more gently. He pulled her hand away from Jimmy, then let her more-or-less collapse against him.
"But -" Alex started.
"He said 'that's enough'." Bucky pulled Alex's hands away from Clint, then held him when Alex would've toppled onto the grass. "You okay?"
"Trying not to puke," Alex muttered.
"What happened?" Steve asked, looking between the two healers. "Are Clint and Jimmy okay now?"
"Nobody looks okay," Tony murmured. Well, Clint was less bruised, but he was still out cold. And as far as Tony could tell Jimmy looked exactly the same.
"Clint was worse than I thought," Alex said, "But his wounds aren't life threatening any more." He pulled himself upright and opened his eyes. It looked like it took a lot of effort. His eyes were slowly swelling shut. "Both of them will heal even faster if we wait to separate them. I'd like to check out Jimmy myself, as soon as Ellie and I are healed up some. But for now they need to get to the nearest Center, ASAP." Alex's voice was strained, and as soon as he stopped talking he leaned heavily on Bucky, breathing like the effort exhausted him.
"Can we move them?" Steve asked.
Ellie nodded wearily. "Just keep them together as long as possible."
"You get Jimmy." Tony patted Steve's chest. "I promise I can make it back into the Quinjet by my lonesome." It was just a few feet. He could totally handle a few feet.
Steve looked at him critically, but Tony sent him all kinds of confidence and reassurance over their bond. "ASAP, remember?" he reminded him.
Steve looked unhappy, but he let go of Tony and went to collect Jimmy. Tony waited until Steve's back was turned before he very carefully lurched back into the Quinjet and sat in the pilot's seat. He was pretty sure J.A.R.V.I.S. would be the one flying them to the nearest California Sentinel-Guide Center with hospital facilities, because everyone else with the skill was either wounded or….
"Hey, where're Nat and Sam?" Tony called over his shoulder. He just realized he hadn't seen them. No one seemed overly worried, but that didn't necessarily mean they were fine.
"Sam was nearly taken out by an RPG. He crashed through a roof," Bucky told Tony as he carried in Clint. He tilted his head a little as he carefully lowered Clint to the deck, listening. "Sam's hurt but okay. Natasha killed Karen so she wouldn't shoot Jimmy."
"Oh," Tony breathed, his relief for Sam eclipsed by new fear for Natasha. "Oh, fuck."
"Yeah," Bucky agreed grimly. He smoothed back Clint's filthy hair, then stood aside as Steve carried in Jimmy and lay him down next to Clint.
Sebastian helped in a swaying and stumbling Ellie while Bucky went back for Alex. Bucky sat as near the front of the jet as he could without being in the co-pilot's seat, settling Alex in next to him with his right arm around his shoulders. Alex leaned on him heavily, looking barely awake.
Natasha came in finally, helping Sam. He was limping and moving gingerly, but Natasha was the one who looked like death warmed over. She settled Sam carefully and strapped him in, but kept standing like she was going to leave. She barely met anyone's eyes, including her Guide's.
Sentinel guilt, because she'd hurt a Guide. Tony wanted very badly to tell her she'd done the right thing, but he could see by her face that she wasn't ready to hear it. And he was sure Sam had already told her anyway.
"How are they?" she asked.
"They're both going to be fine," Bucky said. "You saved their lives, Nat. Thank you." Sincerity weighted his voice.
"Karen wasn't a Guide," Steve said. "She destroyed Jimmy's and Clint's bond, then forced one on her son. And she would have killed her own Bonded Sentinel if you hadn't stopped her. That's nothing like what a real Guide would do."
Nat nodded, but she didn't lift her head. And Sam sighed, like he knew she didn't believe it.
"I'm going to stay here and liaise with the local authorities," she said. "We can't just leave these bodies with no explanation."
"I was going to do that," Steve said. "I'm the team leader. It makes more sense for me to stay. And your Guide needs you."
Tony blinked. He hadn't even thought about the dead and probably-dead bodies they'd left in their wake. Clint, Jimmy and Sam were a lot more important.
Natasha opened her mouth and Tony just knew she was going to say something like how her Guide didn't need her (because she was a monster), but Sam reached out and grabbed her wrist.
"Please, Nat," he said quietly.
Natasha looked at him and melted like microwaved chocolate. She still wouldn't lift her eyes, but she nodded silently and sat down, still holding Sam's hand.
Steve smiled at her, then shifted it to Tony and Bucky. His bond fairly pulsed with his love, worry and residual anger at what Karen had done. "Stay with Tony," Steve told Bucky needlessly. Then, "Send me the address of where you end up. I'll find you."
"You always do," Bucky said.
"Damn right." Steve gave his bond partners one last, small smile, and left the jet.
Tony told himself he did not miss him terribly, because that was just stupid.
"Thanks," Bucky said to Ellie and Alex as the hatch shut and the Quinjet lifted into the air. "I don't know what you guys did, but they're not dying anymore. So, thanks. I owe you. We all do."
"Don' worry 'bout it," Alex mumbled, patting blindly at Bucky's stomach. "Happy t'help."
"Indeed," Ellie said. She yawned, then looked like yawning hurt her head. She rubbed her temple and leaned against her husband. "I'm just glad we were here."
"That makes all of us," Tony said.
His head didn't hurt.
That was Jim Street's first thought, before he even opened his eyes: his head didn't hurt, and there was something wrong about that. He remembered….
There wasn't much he remembered, actually. But he remembered fighting and he remembered being trapped in cold and darkness, and how much it hurt when he tried to get out. Why had he been fighting? Fighting hurt; he knew that much. Being in the cold darkness was...wasn't better, but there was no pain.
He hated being in pain.
But now his head was...empty. Not dark or cold, but there was nothing there. No one there. And that was good, right? Not fighting, not being in pain.
Then why was he so scared?
He opened his eyes.
A man with brown hair and warm brown eyes set in a face covered with fading bruises was smiling down at him. Jim had no idea who he was, though he smelled familiar, somehow. Like Jim should know him when he didn't.
"It's good to see you awake," the man said. "My name is Alex. I'm a doctor. You're at a Sentinel-Guide Center in Long Beach, California. You're safe. Your Guide just went to get something to eat. He should be back any minute."
Jim blinked at him. His Guide? His Guide was….
- Drowning him in the bond she'd created. There was no warmth, no light, no safety; Nothing but icy, terrifying darkness he couldn't escape -
Jim gasped, terror like a spike in his lungs. He scrambled upright, yanking at the needle in his arm. He remembered the drugs she'd used, how badly it'd hurt, how sick he'd felt. And then...then she'd just -
"Jimmy. Jimmy, it's okay. You're safe. Karen's not here anymore. You don't have to be afraid." Alex grabbed for him, trying to prevent Jim from getting away. And as soon as Alex touched him, Jim knew. Alex was a Guide too.
Jim wasn't safe here.
"Get away from me!" He got his hands on Alex's shoulders and shoved him as hard as he could, sending him stumbling then falling over the chair behind him. Jim felt weak, dizzy. Not in pain but now he understood it was because of the drugs they were pumping into him. He ripped the H.E.P. lock out.
He was in a hospital gown, the kind that were barely shirts with ties in the back. Never mind. The priority was getting away from this Guide, then figuring out where the hell he really was and what to do about it.
It took too long to work out how to lower the fucking bed rail, and by then Alex was getting to his feet. Jim leapt off the bed ready to fight for his life, only for his knees to give out.
Someone else grabbed him and hauled him upright. Another Sentinel. Jim cataloged brown hair, blue eyes, powerful body, but he didn't recognize him either. Except for his scent. There was something familiar about him too, like the Guide. Except, unlike Alex this Sentinel felt safe.
"Are you all right? What the hell happened?" The Sentinel asked both of them.
"I don't know," Alex said. There was another man in the room now too: big and blond and completely unfamiliar, helping Alex to his feet. "I was telling him about Clint, and he just...panicked."
"Panicked?" the man holding Jim said. He looked down at him. "Jimmy? What's wrong?"
"I don't know you," Jim said, because everything was wrong but that was the worst. He was shaking, exhausted like he'd been running for days. "Who are you? Where am I?"
"Oh, fuck," That came from a third man, one of two hovering just inside the doorway. He was shorter, with black hair and brown eyes, just as much an unknown as everyone else. And next to him…
Another blond. Also short, but with a presence that more than made up for it. Not handsome, exactly, but...mesmerizing. Jim couldn't take his eyes off him.
He looked so worried.
"Jimmy?" The smaller blond came closer, moving slowly like he was aware of how much Jim wanted to bolt. "You really can't remember us?"
"I don't know you," Jim repeated. The only ones he felt he knew were the Guide Alex and the Sentinel holding him. And that was just by scent; just that nebulous familiarity, nothing substantial to go with it. "I don't know you or where I am or why I'm here. Tell me what's going on. Now."
There was no meat behind the implied threat and Jim was sure they all knew it. The blond came closer still, reached out with his hand. "I'm Clint. Clint Barton. We were bonded, Jimmy, until your mom broke it. I'm your Guide."
"Don't touch me!" Jim couldn't strike out at him because he was still being held so he wouldn't fall. He couldn't run either, wasn't sure he'd be able to even stand on his own. He barely managed to flinch away, but it was enough. The Guide pulled his hand back. "Don't touch me," he repeated, voice shaking as badly as the rest of him. "Get away. Get away from me. I don't want you here."
"Nobody's going to hurt you, here. You're recovering after having your bond with Clint forcibly broken." That was the large blond. He put his hand on his chest. "I'm Steve. The guy holding you up is Bucky."
"I'm Tony," said the black-haired man at the door. He gestured at the shorter blond. "That's Clint. He's your Guide. Your real Guide. We were just waiting for you to heal enough to get your bond back."
Jim recoiled so sharply he nearly pulled himself out of Bucky's careful grip. Bonds hurt. They were dark and cold and felt like drowning. He remembered small hands yanking at his hair, gripping his jaw, suffocating him. He remembered helplessness and fear and screaming for help that never came. He didn't want a bond. He didn't want a Guide. He wanted to get out of there, to be somewhere safe that made sense. Not this.
"No," he said. "No. I don't want you. I don't want a Guide! Don't touch me! Leave me alone!" He was panting, chest heaving with the effort of pulling in breath. He could hear everyone else's breath too, he realized. Their breath and heartbeat, and beyond that the endless, wailing of machinery and other voices talking much too loudly. Everything was so loud.
He clapped his hands over his ears, but then the pressure of his palms hurt. Then Bucky touching him hurt too, and then even the light cotton of the fucking gown was suddenly like sandpaper. The cold hardness of the floor felt like a sheet of ice crushing his feet and the lights were too bright and everything stank and he couldn't breathe. He writhed in Bucky's grip, trying to relieve some of the pain of everything assaulting his senses. He heard more shouting (Fuck, he's in overload. Get the doc!), but the words were like explosions inside his skull and he couldn't make them make sense.
Jim was vaguely aware of being moved, but whatever he was put on hurt just as badly as being held did: more pressure and sandpaper, like his skin was being peeled off the bone. He screamed, tried to fight himself free of what was hurting him, but he couldn't. They held him down and then somebody stabbed him with a knife that tore off his arm….
And then finally nothing hurt again, because there was nothing at all.
"All right. As far as we've been able to discern, this is what's going on."
The Sentinel-Guide Center doctor could have been Natasha's spiritual grandmother, replete with Russian accent and the pinkish remnants of red hair. She also looked like she would have rather been anywhere else on the planet instead of in the shabby conference room explaining to a very unhappy group of Guides and Sentinels what was wrong with their newest Avenger.
Not that Tony could blame her one bit. He would have rather been anywhere else instead of listening to it.
She sighed and put her gnarled hands on the table, mostly piercing Clint with her sympathetic gaze. "Sentinel Street has nearly global amnesia. He's able to recall specific information like his name, date of birth and where he grew up, but any other information about his life is either extremely vague or nonexistent. Most concerning to his present situation is that his only memory of having a Guide is limited exclusively to the trauma he suffered when his bond with Guide Barton was destroyed and forcibly replaced."
"That's why he was so upset when I mentioned his Guide," Alex said. He looked as guilty as if he'd somehow caused Jimmy's trauma himself. "I didn't know. I thought...he seemed fine."
"No one's blaming you," Ellie said. She and Sebastian were there too, though keeping politely to the back of the room. Normally this would've been Avengers Only, but since the three of them had been part of the search-and-rescue from the beginning, it didn't feel reasonable to exclude them now. Especially when it was possible, however remotely, that Ellie or Alex could use their special Guide healing to fix whatever had gone kablooey in Jimmy's head.
At least after they finished recovering from fixing Jimmy and Clint two days before, anyway. Alex still looked like an abused pinata and moved like a geriatric tortoise. Ellie was better off since she was bonded, but she was still doing very badly at hiding what was probably a constant headache.
Clint, at least, was very far away from death's door thanks to Alex. Not that he looked anything remotely close to happy about it at the moment. "He didn't remember me," he said, with the kind of awed misery of disaster victims. "He flinched when I tried to touch him. He doesn't want anything to do with me."
Natasha was sitting next to Clint, a walking wounded Sam on her other side. She reached over and wrapped her hand around Clint's nearer one, squeezing gently in support.
"He will," Steve said to Clint, with so much conviction it sounded like he was speaking from personal experience. "He just needs to finish healing, and he'll remember you. Remember you're his Guide, and what that actually means. He'll want you back."
The doctor cleared her throat. "Actually, it may not be that simple."
Everyone's attention snapped back to her.
"The problem is, Sentinel Street is not healing," she went on flatly. "He's actually deteriorating." She drew a breath like she was gearing up for an ordeal, which probably wasn't too far off. "We have Guides on staff, trained in psionic diagnosis and mind healing. They were able to assess him while he was sedated, which is why we know the current extent of his injuries. But they won't be able to heal him." Another breath. "Sentinel Street's body is showing a textbook reaction to the…" She grimaced. "Sudden termination of his bond due to the death of his Guide. He's in the mid stages of what's colloquially referred to as "Sentinel Broken Heart Syndrome", where the Sentinel dies within hours or days of their Guide."
"What?" That was Sam, interestingly enough, voicing what the rest of them were too dumbfounded to say. "Why?" He looked at Clint, as if to verify that yes, he was actually in the room. "His Guide's right here!"
Clint nodded, looking numb. "I'm not dead. I was never…She broke our bond, but...she didn't fucking kill me."
"No," Nat said softly. "But I killed her. I killed James' Guide."
"She wasn't his Guide!" Clint burst out. "I'm his Guide! She forced herself on him! She violated him!" He looked at the doctor, expression imploring. "Karen Street forced a bond on Jimmy. She wasn't his Guide. He shouldn't…" He swallowed. "He shouldn't be dying. She wasn't his Guide."
"I'm sorry," The doctor said. She really sounded like she was, which somehow made the situation feel worse. "Unfortunately, physiologically and psionically, the way the bond was achieved makes no difference. As far as Sentinel Street is concerned, his Guide is dead, and he is dying with her. She glanced at Ellie. "To be perfectly honest, if Alpha Guide Delfont-Bogard hadn't been available to reduce the damage done to Sentinel Street, I doubt he would have survived even this long. But, much as it pains me to say so, unless he can rebond with Agent Barton, there is absolutely nothing we can do other than prolong the inevitable."
"Oh, my God," Clint breathed. He put his hand over his mouth, eyes wide and glistening.
"So, don't just sit there lookin' like your world just collapsed. Go bond with your Sentinel," Bucky said. The anger in his voice was belied by the way his bond shivered with an icy gust of fear.
Clint dropped his hand, looking at the doctor. "Can I? Can I just do that?"
It seemed like such a no-brainer that Tony couldn't figure out why Clint was asking. And then he had the vivid, horrible recollection of Jimmy freaking the fuck out when Clint so much as went near him, so bad that he ended up in Sensory Overload. Hence the sedation. Hence all of them sitting here, angsting in the conference room.
The doctor cleared her throat. "There are issues of consent."
"That's bullshit," Bucky growled. "Street's had two bonds literally blown apart in less than 24 hours. He's outta his goddamn mind. That's why he went apeshit when Clint tried to touch him. He can't consent to anything right now, and Clint's his medical proxy anyhow. Street's dying. Clint can fix it, so he will. End of story."
"I'm not going to force him!" Clint said.
Bucky gaped at him. "But you'll let him die?"
"I'm afraid it's not that simple," Ellie interjected before Clint could fire anything back. Tony didn't envy her when she was suddenly the sole recipient of Bucky's glare. "Doctor Lebedev is right. There are strict protocols governing when and under what circumstances a Sentinel or Guide is considered adequately compos mentis to undertake a bonding. And this would not be one of them."
"No shit," Bucky snapped. "But luckily his medical proxy, who's also his Guide is right here. And all he has to do is march down that corridor and touch him."
"Bucky," Steve said.
Bucky transferred his glare to Steve. "What? We're all sittin' around talking while Jimmy is dying. And Clint can save him and they're saying 'no'?"
"Under the circumstances, it's a given that Sentinel Street will resist bonding," Dr. Lebedev said. "And if he fights it, the stress could actually make his symptoms worse."
"Kill him, you mean," Tony said, then winced internally at the doctor's unhappy nod. "You're saying that if Clint tries to bond, and Jimmy fights it, he's going to start circling the drain."
"I wouldn't have put it that way, but, yes," Lebedev admitted. "I'm sorry," she added to Clint. "That is, actually, one of the reasons for the consent issues. Sentinel Street may not be capable of consent - or even dissent - right now, but that doesn't mean we can override his wishes. Not without possibly killing him in the process."
"But if we don't do anything he's going to die anyway," Bucky said.
"Not immediately," Lebedev said, as if that was somehow a silver lining in this shitstorm. "He has...a few days. At least. Possibly more."
"Days. Jesus Christ." Clint put his face in his hands. Natasha rubbed his back.
"Clint. I know this sounds pretty hopeless right now," Sam said, "but you're still his Guide. Even if he can't remember you consciously, you're still gonna resonate with him. He still imprinted on you."
"He doesn't remember that," Clint ground out. "He doesn't remember me. I terrify him."
"He doesn't remember you consciously," Sam repeated doggedly, "but it's still in there. And, you know, scent is one of the strongest memory triggers there is."
Clint dropped his hands to level Sam with a look of hopeless disbelief. "So, what? I'm just supposed to let him smell me and hope for the best?"
"Hope is a good place to start," Alex said quietly.
"Just talk to him," Sebastian added. "Show him he has nothing to fear from you."
"He won't let me in the room," Clint said.
"Then stand in the doorway."
Clint let out a sound almost nothing like a laugh. "Your special German cop training teach you that?" he demanded. "And what do I do when that doesn't work?"
"Then we'll find something that does," Steve said. "It's not over, Clint. Jimmy's still here."
"Yeah, but for how long?" Clint said. He pushed back from the table and stalked out of the room.
Nobody tried to stop him.
"Hey. How are you feeling?" Clint asked Jimmy. He made sure to keep his voice quiet, neutral, his expression calm but open. It felt like he was on an op. It felt like his heart was tearing in half. He kept grasping at the empty place his bond with Jimmy had been like poking at a wound.
He was standing in the doorway of Jimmy's room, just like Sebastian had suggested. It kind of made him want to punch the German's teeth in.
Jimmy shrugged. He was sitting up in the hospital bed, reading something from a tablet in his lap. An I.V. line trailed from his right wrist to a bag hanging from a stand near his bed. Saline, the bag said. Clint glanced at the tray table that Jimmy had obviously pushed away. The nutritious dinner on it hadn't been touched. "There are a bunch of news stories about me joining the Avengers."
"Yeah," Clint said. "There hasn't been a mission yet, but we wanted people to know about the new members. You, Sam and Bucky."
Jimmy looked up, expression full of wary curiosity. "Do I have superpowers?"
Clint shook his head. There was a joke there about Sentinels all thinking they were superheroes, but Clint really wasn't feeling it. "No. Nothing beyond what your abilities as a Sentinel give you. Like me," he said simply. "You were a member of a Los Angeles S.W.A.T. team, so you have that training. And you've been working really hard at upping your sniping skills and hand-to-hand combat. You're going to be an asset to the team, when we have to assemble."
Jimmy blinked at him. "But I'm dying."
Clint couldn't help the jolt of fear that pulled like icy claws at his guts. "No, you're not," he said. The denial was immediate; instinctive. Jimmy wasn't dying. He couldn't.
Except...Jimmy looked bad. Clint couldn't deny that. Worse than bad: terrible. He was so pale Clint could see his veins, with deep streaks under his eyes. The brown of his irises looked dull, any spark of life or humor gone. The bullet wound on his arm had been stitched and rebandaged, but Clint had a sudden, terrible thought that it would never heal; Jimmy wouldn't have enough time.
Clint couldn't help glancing at the untouched food.
"The doctor said I am. Unless I bond with someone," Jimmy said. He looked angry about it, but just sounded resigned. He dropped the tablet and scrubbed at his face. Without their bond Clint had no idea what he might actually be feeling.
Well, fuck, Clint thought. He took a breath. "Yeah. That's...that's gonna happen. If you don't." Tony had kindly arranged for all of them to get an extra couple sets of clothes while they were here. Clint liked how his new jeans had pockets loose enough for him to make fists in. "You don't have to die, Jimmy."
"I don't want to die," Jimmy said. "But I don't want a Guide. I can't - " He swallowed. "I won't go through that again."
"I don't want you to die either," Clint said. He felt like he'd shake apart just thinking about it. It took every bit of his self control not to cross the room. "You don't have to die," he repeated. He risked a single step inside away from the door. Even then Jimmy drew back. "If we bond again, you'll be okay. You'll heal. It won't hurt - "
Too late he realized he'd pulled his hands out of his pockets, stepped closer when he hadn't intended to move. A moth to his Sentinel's flame.
He stopped instantly, yanked his hands back, but he could see by Jimmy's expression that it was too late. Clint had pushed him too far too quickly. What life was left in those beautiful doe eyes clouded with mistrust and barely concealed panic.
"If you touch me, I'll break your arm." His teeth were bared, his whole posture a tight mix of aggression and fear. A cornered, wounded animal trying to survive.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry." Clint stuffed his hands back in his pockets, heartbroken and cursing himself for the worst kind of impulsive idiot. "I won't touch you if you don't want me to. I'd never do that. I'm your Guide. I'd never hurt you."
"Yes you will!" Jimmy shouted. "I know you will! Stop saying you won't! Go away! I don't want you! I don't want a Guide! Stop saying you're mine! I don't know you!" He winced, then put his shaking hands over his eyes. "Go away!" He hunched over, dislodging the tablet from his lap. It slid into the plastic bed rail with a thunk that made Jimmy's entire body jerk in pain.
"Shit," Clint murmured. Jimmy was either having a two-sense spike or was about to crash into another Overload. "Jimmy," he said, pitching his voice as calm as he could, "Jimmy. Your senses are spiking, but you're okay. I can help you. Will you let me help you, please?"
"Go away," Jimmy said again, then made a helpless, hurting noise that stabbed through Clint's heart. Jimmy curled in on himself, wrapping his arms around his head and trying to bury his face against his knees.
Clint debated with himself for all of a second before ignoring Jimmy's barely-whispered command completely. He walked slowly to the bed, trying to make as little noise as possible. Jimmy still flinched at each of his footfalls like gunshots next to his ear.
"I know it hurts," Clint said, when he was standing right next to Jimmy's huddled form. He swallowed, then put his hand on Jimmy's shoulder, being very careful to keep the cloth of the hospital gown between them. Jimmy flinched, but at least the touch didn't seem to be hurting him. "Everything's too loud and too bright. That's gotta hurt like hell. But, you're okay. You can turn it off. Remember the speedometer?"
Jimmy shook his head and Clint inwardly kicked himself again. Because of course Jimmy wouldn't. But at least he wasn't telling Clint to go away.
"That's okay. Just picture a speedometer in your head. Can you do that?" He was incredibly grateful at the tiny nod. "Awesome. Okay. 80 miles per hour is where your eyes and ears are now, 'cause you're a speed demon." In other circumstances Jimmy would've probably smirked and given Clint the finger; now he didn't react. "That's too fast. Way too fast. You're gonna get a ticket, and that'll look bad 'cause you're a cop. So, you need to slow down, okay? Just, put the brakes on. Nice and gentle. Don't wanna go skidding off the highway." He rubbed Jimmy's shoulder and along his back, making sure not to touch his naked skin, even though all Clint wanted in the whole world was to massage his Sentinel's nape and run his fingers into Jimmy's hair. "We're aiming for about 40 miles per hour, okay? Take the next exit so you can keep slowing down. Nice and easy. No hurry, Jimmy. You don't have to be anywhere. Just get your hearing and sight back to 40. Nice and gentle. Yeah, yeah. That's it. That's beautiful," he continued, murmuring encouragement as Jimmy's breath eased and his body slowly relaxed. He was still shaking under Clint's hand, but at least he wasn't spiking anymore.
"Good job, Sentinel," Clint said softly when Jimmy finally raised his head, blinking. "That was perfect. Well done." He pulled his hand back immediately, clasped his wrists behind his back. Not touching Jimmy was awful, like forcing himself not to breathe. He could feel his half of their bond straining towards his Sentinel like a physical pressure inside his skull.
Clint held it back ruthlessly, because he would never, ever, force a bond on anyone, let alone someone he loved more than his own life. And what if he rebonded with Jimmy accidentally, and Jimmy tried to resist and it killed him?
Clint couldn't even think about it. He'd just...he'd rather die.
Jimmy stared up at him, still blinking. He looked confused and horribly uncertain. There was new sweat at his temples and he looked exhausted, completely done. He'd gone so pale his skin was tinged green. "What happened? How did you know how to help me?"
"Because I'm your Guide," Clint said. "I know you don't remember," he added quickly when Jimmy's expression darkened. "But, it's true. I'm your Guide. The speedometer is a way for you to visualize how you might heighten or deaden your senses. A lot of Sentinels like dials. Like, volume control. Some like volume sliders instead. Or even flagpoles or clock faces. You love driving too fast. So, speedometer. And, I knew how to help you 'cause I've helped Sentinels through spikes before. That's what happened," he explained, because it was painfully obvious Jimmy had no clue what he meant. "A 'spike' is when one or more of your senses get turned up to eleven. Like when everything got too loud and too bright right now for you. I used to be a T.A.G. - that's Temporarily Assigned Guide - for years before I became an Avenger." He hesitated, licking his lips. Reminded himself fiercely that it meant nothing when Jimmy's eyes fastened on the movement. "Bonded Sentinels don't normally spike or overload," he said.
Jimmy's eyes widened, then he drew back like a coiled spring. "Did you...do that to me? So I'd bond with you?"
Clint frowned. "What?" Then he realized what Jimmy meant. He gasped. "No! No, God. I'd never do that. Not to any Sentinel. But I'd rather cut my fucking hand off than do that to you. I'd never hurt you, Jimmy." He automatically reached for him again, jerking back at the last second when he saw the flare of fear in Jimmy's eyes. "I'd never hurt you," he repeated.
"Guides hurt," Jimmy said.
"One Guide did, yeah," Clint said. He didn't say Karen Street wasn't a real Guide, because it'd make no different to Jimmy, no matter how much Clint believed it. "But she...she was sick. She didn't want to bond with you, she wanted to control you. She wanted to own you. Like, like a dog. Or a weapon. Most Guides don't want anything like that. That's not what I want. I want to…love you...To help you. And keep you safe. Keep your senses from spiking or overloading. I swear, I won't hurt you. I won't do anything you don't want me to. I just…" He swallowed, throat suddenly aching. "You're...you're not doing so well. And, I can fix it. I can make you okay."
"I really want you to be okay," Clint finished, voice creaking.
"No, you don't," Jimmy snapped. "You think I don't remember what it was like? You think I'd let a Guide - anyone - control me like that again? I could barely move without her telling me to. I couldn't think. I was...I was a puppet. I was nothing! It was...it was…." He stopped, looking away and gritting his teeth so hard Clint could see the painful bunching of muscles in the curve of Jimmy's jaw. "Get out," he rasped. "Just get the fuck away from me."
Show him he has nothing to fear from you, Sebastian had said. Clint was fucking up that simple directive all over the place. He dug his nails into the skin of his arms behind his back. "I know you have no reason to trust me. I know that you don't remember me at all. But I swear to you, I'm not going to hurt you. I'm not going to control you. I just want my Sentinel back. I want our bond back, Jimmy, and I miss you so fucking much. I know you don't believe me, but I'm not going to force anything on you. Bonding is not… enslavement. Boding isn't violent, or painful, or cruel. It's pleasant and warm and comforting. It's love and acceptance and trust. And I swear to you, if you let me bond with you again, you'll remember that."
Jimmy still wouldn't look at him. "I already remember. And I told you to get out."
"I can't," Clint said. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. But I can't. I know it's what you want. But, you're sick. You're dying. And seeing you like this is killing me. All I want to do is wrap my mind around yours and shield you from the whole world. I'd rather die than hurt you. But if I do what you want, you'll be the one to die. And..." He stopped, took a shuddering breath. "I can't let that happen. I'm sorry. I want to respect your wishes, but...you're dying. You're literally dying right in front of me. And, I can't. I can't do that. I can't let you."
Jimmy's jaw worked again, but his gaze slowly swung back to Clint's face. "Even if it's what I want?"
Clint nodded. "If you saw someone holding a gun to their head, and you knew they were going to pull the trigger...would you walk away? Even if they were a complete stranger. Would you walk away?"
Jimmy shook his head.
"Yeah," Clint said softly. "I can't walk away, Jimmy. I couldn't even if I didn't know you. But I do know you. And I kind of love you a hell of a lot. I love you so much that I'm willing to break this bond with you again, when you're better. If that's what you really want." He wasn't willing. God, willing was such a misnomer it was almost hilarious. But, yeah. He'd do it. For Jimmy, of course he would. "But you need to be sure that's what you want. And right now, you can't. And I know it sucks, and I'm sorry. But you're putting a gun to your head and I couldn't walk away even if I wanted to. And the last thing I want to do is walk away from you. I love you, James. And I will never walk away."
Jimmy stared at him, eyes huge. "You love me?"
Clint nodded. "Yeah."
"Whoo." Clint took a breath. "Well, fuck. Why don't I love you? Seriously." He began ticking off on his fingers. "Because you were dying and half out of your mind when we met, but you were still trying to do as much good as you could before the end. Because you were ready to take on the fucking Winter Soldier to protect me, when you'd been beat to shit and had a broken arm. Because your childhood makes mine look like Sesame Street and you still want to help people. Because you're kind, and you try so damn hard to do the right thing, even when you're not sure what it is. Because you're a reckless idiot who terrifies the shit out of me half the time. Which is cool, 'cause I'm one too. Because you were in the Tower for, like, two minutes and all the other Avengers adopted you as their little brother. Because you named your spirit animal 'Tweety', which is ridiculous. Because you've worked your ass off ever since you got here to be an asset to the Avengers, even though it means you're exhausted and in pain all the time. Because you're beautiful and decent and an excellent Sentinel, and the idea of having to spend even one second without you is just - " Clint's breath hitched, and he had to stop talking to calm the painful lump in his throat. "Don't do that to me, Jimmy," he said at last. "Please. Just, don't do that to me."
Jimmy stared at him. There were tears glistening in the Sentinels' eyes; Clint wished he knew what Jimmy was thinking. "You're lying," he said. It sounded like a horrible truth he wished he didn't have to believe. "You do want to control me. You want...you want to get in my head, and take over. Just like she did. She said she was my mother, but she lied too. What mother would...would do that?" He blinked tears onto his cheeks, then sniffed and wiped his eyes. "Guides lie. They lie and hurt. I know they do."
"Sentinels can tell when people are lying," Clint said. "You can hear my heartbeat, right? Just up your speed to 50 or 55, just for hearing. That's all you need. Can you hear it?" He smiled when Jimmy nodded warily. "Great. Can you hear how steady it is?" Another nod. "That's 'cause I'm not lying."
"It's quick," Jimmy said.
Clint didn't wince, despite how plain the accusation in his voice was. "Yeah. 'Cause I'm scared. I'm scared because of what's happening to you. Because I love you, and you're dying."
"I can't tell if you're lying," Jimmy said. "I…." He frowned, squinting like he was in pain, then looked up at Clint's face. "I know it," he said. "I know...I recognize it. Your heart. It's…" He blinked, confused. "Why do I recognize your heart?"
Because it belongs to you. No way Clint could say that without Jimmy thinking it was just another attempt at manipulation. He ruthlessly crushed down the tiny flare of hope, kept his voice even with an effort. "Because you've heard it before. A lot. You imprinted on me, the first time we bonded. It's what Sentinels do with people they care about. Especially their Guides. They use their senses to get a distinct impression of the other person. So they can find them if they're separated." That was the simplest, most basic, least romantic reason for it, but it was accurate enough. "You know my scent, too," he added, "and the taste of my skin." He smiled, wishing there was any real happiness in it. "You like licking people's cheeks when you imprint on them. It's messy but kind of adorable."
"I don't remember doing that," Jimmy said. But he was lifting his hand to Clint's chest, seemingly only peripherally aware he was doing it. "You don't smell right," he said, distantly. "Like stress. And sadness."
Clint almost forgot to breathe. "...Jimmy?"
"The soap's wrong," Jimmy said, then he blinked a few times, seemingly realizing what he was doing. He whipped his hand back, alarmed, before he actually touched. He seemed to pull into himself, retreating from Clint without moving his body. He rubbed his forehead, closing his eyes tight shut, and Clint worried that another spike was about to start. "I don't know what's happening. I feel like hell." He looked up at Clint, expression miserable and pleading. "Please. Leave me alone. Just leave me alone. Let me sleep."
"Oh, yeah. Sure. Of course." Clint backed off immediately, putting plenty of space between them. He did his best to ignore the deep stab of disappointment. "You, uh, you look tired." Jimmy looked far worse than that. He looked completely drained, like the short-lived spike and the conversation before and after had pulled all the energy out of him.
It hit Clint as he was leaving the room that this might be the last time he saw Jimmy alive.
He whirled, terrified. "Jimmy!"
Jimmy's eyes snapped open. "What?"
"I'm sorry," Clint said, stumbling over the words. "I'm sorry. I just…" He pulled in a breath, forcing himself to calm down. "Think about what I said, okay? Please? About letting me be your Guide again? Please? Please, Jimmy?" He was begging; he didn't care.
Jimmy studied Clint for a long moment, before sagging back and closing his eyes. He rubbed his forehead again, definitely in pain. "Sure. I'll think about it."
"Thank you," Clint said, rough. "I'll, uh, send the nurse in. For your head."
He hovered in the doorway longer than he should have, but Jimmy didn't open his eyes or answer him.
Clint went to find the nurse, trying not to cry.
Natasha barely glanced up from her paper cup of tea long enough to let Bucky know she'd heard him. The Long Beach Sentinel-Guide Center was pretty standard, as far as S-G Centers went: warmly sterile with lots of open spaces and natural light, as well as rooms to hole up in for privacy. And of course the medical wing, where Sam and Clint were convalescing and Jimmy wasn't.
It was late, though, so the subdued bustle of the cafeteria had been replaced by near-dark and silence, safe for the vending machines humming in the corner. Bucky could actually smell how hard the staff worked to clean it, which in an odd way was more irritating than the faint remnants of the day's meals. He turned his sense of smell down from noon - his version of what they called 'baseline' now but he still thought of as 'balance' - to nine am on his mental clock and then it didn't bother him anymore. He wondered if Natasha had done the same. Probably, since he didn't think she'd be able to take the vending machine tea, otherwise. "Mind if I sit?"
Natasha shook her head, keeping her eyes on the cup. She had one hand wrapped around it, the other buried in the fur of her arctic fox, who was on her lap and radiating just as much misery as she was. Her mouth curved up in a tiny smile that lost no warmth for all the bitterness in it. "I assume that Sam sent you to talk to me, since you've also killed Guides. Shared experience and all that."
That stung, but he knew she didn't really mean it as an attack so he ignored it. "Hydra killed Guides, using me to do it," he said as he sat down. "And Sam sent me to talk to you because he thought that maybe you'd believe you have nothing to blame yourself for if you heard it from your dad."
She smirked, finally lifting her eyes. She took a sip of her tea, managing to make it sardonic. "He didn't think that."
Bucky smiled back. "No, he didn't think that. He didn't send me, either. He's asleep. I'm here all on my lonesome."
Natasha arched an eyebrow, but whatever her senses told her about him obviously let her believe it, because she just sat back, toying a little with the cup. "I'm not really sure what you think you can tell me that will be convincing," she said. "I'm a Sentinel and I killed a Guide. There's nothing more to say. Other than I'm amazed Sam can still even look at me."
Celeste appeared and quietly started licking Feodora's muzzle. The wolf was so large she could've easily snapped the fox in half, but she was nothing but gentle, taking small swipes with her tongue.
"Steve and Clint both said it already: Karen wasn't a real Guide," Bucky said. He petted Celeste automatically, dragging his metal fingers through her fur. "She violated her own son, so completely that it nearly killed him and left him with damage that may never heal. No actual, decent Guide would even consider doing something like that."
"What she did didn't change what she was," Natasha said. "That's like saying Hydra aren't human because what they do is inhumane. That's a slippery slope, Bucky."
Bucky drummed his fingers on the table, considering it. "Maybe," he conceded. "But even if you want to say she was a real Guide, if you hadn't stopped her she would've killed Clint, and likely Jimmy as well. He was near death by the time Ellie got to him."
"Because of me," Natasha shot back, angry. Feodora lifted her little head, whining. "He almost died because of me. Because I shot Karen and destroyed his bond."
"A bond that only existed because she'd destroyed the one he already had with Clint," Bucky countered. "And most of the damage had actually been done by Karen, forcing a bond on him, not by you breaking it. And even if that wasn't true, do you really think that drugging Jimmy again to get rid of Karen's bond would've been easier for him?"
"I killed his mother!"
"Who was a controlling, evil Hydra bitch! Look," he added much more calmly when Natasha's eyes widened. "I understand how you feel. Believe me, I probably understand better than anyone else on the planet. But what Hydra used me to do is nothing like this. You saved two men's lives. Two men we all really care about. Yeah, you're a Sentinel and you hurt a Guide, and that's got your instincts all twisted up and making you feel like shit. But you also saved a Guide. Two, if you count Steve and God knows he wasn't doing much to defend himself. Five, if you count Ellie, Alex and Tony, who were all in the Quinjet and probably would've been shot by Karen's hired assholes. Hell, you know the only one of us they would've left alive is Jimmy."
"You made a difficult, split-second tactical decision that ended the conflict in the quickest, safest way possible for your team. You saved two people's lives for sure and probably all of ours, even though you knew what it'd cost you. And I am never going to be anything less than grateful to you for what you did. Just like I am absolutely certain no Guide who's not a certified Hydra whack job would ever hold what you did against you."
"I killed Jimmy's mother," Natasha said again.
"Yeah," Bucky said softly. He wrapped his right hand around Natasha's wrist. "And that is going to be really hard for him, once he remembers. But she would've killed him, Nat. Even if she'd managed to get him on the jet in one piece, there was no way what she was doing to him was survivable. And he was her slave, maybe even more than I was Hydra's. She was controlling how he moved, even. Like a puppet. Pulling the gun away from Clint took every bit of his strength. I know that 'cause I watched it happening. He was in hell. That's not a life. And...and I think a Guide who would do that to anybody at all, let alone their own child...that's a Guide the world is better off without. Even if they are someone's mom."
"She was your daughter too," Natasha said. "And my sister."
"I know," Bucky said. He kept petting Celeste, watching his fingers in her fur, soothing himself with the repetitive motions. "And I've done my share of wondering if...if I had something to do with how she turned out." He forced himself to look up. "But then I look at all the rest of you, even the ones I haven't met yet, and how good you all are. And it helps me remember that we're more than our genes, you know? Maybe Karen would've been a good person if she hadn't been raised Hydra. I don't know. But what I do know is that if you hadn't stopped her, at least two good men would be dead."
"You're right," Natasha said softly, though she still could barely meet his eyes. "I'm not sorry she's dead, except for Jimmy's loss. I'm sorry I killed her. If that makes any sense."
"It does," Bucky said. "But you did the right thing, Nat. The only thing you could've. And I wish to hell I could've done it instead of you. But I am so, so grateful that you were there to save them." He squeezed her wrist gently, mindful of her frail, ordinary human bones. "Thank you, for saving Clint and my Grandson."
Natasha smirked, though it was a little wet. Bucky switched his attention back to Celeste so he didn't watch Natasha wiping her eyes. "I still don't get why you don't just call him your 'cousin', like the rest of us do. You're barely old enough to be his brother."
"Physically, maybe. But Mentally? Believe me, you're all fuckin whippersnappers." He sighed, letting Celeste nose his palm. It was impossible to keep up the humor, no matter how slight. "I'm really worried about him."
She moved her hand in his so their fingers were linked. "Me too. I want to say that Clint will win him over again, but." She took a breath. "Yeah. Me too."
Jim wasn't sleeping.
That was nothing new. He hadn't slept since he'd been brought to the Center - being unconscious didn't count. The staff knew. The nurses had offered him pills, more than once. He'd even taken one, two thirds through the second night when every time he tried to relax it felt like ants racing under his skin. He'd ended up puking it up on the floor ten minutes later, plus the few sips of water he'd had to swallow it down. When he'd climbed out of bed to clean himself up his legs had given out.
If this was what dying was like, he wished it could go faster.
Insomnia wasn't new. He was exhausted, perpetually drained like he'd been running for days. Even sitting up in bed wore him out. But he couldn't sleep. At least not when he was supposed to. He could catch catnaps during the day, sometimes, though they left him groggy and disoriented when he woke. But at night it was like the shadows sunk into his mind and wouldn't stop moving.
Maybe he'd always been like this. He didn't know; he couldn't remember.
And then he heard Clint's heartbeat, and now he wasn't sleeping because he couldn't stop listening for it. He hadn't been able to sleep after Clint left his room that afternoon either. Instead he'd spent hours mentally following Clint as he spoke to the other Avengers, or walked the grounds outside, or went from place to place at the Center. Clint's heart had somehow become Jim's beacon, and it was pulling at him, so bad it felt like his soul was already out the door and halfway down the corridor.
Jim didn't understand. It made no sense. Clint was a Guide, and Guides were dangerous. They hurt. Just thinking about what Karen had done to him left him sick and shaking. The idea of a Guide even touching him was almost enough to send him spiraling into a terror-fueled Overload -
You need to slow down, okay? Just, put the brakes on. Nice and gentle.
Jim lay curled in his bed, hands over his clenched-shut eyes, listening to the steady beat of Clint's heart and thinking slow down, slow down, slow down and mentally pulling the speedometer pointer back to 40 miles per hour. It helped. He didn't know how it helped, but it did. The shadows stopped looming and the lousy hospital scrubs he'd been allowed to wear felt like normal cloth again.
Clint had taught him that. And now Clint's heartbeat was drumming in Jimmy's ears - in his soul, it felt like - and he wanted to be nearer to it so badly he kept startling himself when he realized he was trying to pull his wet-noodle body out of the fucking bed.
He's a Guide. He'll hurt you. The reminder felt increasingly faint and alien, barely a whisper against the thunder of Clint's heart. Jim didn't have the strength to keep resisting. And he didn't want to.
It scared him, how much he didn't want to. But not enough to stop.
Just moving the lower bed rail down so he could climb off the bed left him trembling with fatigue. He wasn't supposed to be walking around as it was, not without help. But now that he'd decided to find Clint, he couldn't bear to wait for someone to answer the call button. Instead he stood next to the bed with his knees locked, gripping the remaining bedrail until the room stopped spinning.
He could do this. Clint had faith in him.
Jim had no idea why that was important, Clint's faith. But it was enough to get him to stagger as far as the doorframe and then out of the room.
Clint was sitting in the single chair in his hospital room. The lights were off, the room illuminated only by the strip of light from the hallway leaking under the closed door. It was late, but Clint was still fully dressed, far too wired and miserable to even try to sleep. His wounds from the beating he'd taken were almost gone, thanks to Alex. But without his Sentinel it felt like a wrongness had sunk so deep inside him he was sick to the depths of his soul. It wasn't painful, but God. It hurt so bad all the same.
He wanted to be with Jimmy, wanted their bond back more than he'd ever wanted anything in his entire life. He could feel his bond writhing in his skull, reaching for a man Clint didn't dare touch because it might actually kill him. His head hurt and his heart ached.
He wasn't facing the door, so the heavy thump of someone banging into it nearly sent Clint out of his skin. He leapt out of his chair, whirling to face the door and automatically grabbing for a bow he'd lost days earlier, only to freeze in place when he saw Jimmy clumsily shove the door open and stumble inside.
"Jimmy?" Clint gaped at him, finally moving when Jimmy took another, wobbling step and his knees buckled. "Jimmy!" Clint grabbed him, keeping him upright with his arms locked around his back. "It's okay, I got you." He dragged him to the armchair, which was closer, and helped him sit, contorting himself so their skin wouldn't touch and holding his bond back like an animal in a cage. "What are you doing here? Are you all right?"
"No. I don't know." Jimmy looked worse than the last time Clint had seen him, just a few hours before. His cheeks were hollow, his eyes black shadows in the low light. He was shivering though the room was far from cold. "I can hear you. Your heart. I... I need…" He reached for Clint. It looked like it took all his strength to lift his arm, but he managed to grab a fistful of Clint's shirt. "Help. Help me, please."
Clint sucked in a breath, resisted slapping his hand over Jimmy's to keep him there. "What do you need?"
"I don't know," Jimmy said. His nostrils flared, eyes going unfocused as he scented the air. He tugged on Clint's shirt, pulling him closer. He managed to get his other hand on Clint's shirt too, pulling. "Please…."
"Yeah, okay." Clint knelt in front of the chair between Jimmy's open legs, his heart hammering. "Is that what you're looking for? My scent? The smell of my skin?"
"I don't know!" Jimmy said again. But he leaned forward, still clutching Clint by his shirt. He tucked his face into the side of Clint's throat, mouth open as he inhaled.
Clint kept his hands in fists at his sides, barely daring to breathe.
"I know you," Jimmy murmured distantly. His breath was a warm tickle on Clint's neck. He didn't seem to be shaking as badly anymore, grounding himself instinctively even if he didn't understand what he was doing.
"Yeah," Clint whispered. "You imprinted on me. I'm your Guide."
"Guides hurt," Jimmy said. But he didn't pull back. Instead he let go of Clint's shirt with one hand, then ran it mindlessly up Clint's back, underneath the cloth. Clint shuddered.
Jimmy's tongue dabbed Clint's jaw, and Clint sucked air like he'd been electrocuted.
Jimmy pulled back, blinking like he'd just woken up. Then he realized what he'd been doing and his face when slack with alarm.
"No!" Clint grabbed Jimmy's wrists before Jimmy could yank them away, then immediately loosened his grip at Jimmy's gasp of fear. Jimmy didn't move, and Clint held that spark of hope as tightly as he could. "Please. Don't. Don't let go. Don't let go, Jimmy. This is right. This is exactly right. I'm your Guide. Yours. You do know me, in every single way a Sentinel can. I won't hurt you. I would never hurt you. I love you. Please, don't let go."
Jimmy didn't. His hands were loose on Clint's body, but they were still there, still touching. "I feel like...like I'm searching for you. But, inside." He frowned, bewildered. "I don't know what's happening."
Clint swallowed. He hadn't known hope could hurt. "That's the bond," he said. There was sweat on his forehead; his heart was beating so fast he could hear the blood in his ears. "Your...your part of our bond is reaching for mine. It wants to be whole again. Mine's doing it too." Holding back was like trying not to breathe; like trying not to fall when all he had to do was let go. Clint kept his bond in check through sheer force of will. It was the hardest thing he'd ever done.
"It wasn't like this," Jimmy said. "Bonding hurt. It was dark and cold and I was drowning. I tried to stop it. I was calling for...for - " He looked at Clint, his eyes fathomless with wonder. They were so close their noses were almost touching. "I was calling for you."
"Yeah," Clint said, rough. "I was tied up. And the people who hurt you...they'd beaten me pretty badly. I couldn't get to you. I will never...." He took a breath. "That was the worst moment of my life. My Sentinel needed me and I couldn't get to you."
"I couldn't feel you anymore," Jimmy said, like it was a slow revelation. "I was calling for you because you were gone. And she wouldn't help me. She…" His eyes widened. "She took you away from me."
Clint nodded. There were tears in his eyes. His bond was roaring with how much it wanted to reconnect. "I'm your Guide, Jimmy." He had to clear his throat. "The person who did this to you didn't like that, so she broke our bond, and it wounded you so badly you don't remember me. But all you have to do is...let me in, and we can have our bond back. And then I can help you and you won't be dying anymore."
"It won't hurt?" Jimmy asked, guileless as a child.
"No. It won't hurt at all." Clint shook his head. "It feels good. Like coming home."
"And I'll be...me? I'll be okay?"
Oh, God. "Yes." Clint tried to imbue the single word with as much honesty and conviction as he could. "Yes. I swear on my life that you'll still be you. You'll be okay. I promise that bonding won't take anything away from you."
Jimmy stared at Clint for a long moment, watching his face. Clint tried to keep breathing and show nothing in his eyes other than how this was the absolute truth. "I love you, Jimmy," he said.
Jimmy's breath sped up, but he squared his shoulders. "Okay." He bit his lip. "What do I do?"
Clint couldn't help the tiny, desperate noise that was relief and terrible need all at once. "Can I touch you?" he asked breathlessly. "I mean, the way you were touching me?" His hands were still around Jimmy's wrists, and that could have been enough. But Clint wanted, needed, to hold him.
Clint let out a stuttering breath then immediately slid his hands up the back of Jimmy's shirt, pulling him as close as he possibly could. Jimmy made a sound that was caught somewhere between contentment and fear, but he wrapped his arms around Clint too.
"What now?" Jimmy whispered.
Clint swallowed, ready to breathe; ready to fall. "Now you just...let me in."
Their bond flared to bright, brilliant life, washing them in heat and light like stepping from a cave into the sun. Clint heard Jimmy's sharp, gasping inhale, felt his shock like the slap of a wave.
He was terrified. The bravery and trust it had taken for Jimmy to allow Clint to do this was incredible. Clint could feel exactly how much. "It's okay, I promise. I promise it won't hurt. There's no pain. I'll show you. God, Jimmy. You're so brave. You're amazing." Clint was barely aware of what he was saying out loud. His focus was on their fledgling bond, finding all the hurt, damaged places Clint could seep into and soothe, every place he could give Jimmy shelter and comfort.
Clint poured all of his love, all of his joy at being with Jimmy, of being whole, complete again, into the bond. Jimmy's weak, flickering shields evened out, solid and strong. They met Clint's like a kiss, protecting them both.
Jimmy buried his face in Clint's neck again and his breath broke on a small, hitching sob. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," he whispered against Clint's skin, tears wetting his shoulder. A jumbled mix of emotions twisted through their bond: joy, regret, confusion. Love, guilt and shame. Anger. Relief. Deep, aching sorrow.
"Hey, no. Don't do that. Don't blame yourself. You have nothing to be sorry for. It's not your fault. I'm here. I've got you. Everything is gonna be okay now." Clint kept stroking Jimmy's back, holding him securely in his arms and in their bond. "I'm not angry. I'm just so, so glad you're with me. I missed you so much."
Jimmy made a hurt, broken noise and gripped Clint tighter, nuzzling his hair while he scented him. "She took you from me," he said, voice shaking. "She took you from me! She took you and she's dead and...and she was my mother!" He sobbed against Clint's shoulder. "How could she do that? She was my mom. How could she do that to me?"
"I don't know," Clint said, rocking his distraught Sentinel in his arms. His legs were beginning to ache from kneeling, but that was fine. He would stay all night like this if that was what Jimmy needed from him. "I don't know how she could hurt you like that. I'm sorry. I wish I could've stopped her. You didn't deserve that. Parents should protect their kids."
"I loved her," Jimmy said. "I loved her and she did that to me."
"I know, I know," Clint said, helpless and heartbroken. He gave Jimmy as much love and comfort as he could, wishing he had any kind of answer. "You didn't deserve that. You were her son and she should never have done that to you."
"I'm sorry." Jimmy swallowed, pulled back enough to wipe his eyes. His bond was in turmoil, dark and anguished. "You didn't want to go. You didn't trust her. I made you go. I got you hurt."
"Wait," Clint said. "You remember? You're remembering?"
"Yeah." Jimmy nodded. His smile was tragic. "Kinda' wish I didn't."
"Don't talk like that. None of this is your fault." The relief that Jimmy had his memory back was bitterly tempered by knowledge of what he was remembering. "She got me hurt, Jimmy," Clint said fiercely. "Karen did. Not you. You didn't do anything wrong."
"I trusted her," Jimmy said.
Clint cupped the back of his neck. "Yeah. Of course you did. Kids should trust their parents. It's not your fault that she betrayed you."
"Sure feels like it," Jimmy said.
"I know." Clint pulled Jimmy close again, carding his fingers through his hair. "But it's not your fault. She betrayed you. Nobody should have to question their own parents' motives, Jimmy. You didn't do anything wrong by assuming she'd be a decent human being."
"She was Hydra," Jimmy said.
"So was Bucky, and Steve McGarrett's mom. And she was pretty bad but she never did anything to Steve like what Karen did to you." He smirked with nothing like humor. "I was a killer for hire, before S.H.I.E.L.D. recruited me. Where we come from doesn't have to make us what we are."
"I love what you are," Jimmy said.
Clint gasped, then held Jimmy tighter when he would have pulled back. "No, it's okay. I'm just...I'm just really happy. I didn't…" He swallowed. "I wasn't sure you still felt that way. About me."
Jimmy pulled back anyway, so they could see each others' eyes. "I do," he said simply. "God, Clint. I love you. You have no idea how much - " His breath caught again, and his smile was wet when he gently touched Clint's face. "I love you. I'm so sorry I forgot. But, I love you. I love you more than anything."
"You knew my heart," Clint said, pulling him close again. "You knew my heart. That's all that matters."
Natasha smirked to herself, making sure her face was behind her raised arm as she stretched, so Jimmy couldn't see or hear it. She didn't like how sardonic she sounded. "Now I know Sam put you up to this."
"What? You think I'm scared of you?"
His tone was playful, which was in all honesty nothing like what Natasha would have suspected. She lowered her leg off the barre, discreetly upping her senses until she could scent him and hear his heart. Just the faintest trace of anxiety, and the same stress he'd been carrying for days, dealing with his conflicted emotions over his mothers' death. But no anger.
Interesting. He should have been angry. She really didn't understand why he wasn't.
Jimmy was grinning at her, bouncing on his sneakered toes and holding the ends of the towel around his neck. He was definitely dressed for the gym, just like she was, but the last thing she wanted to do was spar with someone who by all rights should be looking to make her swallow her teeth. Especially when she was of more than half a mind to help them.
"I think you should be." She smiled wolfishly, because she was trying to scare him off and because it was a fair warning anyway. At best he was managing to hold his own with her, but she'd been fighting for instruction; she wasn't trying to kill him. It would take a while still before she could fight without holding anything back.
"C'mon," he said, still grinning. "Clint says you're a pussycat. A deadly pussycat. Well, you're kind of the size of a cat." He chuckled at his own joke, so bright and happy that Natasha narrowed her eyes, suspicious. He'd recovered completely from what Karen Street had done to him - at least as far as she knew - but this good mood seemed...excessive. Given the circumstances.
Or maybe that was just her.
"I'm not really in the mood for sparring," she admitted finally. She put her other leg on the barre, completing the same stretch. Ballet was one of the many things the Red Room had literally beaten into her, but she still found repeating the familiar moves comforting. She turned her head so she could study him. "Have you actually even been cleared for that kind of physical activity?"
"Just today!" Jimmy responded jubilantly. He waggled his fingers at the side of his head, his expression dimming a bit. "The shrinks wanted to make sure I wouldn't, I don't know, throw myself off the top of the climbing wall or something. But they said I was good to go."
She arched an eyebrow. "And your first thought was to come down here and ask me to pummel you?"
"Well, no." He grimaced a little, then looked away, rubbing his nose. "Clint might've said you could use some company."
"Clint?" She blinked. "Not Sam?"
Jimmy shrugged, still staring at the far wall of the dance studio. "Well, he might've...agreed with Clint. About it."
Natasha drew a deep breath made of equal parts fondness and exasperation. "And I'm guessing this 'company' was yours, specifically."
Jimmy nodded, then looked back at her. "You smell stressed and sad all the time. And your heartbeat speeds up whenever I come into the room." His lips pursed unhappily. "And you won't talk to me anymore."
"I'm talking to you now."
He rolled his eyes, back to his usual exuberance. "Sure. Because I basically cornered you." He took a step closer, sadness returning to his face. "It's been days, though. Ever since we got back. And you can barely look at me."
Natasha stood up straight and faced him, wrapping her fingers around the barre at her sides. "I'm sorry," she said, meaning it. "I've...had a lot on my mind, since that mission. But it wasn't fair to avoid you."
"I don't blame you, you know. For what happened."
Natasha didn't startle only because she'd had so much practice with hiding her emotions. But she didn't stop her fingers from tightening on the barre. "I killed your mother."
Jimmy nodded, all hints of levity gone. "I know. You had to."
"You really can't know that."
"I think I do," he said seriously. "I mean, yeah. You're right. I wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders when it went down. But Steve and Bucky were, so I know that Karen was going to shoot me. And if she was willing to shoot me, then she sure as hell would've shot Clint. You took the fastest, safest course of action to save our lives."
Bucky had told her very much the same thing, which had been only slightly easier to hear when she didn't have to be in Jimmy's line of sight. "Forgive me if I don't see it that way," she said, voice tight. "I killed a Guide, in front of her son. And every time I think about it, that's the only part that...that matters. I'm a Sentinel and I killed a Guide in front of her son."
Jimmy came closer. "What about the part where you're a Sentinel who saved another Sentinel and his Guide? Doesn't that matter? Even if it doesn't matter that you saved me..." - He ignored her wordless protest - "You saved Clint. You saved my Guide. The most important person to me in the world. And, yeah. I know it was my mother, and another Guide, who you had to kill to do it. And it was terrible you were forced into that situation, and I am so, so sorry that I trusted her. I will never forgive myself for that. But I am so grateful to you for what you did."
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you that before," Jimmy added, while Natasha was doing her best to control her breathing and surreptitiously wipe her eyes. "I guess I thought it'd be obvious, since you have a Guide too. But when Clint and Sam said you weren't avoiding me 'cause you were pissed, I realized that maybe it wasn't obvious to you. So I wanted to tell you."
Natasha sniffed, blotting her eyes with her fingertips. "You thought I was angry at you?"
"Yeah." Jimmy nodded again, so earnest it was kind of adorable. "Of course I did. 'Cause if I hadn't been stupid enough to go to California, you would've never had to do anything."
"Oh, my God. Clint really is perfect for you." Natasha strode forward and wrapped Jimmy in a hug. "I am absolutely sure that everyone else in the tower has told you this already, including your therapist. But nothing that happened is your fault. You have nothing to blame yourself for. You might've had difficulties with your mother, but you had no reason to suspect she would betray you like that, did you?"
"She was Hydra," Jimmy said. He hugged her just as tightly as she did him, but he sounded tired, like he'd heard and said this before. Natasha was certain he had.
"And I was Red Room," she said. She pulled back, keeping her hands on his arms. "You had no reason to suspect that she would betray you like that," she repeated. "You did nothing wrong, James."
He swallowed. "Well, if I didn't, then neither did you. And I'm sure everyone else in the tower has told you that already, too. So, you need to believe it."
Natasha wasn't sure she had to do any such thing, except that Jimmy was right: everyone had told her that, including Sam, Clint, her own therapist, even. And now Jimmy himself. And she wanted to believe it. She wanted to remember what she'd done as a terrible means to the only acceptable end. And maybe the truth was, that was the way she should remember it. Because there had been no other outcome that any of them could have lived with. And Natasha would kill Alpha Guide Karen Street all over again if it meant Clint and Jimmy came home.
So she said, "Maybe I do," because that was the best she could manage right then. She stood on her tiptoes to kiss her nephew's forehead. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Jimmy said seriously. He hugged her again quickly, then stood back, grinning. "So, how about sparring?"
Natasha rolled her eyes, but she couldn't help her smile. "Clint is definitely perfect for you. All right, we can spar. But don't say I didn't warn you."
"Never dream of it," Jimmy said, and let her lead the way into the rest of the gym.