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touched down in the land of the delta blues

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touched down in the land of the delta blues

What is between the star and the sea
A bird as bright as a bird can be
What is between the bird and me
Only a star, only the sea

- The Waterboys

The boat isn't new – there are smears of rust down the bolt seams of the hull and the cabin smells like ten years of disuse, mildew soaked into dust, lemon cleanser soaked into linoleum cracks.  The bunkbeds belowdecks are flat and lifeless, vinyl mattress-covers sun-cracked, support foam a springless brick under the weight of your duffel.

Your name is DAVE STRIDER, meta-human underground hero of Houston, disguised DJ celebrity, possible alien from actual outer space, and you are NINETEEN years old when you take a plane to New York to join the Avengers.  A hospital bracelet is settled around your LEFT WRIST, soft plastic nearly glowing in the coastal sunset.  A Ninjatō rests in your RIGHT HAND, hard steel under old leather, a comforting weight.

You crack the sword from its sheath just enough to wedge the base of the blade behind the boat's ignition plate, which pops off with a clean twist, the waft of diesel grease hitting you broadside with nostalgia.  You tuck your sword under your arm and crouch to a knee, AVIATOR SHADES pushed up your forehead to better see the wires you're twisting to light the engine; you slap the pulley motor to life to unmoor the anchor, and rev the boat gently out of the wharf despite never having driven before, car nor boat nor anything.  Intuitive hand-eye, that's what the labcoats had called it.

Your brother could weave all sorts of mechanical parts into robots, golems from metal, a God breathing life into clay to answer its own loneliness.  Nobody taught him how.  Internet, he'd say, deadpan.

Internet, you would say, if they asked you how you learned to drive a boat or where to stab the twelve-story-tall KRAKEN-ESQUE currently molesting its way up the Statue of Liberty (though in a world of Tony Starks and Thor Odinsons, nobody would ask - sometimes people were just smart, had aptitudes, intuitions, sometimes people were just Gods).

The water chops unevenly under the boat, a ragged upheaval sent by the thrashing pile of murderfuck that had popped the rest of the way out of the ocean like the ocean was hot soup.  You FLASH-STEP to close the distance and spare the boat, the heels of your canvas chucks tapping on the crests of time-frozen waves, small pops of displaced air which startle the Hulk as you pass.

"Placing the charges, Cap, get that dinner plate ready,"  Iron Man's augmented voice announces out of sight, what Avengers are there flanking the threat while you circle, and you nearly abort your interference but the job is half done in a blink, the monster's massive arteries gouged  open with each upswing of your blade, so that the thing might faint before it could get any further up Lady Liberty's skirt, bleed out in the sea.

When the PR Deputies would retell the first time you met the Avengers, they'd clean it up, clean you up - you'd be dressed to impress, some lean european business-casual throw instead of the faded frat-rat chic, much less brackish green monster sputum smeared down your side.  You would do something cool like kick past Captain America's shield, all legs, maybe even knock a tentacle off-course just to prolong introductions, drop a one-liner, engage in some banter, flirt. It would be a real shounen cut-scene, stylized and rhythmic, fun and full of bolster.

The Avengers wouldn't know exactly what, or who they were looking at, but there would be a wary appreciation, an instant click of PACK DYNAMIC.  That's how it would get retold.

Explosions would be triggered, you would land beside Captain America (THE Alpha, the face of the Avengers) to watch the alien invader or eldritch wetdream or whatever combust.  Your mouth would pull back, startled by the carnage, shades slipped down to show your surprise, sparing the Captain a glimpse of your eyes.  The wind would stir between you, cinder snow drifting on the heat of the explosions, and you'd catch a scent, one of the other, each.

And Rogers would have to glance twice, attention arrested, shield up as if to gather you a little closer, protect you or some shit; tentacles falling and explosives discharging in concerto, but you'd only have eyes for each other, red white and goddamn blue. 

"Hey, who's the Backstreet Boy?"  Iron Man barks as the monster slumps aside to reveal your perch on Statue Liberty's tableau.  You can't hear the replies, but a few hands go up to a few ear pieces to secure a few estimates.  "Nevermind," Iron Man amends swiftly, approaching with an arm raised, pointing at the drowsily crooning monster, now peeling itself from the green copper robes of the rescued damsel.  The thing's off-white skin visibly pales to a greenish grey as its blood foams the ocean into a violent Kool-Aid neon.  "Was that -"  the mech suit folds its facemask back, Stark nearing to speak at a normal volume.  "Was that you, Cochise?"

You nod, once, ankle crossed over knee, sword laid flat thigh to thigh, hands busy wicking the gore off the blade with a pumice.   You knew Tony Stark in professional passing, as a kid really, and you're startled to discover he is shorter than you now, if you took away the tech armor, because at nineteen you've stretched out tall and lanky, hewn from any trace of OMEGA pliability by a lifetime vigil against the Tex-Mex hellportal problem.  You remember a man who was larger than life, dark eyes glittering with voracious intelligence, a cold glamour you used to want for yourself, for Bro.  You remember he smelled like woodsy bourbon, warm whiskey and clarified transmission oil, sandalwood or cedar or something. You remember a lot of things.

The Hulk's roar can be heard from there, his green mass bounding in and out of view to deliver one last completely unnecessary pile-drive.

Stark navigates a hover close enough to take a heavy clanging sit beside you, exhaling in relief as the helmet unfolds in whole, cold air hitting the sweat-damp back of his neck, stress evident in the salt of his musk. He doesn't smell like he used to, more metallic (for probably obvious reasons), less warm, less inviting.  "You didn't always look so hacked up, did you?"  he hazards, heavy armored hand weighing at your wan slump.

You wonder if you smell different, too, but that's a stupid question you dismiss immediately because duh, you smelled like a kid when you were a kid and you're sure as hell not that anymore.

"Had a bad week," You lie evenly, a blithe disregard for the scars he's referencing, which have been around for years.  You shift your weight to tug a crumpled pack of cigarettes from the back pocket of your cargo jeans.  "Got a light?"

"Your brother lets you smoke?"  Stark holds the palm of his armored hand up, propulsion port still hot from his flight.

You light a cigarette off Iron Man's plasma-engine palm, because this is your life now.  You take a careful pull and a slow exhale, then camp the brand in the corner of your mouth, return to cleaning the sword.  "Guess he did, at that.  Though I also guess he ain't the one in charge any more," you lead, eyebrows up, fingers barely tremoring, only maybe just from the cold.  This was the story that you were going to tell - that you were three years past a major tragedy, three years recovered, healthy, comfortable, functional, fine.  "But naw, it doesn't hurt us any, Boss.  We don't really 'do' cancer, as it turns out."

"You do papercuts?"  Stark teases darkly, swatting an armored knuckle at the sleeve of your baseball shirt.  "Death by a thousand origami cranes?  This all from that night gig you an' Brodie get up to?"

"It's a dangerous job," You drawl, agreeing, forearms criss-crossed with the pale scars of your trade, cleanly faded gash-lines decorating your throat, your jaw, cheek, the bridge of your nose, a few nicks in each ear. "Somebody's gotta do it."  The worst of the scarring, well, that was under your shirt.  "And I ain't as fast as Bro, man, you know that."

Stark wheezes, shaking his head.  "We're uh, yeah.  We're gonna get you some armor."  He pushes off the tableau, suit engines peeling to life to catch his weight.  "Did you hop that thing to get yourself up here?"  He wags an arm at the dying seabeast.  "You're not stuck, are you?  Need me to get you to the stairs?"

It's the Omega he's addressing, not you, not your obvious skill and self-sufficiency, but the part of you that makes Alphas clamber rugby-pile style over each other to lay a jacket over a puddle, help you cross the street 'n shit.  You shake your head, cigarette cupped to keep the wind from extinguishing the cherry, and FLASH-STEP, a blur and a blink and you are made ghost, gone, shinobi-running down the grooves of the Statue's robes, tapping off the hard square lip of the base, a few monster-heaved hills of water later and you are back on the boat, breathing hard, shaking, shaking.

You steer the boat against the last of the ocean swells and tuck it into Liberty Island's ferry wharf, ease the engine down, off, moor the anchor. 

Voices rise from the docks, those who hadn't been fast enough to evacuate to the ferry, who had taken shelter inside the Statue instead; and the Avengers who were escorting them to the emergency vehicles pulling up out of your view.  You lean a hip against the boat's steerage, arms crossed, and only tremble a little, maybe even only from the cold.  You have to wear the mantle of three years' recovery on shoulders that were barely a week past their wracking sobs; had to pull it off like you'd had plenty of time to grieve your loss, like you and your brother had made three years of peace; and fuck you, you could do that, you could do anything Bro ever asked, so long as Bro kept asking.

"You're going to want to take shelter," Stark advises, boat rocking under Iron Man's weight as he lands.  "Charges were set on a timer, in case we couldn't detonate them with a manual strategy.  It's about to rain Oz."

You nod toward the boat's cabin, let Iron Man mecha-stomp his way in first, follow at a cautious distance, appropriately wary of an Alpha you haven't seen since you were, what, nine?

Tony steps out of the suit as soon as he is clear of the cabin door, track sweats damp with ocean, and his metallic scent up close is... unhealthy.  Sour.  Pallid or watered, like.  You relax in degrees, tug your duffel off the bottom bunk to let it fall to the floor with a muffled plap.  Explosions sound off under the roiling surface of the ocean, jar the listing sway of the boat to a sharp dip, and you keep your feet by hooking your hands into the rafter piping, heels skidding over the chirp of wet linoleum. 

Tony Stark just lets his body fold to a hard sit to the bottom bunk, grimacing.  "Go ahead and catch that door for me, Dueces."

You catch the door awkwardly, foot snagging its thick metal edge, tug it shut against the first stinking fall of guts, seawater, extremely offended fish.

Tony sighs, scrubs both hands over his face and head, and sinks to his back to contemplate the inside of his eyelids while gore darkens the windows, lists the vessel.  "Your brother said you were, and I quote, 'real smart', that you'd work hard," he begins in an even lecture.  "Which is usually code for a Megan who is not exactly gifted in the department of physical appearance."  He flaps a hand out, draws lazy circles through the air, a figure eight to encompass you head to toe.  "I expected you to have a club foot, the way he was carrying on.  A lazy eye.  Dumbo ears, potbelly, something."  He struggles to his elbows, exhaling hard, studying you with a squint, and you're not one for OLD GUYS but the Omega part of you wouldn't say no to making some pretty dark-lashed babies with those genes.

You settle back against the door, arms crossed, and shove your aviators more securely up your nose.

"I mean what is it with people just forking up their wards, lately?"  Stark gripes non-sequitur, "I don't run that goddamn school, where is that school, Massachusetts?  Maine?  That fucking school, that's where all you 'gifted' teenagers should end up, not my doorstep, mercy's fucking sake."  He sucks a molar, wags his jaw.  Shakes his head.  "Anyway, you?  You're not the hunchbacked Brodie Jr. I was expecting.  Said you were funny and interviewed well on radio, like that's not code for a total uggo."

You let your expression ease from its pinch of confusion.  "Yeah, I was told to expect a media-forward position not unlike the DeadMaus gig, seein' as Rogers is a national icon 'n all."

Stark's eyes narrow.  "Brodie said you were here for Steve, did he?"

Your mouth pulls back, nostrils flaring.  "Aren't I?"  You wouldn't say no, you goddamn wouldn't, but Stark smells like seven avenues of distress and twelve stories of substance abuse and there's a glowing pocket of Nothing Good embedded in the center of his chest that you can't stare at for too long.

"Noh, yeah,"  Stark sinks back to the mattress again with a huff.  "Just, it 'isn't the way', knowing who your suitor is, not until, you know, Pack Intro.  In case there's a, what, a disapproval, or,"  Tony waves lazily through the air, wrist spun slowly, "Vie of competition.  Avoids hurt feelings."

You scoff under your breath, grip both elbows.  "We Striders are but simple Texan trailer trash, Mr. Stark, we can't afford feelings."  Quickly, furtive, "Are there other candidates I need to know about?"

"A, you were raised in a swank metropolitan condo and it's gauche to pretend any different, and B,"  Tony pops his knuckles forward, testing the hollow ring of the bunking frame as he curls upright.  "No.  And I don't care if you want to observe the etiquette or not, but go ahead and do me a solid by acting natural, like you're here for enrollment in our merry little band of misfits and not, uh, the mail-order Meg we've made of you."

"Rogers doesn't know."  You nod slow, exaggerated.  "Makes sense I guess."  If Rogers wanted a Meg he'd probably have one by now, and plenty of Governing Offices had tried to secure Broderick Strider's unmitigably Alpha ass on over to their payroll with a pre-packaged marriage proposal or twelve.  "Oh, uh, here," you bend to pull the flat allocator of your SYLLADEX from the duffel to logue your Ninjato in the STRIFE DECK, then toss it to Stark.  "Dowry.  Bro said you've had a bon-- uhh, I mean, you've had your eye on the skybaby tech for a while."

Stark hefts the sylladex in his palm. "Thanks."  He then underhands it back to you, and you try not to deflate in relief.  "But no thanks.  'Skaianet' tech, actually, and we've got this in SHIELD labs now, courtesy Federal Agent Egbert."

You hum, and drop the 'DEX atop the open mouth of your bag.  John had nearly exploded when he found out his DAD's mysterious 'business job' was closer to that of James Bond than Jim Bob, but you weren't as surprised.  John Egbert was also a 'sky baby', an infant discovered alone and unharmed in the middle of a smoking crater with nothing but a diaper and a 'DEX, the first you had unearthed in the search for more of whatever it was you and Bro were supposed to be.  "Pocket dimensions, man, How Do They Work."

"Rogers knows, by the way,"  Stark interrupts your segue.  "Why you're here.  He just doesn't know that you know, you know?"

"Need me in the dark so I won't put on airs?"  You dust at the side of your duds, damp and discolored with what monster leavings hadn't been wicked off by the dash down Lady Liberty.  "In case Rogers thinks I'm hamming it?"

Stark struggles to a stand, fingers hooked in the bottom of the top bunk to pull himself up, brown eyes warm with sympathy.  "No, we need you 'in the dark' in case Rogers doesn't want to do this.  He'd bond someone out of guilt, you know, or a sense of responsibility.  Almost has done just to polish his team's public relations, but the superhero lifestyle isn't exactly safe for civilians."  Stark's grip tightens, wrings a scuffing song from the frame, fidgets a crumb of rust away.  "Believe it or not, I'm trying to find a setup that's actually good for Rogers, not just what's convenient or socially palpable or self-sacrificial."

You poke the lip of the armor's open chest cavity with a knuckle, watch it sigh shut in clicks and whirs.  "Good thing I look about as far from a charity lay as Apollo's own bastard, then."  You crouch to the duffel to rifle for a snack, to try and give the shiver in your hands something to still against.  "If Apollo had fucked Freddy Krueger."

"You look like fresh hell fed through the wood chipper," Stark agrees seamlessly, and this whole conversation has gone about as smooth as a chat with one of Bro's AIs, like you share similar mental mapping, routes pre-ordained for snark.  Belatedly, you remember that Tony Stark is a genius.  Far more belatedly, you realize you might actually be something like a genius, too.  Stark presents your persons with an upturned palm,  "I mean duh, 'gorgeous' if it had to go in a headline, but more uh, malnutrition vogue, tapeworm runway, coke-habit-chic. And you smell like calamari from a gas station in Utah."

You tilt your head, scratch your chin as you stand with a half-done bag of bacon jerky. "Thanks. I don't do uppers and eat my weight in burritos at least three times a day." Then, because turnabout is fair play, "You smell like hot garbage from the business end of an ambulance."

"I was on death's doorstep like a week ago, so, points." Stark peers past his empty suit to the wide cabin windows, a smear of blue and white moving past the gore-clouded glass alongside a smaller smear of black.  "Hey come take a seat, will you." Stark shuffles out of the way to let you fold your lanky ass down onto the bed, trading places at the door.

"Okay who is the organ donor who -"  A woman's demand precedes the opening of that door, but Stark blocks her entrance, shoves forward, pulls the door hastily shut after himself, leaving you alone with Iron Man's silent exoskeleton and the lingering waft of the seabeast you'd slain, mingled with Stark's week-past blood poisoning.


You've changed by the time Stark returns, a dry pair of jeans that ride a little high at the ankle and a little low at the waist, and a T-Shirt with the Turntech Godhead logo, from your first tour out to California.  You're shrugging an arm into the red zip hoodie you bought when you landed, which is fleecy and thick and smells like department store detergent, when THE BLACK WIDOW follows Stark in, and she is ... well, probably average height but with her in the cabin the space suddenly feels entirely too small and you fold back into the bottom bunk, hitting your elbow against a metal bedpost in the attempt to navigate the remaining hoodie sleeve.

"Are you actually DeadMaus?"  Stark pelts as he shuts the door after Black Widow, who joins you near the bunk.

You shake your head no, "Quickest reference to my dayjob, is all.  Masked identity, a performance brand that can travel on different shoulders if I can't make a tour, that kinda thing."

Widow reaches in your sleeve to help pull your arm through, and folds your hand over to scent your wrist - which makes you flush because you forgot, you forgot introductions and you forgot etiquette and they were going to think you were rude or -shy- and ugh, maybe you are?  Shy?  You know, somewhere in your collective of nightly news facts, that Black Widow is an Omega, and Omegas are always up for grabs, for comfort or direction, but especially by other Megs - one of the few perks of your station.

Widow smiles, a practiced expression that you're used to slapping on your own face, and she relents your arm to offer her own, freesia over gunmetal. She chirps air between her teeth and croons behind her nose to settle you, which might have worked under less daunting circumstances.

You let your jaw loosen and hang your mouth open over the span of pale skin between black glove and sleeve as she presents it, but you don't inhale too deep.  The bunk dips with the weight of the Widow's kneel, just as the boat's engine growls to life and you startle, catching a glimpse of the broad-shouldered smear of blue and white stood at the wheel outside, beside a shorter crumple of black who has unwisely leaned back against the gore-clouded glass of the cabin window. 

Widow's wrists pass behind your ears and she tuts, tugs your shades free, and you can feel the shake of yourself at their loss, wide-eyed with wet building under your tongue.  You're not a kid anymore.  You're not.  You know how to do this, you've done it dozens, hundreds of times with your production team, with fans, with friends -

"One half of Joy Division?"  Stark hazards, braced against the cabin door as the boat turns out of the wharf.

"Pretty sure they're French," you rasp, and feel the chuckle stick in your throat.  You are literally wearing the merch to your act, but whatever, your team was never Joy-Division big and home-office DJs like you were a dime a dozen on any coast.  "Hi," you finally manage, to Black Widow.  "Sorry.  Jetlag.  I'm Dave."  You push your sleeves up, pass your wrists over her shoulders, deference, but the battle won't leave you, won't turn your applewood sweet or let the cotton through the metallic notes of blood.

"Anthony doesn't introduce, either,"  Widow assures with a shrug.  "Natasha Romanov.  You can call me Natalie, if you like."

You wince, because she's using the Therapy Voice and Stark can't stop glancing at you, up and down, cheek hollowed in as he bites the corner of his mouth.  "This boat is stolen," you calmly admit, instead of any number of excuses rabbiting around to try and explain your damage.

"We'll trace the license," Natalie says, easing back to scoot behind you, laying out on her stomach, a naturally gifted lounger.  "Compensation will be logged with the rest, since most of the boats in the bleed radius are going to be impounded against the possibility of biohazard."

The business talk is relaxing, as is having Natalie stretched prone behind you, for some reason you're still a little too gobsmacked to investigate too closely (she's pretty, and you're queer for 'Megs as much as you're wet for people In Charge, and she is definitely In Charge, and).  She smells null, you realize late.  Like John on his inhibitors, closer to the comfort of Beta neutrality than that doughy Omegan head, and maybe that makes sense, doing the job she does, made Pack with her colleagues as she was.  Your stomach flips a little when Stark moves from the door, and Natalie behind you lets out a low 'hey' to warn him.

"Just sending the goods back to the tower," Stark defends, pressing the seams of the Iron Man suit open.  He steps backwards into the mecha's embrace, and winks at you just before the mask closes over.

"It's not a tower," Natalie sighs as Iron Man taps the cabin door shut after himself.  Nat plucks her gloves off, works her fingers, cracks her knuckles and digs lint out from under a fingernail.  "We rebuilt north of the city proper, underground.  Safer, less conspicuous."

"Easier to defend," you guess as the Iron suit engines roar off into the distance, Stark's shadow joining the other two at the helm, and you twist to join Widow in repose, belly-up as she shuffles aside to make room.  You settle side to side, as small as the bunk is and as cold as the cabin.  You cross your hands over your stomach, guarding a too-new scar, and fidget with the soft plastic of your medical bracelets.  "What am I doing here, Natalie," you huff, trying at world-weary exasperation.

"Was hoping you could tell me," Natalie volleys, dry, her voice cracked under with a pleasant weathering, good for audio, good for jockeying, for radio.  "They said to expect a ground agent, brought in from the cold.  That means freelance, usually, but can allude to defection.  You've got a file, but it's thin."

You scoff, fish your sunglasses out of the space between your heads, settle them back over your budding migraine.  You wouldn't have considered yourself an Agent, necessarily, but the label was the closest fit for the job you did, and who paid your rent to do it.

Natalie continues, "I was brought in from the cold, but I wasn't freelance and I hadn't defected.  The organisation who trained me was on the wrong side of history, and SHIELD didn't want to waste any perfectly good field agents on any wars of contrition."  She shifts her weight, elbow to elbow, mattress squeaking under gore-damp armor.  "So they brought me in, and they gave me a job, but the rest was up to me.  'In from the cold', means there's some warming-up to get done.  Probably always will be."  Natalie's booted heel wags over, knocking the top of your shoe. 

You tug your arms over your middle, crossed a little tighter, jaw clenched against a shiver.  "I feel like I read that on the back of your bubblegum card," you say, because what else can you do but joke, and nudge back at your new BestFriend.  "But seriously, my 'Meg's name is John Egbert and if I didn't have this job to do with y'all then me and my hundreds of career dropout dollars would be in DC pretending to make little overpowered Striderberts with him, so."

Natalie scoffs.  "You can bring your Meg up from DC, Dave, this isn't an exclusive bower."  Her hand begins the casual grooming loop, from the back of your ear to your neck to your shoulder and across, and out, and in again, and you'll smell a little more like her for it, a little calmer and a little null.  "Anthony has his wife, and his chauffeur for that matter, and Peter sometimes stays over with his aunt.  There is plenty of room for you, your Pack, and all hundred career dollars."

You take a moment to just breathe, marinading in this strange new heart-clench melancholy.  You can't bring your whole Pack, not really.  You don't think John has ever even met Bro face to face, and even if Brodie ever set aside his Rugged American Individualism to join you, John would definitely have some problems with the brother-fucking.  Rose might not care (in her cold, detached, unfazed ultra-Alpha way) but she had her whole spooky reticence toward governmental conformity; and Jade didn't sound at all ready to settle down into any kind of hierarchy at this point in her life but especially not with a Pack full of strangers, just because your dumb ass got forked over.

Natalie shifts, removing her arm from under you to work the pins and needles out.  "What does the back of your bubblegum card say?  Those scars are too smooth and uniform for the claws of A. Cronus Estradi."  

You take a breath and this is easy, this is the easiest thing to admit, this is routine, this is old news dulled by years of the retelling.  "Dave Strider, possible alien that fell out of the sky; found, raised and trained by similar possible alien who also fell out of the sky; grew up Doing that whole To-Do down in Houston, interdimensional gatekeeping, and yeah my brother didn't pull his punches when he trained me up, if by punches we mean stabs."

Natalie hums, satisfied.  "So what are you doing here, Dave?"

"My best," you answer, and it's easier.  "I'm doing my best."

Natalie wags her foot, tapping yours.  "What are you doing here, with us.  Why did Stark and Rogers unanimously agree to bring you in when they can't hardly agree on lunch, and are we going to have to deal with any follow-through from Houston?"

"Is my brother going to come after me?" you finish, and swallow back your bitter chuckle.  "The brother who killed my Alpha, which got me on the Auction in the first?"  As it was told.  "Stark didn't let you in on that whole Carolina Drama?"

Natalie sighs into your hair, a silent invite.

You wrack your muddled thoughts for the story you were supposed to tell, as the ocean chops evenly under the boat, hitting open water at high speed.  "This was, uh, about three years ago?  I've been in counseling since," you lie, and it's an easy lie, practiced.  "But yeah, Brodie's bubblegum card would go something like, Broderick Strider - feral alien toddler escapes government internment facility to Fuck Their Shit, reappears fifteen years later to steal Other Alien Baby, continues to fuck government shit, except now it's a new government or a different branch or I don't know what.  Like I guess that's the line between hero and villain, whom'st so ever you oppose and whether or not they're the ones who survive to write you down in the history books."

"As it goes," Natalie agrees, dry.

You cough, a bit heartened that you could come off as a bit, you dunno, wise.  Or something.  "So Brodie's Alien Baby eventually grows up big enough to get hisself in trouble - teenagers, am I right - and Brodie up and custody murders the Alpha what-all had laid hands on Brodie's one and only piece of family on this entire planet," you lie, and it's a believable lie just for the sake of filling in some Striderian mystery, putting a personality to a public figurehead who had come off more a blank slate, urban legend.  It was easy to call Brodie a viciously territorial Alpha, because nobody else knew any better. 

You crack your knuckles, a soft crunch.  "And really, I mean, I couldn't blame him for that.  I was mad, yeah, but I was also sixteen, and an idiot, so."  You sigh.  You hate this, despite how easy, how believable.  It's such a common, boring story, and doesn't touch on a fraction of what you had between you, as Striders, the isolation and the hell-strife and the burning resolve to shelter your humanity between you, carry it like a third sibling, take your humanity out for lunch and back to bed, read it philosophy and make sure it got out to socialize.  "So, what am I doing here, I don't know yet," you lie, you lie, you lie - and not just at Stark's request, but because it's so much easier to play dumb.  "Bro has been fishing for a custody situation that could keep me out of trouble, put me to use, keep the gub'ment out of my hair, out of his hair.  And I guess Stark bit?"

"Your brother put you up on a work contract?"

You hum, uncertain.  Would you know as much, if he had?  "I know he put me in the Widow Auction."  You smile against Natalie's kevlar, shift your weight to more comfortably cradle your ribs against hers.  "Egbert's dad almost took me in for an oldfashioned custody marriage, but I knew John would have thrown a house at me for it."

"So Anthony actually did bring you in on a custody merit?  He didn't contract you in for Avenging first, custody a necessary incidental?"

"Pretty sure, yeah."  You uncurl a bit to puzzle at the small crease between Natalie's brows.  "I'm still getting paid to be here, to fit some group-cohesion role either way.  I just file the paycheck under household stipend instead of a salary, is all.  I mean I guess I don't doubt there's some sorta tax chicanery going down in all of that, but whatevs.  Why?"  Now it's your turn to try and soothe, wrist carting lightly over Natalie's shoulder, still deferential.  

"If Anthony took your bid from the Auction, then chances are you're here for that arrangement.  If he wanted to hire you, he would have just hired you."

You let that deduction lance through you, hot-cold, and only lose your breath a little.  "That's probably how that works, yeah."  The shakes pounce, jittering your wrist against Natalie's neck, and you withdraw with a sharp suck of breath.  Yeah, okay, being away from Bro for so long got you some kinda Fucked Up, you weren't gonna lie to yourself about it anymore. 

The crease between Natalie's brows fades, then reappears as she watches you segregate a little space for yourself on the bed.  "Did he at least walk you to the departure gate?  Your brother?"

Miserably, you slide back, all the way off the bed, a dull thud of your hip meeting the cold grit of damp linoleum, shoulder and elbow to follow.  "'Course not," you rasp, a limp pathetic bundle of bones, shaking, shaking. 

"I can't smell him, is what I mean,"  Natalie finishes evenly, merciful in her stay atop the bed, out of sight.  "He sent you off alone, and didn't scent you first.  Doesn't seem keeping with someone who would commit murder over you, unless there's been some sort of falling out to interrupt the routine, in which case we need to know if Houston is going to make a visit."

And shit, she had you there.  You dry up pretty fast, self-pity trading places with dread.  The boat is slowing, turning gently, daylight shifting its angle through the smeared windows.  Brodie didn't scent you because Brodie fucked off about half a month ago, held himself for ransom, said if you didn't get your fag-ass on over to the east coast and do what you were told, he'd sell his body to science. "I think he didn't want to offend the House I was leaving to join," you hazard, picturesque chill.  Nobody needed to know how disgusting you were.  "He knows I can take care of myself."

"Did he know that it's destabilizing, to cut a Megan adrift like that?  Anthony couldn't have met you in Texas, brought you back here with him?"

"I'm not not stable," you mutter, rubbing the back of your knuckle under the warm wet of your eyes.  "I've been on my own before."

"You're on the floor, Dave.  You can't say five words without shaking apart at the seams.  You nearly puddled when I took your wrist - you know that's a fear response, right?"

Your insides curdle and you can't even tell Natalie to shut up, because it's not like this is Jade or Rose handing you your own ass, this is a certified Professional of several Professions laying down some Professional counsel, Meg to Meg.  "I miss my brother, yeah," you excuse woodenly, instead.  "I think if Stark had shown up in Houston to take me over proper, there would have been a fight," you lie, and it's only easy this time because the truth it's covering is far, far more painful.  "I don't think Bro can turn it off.  I think we've been fighting really ugly things side by side for too long, for him to just turn that off."  Then, inspired,  "My Alpha didn't do anything wrong, back when Bro went apeshit." You lie, you lie, you lie.  "Tim might not have done anything right, exactly, but he didn't need to die, not like that.  Bro could have just laid custody down and gone home, but he didn't, he fuckin' savaged the dude."  You force your voice small, ears straining at the motor's slowing trawl, at the voices and footfall outside the cabin.  "Nobody taught Brodie how to reign that in, I guess, no Pack to regulate him.  Just him and me, and the civil service receipts."

Comprehension lightens Natalie's next conclusion, "If Broderick fell under feral status even once, that's an automatic disbar from field work, which explains why Stark hasn't brought him in with you."

You swallow and your throat audibly clicks.  Broderick was the least feral, in fact, but especially given his origins. He could have smoked this whole planet for the transgression of his capture, but he didn't. Could have claimed a landshare of Omegas for himself, built a support crew of Betas, made generals of Alphas, could have fucked off to Alaska or Australia or Tibet or something to become a Mecha Baron, but chose to play punk in a two-bedroom in Texas, with the least feral show of restraint, of higher thought, of humility. He chose to follow the law and help protect the innocent and he chose to raise you and teach you restraint, teach you manners and generosity and humility; and you might have thought he was evil, at one point, evil and psycho and just lazy about it, but you never thought he was wild or unhinged or anything but 100% in control of all situations at all times. "That's the short and long of it, yeah," you lie, "Too much of the crazy, even for as well as he trained himself, trained me."

You nod, though Natalie can't see it.  "I, however, am what they might call 'over-domesticated'. Made me learn how to talk pretty and ev-uh-ry-thang."

Natalie scoffs, and swings her boots over the edge of the bunk, stepping carefully over you, pulling herself to a stand.  "You had a routine, I bet.  And now you're off your routine, and it's rattled you."

You curl tighter in on yourself, and nod.  "Didn't think it would fuck me up this bad, switching gears."  Your shows were all slotted for the weeks of spring and winter break your target audience would be on to enjoy them, and hellportal excursions were frequent enough to count as routine.  Bro's training regimen was definitely clockwork, and you took your meals at a schedule to suit your metabolisms, which were, are massive.

Natalie's hand drapes down from her crouch, thumps you on the arm.  "None of that routine took place on the floor, Longshanks.  Let's go."

"'Weep into the kitchen linoleum' was my Friday afternoon for like three years, babe."  But you take her hand and let her pull you up and only wobble a little.  "And Bro was always knocking my ass to the ground, who are you kidding."

Brushing you down in slapping sweeps, Natalie smiles, grim.  "But I bet he never let you stay down."  She helps you stuff your gut-soaked clothes into your duffel, slings the bag over her own shoulder, braces the back of your arm in a steadying grip as the boat docks somewhere empty of other boats and quiet of city noise.  "I will have to behave as if you really are just a new contract brought in from the cold, and your Meganhood will be treated as circumstantial as your height, useful to our House but of no necessity to your role in the Avengers."

Your pokerface does not betray you, because you too are a professional.  "Maybe you should ask Stark about that, he's got a whole cast program on who is supposed to know what." The footfall and voices outside drift, disappear, boat rocking a bit as weight leaves it. 

"Dave," Widow prompts, and it is Widow and not Natalie, and she is speaking to you as a Professional, one stabbity weaponized bundle of omegan contradiction to another.  "Do you know why you're here?"

And, because you respect Natalie, and because Stark really only suggested you keep this secret from Rogers, who knows, but doesn't know that you know, "Publicity stunt like this wouldn't go too well, if I knew why I was actually here.  Sands the patine off the meet-cute exclusive, if they know I'm signed to catch aggro for Captain America, settle his ass down a little, give Stark some leverage maybe, since it's Stark's custody."  Your sword click-pops into your hand, SYLLADEX flipping from strife modus to captchalogue in your pocket.  "Gotta sound kinda incidental, don't it?  Me, being Megan?  Doing what I do, what I can do, helping you all Avenge 'n that." 

You rest the sword over your shoulder, hand loose around the pommel, and all that awful squirming misery relents its tension from your bones.  Your shakes abide.  Your posture liquefies.  Your bro might as well be standing behind you.  "I'm here to smile for the cameras, get a feature-friendly wedding funded, bear Cap's Uber-Kinder, and look hella surprised about it all.  Sorry I called you babe."

Natalie nods, thoughtful.  "Sorry I made you cry.  Thanks, for the information; and thank you for your honesty."

"Thanks for the cuddle."

"Anytime."  Natalie drops your arm, chuffs the small of your back, short circular rubs.  "Anthony is going to want to dress you up, but don't let him get too crazy.  Steve prefers function over form, and would rather be comfortable than attractive."

Your mouth thins.  "Don't oversell the guy so soon or anything."

Natalie laughs, reading the sentiment behind your irritation.  "Would have been easier to just hire you, let the natural order of things play itself out.  No selling required."

"Brodie told me," you deadpan.  Brodie told you in no uncertain terms, and it broke you apart.  "And then Stark told me to act dumb, because Rogers heard 'arranged marriage' and gave a hard maybe.  Stark didn't want my awareness to pressure Captain Guilt-trip into anything, I guess?"

"Tony doesn't want Steve to know, that you know why you're here," Natalie surmises, then shakes her head.  "That's a bit convoluted, but I suppose I see his point."

You query, eyebrows above shades.

Natalie nods at the door.  "Steve's an oldfashioned guy, he would want to woo you, let you make up your mind."

Which was, okay, maybe kind of a shitty waste of good intentions, because it wasn't like you had options.  "Huh.  Stark told me he just wanted to give Rogers an Out, in case this isn't the best thing for him."

"Oh," Natalie laughs, a long, low, dark chuckle that makes your chest tight.  "You are definitely the best thing for him.  Steve can't ever be the one who needs fixing, or help, he always has to be the fixer, who helps."

You test the heavy rusted scrape of the cabin door, peer outside, then step past and hold it open for your new #1 murderbabe BFF.  "I can't help but feel insulted by that, ma'am,"  Except you know the story Bro would have told Stark, what kind of image that would have painted, that you were dusted up, shattered, needed some rescuing.  How not-entirely-untrue that might be, now.  You step from boat to dock, an agile hop that Widow mirrors flawlessly in time, red chuck and black murderboot hitting wood in tandem.  "Don't really need fixing, or help. Had a fleet of mental health professionals for that, and they cleared me for celebrity marriage and everything."  You lie, you lie, you lie.

You turn to walk backwards, facing Nat, but you crane your chin over your shoulder to the small road you're approaching off the dock and through the shoreline trees, the handful of Avengers who had preceded you now heard, scented. 

"Exactly," Natalie continues in a mutter, "The way you were raised up, how our Normal would register to most people as a nightmare; you've got an abnormal invulnerability, physical and mental, and that takes a lot of the pressure off Rogers to do any saving. He might just be able to relax a little, put Captain America down, just be Steve."  Her wrists ease up, forward, behind your ears and against your neck, and it feels like she's drawn a hood over you, softened sounds and dampened sight.  "You don't have to put the sword away, if it keeps you company."

"Thank you," you rasp, and you mean for everything, but the conversation at the road has dropped and there is a prickle of expectation from behind you that makes your shoulders tuck up while you and Natalie prom-dance closer.

"Thought you two had eloped," Stark calls, and you are viciously reminded of etiquette, of who would or would not expect any, and either way you'd have to greet Stark first, and you want to wear Natalie like a shield.

Rogers' overpowering scent still flags of the fight, all high energy and good stress, all guts and glory; and Stark's rivalry Alphahood still smells like hot mecha garbage and vaguely alcoholic injury.  You're pretty sure you smell like misery, like longing and anxiety and resentment, applewood smoke, not apple pie.

You grip your sword, your and Nat's stroll uninterrupted, you walking backward, her steps a careful follow, bracing, pushing you maybe.  You roll the tension out of your shoulders, and turn a bit in Natalie's grip, chin jerking up to bare your throat and show your teeth at the trio, wide white grin that you once used to draw the cameras off your brother's hunched shoulders.  "Sup."  But Natalie said you didn't have to greet anybody if you didn't need to, so you don't, still half tangled in her hold anyway.  You take the weight of your duffel from her shoulder, keep your side to the road, no head-on challenge, half a step from retreat.

"Where's your escort," Rogers barks, military stone, and you jump.

"Right here," Stark grumbles, swatting Rogers in the elbow.  "Don't be that guy."

But Natalie is laughing.  "Bottom of the Thames," she answers, and relents you your persons to skip-jog to Rogers' scooping embrace.  They butt heads and wrestle and depart, Natalie to the dousy dad-bod Beta in the glasses and lumpy knit sweater, Rogers to the disgruntled Stark devoid his armor, to nudge him your way. 

You're a little more interested in Nat's freedom of affection with the soft-looking Beta of the group, but reality suspends itself for no man and Stark is in front of you and you blanch into the embrace and tighten your grip on your sword before deferring to tuck it back into the STRIFE pocket, about as unsettled by holding a weapon near the unarmed as you are by being without. 

Stark pulls the scratch of his goatee from your neck and claps you hard on the back, an awkwardly rough attempt at familiarity - and presents you with a hand upturned at Mr. America himself, who is, uh, tall, and kinda difficult to look at, bonita-wise.  "David, this is Captain Rogers, First Avenger and Head of House.  Captain Stephen Grant Rogers, David Elizabeth Strider."  Which was flawless etiquette but still made your mouth pull back, breath shallowed.

Rogers' expression had gone a little wobbly and tight at the formality, too.  "Thanks, uh, Anthony," he cocks his head, eyebrows gone all interesting Stark's way as he holds a hand out to you, as if to shake.

You take the hand, and it's a big hand, big enough to actually make you look like the Meg you are, and Rogers is tall like Brodie without any of the nightmarish haunch, bulky like Brodie without any of the nightmarish crags, and none of how Rogers smells (dyed leather armors, grill char, all that fight) is anything like how Bro smells (sweat, tequila salt, motor oil), but surely they smell the same (Alpha, huge and hale and unworried) because Rogers pulls your wrist up to the hot damp breath of his mouth and you feel that familiar heat drop from your gut to your thighs like you're talking to a memory, asscrack suddenly slick beneath the obfuscation of your hoodie, under the thick denim of your jeans, against the cotton stretch of your briefs.

Slicked, and getting slicker, a warm soak behind your taint as Rogers slots his face where Stark's had been, where Natalie had tucked hers, tasting them there, tasting you.  Your skin opens its pores and vents your body heat, your chemistry, and you begin to shake, and shake, which is the worst possible reaction because Rogers, of course, tuts and croons exactly as Natalie had and makes your pantyload situation about a million times worse when he - yep, there it was, the godforsaken hug, the big warm wrap of a leather-kevlar arm behind your waist, and you tug your shades up to bury your face in the span of Rogers' neck above the stiff collar of his uniform because fuck your life, basically.

Just, fuck it.

You're cold and disturbed and such a fucking 'Meg it was never a goddamn joke; you luxuriate in the arrest of your fear, let all that tension erode as you huff a dry sob or three under Rogers' ear, and your body stops slicking itself, blessedly (because you're not turned on, you're just scared, and you've never been so alone, and) -

The greeting breaks apart with another back-slap, but it's too late, you're carrying a dense cloud of apple spice souped in with fuck, pokerface undisturbed and the cool shuffle in your step unharried as you are more or less passed on to the Beta.  This is commonplace, Omegas wafting up the joint at the first word go; it's why you needy fuckers weren't hardly allowed to leave the fucking house - and it's normal and you know it's not something that bears remark, even, but you could die?  Yeah, you could just... go find a nice warm patch of highway to nap on, and die.  Be great.

"See?  Painless."  Stark says, and you can see yourself laughing hysterically but you stoically bare your neck at the dadbod Beta instead, and fall into one of the most comfortable Introductions in the history of your short ugly life.

The Beta's Intro is literally comfortable, gives you actual comfort, your face downed against a shoulder scented of wool and bread and patchouli, fuck's sake, and your confusion tugs your grimace sideways.  "Dave," you say, even though you're sure he would have heard Stark's announcement.

"Bruce," Beta dadbod answers against your neck, all gruff and dadly, and claps your shoulder like the rest, but slower, leaves his hand there, gives you a squeeze, a steadying brace as you part.

"I'm gonna call you 'Mom'," the gremlin that lives in your brain makes you say. 

You are more than a little relieved when Bruce scoffs, a smile in his tired eyes.  "Please don't," he protests, but it's with all the inflection of someone used to playing the 'straight' in the comedy duo, his grin wry and knowing.  "That would make me feel old."

Natalie laughs behind you, and you turn to find the Alphas had already wandered off to scout down either side of the road for a field big enough to land a quinjet.  Stuffing yourself into an enclosed space with a handful of strangers whilst wet between the legs is kind of the last thing you'd like to do, though, so you palm your CAPTCHA in your hoodie pocket and pop your cellphone out.  Bro gets a quick text that he won't answer, an update that you've delivered yourself to Stark's custody and to check the News about the Statue of Liberty for some good-faith evidence, and you beg him not to fucking self-immolate in a motel room in Vegas or anything.

Bruce stays at your elbow in an effortless hover, hands in the pockets of his jogging sweats, and some part of you knows he was at the battle but can't parse his extremely mild manner with the bulbous green ragefreak who'd gone ham on Tentacle Dan back there.  "Yo, uh," you husk, and offer your phone forward, contacts open.  "Can you put the address in?  Bro wants to send my stuff," you lie, you lie, you lie.

Bruce frowns a bit, but takes your phone and starts to type.  "He doesn't have that already?"

"Busy guy, says he misplaced the napkin," you lie, you lie, you lie.  Anything that wasn't in the duffel bag was still in Houston, to remind Brodie to pick you back up anytime he wanted to get over his shit.

Bruce's smile is warm and genuine as he hands your phone back over, and it almost makes you feel bad for tricking him.  "Is he gonna drop by sometime?  I know somebody who would love to talk shop on the work he's done with Doctors Brown and Pawnee."

"We can't expect Houston around any time soon, no," you say, and the chill makes it into your voice despite your effort to code-switch appropriately.  "I could get them his e-mail," you shrug, because you want to help, because you're helpful, because you were trained up raised right.

Bruce shakes his head, holds a hand up, "Oh, I uh, I don't wanna impose."

You plug the address into the GPS, wait for the map to load, to recognize that you aren't in Rohinga Park any more.  Stark jogs past toward the field Rogers had scouted and the high whine of a quinjet graces the air from the treeline.  You shift your duffel strap and nod like you're going to follow Natalie, but tap Bruce on the elbow, jerk your head up.  "I'll meet y'all there."

Before he can ask, you flash.