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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.

Chapter Text

Your name is DAVE STRIDER and you are FIVE YEARS OLD when you learn how to count, and discover that your BRO only has four fingers on each hand, four toes on each foot, and everybody else in the world has five (sometimes six).  Bro's hands are long and bony and rough, and he wears a pair of black biking gloves to hold prosthetic pinky-fingers to look normal, and the fake fingers stick out hilariously like he is taking high tea whenever he grips anything, until their revisions and eventual bio-mechanical upgrade.  Gloves on, his hands look bigger than they are, which makes the rest of him look smaller than he is, a useful deception.

You are maybe TEN YEARS OLD, taller than most Betas or Omegas of that age already, certainly more athletic, when Brodie's rooftop training regimen steps it up a notch. You bitch to your forums and your online friends about the extra bruises but never complain out loud, emulating Bro's stoicism.  This is the year you will find out what it is Bro does for a living, underground both metaphorically and literal.  This is the year you will join him.

You are THIRTEEN YEARS OLD, taller than most Alphas of that age even, when the rooftop regimen steps back down several notches, and you notice, and you drop your blocks as often as Bro softens his attacks, which gets you hurt, gets you scuffed up.  Sometimes you fight doubly hard, just to see if Bro is faking you out ironically, and you actually land a hit or three, and Bro will chuff a congratulation each, which will enrage you the way condescension would enrage any subordinate Alpha, and you eventually figure maybe this is part of the training, too, the sheer mindfuck, the fakeouts and the gentle encouragement, Stockholm syndrome rooftop Padawan edition.

This is the year you have a fight with a classmate in the middle of the grey Texan winter, and it doesn't come to blows because you know better, you hide emotion well and you reign your anger in, the first skillset you were ever given and it's your best skillset, staying calm, acting normal and stupid and immature.  But you are genuinely upset when your friend calls you an asshole, and the tears gathering under your prescription-tint glasses are real and heavy and hot and taste thicker than usual, somehow, laden with hormones to beseech mercy from whatever threat brought them on. 

Before thirteen, your tears were ever only the sour salt-sweat of injury, a physiological response to pain or frustration, tangy with aggression.  After thirteen, your tears would be heady and full and fat with appeal and you would grow unable to hold them in.

You walk out of school early without so much as a visit to the nurse, and you return home scrubbing at your eyes, stomach heavy and oddly tight, even though you've already forgotten the argument, already forgotten who you argued with. 

Bro makes a sound from the kitchen when you walk in, and for a startled heartbeat you think there's a stranger in the house, because Bro has never made a sound like that before, that low nasal grunt of curios concern - Bro is rarely curious, he always just knows shit, and he is never concerned.  He steps in front of you as the apartment door shuts, mops your shades from your face with his whole bare-ass hand, pulls your head against his ribs and pushes his wrist behind your ear for an unexpected Household Greeting and you 


because this is bullshit, this is make-believe, this is some head game, so you punch and thrash and struggle to pull free of the hug, you bite and wrestle and cuss and collapse all to bits, giant fucking Ghibli tears and hyped-up breathless sobs, because your blows hardly glance the hard plane of muscle that is Bro's torso, and your squirms had hardly moved him from his brace, hardly displaced his grip.

The lie will go something like this: that by the time you are sixteen you'll have gotten in trouble with an Alpha, pregnant or spurned or whatever.  Bro will kill that Alpha, you'll be heartsick, you'll do something dumb to yourself, you'll have three years to get over your shit, time to process, time to fatten the salary of a psychologist or seven. 

The Matryoshka striptease of that total fiction will carry on whenever the lie is discovered, and the stories will all go something like this; that you were sixteen, and you and Brodie were isolated on a boat in the middle of the ocean, or you were both trapped in a hell portal that had collapsed behind you, or had been sent to a prison planet to share the same tiny cell, you'll be sixteen and sick with heat and Bro will be stunned or injured or Rooding, and it won't be anybody's fault when he fucks you, when he does you that favor, and you'll have three years together to pass, your sixteen to nineteen, to get over it, or to keep doing it, depending on who is listening to what iteration of the fiction, peeling the Russian shawl off of which dark-haired bride.

The smallest hidden doll of truth, the blue individual under all those red hooded Matryoshka ladies, goes like this:

You are thirteen when you pull deep hungry breaths against the warm hill of Broderick's ribs, arms clung around his waist, palms damp against the fistfuls of thin white wifebeater you'd gathered as if you were going to Sumo-toss the stone shithouse Brodie has made of himself, as if you could.  You are thirteen and taller than most Alphas your age when you present as Omega, though the hints had been tugging at Bro's suspicions for a few years yet. Your stomach is heavy and your knees are wobbly and your face is wet and you're dizzy, over-oxygenated, smothered into complacency by the gear-oil dudefunk of the Head of your Household. 

Shivering down the trunk of yourself, shoulders to hips, you grunt a question and tilt your head up to seek an answer, nose and chin buried in the valley of the side of Bro's pectoral to try and taste the umami of him, because you've got a fever, you're shaken and sick and home from school over it. Bro grunts similarly in reply, a confession of his own doubt, and he slides one long, four-fingered hand down your back and under the hem of your uniform slacks, stooping to press his middle finger flush along your asscrack. It aches a little when that finger splits you open dry and you hiss against the cradle of Bro's armpit, knees dipping forward; your guts unclench in a hard spasm and you slick around Bro's fingertip, taking him in to the knuckle, breath knocked void from your lungs, solar plexus bricked by a shivering knot of pleasure.

Your body has only ever been a weapon, a vessel to ferry thought into physical form, an organic machine that needs upkeep, repair every now and again, fuel and rest and regular stretches; and now the engine of you has switched into a gear you didn't know you even had, and your only passing resentment is that Bro's patronizing rooftop gentility had a point after all.  Otherwise, you're cool; you're not mad and you're not ashamed and later you'll even be a little bit proud of the contradiction.  A Meg who can fight.  A murdermeg.  Heh.

"Pedo," you hiccough as soon as your breath returns, and the ribs under your cheek and ear hitch with a scoff. Your arms are loose and noodly and your legs are strung tense and tight and every hinge of yourself is damp and this is nothing like clinging to another damp Dave under the covers in the early morning dark but you're good for it anyway, pressing a half chub against the top of Bro's thigh as he lets his leg take your weight, that new heat under your guts dribbling down behind your nutsack and seeping into your underwear.

"You wish," Bro deadpans, lazy, and he's right, his smell hasn't changed from its dry tobacco mood-stasis and he's not hard in his jeans but he is half about to finger-fuck you right there in the foyer, so.

The Matryoshka choir will say it was never this deliberate, that Bro was as much a victim of his own biology as you were, that you weren't just a tool that needed some upkeep, that he cared about you and only wanted to help needed to alleviate a literal life-threatening onslaught of Heat (and you'll be sixteen, and). That one little off-key blue individual will keep the truth of it, that Brodie saw a problem and took the easiest fix, and he didn't necessarily care whether or not you were okay with it, or what other people might accuse him of, if the rooftop ass-kickings in full satellite view were any clue.

It's a stand-off for a few breaths, glued to Brodie's side with your heartbeat in your toes and you realize that Bro is thinking, that he's been surprised badly enough to stall, maybe, because he'd made that noise in the kitchen, that soft exhale of a question, might have had his guard thrown for once.  "At least buy a bitch dinner first, damn," you mutter, chin digging into Bro's pectoral, trying to catch a glimpse of his expression, a clue.  Bro's finger eases out of you and it feels like a warning.

"This doesn't make you a bitch, D," Bro says with that gentility that you hate so fucking much, but you suck in a breath and you nod, not about to argue against your own dignity.  Bro looks down at last, considers you for a cool minute, pulls his hand out of your pants with a drag of slick up your asscrack that jerks a flinch through your knees.  "Gotta call the school.  Get you on the Registry."

You grimace, because no school just means more training, more trips underground, less time with your friends.  "Not accepting flowers from anyone under the 27th tax bracket, so put that on my profile.  High rollers only."  You tighten your grip around Brodie's waist, the moment precarious.

Bro's hand had settled over the small of your back, the damp of your slick soaking through your uniform shirt, and the smell slowly blooming into the apartment is all you, your apple and your cotton and your record vinyl and more of something else, somehow, and you press your face back into Brodie's taut chest to try and smother your own smell out of your own nose.  Your asshole is clenching, oozing, a raw ache spreading down the inside of your thighs, and when you tell this story you'll say you were sixteen, and desperate, and the safety of your brother's custody could no longer suppress the autosomally inevitable, and Brodie would have been more of a monster if he hadn't fucked you stupid, and so on.

But you're thirteen the night you climb into Bro's futon to mash your warm face against the side of his ribs, sliding close under the sheets, naked and shower-damp.  A warm tension is running its circuit from the inside of your thighs up to the deep scar of your belly button, and you act with the confidence that Bro's usual method of rejection couldn't possibly hurt any worse than the hell you've already been through, dueling para-terrestrial nightmares together in the dark.

Brodie doesn't kick you out, doesn't banish you back to the cold isolation of your own room.  He grunts a token complaint before opening his arm to let you plaster yourself against his ribs, large dry hand settling over the curve of your rump to curl his fingertips down in the wet heat just behind your balls.

You hike your knee over the hard hill of Bro's thigh to open yourself up, and snuffle impatiently against the malty orange of his skin, mouth falling open to steal a taste, and there is no excuse for this, no manual to consort for two packless aliens wandering against each other in the dark. 

Brodie tastes like home and sleep, but everything that is spun tight inside of you won't calm against him, because he also smells like the Alpha you've been trained to fight your whole life, like tension and wariness and the leftover memory of pain.  The sweat-softened hair of his underarm brushes the top of your nose and you wedge your face down between his skin and the bed, huffing at the unfairness of your life.  You were Megan, sure, but even if the rooftop showdowns ran a little gentler, that didn't mean you could goddamn relax.

You briefly entertain the idea that you and Bro aren't even related, for how different you are - all ten of your fingers, all ten of your toes - but while there were once mutants in the world their abilities didn't show until puberty and Striders are made of GoesFast from the start.

No, you Striders were the skybabies who showed up preloaded with leucism and skeletal deformations, Insta-Geniuses with the right amount of Fucking Insane.  Your teeth are just a millimeter too broad compared to most, wide muppet mouths the both you, Brodie's incisors crowded forward half nested on his eye teeth, because his face is longer than yours, more wolfish, and he's huge like an Asgardian (you're not Asgardian, you don't think), and you're huge for a 'Meg, and you are both the same kind of something, you and Bro, which is the only bad thing about you two fucking around, maybe, but fucking around is also the only good thing about being the same kind of something as Broderick PsychoSensei Strider.

So whatever, it's whatever, your relationship with Brodie was always going to be a respectful array of misery and strain, an artfully assembled sampling platter of endless bouts of violence, but suddenly there's this interruption, now, this physical reprieve you're taking advantage of as the opportunity presents, this goddamn endorphin fixer that cements your love to Broderick's possession like gravity drags the Earth around the sun to promise a return out of the dark.

Bro's fingertip breaches a little further into the clench of your ass with each drowsy breath, and that tension inside you only spreads, sinks its hooks into the top of your thighs and the back of your elbows, an itch to move scrawling up your back, down your hips.  You exhale as silently as possible, and your mouth feels full of your own tongue, face still puffy with emotion.  Bro's finger drags out, stealing your breath, then in again, deeper, curling, pressing sideways into your slicking gland, which punches a noise past your chest, a high sweetened call you've heard in some of the lustier R&B songs before your time - and you move, an indelicate hitch of your narrow hips that you can't stop once it starts.

Brodie stills, but you can't follow his example, can't slow down, another Megan call pulled through you like silk out of a sleeve or a note from a guitar.  Your ass clenches hard around Brodie's finger and you push up from the bed, alarmed, dizzy, elbows knocking against your ribs in their wobble to try and support your weight.

Bro always seemed so monstrously large compared to other people, but here in the dark of his bedroom you could only measure what you could touch, and he was reduced down to a handful of skin, a collection of sounds, an idea and a suggestion of a person rather than a sighted whole, and he didn't feel so gigantic when he was laying so prone under the squirm of your orgasm.

You come against Brodie's thigh, a weak thread of seed that smells more like your slick than the expected salt.  Your knee hikes a little further across Brodie's waist, tugging you to a loose and lazy straddle, blood ringing through your ears as you tip forward, shove your numb hands down to paw at the rough line of Bro's pubic trail, chest hitching against his and shoulders curled forward to pillow your cheek.  Brodie's breath brushes through your bangs and batters your eyelashes and you scrunch yourself down further to reach his cock, teeth chattering with how hard your diaphragm spasms, slick dribbling out of you with an audible patter.

You hear a hiss, the wet click of Brodie biting the side of his finger open.  "D," he admonishes, because you're not really allowed to lay hands on, not like this, and you know better.  And then Bro slides his blood-wet finger in past the aching clench of your anus and the hormones in him seep past the hormones in you and the line of tension in you is cut, snapped, a guitar string tuned too hot.

"Hanh," you gasp, deflating boneless atop the wide planes of Bro's chest, the fine white hair of him prickling against your cheek.  The story you tell yourself is that this is a Heat - and it's not, but you won't know that until much, much later; and the story you'll tell others is that you were sixteen, and Brodie had no choice, and.

The Striders carry on life as usual, missions on schedule, except now you've unlocked a new territory in the apartment to loiter in at night, and Bro would stick to fingering until he could get himself a vasectomy, warning against over-powered flipper-babies during the world's least publicly appropriate conversation at a post-mission Taco Bell.

You're fourteen and you're making breakfast in nothing so mega-glam as a t-shirt and boxers the day Bro leans over from his laptop at the flimsy kitchen table to bury his face in the small of your back, and that's a change from his usual obligated stoicism, but it's whatever.  His wide hand hooks the inside of your thigh and this is the happiest you've ever been (and assume will ever be), but whatever.  Bro tugs your boxers down and lets them drop around your ankles like you're hiding a weapon, then leans from his chair to very casually bite the top of your ass, chin digging down into your crack.

Brodie hikes his hand back up the inside of your thigh to tug your knee open, the hot hollow of his mouth pressing against your cleft, knocking you forward into the cabinets with the scuff of bare foot on kitchen tile.  You cuss, delirious, chest burning and nipples gone almost painfully stiff, the heels of your palms braced between the bones of your hips and the unforgiving ledge of the countertop.

The eggs start to burn and Bro hauls up from the table to clatter the pan from the stove into the sink, then crowds behind you like he's gonna mount and you laugh, a dusky choked-off panic, because nothing Brodie does is any kind of spontaneous charity.  "Pedo," you accuse, soft Megan honey to your voice.

"Says the brother-fucking redneck,"  Brodie volleys, and slaps the faucet on to calm the sizzle of the burning eggs.

You hear the zipper of his denims drop, and every nerve lights with an oh and a hell and a triumphant yes, terror switched off its track like a light snapped on, elbows locked straight to help pull your ass up, out. 

"Relax," Brodie demands softly around the mouthful of shoulder he'd taken to keep you still.  He gets the blunt heat of his cock inside you with fits and starts, and it's easy because you're wet, you're almost always so fucking wet, and it's not easy because Brodie is big, he's big because he's tall because he's Alpha and you want him like the first thing out of the ocean probably wanted its gills back, burning in the lungs.

It's only a few quick thrusts that punch your breath out and pin your slender bones in place before Bro's knot drops, hardens, stretches your rim, and it hurts you to the point of soggy Ghibli tears but it's cool, it's whatever, it's like it would have been weirder if it didn't hurt, really, because there wasn't a day in your life that passed without pain, pain was just the language of being alive, just the cost of growth and improvement, and if it didn't hurt then you wouldn't believe it was Brodie doing it and that's just the usual whatever.

You're closer to fifteen the first time Bro kisses you.  He stops you under a streetlamp in an empty night-dark street to taste your health, the both of you dressed in post-mission sweat and scuffs.  The taste turns into a lingering kiss that doesn't hurt you at all obviously, but it also somehow aches inside worse than being stabbed, like Brodie was denouncing the thing you used to be to one another, trying to replace it with some sad pale parody of normal affection, something common and sordid.

You bite the side of Bro's lip with an anger that stalls out once you taste the blood from the night's wounds.  "Woah, sor--" 

Brodie interrupts your apology with a headbutt hard enough you actually see starburst, then wrestles your back against the cold pillar of the lamp post and laughs the laugh you've only ever heard him laugh when there are way too many bugs to get through and the labcoats have implied that they would just as soon shut you both in that hellscape than let you come back late.  Brodie laughs, that low and loud and toothsome scoff, scent glands running a wet press behind your ears, down your neck.  Your eyes roll back, flutter shut, and your mouth drops open, hands snapping to Brodie's forearms so you can pull into his grip, bare your throat, hike a knee up around the bloodied ribs of the thing you love most.

You won't kiss him back until you're sixteen, but that's whatever.

And all those memories are yours to keep, to bury under layers and layers of lies, excuses, explanations, unlikely stories.  Sometimes you'll say you and Brodie aren't related at all, and it will be easy to believe, because nobody will know what Broderick looks like, how he walks, the way he holds a cigarette hovered half to his mouth to burn down to a column of ash, tobacco censer for the sanctity of his thoughts.  You'll say you aren't related at all and that will excuse him, excuse you, from the bruises you put on each other, the fluids you swap, the whatever.

Except John wasn't related to his Dad and kept suppressed just fine, maybe got emotional and fragrant and feverish every month or so, as was expected; so maybe you'll say something like, well, Bro just wasn't around often enough for the familial bond to take, was a busy guy y'know, getting shit done, lots of irons in the fire, and you such a self-sufficient alien creature and with the roboninjas to raise you, well, you might as well have been strangers, you and Bro.  Regular ol' Oedipal mishap, no matter which fiction you'll file it under, related or not.

And the tiny blue truth will wave her tiny wooden fists and out from under the muffle of a dozen red shawls will declare:  At nineteen Dave Strider never had a Heat, not a proper one, not anything worse than some fragrantly emotional trip to fevertown.  You never lived a day out from under Broderick's ninja surveillance, touring or fighting or chilling at home, and stayed suppressed just fine.

Your name is DAVE STRIDER, unsung hero of the Houston underground, semi-professional DJ, strong independent (codependent) OMEGA, and you are SIXTEEN YEARS OLD the year your BRO puts you on the Widow Auction.

"Hey quick question what the fuck," you manage to choke around your mouthful of oatmeal, slapping the papers down against the kitchen table, out of Brodie's grip. The midday sun falls diffused through the drapes of the tall livingroom windows, spilling into the open kitchen in stripes of bright yellow, dark drapery red, warm on tabletop vinyl, casting shadows that you both feel a little more comfortable navigating, like vampires or trolls or something else.

Brodie, leaning shirtless at the sink to try and get last night's blood out of his good wifebeater, shrugs.  "Less hassle than you stayin' on the new-meg-reg. Fewer chumps wanna bother with a problem case, fewer phonecalls to the custodian who iced your last guy.  Win-win."

"Last guy?" You frown, and your breakfast goes down your throat a little thicker. It's not out of the realm of possibility that Brodie had killed someone - you'd never seen him so much as raise a hand against anyone other than yourself, and assume he killed a lot of 'someones' in the name of National Security or what the hell ever. And one of those deaths could had been, what, reassigned under a custody duel?  "So... we get to hang out, like, indefinitely, or...?" You glance between the kitchen table and the apartment door, like someone is going to kick it in just to swat you with the rolled-up newspaper of reality, to wake you up from this feverdream.

Brodie's mouth pulls back.  "Thought you an' John were gonna start a Household, but yeah. You can hang out here, long as you need."

And you savor the way Bro says John, two syllables, jaw-uhn, and you would gladly bring Egbert in on the brother-fucking, just to hear that name from that mouth every day.  Hell, Brodie could be the Head of House. "Yeah," you grunt, late, stunned. "Yeah, that's what we're planning. Just have to, uhm. Save up the cash, find him his bosslady, so."  It wasn't exactly legal, two Megans to a House of their own - or even one Meg out on his lonesome.  But what the fuck did Broderick care for legal?

Brodie ferries a question through his pointed stare, bright orange eyes gone neon in a slant of sunshine.

"No, yeah, I know, Egderp is never going to have enough game to get the Alpha of his dreams or whatever, but his Dad's got him off the Registry on a..? Work merit..?"

Brodie frowns.  The Striders were 'conditional employees' (prison wards) of the state of Texas, and Texas was traditionalist when it came to Family Court. 'Megs out at sixteen, forfeit to the Registry if they couldn't choose an Alpha by then, if their family didn't have the resources to find an upwardly-mobile match, in so many words.  John's dad worked in the goddamn capitol, for a goddamn PARANORMAL INVESTIGATION branch of, what, the Feds, or. Something. He never specified.

"So you're gonna wait til yer Pack numbers are up," Bro says, easing down to rest his elbows on the sink's edge, vigorous with the short bristle-scrub til the soap is foaming pink.

"Yeah."  You stab your spoon at your oatmeal, considering for a beat. Your pelvis always gets a little tight and hollow, whenever you talk about John, how much you goddamn love that goober, that you'd marry the first crusty old politician who asked, so long as they bought John too, and maybe that was a pipe-dream but it was your pipe-dream for as long as you could clutch to it.

But John did not, in fact, want to marry the first crusty old anything, and would never have to.  "He's going to get on medication, for it. So he can go to work at his dad's office and not get, like, followed home or anything." The east coast was that much more progressive. John was that much more out of your range of upward mobility.

Bro's scrubbing pauses.

Bro's scrubbing picks up again.  "Well." (Wull.) "You get a resumé in at Dadbert's office, y'all can get as medicated together as you wanna."  He straightens, taps the brush against the sink, three loud bangs. "G-man Harley's almost got that closing sequence sorted.  We'll be done with the portal keeping in a few years as projected, so, go ahead and get on with pinching them pennies." A nod at the table, the widow profile splayed beside the orange juice.  "I bought us some time."

You nod, but your gut is heavy. The Auction would keep you from the State's sixteenth year rule, let you hang, let you get yourself sorted out but there was a term limit for bids and you, as a mysterious monster-fighting Strider, are juuust famous enough that someone rich enough was going to lobby their own win against all others, and well.  

Bro would never pick a fight with the State, but you can't ever see why not. He could own this whole fucking government, State to Federal, Parks and Rec to the Senate. He could own the world. "You could come to D.C., you know," you say, scowling at your bowl. "Stay Head of House. Would be rad."

Brodie's forearms go all sharp and defined as he wrings his shirt out.  "Incest ain't ironic, fagsneeze, it's just gross."

You flinch, because that was always the joke, right?  Next you'd call him a pederast or a homo or something.  "Probably not even related," you mumble, breaking the pattern, just this once.

"Tchuh,"  Brodie is rinsing his shirt, now, dousing the stain with peroxide to watch the browned edges of the blob perimeters fizz.  "I knew you was mine first whiff, lil' man." He wags his chin, regards you with a lit orange glower from under the pale splay of his eyelashes.  "Didn't even have to lay eyes on, but the ninja monkey shit confirmed it."

You want to squirm, because Bro's tender nostalgia is always only ever the cruel reminder of everything wrong, off-color and abominable about you two - and you're sick to your stomach to reject that kind of affection, the right kind, the kind that used to reassure you, used to bandage your scrapes and tip cough syrup down your throat.  "I guess," you croak, and if Bro so much as leans your way like he's gonna platonically pap your shoulder you'll deck him, but if he scruffs you rough and ready you'll probably cream. It's all that talk about John, about giving you and John some breathing room, got you kinda worked up, probably.

Or it was Alphahood knot-envy, a smidge of jealousy that Bro could, if he wanted, just sell a few patents to afford a House, a Pack, and that his sheer force of personality could net him whomever the fuck he wanted.   Whomever except John, of course, because John was pretty frankly against incest, directly or by association, for as severely as he's ever lectured you about hitting on Dadbert.

Bro slaps his shirt in the sink, pulls a cigarette from the pack atop the microwave, lights up. You relent yourself to the comfort of the fact that Bro never submitted to any sort of gene test to find you two out for sure, just assumed legal responsibility on principal, kept you well away from any curious medical teams, took you to the free clinic to get your vaccines and didn't give them your documented name.  You both exist in a limbo, Schrodinger's Lannister case, did they didn't they, will they won't they, everybody knows but nobody is allowed to say it - except nobody knows, and you say it at least twice a week.

You've said it to John a handful of times over the years, too, and he's always laughed it off, like nobody who could beat you all to hell the way Bro did was anything but garden-variety abusive; like Bro's only issue was that he might not love you enough, not that he could love you way, way too fucking much.

Bro ashes the cigarette, flips the stove vent on, drapes his ruined shirt over the stainless steel of the sink edge.

"Gimme a tenner," you prompt, hopping up from the table, dishes clattering as your hip bumps the corner in your gangly haste.  "I'll pick you up a four-pack." You grab your jeans off the back of the couch, start hopping one leg in at a time.

Bro's jaw tenses, dishtowel working between his knuckles.  "Beer comes into this household in packs of six, twelve, twenty-four or nothing.  I don't do that cider shit."

"Four-pack of shirts, jackass."

Brodie sighs, but his expression doesn't soften.  You suspect he resents it, how domestically 'Meg you've always been.  Even as a kid you were the one who kept the house clean, did the laundry, procured what groceries you could fit in your backpack on what money you could wheedle out of him for it ('We'll just order take-out, leave the stove alone').  "Black, this time, if you're gonna bleed on me so much." He tugs his wallet out of his back pocket, unclips the chain, slaps the heavy leather wedge of it into your palm; and doesn't hug you or press his wrists over your neck for the trip out, doesn't pap your shoulder or scruff you over the breakfast table to mount, doesn't even look at you as you leave, cigarette cherry flaring bright and orange as he dips to buss the dishes off the flimsy card table.


It was probably a mistake, giving you the credit cards (no guessing which ones were maxed, gonna let you sort it out at the registers) because while you are well trained and you've been through enough serious shit in your life to have knocked the silly out of you, you're still only sixteen and you have the poor impulse control to prove it.  You buy Bro a four-pack of black wifebeaters and a fourpack of white under-Ts, a sixpack of totally plain boxers (which he doesn't wear, unless ironically around the house, like Lisa Frank leopard print or offbrand Pokémon or that one pair with John Goodman's smiling face screenprinted over the front). You suspect that 'normal' and 'domestic' get under Bro's skin as so few things do - and you need retaliation just now, with very little idea as to why and even less incentive to guess.

This should have been a good day, right?  Good news? Brodie was going to keep you, give you some time to get some plans established with Egbert?  This was the best possible way to have to leave your House, even if it had reminded you, suddenly, that you had to leave your House at all.

You get Bro a patterned tie in neutral autumn colors, reasonably priced.  You find a big'n'tall outlet on your phone's global positioning app and take a flash-jog down its highway to suss out a cheap, baggy button-down shirt in that weird office-drab blue that's hard to discern from white; and you find a pair of slacks - khaki, not denim - guestimating the size of Brodie's waist by how far you remember you can grip your own forearm when trying to tackle the center of gravity he carries in his hips.  Just in case, you go half a size up and get him a belt, brown.

You hand is nearly shaking with mischievous glee as you pay, backpack slowly filling out.  The house-robe (terry cloth, full length, not kimono) has to go in your CAPTCHALOGUE, alongside the pair of fringed moccasins and the blue-and-white striped pyjama set.  You only pause over the grilling apron, because Bro's retaliation could be just as bad, could go full-normie on your wardrobe (which wasn't not normal but definitely didn't include any pastels), or could go high frilly Megwife, transparent novelty maid apron and all.

Your heartbeat thunders through your skull.  You buy the grilling apron and decide to cut yourself off, less confident now, less sure what the next step would be, should Brodie get this over on you, or how badly it would hurt if he didn't react at all, if he blinked flat and unimpressed and said thanks and actually started dressing like a normal person just to fuck with you.

You hang a lunch at the nearest non-franchise, because Treat Yo'Self, but the head server is an athletic Alpha girl not much older than you who pays your bill and only hands you a receipt with her number on it and you very fiercely want John's witness for this.  All of your, uh, everything, all those muddied emotions you were aiming at Brodie disappear to the goddamn winds. You're fed, relaxed, and now extremely goddamn flattered and you can't remember why you were pulling this bullshit on your Bro, because you liked his whole irony shtick, loved it even, admired his dedication and professional stamina, couldn't dream of becoming even half the performance artist he was, despite your own impressive mimicry of Certifiable Chill.

What you were doing, picking a fight with the passive-aggressive over-domestication, man, that wasn't cool.  'Wrong size,' you explain to the cashiers, promising to return with your dad next time ('uhh, haha, brother,' you correct at least once, 'yeah no, just running an errand not buying like a gift or').  You keep the belt and the tie and the four black tanktops, and trade the terrycloth robe in for one your size, because that shit was comfy as awl hale when you were trying it on.

You get a pair of bunny slippers for you, a pair of alligator-face slippers for Bro, and feel a little less bad.  You buy a wok for yourself, because it is on sale, post-seasonal-fad, and because Bro used your last wok to repair SquareWave's latest meltdown, payback for asking SquareWave to try and rap against The Iliad.  The wok before that one had been punctured by shuriken, while greasy-hot broccolis toppled down your forearms and Bro admonished you about the fucking cooking, again, because it left your back exposed, absorbed your attention, diverted your battle readiness.

Cooking was a discipline and an art and also a science, which suited Bro's Samurai warrior-poet philosophy just fine; but Brodie hated the way skin burns could limit mobility, and resented what he saw as your attempt to weasel out of strifing (but really was just your attempt to 'weasel out' of the vicious bouts of bacne his pizza fixation was fueling).

You buy that frilly Meg-wife apron as a silent apology, self-flagellation no matter who ended up wearing it (and you wouldn't put it past Broderick, at this point, if it ended up on you or him or some goddamn puppet, or Sawtooth, or nailed to the wall like a museum artifact, under glass; here rests Dave's first and weakest attempt at an ironic gift, points deducted for obvious gender scarping).   

By the time you get back to the neighborhood, you want to apologize again for staying out all day, and pick up that 24 pack after all.  You check your phone as you wait in line with the box of beer balanced over your shoulder, stomach a little cold when you see that Bro neither texted nor called - which you've come to suspect as meaning you've been followed, which probably comes off as reasonable, given everything you know about yourself and your Meganhood and everything you know about Brodie and his paranoia.

So what, so he watched you run around like a glitched-out Lucy Ricardo on a Ricky-themed scavenger hunt, and watched you then scramble-dump all those viciously aimed mundanity purchases back to their vendors, sure.  So he saw you catch an Alpha's eye, saw your apology-shopping, wasted his day while you wasted yours, fine, whatever. The price to pay, being what you were, him being what he was; and it was better than not being allowed out at all, for fear some wily charmer might get their hooks in you.

You expect Bro back at the apartment, chillaxed at the Xbox as if nothing was amiss.  You do not expect him outside of the bodega in The Truck™, dry bloodstained shirt and all, one wrist over the wheel and one elbow out of the window, trucker hat low over welding shades.

The Truck™ always always means a long trip, to a mission or a week of shitty wilderness training and fuck, fuck, you are so being punished for the prank you didn't even get to execute, the purchases you backpedaled on, all that angst and recrimination and you still had to face the music just for the transgression of the idea (or even just because you backed out; Bro would be sure and let you know which lesson he'd be marching you up a mountain to learn, follow-through or forethought or fffff).

You set the beer in the truckbed, large box of cans wedged between the inlaid toolbox (full of weapons) and the wheelhouse (also full of weapons), and slap the plastic sleeve of undershirts on the truck seat between you as you sidle into the cabin, keeping the rest of the buys in your backpack, just in case this really was only a random call to mission and Bro has no idea the hell you've just put yourself through.

"Border?" you hedge, tugging The Truck™ door shut.  You don't bother with a seatbelt, backpack settled under the dash, feet settled atop.

"Naw," Bro answers, and pulls The Truck™ into the lazy after-lunch traffic.

"Hn.  Something on American soil?"

Bro shakes his head.

Your hope is snuffed.  Grueling bout of assbeatings in the forest it is, then.

Your voice keeps its cool, even tone.  You're good at this, at wearing the mask.  It's the only thing you can do better than Brodie.  "Didja pack the 'DEX or are we going to make a pitstop for supplies?"  You slap Bro's wallet atop the packet of shirts and cross your arms, jaw set.  You're allowed to take this standing, you're allowed to act like you did nothing wrong, like you're going to benefit from this rousing jaunt through general to extreme discomfort, like this is a favor and not a retaliation.  You're allowed to be chill, and probably not much else.

Bro grunts low in the back of his palette, pale eyebrows up.  "Guess I didn't think that far ahead. Wanna swing back to the apartment, grab some clothes?"

You bite your cheek at the specification, clothes, but you're being chill, innocent of all wrongs.  "Yeah, let's do. Where we headed? Do I need a sweater?" You don't see so much as feel Bro looking you over.

"Naw.  Truck's got heat, even if the weather turns."

Which might as well have been code for 'your ass is meditating under a waterfall for twelve hours, just bring something dry to shiver in on the way home'.

You CAPTCHALOGUE a towel or three, once your leaden steps make it up to the apartment, Brodie dutifully at your elbow all the way up the stairs. Yeah, he definitely followed you around all day, if he's feeling this protective (with good reason, for a given qualifier of 'good' - you can protect yourself just fine; but while very few Alphas are the 'roiding rapists of the paperback novels, there are biological pratfalls that need consideration and Bro is fucking you, however intermittently).

"They got towels in the motels, D," Bro protests softly from his lean against his bedroom door, watching your scurry from bathroom to bedroom.

"Can't take those towels with us," you remind, stubborn over your right to dry the fuck off whenever you want.  Maybe you could sleep on them. Use them as a blanket, or a makeshift tent when Brodie inevitably fucks off to leave you to walk your ass back over the state line.

"Insert Douglas Adams quote here," Bro mumbles, and you almost don't hear it, and you're a little startled when your racing anxiety stumbles to a halt long enough for you to make sense of, uh, it.  The joke. The words.

You let a chuff escape, automatic appreciation for a good half-assed popculture reference, but the scream that wants to follow, the bellowing demand to let you know just what the fuck is going on, that hurts your throat on the swallow down.  Burns you. Clogs your ears. You want to joke about wilderness preparedness, insert boyscout joke here, insert pedo scoutmaster joke here, insert gay awakening at summer camp joke here. You shake the impulse buys out of your 'DEX and onto your bed to make room for useful things, extra weapons and a sturdy pair of hiking boots, your laptop and the external battery, the half-gone crate of apple juice you kept stocked in the bottom of your closet.

"Ain't going nowhere you need all that,"  Bro says from your door. "Just a few clothes, dude.  They got laundromats outside of Houston, too, you know, so don't go bugnuts."

You pause your scramble and eyeball Brodie carefully, searching for a lie (he never... he never lies to you - cryptic hints and sarcastic deflections if he wants to withhold, sure, but never any outright untruths).  "So where are we going?"

Bro shrugs, hands wedged under his arms.  "Dunno yet. We're just gonna Go." He tilts his head, considering.  "Unless you've got plans. I'm not gonna step on your schedule."

Wariness keeps a choke-hold on dawning curiosity, and relief is but a distant refugee on the horizon.

Brodie maintains steady eye contact and you can't let your tension break, not yet, but you can let your expression lighten, let him think he's got you optimistic.  

"Yeah?" you say, and set to packing the requested change of clothes.  "Roadtrip? Is it your birthd--" your brain skips ahead of your bluster, counting dates, calculating months and seasons and patterns and dues.  It's not your Heat, it's not, you wouldn't be allowed out of the apartment if it was, but.


"--ay," you finish, late.

Brodie doesn't answer, has pulled up his shades to squint at the sexy apron cradled in the wok.

"That's John's," you lie, chill, smooth, easy. "For his birthday." God, you're good at this. You almost always lie to Brodie, and he never (probably) lies to you, and it's something you're good at and can pride yourself on, quietly, the bitter-sweet kind of victory that can only be enjoyed so long as there's nobody there to witness it, because duh, that's the point of a lie. "I know it's not your birthday, man."

"You don't know when my birthday ain't," Bro argues softly, and that's true. You know how old he roughly estimates himself, roughly estimates you, but your birthday is the day you fell to the Earth and you were already old enough to stand up and toddle around then, so, birthdays weren't really A Thing. Bro has a date on a license in his wallet that doesn't mean anything, and you've got a date printed on a fake birth record, and.

You don't want to say that you know Bro is nearing season. You don't want to mention his Rood, or the weekend trips he takes to figure that shit out on his lonesome, probably at the business end of a hellportal. You don't want to suspect that Brodie is actually going to fucking kill you, that he invited you along for a ride to the middle of nowhere special so he can furiously and repeatedly murder you the fuck out, your weird little Godhood invincibility popping you back up whole and bloodied and unsewn.

You've died before, but never at the hands of another person, and you are... distant, you guess, about the idea of dying in the face of Bro's sheer Alphahood Aggro. Lord knows you've had enough practice being put under the sword.

That lone iota of relief that had been waving from the far horizon - you watch as a nuclear bomb sails lazily through the sky, and gently touches down atop that small waving scrap of relief, and your shades are lowered against the bright blast of that bomb's detonation, total annihilation of your last shred of optimism while you watch on, stoic, clothes and hair buffeted back in the hot winds of cosmically maligned fuckery and the flying rubble of your personhood.

"Happy Birthday." You throw the gator slippers to Bro, underhanded. "I kinda went dutch on the Visa, blud, I'll PP you the dif." You are autopilot. You are chill. You are the win. You are the lie and the lying it is you. You aren't going to pussy out on this, you aren't going to back down or make up some excuse or question Bro's confidence in you, no. You're going to strife, and you're going to die, as often as Bro needs you to, until he calms down. It couldn't be anyone else. The Portals are being shut, at long last, and he'll have nothing left to kill but you, and you want to stick around and do that for him, and that's, eh, fine? That's fine. Not great, not ideal, but okay. You're okay.

It's okay.

It's... whatever.

"Thanks." Bro wags the slippers, relents the doorway to toss them into his room. "Don't give Egbert that skirt, man, he won't get the joke."

"It's an apron." You tidy away the last of your packing, half in the 'DEX and half in the backpack because the wider world generally expects a physical manifestation of luggage and it always looks suspicious if it's just you and Bro hucking across the wilderness with seemingly nothing in the way of provisions. "And it's not a joke; John's full molly for that Megan lifestyle catalogue shit. I'd be a bad boyfriend if I didn't foster his interests."

Brodie just exhales audibly and takes his leave. "Make sure all the lights are out," he drawls from the apartment door, duffel bag slung over his shoulder with a cigarette-pocked windbreaker tucked atop.

And okay, sure, you're not stupid, you know Roods mean fighting or fucking, but you aren't going to torture yourself with that hope, either.  Brodie only really ever touched you like that when your (suppressed) Heats came around, whether you were getting clingy or avoidant the same, and he especially only ever touched you like that when you were at home, or at least in the city where he knew the best blindspots against satellite surveillance (really).  You kind of want to touch Brodie like that all the time, even when you're fighting, or strifing, even when you're in public, but that's your damage to bear and you sometimes resent your Heats for giving Bro the excuse, like Heat-Dave was better or more deserving than Regular Dave (which is dumb, you know, you know).

You can't imagine a life where you're an Alpha or a Beta and you don't get to touch Bro like that, or don't get to touch Bro at all - except to parry a blow or execute a totally ironic high-five.  You feel a little sick imagining it, and spend the next hour or so of the roadtrip in mute contemplation of all the Daves you've come to meet, and how they looked at Brodie, wanting, wistful or wary.

"You square?"  Brodie croaks from behind his cigarette, knee steadying the bottom of the steering wheel as The Truck™ barrels down the passing lane of the highway on cruise control.  He thumbs down the blast of the FM.

You tighten your grip on your phone, on which you'd been texting John over the merits of Omeganity in kinky lounge-wear, and the difference between Meg-wife and just plain ladygirl, and yeah Bro was right John definitely would not have Gotten It, The Joke.  "You want an apron?" you reply with a shrug.

Bro taps his cigarette against the ashing tray, passes it over to your grab-hand with a scoff.  "Wear it once and then sell it to an internet perv."

You grimace, because that's supposed to be a joke, but you also work for the State the way Prisoners work for the Highway Commission, for the gift of sunshine and fresh air and not much in the way of profit, and well.  Bro has his side-gig with the smuppets, you don't wanna disrespect his hustle.

You cough, stub the cigarette out. "You smoke like this so you can't smell so much," you ask, but it's also not a question. "Man. What have you been trying to ignore, lately?" Because you know it's you he's been insulating himself against, and you kind of hate it, hate watching him fortify himself against the few natural advantages you've got, like you're never allowed to just win every once in a while, fuck.

"The taste of your shitty cooking," Bro answers evenly, and pulls another cigarette from the deflating pack.  "Every time you pinch one off right before I gotta shower. That nonsense you put in your hair."

"... Conditioner?"

Bro's lip curls up, cigarette clenched delicately between his teeth. "'S a chemical, ain't it?" he growls around the fist holding his lighter.  "You don't need perfumes and chemicals and shit in your hair, Dave."

"If I didn't condition, I'd look like a demented weab.  You need to condition, Bro, you're scaring dogs in the street."

"You askt what I'm trying to ignore." Bro pulls the cigarette to life with a practiced puff, waves it as if to sage the cabin against your voodoo.

"You don't usually smoke in the house."

"I used to have my own fuckin' room in the house."  Bro pointedly rolls his window down, dials the radio back up.  "Why do you smoke? Other than to look like a coolkid."

"To make myself nauseated," you blurt, a lie, a projection.  "Fuck, dude, I can't stand it either, all right? I get a whiff of you and I just have to be sick, but it won't happen, so I smoke half a pack, have a quick vom, feel like I've exorcised something."  You don't actually feel or do any of that, but you're scared that Bro might have an aversion to you, lately, and it's nothing to do with gearing up for a strife, and you want to beat him to the punch.  You roll your window down, too, let the cold air of sundown sluice over your bare arm, grip your elbow over the truck door like you can steer the massive metal beast, like you have all the control in the world.  

Bro watches the road ahead, unmoving.  He ashes his cigarette out the window, takes another easy drag, lets the smoke curl out of his nose, dragon-breath lax while his cheek flickers with the exploration of his tongue, fishing dinner from a molar maybe.  He lets the cigarette tumble out from between his knuckles to dash its cherry out on the road, and rolls his window up. Dials the radio down.

You roll your window up, too, desperate to hear a response, a change of subject, a casual insult, anything.

Brodie thumbs the heat on, and his voice feels loud in the sudden purring quiet of the vents.  "I slouch to cut down on the flow of blood to my brain."

You've seen Bro stand straight, heard the vertebrae pop and crack as he forced himself to his full height, like a saiyan unlocking its final form to kick boss - the first time you'd ever seen this was the first time you'd died, just outside of a hellportal. The second time was when Bro went to court to testify as witness for some asshole chemistry geek who got put away despite the effort. Sometimes Bro woke up with better posture, all needled and easy to startle, but would sink back to his haunch within the waking hour, calming.

He continues, "When I stand, it all gets to feelin' like that Pandora Box, like knowin' way too much all at once, like I gotta just stuff those monsters back in and get the lid shut."  His hands tighten on the wheel, biker gloves squeaking. "Gets to feeling like a Godhood, like I could know so much I just dissolve, just stop existing apart from everything," he laughs, wet-sad, teeth a glimmer.  "And I gotta keep that all out, so I can focus, so I can stay put together. Gotta keep my head cleared of that multi-existential garbage, gotta keep my head down." Bro pulls his welders off, trades over for the green poker shades, knocks his hat off to scratch the style back in his hair, though he makes it look like an earthy comfort move and not an obvious give to peacocking.

You shift in your seat; safe from the sun, now, you peel your aviators off similarly, trade in for the tinted readers. "I didn't know that," you offer, instead of a weak stab at sympathy.

"And I'm sorry you didn't know that, D."  Bro middles the volume of the radio, a weather report, important maybe.  "I'm sorry I don't explain myself proper, but it's never really your problem, okay?  Whatever is going down with me, on my end, that's not something you have to worry about, but I'll tell you if you want to know, all right?"

The admission feels wooden, sticks in your throat, "I always want to know."  Heated, now, angry with remembering, "I always ask you. I always ask, what the fuck -"

"And I'm gonna start tellin' you,"  Bro interrupts, voice edged with warning.  "Because you're old enough to know. It weren't fair, dropping that Auction down in yer lap without a word of warning. You didn't have to fuck off, I'm not trying to get rid of you."

"Then why do you smoke!"  you snap, kicking a foot up on the dash, pressing yourself back into the seat to help muffle the tension of your fury as you strangle your backpack.  This isn't about smoking, not really; it's not, but. "You give me all these half-ass answers, all these jokes like - okay, like yeah, like it doesn't matter, like I'm not supposed to worry about anything, about you, on your end -" you laugh, low and cold, "And believe me, dickweed, I don't fucking care, I don't worry, I just want to know - !" If it's you, you need to know if anything you do has any affect on Bro, at all, if there's anything you can change, that would ultimately change him, make an impact, if he would even notice -

"It's fun," Brodie begins, and you are mystified that the peanut gallery has whittled Broderick's public image down to 'stoic gargoyle of humble heroics' because he is none of that, not humble, not a hero, and goddamn overclocked on emotives - wry, drawling, sarcastic, biting, sure, but also petty and testy and bitchy too.  Sometimes he laughs, sometimes it's actually in a spirit of humor. Sometimes he - "It tastes good. It's a stimulant. I got a hand-mouth fixation. I wanna look cryptic and cool and self-destructive, is that what you want to hear?" Sometimes he emotes and it's this weird crackle behind his voice, not quite a growl, and then he usually fucks off for a weekend of bare-knuckle bet-winning, or biker bar debauchery, or something, and his Roodfever will break, you guess, and he'll come home and light a cigarette and pay some bills.

Brodie is waiting on your answer, but you're stuck in the mud on all of this, stuck in your own listless anger, too wise to the machinations of these arguments, their futility.  You're always wrong and Brodie's always better than you assume and it always just fucks you right up.

"No," Brodie concludes to himself, grin twisting up close-lipped.  "Nawp. That's not what Dave wants to hear, because that's got nothing to do with Dave, around whom the whole world's gotta fuckin' revolve."  He scoffs to himself, head shaking, and turns his chin sharply your way, watching the road. "I smoke because I took it up at a restaurant overnighter that went easiest if I weren't falling asleep at the sink, and I just never put it down because nicotine is an addictive substance.  My brain gets addicted, D, just like anyone else. It gets hungry for caffeine and sugar and salt, sometimes, and will murder me if I ever quick the tobacco, Dave, okay? But that isn't what you want to hear?" He checks you, eyes mostly on the road, taking an exit ramp with all the control and ease of the impartial autopilot of his hindbrain.

You're a bit frozen, but also a bit completely fucking relaxed, thumb on your STRIFE deck in the pocket of your cargo jeans, expecting all the violence of a building Rood, smelling it fill the cabin, Brodie's salt and leather and computer-tower ozone, the orange oil tang of conflict, not comfort.

"No?"  Bro's smile flashes again, falls.  "What do you wanna hear, D? That I smoke so I can't smell you, can't smell your wet fuckin' panties every time we sit down in the same room?"

You tap the butt of your sprung sword on the dash, a single loud rap, like a gavel, and you are wearing Strider brand violence in your eyes, in the lazy slope of your shoulders, in the tilt of your chin.  "We doin' this?" you husk, robotic flat, apple-cider vinegar in the air.

Brodie looks twice.  "Not on the fuckin' Interstate we're not, you horse's ass -"

You expect something theatric, some skidding off-road drift, the scream of tires thrown into park, tuck-and-roll, highspeed shove-and-dodge, some roadside woodland chase or a moonlight showdown, someone gets slammed in the dirt, and the fight crescendos and maybe you get the anxiety fucked out of you at the end of it or maybe Bro throws himself in front of a train for the mangle he makes of your invulnerable corpus or maybe you both walk out in front of a train (probably after the fucking, let'sbereal).  But your sword disappears from your hand (how is he always faster, how), there is a loud clank and Brodie elbows the back window open, tosses your sword - now two pieces, neatly snapped in half, sheath and all - into the truckbed.

Brodie's accusatory finger invades your space, the strong fucker (you aren't that strong, you're fast and you're invincible and you're legion but you are never going to be able to do what Bro does) and you manage not to recoil.  "Don't ask questions you don't actually want answered." Bro elbows the back window shut with a deft sliding clack, shutting the wind out, shutting you both in, the riotous clash of sour fear and heady provocation.

Your brain is left to the manic hamster wheels that usually pick up the slack whenever Broderick has defeated your objective reality with his manifestation of other-world absurdity.  "Why do you fuck me," you volley at the empty space in your curled hand where your sword used to be, aiming to wound. "If you hate it so much."

"It's fun," Brodie answers, parries really, same tone as he did talking about the cigarettes, dismissive, challenging.  "Tastes good. I got a fixation. My brain will murder me if I ever stop."

You exhale.  It feels like relief, but distant. You curl your empty hand, and can't cry, and can't vomit, so full up with longing, all brimming over with void.  He's joking, the ass. The Truck™ takes another sloping exit ramp, for fuel and probably a motel room that you aren't allowed to destroy with Jackie Chan shenanigans.  "Why do you fuck me, B," you ask at the silence of a red light. "If you - if it's not." You swallow twice. "If you don't love me like that."

Brodie glances sidelong.  His chest rises and falls, a silent sigh.  "Baby elephant metaphor."

You wait, empty fist clenched.

Bro continues, "Remember that border town that sank?  We had to collapse the sewers, get those portals blocked off because there were too many of the bigger fuckers chasing us through?"


"Remember how many people died?"

You shrug.  It seemed like something Bro had protected you from, didn't exactly hide the death toll but definitely didn't sit you down to hash it over.  "I was twelve." Like that was eons ago, and not four short years. "You never told me." You saw the bodies in the chalky rubble, like puppets without their strings, dark raspberry jam, strawberry mince, it was just karo syrup and food coloring, it was just a movie; that was a wax mannequin, it was prosthetics, burned meat from off a thousand faulty grills.  That's all it was. You didn't cry.

"Close to three thousand confirmed dead, seventy-two hundred injured, twelve hundred to die from those injuries.  Thereabouts."

The light turns, a wide wet swath of green across blacktop.  You grunt, knowing how many more would have died had the chronusbugs gotten loose of the perimeter.  The whole world, probably. "Kay." You'd died maybe five times in your life by then, and found it difficult to feel much of anything about the tragedy, like an actor on a set, behind-the-scenes. After a while, it all just looks like so much prop, animatronics and makeup. After a while, your brain just sort of tells you a story, plays you a film, lets you sleep well and eat regular and fuck your brother.

Brodie crawls The Truck™ through its turn from intersection to corner-station, tucks it neatly against its chosen gas pump, keys the engine off. He's usually quiet, doesn't stretch words, doesn't waste energy on smalltalk or pointless questions or anything, but when it's time to talk, Brodie monologues like a pro, ideas broken up to their simplest components, pared down and translated into Terran Peasant.  "When the circus has to train elephants, they gotta convince two-ton panicky animals that they're still only twenty pounds of clumsy.

"Elephants can kill, on purpose or by accident, so you gotta tell them, convince them that their keepers are always going to be taller, stronger than them, that their boundaries are permanent. You tie a baby elephant down with a staked rope from the start, it struggles maybe a day, maybe a week. But for the rest of that elephant's life, even just the feel of a rope around its ankle will keep it stuck in place; it won't even try to unlearn what did it such a good lesson foremost."

Bro tugs The Truck™ door open, slides out with his wallet in hand, cabin dipping up at the loss of his dense weight.  "And the commands of its keepers," he continues from the airy white noise of the cement-bound station, "Who used to be so much taller and stronger than that baby elephant, will as easily command that two tons of happy goddamn murder forever on."

This isn't... anything you expected to hear, anxiety frozen down to shame.  You fidget, feeling a bit stupid. Like, yeah, you were a badass, but Bro never really let you in on that, never really built you up about it - the opposite, in fact - and?  Probably with a good, sort of, intention? He didn't get anything out of a being dick, unless it was a direct provocation for you to retaliate; but he did a damn clear job of keeping you humble.

Brodie's voice continues on, like an off-frame narration as he putters around the gas pump, gets to filling the tank.  "If we had it any other way, D. If we ever had the chance to live some sorta peaceable life, if you were never destined to grow up a two-ton threat, sure, I probably would have never tied you down with that rope."  He leans against a cement pillar like it hurts to stand, like you really had landed a wounding blow. "I know this makes me the bad guy. But cruel ringmasters only ever, what, lose their elephants? Go to jail? Killer elephants get put down, D.  They ain't never going to waste me away in a cell for kiddy diddlin'; I'm too valuable. But you," He whistles low and loud, gas pump clunking its signal end. "Well."

"National Guard told us to collapse the supports," you protest mildly, because it was an old hurt for the Houston PR.

"Yup.  And National Guard got its day in court to cover for it, said it was a naturalized earthquake brought on by an escaping pocket of methane, not you and all three-hundred of your timeskip clones."  Brodie clatters around the side of the truck, shakes the gas pump handle in the tank mouth, recovers the handle to its stand, plucks his card out of the reader. "Didn't reckon you was Meg, growing up, but I knew you was gonna become two hands of trouble if I let you.  So I put the hurt on the baby elephant, and that's not an excuse, it's just a motive."

He fills the open doorway of the cabin, green shades sloped down his long nose to watch you, earnest. "But you are Meg, and that's my good luck, 'cos now you'll mind whatever keeper I give that rope to, which is a promise on you staying allowed to live, outside my custody. So that's your good luck, too."

"Who uh," you hazard, from the buzzing pressure of your disassociation, nearly deaf to your own words.  "Who tied your leg, when you were a baby elephant?"

"Nobody."  Bro retakes the driver's seat, slams the door shut a little too hard, cabin rocking.  "And I got myself in trouble pretty much immediately, didn't I? And I would have been scrapped by the People In Charge, except they had a crisis they needed to throw me at, instead.  My good luck." He reaches for your head as if to ruffle your hair but -

"Don't," you croak, tilting your head out of reach, because you can't stand nostalgic tenderness, not now.

So Bro starts the engine, instead, and trundles The Truck™ down the byway with eyes out for a tall blue motel sign, the lingering onion of gas in your hair, in the back of your throat.   

"They couldn't have scrapped you," you argue quietly at the reflections passing over your window.  "You could take over. You could do anything you want."

Bro wheezes, once, venting smoke.  "Maybe. Knowing what I know, now, I might even want to, sure."

You perk, and something in your chest flies.  "Why don't we just do that?"

The Truck™ lists as it turns into the motel parking lot, like the world was rotating on the axis of the cabin, your eyes glued to Brodie's beaky profile.  Bro shrugs. "Conquest is a constant state of conflict. You ever get that wild hair up your ass to start runnin' shit, you make damn sure you've got someone as can kill me, first, because I'm never going to let you do that to yourself, Dave; never going to let you get away with that bullshit, and sure as fuck never going to subject myself to that whole circus."

You don't get it.  You don't get it and you're mad that you don't get it, drowned under a fathom of shock.  "I'm already living in a constant state of conflict, Bro, what is the goddamn difference."

Brodie parks, yanks the keys out of the ignition, taps both wrists down on the steering wheel, knuckles white in their clench.  He exhales, a punch of air from the back of his nose. "And I know you're going to keep on living in conflict even if we get them portals gone, because there's always going to be some chump thinks they know they deserve to be running shit, and there are always going to be people as who refuse to be run, and you're always going to be on a side of that, on some side of history, y'hear?  Doing what you do,  because you were born to do it."

You're still too dissociated to be properly upset, but, "Nature versus nurture, man, whatever I was born to do.  What are you trying to say, here, exactly?"

Brodie's sigh carries a note of conclusion.  "I'm saying that you were born to Godhood on a Godless goddamn planet, cowpoke. You're mine and you didn't really have a say in being mine; you were my elephant to raise, and that's not your fault.  That's my bad, D. You don't want out of my House, you don't want out of the fighting, and you don't want awla that so badly that you'd rather start some wars with some semi-innocent world governments just for the excuse to stay by my side.  And that's my rope around your ankle, that's all the shit I've ever done to you to keep you in line, that's on me."

What, you mouth behind the loose curl of your fingers, elbow on knee, ribs shaking.  "What. So."

Brodie exits The Truck™ to drop his cigarette, leaves the driver's side door ajar, cabin overhead alight, shuffles around the truckbed to lift out his duffel.  "So," he husks from the open door, reaching in to grab up the packet of undershirts. "Two things, you on the Auction and all." The shirts are stuffed in his duffel, cigarettes swiped from the dash.  "I'm giving you some rope, but not enough to hang yerself. You go where you want and when you wanna, and you find yourself a House that's good for you an' Egbert. Go as far as D.C. if you need to. We'll get notice on missions, and if you stay in my House then you can expect the usual amount of assbeats, wake-ups 'n all."

"And the second thing?" you hiccough.

Brodie lets his wrist hang over the door, hand braced on the hood of the cabin, gargoylic. "It's fun for me, Dave.  Tastes good, and I don't wanna stop. There's no good reason to stop, nothing and nobody who could stop me from it. It's a bad habit; I know that.  Could hurt people who get too close to the second-hand, could hurt me. Could hurt you. Could stunt something in you; probably already has." He tamps the heel of his palm against The Truck's™ door frame, contemplative.  "They're not gonna kill me over it, not even gonna lock me up. Might take it away from me, or I might just give it up, eventually."

You close your eyes.

This isn't about cigarettes.

For once, you Aren't Saying It Out Loud.  It's not a joke, it's not some tragic truth you get to pummel out of each other, it's now as unthinkable as it is unsaid, delicate, untouchable, fragile.

"You should do what you want," you croak, voice all a-crackle, Omega strain.  "But don't ever say you're addicted, that's a cop-out. You got more discipline than that."

"Hn," Bro grunts, impressed, and pushes off the truck, closes the door gently, shuts you in the dark.

You're texting Rose (it's the UK's time to be awake) when Bro returns from the motel reception, and you keep texting Rose because the hamster wheels of your autopilot don't know how to do anything else, right now, when Bro opens your door, tugs your backpack from under your leg, hooks it over his shoulder.  He leaves your door open, cabin overhead lit, and hefts the case of beer from the truckbed to his hip.

You follow from The Truck™ in a slump, and you have to shut the door twice because your limbs are so heavy, joints cramped, guts watery.  Rose thinks you'd look okay in apron frills but they wouldn't exactly suit your image and you have to agree, think you're really more a tight black leather lounge-wear kind of Meg.  Rose disagrees again, says you're more the naked-under-a-baggy-sweater type, and she knows you so well (despite your best efforts, haha) that you're crying inside a little, thumbs slipping over typos, goinna-hangg-out-with-bro-now,,-gn.ight.

Objectively, you know Bro got a room with a single bed because it was the cheapest, and there was always a pull-out in the closet, and it's not like he ordered a Bower Suite, not like there was a whole stack of body-length pillows with washable throw-covers piled up on a giant floor nest, no, it was just a room and a normal queen-sized bed and the cot already half pulled open. You are sad, probably, or disappointed, or guilty. Tomorrow Bro's Rood will be worse, and you'll have to drive and argue and park somewhere to throw down, probably, or to cool off or just -

"Is it cool if I take the bed?" The gremlin that lives in your head demands, picking a fight.

Bro just eyes the pull-out, and tugs his undershirt off. "Contrary to the sitcoms, D, Alphas don't like bratty Megs.  Save the vies of dominance for yer Egdork."

"Just 'cos I take knot doesn't make me a bitch." And you feel this truth put steel in your limbs, walk you over to the other side of the queen-size, where you start to toe off your shoes. "I'm taking the bed, weab. You can join me any time you wanna get over your bullshit." Your voice never breaks. This is your greatest skill among the set. You are penultimate chill. You can't hear Bro's reply over the static white noise of your own rabbiting pulse.

So when you retell some of this story, lies wrapped up in pretty red shawls, you'll always start you and Bro off at your sixteenth year - not entirely because of the whole weaponized pederasty thing (though that was enough of a reason, really, god you're not stupid), but because you were sixteen when you went on the Widow Auction, when Brodie put you on the Widow Auction to keep you close just a little bit longer; you were sixteen when The Fucking overstepped its boundaries from utilitarian Heat suppression and ironic antagony to anytime-the-mood-strikes, when the mood really began to strike, hard, pretty goddamn often, and you would say that Bro was reluctant, and -

You'd give it all up, your hobbies, your friends, if you ever had to.  You'd burn the whole world down for Bro's safety, and that may or may not have had anything to do with the metaphorical rope he tied around your leg, because you'd save the whole world, too, at your brother's word - to the credit or blame of how he fucking raised you; you a literal God among men, fallen from the sky to the cult of nothing and the worship of no one, immortal, innumerable, invulnerable.

Bro snaps the bedside lamp off and sits bare-ass to the side of the mattress to kick out of his jeans while you pull down your half of the sheets, claiming space in a kneel even though you aren't undressed, nervous that he'd just sprawl out and crowd you off if you didn't stake some territory. There's also something wrong in the idea of stripping down to present yourself - usually it's Bro who shoves your trousers or your briefs out of the way, leaves your shirt to your modesty, gets his dick in with nothing like the Hollywood ritual of foreplay, mechanical and only a little dispassionate. Bro prefers to be nearest to nude because he's a big dude who burns a lot of calories in the heat of the south, so it's never any kind of special when he loses a shirt or keeps to a pair of novelty boxers around the house or collapses into bed in nothing but his scars.

You want an oversized sweater, big and soft to be naked under, and you want John squirming back against your dick, Brodie inside you, and you want -

You're both so pale you nearly glow in the dark, the blue digital read of the bedside alarm clock the only light to go by, cutting shadows into every dip of Brodie's body as he slides under the sheets, as his chest lowers in an exhale and yeah, he's crowding in on the middle of the bed already, arm splayed out to tuck up under both pillows, legs shifting over diagonal to the mattress so he can fit, not hang off any edges.

You're stuck on your knees, barefoot in your jeans, baseball T stilled halfway up your stomach, stuck in place because Brodie's Rood smells like malt and gear oil, drifts down into creamsicle orange, his mood relaxed here in the dark on the drowsy comfort of an oversoft commercial mattress, butter-salt melancholy nested in the concerned umami, the bitter tobacco tannin of, what, you don't know what that is, that emotion, you can't tell, he's usually so contained, steady, three-note Alphahood, a comfort. Usually.

"You didn't invite me along just to kick my ass or anything, did you," you ask, because it needs asking, and let your shirt lower back down, warm over skin that's started to vent.

There is a long, terse pause where you can't hear Brodie breathing, then; "I was going out of town tonight. You were out all day, didn't get the chance to discuss the things needed discussing. Two birds."

"Why don't you ever, just, um." You bend forward at the waist, press your cheek into the bed, unbutton your jeans to shove them down your thighs, inhaling a sharp hiss as a string of slick drags from the denim and the leg of your briefs down the back of your thigh, wet and hot like an open kiss. Your knees shift, walking out of your pants, toeing them to a heavy crumple to the floor. "Stay home? For when you're like this?"

"You handle the laundry, don't you?" Bro answers cryptically as ever, and this almost feels normal.

"I'm not going to hump your laundry, chucklefuck."

Bro exhales. "Rood's a lot harder to get out of the sheets than Heat, conejito. We can't afford the soap."

You crawl under the bedcovers in your shirt and briefs, eyes winched shut against what kind of maniac you must have looked like, bringing all those towels. Your shades clatter to the nightstand. You tug a pillow out of Brodie's monopoly, turn a hard lean into his side, back pressed flush into his ribs. "Guess that's to do with territory marking. Should be fine to just leave it. You live there after all."

"Naw, D. I feel better if people can't track."

"Right," you drawl. "Your whole IC Ninja cosplay." And here you're supposed to feel a little sad, probably, but it's an old story. You wash the laundry, you use the good soap, you don't want to be tracked either. "John's house smells like Dadbert. It basically lets him hang out on his own, when he's Heating." Too late you realize the mistake, the implication.

Bro hums, skin scuffs skin in the dark, scratching an itch. "You want me to leave you alone for your Heats?"

"No," you answer evenly, chill.  Egbert kept suppressed in Dadbert's household, sure, but you are under the impression that you've never been suppressed in the first place (and the small blue truth of it is, of course, that you're suppressed just fine, but-)

The front of your stomach feels jittery, knees tight, the scars on your chest prickling under your shirt, Bro's every draw of breath moving the ribs at your back. "Hey, uh," you turn your chin to try and get an eye of Brodie behind you, foot wagging, restless. "So long as you're offering favors?"

Bro snorts.  "I'm the one about to feel like seven shades of shit, D, you should be doing me some favors."

You fidget some chip crumbs from under a shallow fingernail, then pull yourself forward, away from the stifle of Bro's body heat, and out of the bed. "Kay. Want a beer?" You stretch, then swipe at the back of your thigh, wipe the wet on the side of your shirt, careless with your scent, a little vindictively.

Brodie grunts, overtaking your vacated space with a subtle stretch. "I wanna know if we're cool, yet. Are we cool, Dave?"

"In a pig's eye; you killed my fictional husband," you snark, padding to the small amenity-crowded bathroom. "Did you pack a toothbrush?"

"Naw.  Usually buy a travel kit." But he was too busy arguing with you.

You swipe a beer from the box, instead, and crack it open to swig a mouthful around, swallow with a grimace. You use the sleeve of your shirt to scrub some of the roadsnack fuzz from your teeth, swish some more beer, wince at the sting of the alcohol. You turn half out of the bathrrom door to offer the rest of the beer and catch Brodie's stare. "We're cool," you rasp, "if-"

But there's no good way to say it, so you set the beer on the bathroom counter and shift your weight and wait.

Bro grunts a prompt, shuffles to reclaim the second pillow. "Whatchu need, cielito?"

You can't even summon some sort of joke to hide it behind, brains as fried by the day as they were. You tamp your weight between your heels and the balls of your feet, jittering there in the gloom. "We're cool if we're cool, because I'm fine, my guy." You grip your elbow, scoff out around a grin. "I'm fine with any night you're not handing me my own teeth on a tarmac platter." You swipe the beer up and saunter to the bed, made brave in fits and starts of remembered indignity.

Right. There were worse things than being embarrassed, real and actual hurts that had already gone down between you two, and if a rejection was in your future then that rejection would at least contain itself as far as the walls of your ironclad history. He couldn't break up with being your other half on a planet of meta-humans and mundanes, and hardly wanted to break up with being your Alpha.

Bro was just... giving you rope, he said. Rope to walk away, as far as D.C. if you wanted. Rope to lasso you an Egdork, find a serviceable Head of House, or.

Rope to tie Brodie down with.

"Beer," you prompt, and balance the can on the flat of Bro's sternum, sitting down on his side of the bed, hip to his ribs, knee tucked up toward his head.

"Put it aside, D," Bro dismisses quietly, and yawns.

"Alcohol is an astringent, naranja. For your breath."

Bro accepts the can, twists towards you to get up on an elbow, takes a long draught. "Should get that tattooed," he says with a slight wheeze, a single cough, and knocks the rest of the beer back to finish.

"What, a toothbrush with like a beercan for the bristle-head part?"

Bro curls forward to set the empty can in the middle shelf of the night stand, shaking his head. "'Naranja'. Half-orange. Kind of a pun, ain't it?"

You hum.  "The best spanish diminutives are. Did you call me a rabbit because I'm, what, white with red eyes? Horny? Fluffy? Help me out here."

Bro's shoulder jerks with a silent scoff and he uncurls back to the pillows, sighing. "The term means 'fast', not as in 'romantically forward' but as in clever or quick to pick up social cues, and had been used in a spirit of sarcasm. I was calling you stupid, about the laundry. What was that favor you wanted ask, just now?"

Avoidance snares the thin lace veil of your motives and you quip, "You just called me the southern equivalent of a snowbunny, which is Canadian slang for sporty mountaineer in DayGlo who likes to fuck, and is a deadly goddamn insult."

"Mnyeah, well," (wull) "Ain't feelin' hundred percent right now. 'M allowed to faux some social pas."

You stop the bouncing of your knee, still half off the bed. "Does it hurt? Your uh, seasonals?" After a moment's silence, you add, "You said you'd tell me what's going on."

"Dunno," Brodie confesses quietly, then lurches toward the far nightstand to catch up the remote, and thumbs the room's large flatscreen on. "I don't know if you'd call it a hurt. It just sort of low-key winds me up, gives me the flu, makes everything intense and shitty."

You slide into the vacant bedspot Bro has leaned away from, into Bro's residual body heat and the spreading pocket of his off-mood citrus and he startles when he almost lays back into you.

A breath punches past the back of Bro's nose and he slides his elbow against your ribs, nudging but not pushing. "Dave, out. I didn't bring you here to knock you up."

That almost startles you out of bed, but Brodie isn't shoving you off onto the floor yet, so. "Woah, wait, what," you husk, cooldude personified. "Thought you got snipped, Lassie." Which is... okay, so it's almost sort of Talking About It, about you two, but it's also not, because nobody's been insulted, nobody's been called anything criminal or pathetic or morally bankrupt.  It's just you and your Alpha doing some family planning, totally normal.

Bro flicks through a few prime-time channels before landing on the public access doppler radar and its soothing robotic report caster. "Only 98% promise on the effectiveness of that, brorito." And ah, fuck, he was back to calling you sibling-adjacent nicknames. "Probability tanks with Rood, 84 to as low as 60."  

You can't crack a joke about that, about elevated Alpha hormones and sperm count, and don't even want to for once, which is a weird sort of sobriety anchored in the floor of your lungs that warms you all the way down to the clench in your groin.  The radar readout announces high winds and overnight thunderstorm with mild chance of tornadoes forming in the easternmost county and you try not to think of John and that Windything he can do as you slide yourself out of bed, gathering the covers Bro has kick-shoved over at you to stand without faceplanting.

"Where's your wallet," you prompt, shoving the bundle of blankets and sheets back over Bro's prone sprawl. "I'll go get condoms."

"What was that favor you wanted, earlier?" Brodie says, instead of answering.

"Give me the wallet so I can buy you that travel kit," you revise, instead of answering.

Bro audibly sighs, and you watch his arm drape over the side of the bed, and you barely catch the heavy pair of jeans flung your way.  "Was that the favor?" Bro asks, voice flattened by doubt.

"Yeah," you lie.  "I mean I have my own capital, just didn't bring with."

"Don't hang 'round the truck stops for it, D, I don't want to have to chase some freighter into Canada 'cos you got snatched up for a cabin keep." 

Your brain doesn't comprehend that, at first, a little distracted knuckling Bro's wallet from its chain.  Your brow crimps down, thinking he meant to imply that you would, what, steal money from truckers, or that truckers were a routine source of free contraception or -

The heavy denim slips from your hand and you startle as it hits your foot, ears ringing with blood.  "Was that a joke," you ask, less sure than you've ever been of Bro's mysterious ironics. You mix up the jeans on the floor and step into his instead of your own, but just cinch the belt to its closest eye and carry the fuck on getting your shoes.

"It's solid advice.  They got apps for hookups, now."

Your neck heats.  You want to tell Bro to go fuck himself, but you're scared to find out if this is a joke or not, if Bro actually thinks that's why you are going out for condoms, or is trying to get under your skin by playing ignorant.  Either option is incredibly daunting. "Uhh," you manage to drawl, conveying about as much uncertainty and recrimination as possible in that one syllable.

You clear your throat.

You secure the wallet back in the pocket of Bro's jeans, chain and all.  "No thanks on the casual hookups, truck-stop or otherwise."

Bro doesn't answer, merely changes the tv channel to high-energy informercials, slumped upright against the headboard like a pile of snow ploughed up against a curb, knees and feet lumps under the white sheet.


The cashier at the gas stop tries to ID you for the condoms and you've only got Bro's wallet on you and your mouth slants sideways because there was no possible way you looked too young to qualify since you were taller than most and 16 was the legal buying limit for maybe obvious reasons but these people wanted to sell to your keeper directly and this, you realize, is your first actual brush with prejudice.  The overhead fluorescents give off an audible buzz so you slap some headache pills down on the counter instead and crack a joke about giving your Alpha the old headache excuse since the condoms were a bust and you don't want to face swimsuit season with a bun in the oven and the cashier startles, glaring at you.

You don't lower your shades to glower back or anything, you just frown.

The cashier's eyes track up and down, nostrils flaring slightly as they test the air.  "Oh," they say, flat, and ring the condoms up.

You are thoroughly confused, but you pay with what loose cash you can leaf from Bro's wallet.  Did they smell Brodie on his jeans, think you were some underage Alpha getting strange off the curbside?  You know you look average, despite your scars and your white hair; you don't look monied but you don't look broke enough to need to hang around truck stations for upward match mobility.  You don't ask.  You're tall and you're scuffed up and you give off conflicting signals on your orientation and that's fine, probably.  You take the small paper baggie in a cradle from the bottom, toast the air with it and mumble your appreciation.

The cashier is still waspish with their confusion, which you can probably understand - it's late, you look like a fucking urban myth, and they can't get a read on your orientation through Brodie's Rood funk.  You shuffle out of the quickstop like you're guilty of something.


The motel room is dark, TV off and Brodie is slid down on his back in a diagonal sprawl by the time you sidle back in; you don't bother softening the shut of the door or the crinkle of the paper bag either way, if he is awake or not.  "Do you honestly think," you say, made brave by the cold night air you'd just come in from, blinking hard to try and re-acclimate to the dark. "That I would up and jump some stranger if I was hot enough for it?  Or were you just fucking with me?"  You kick off your shoes with a little more force than necessary.

"'S'fuckin' with you," Bro mumbles.  "'S'easier, right?  Treating something like it is what it ain't?"  He snuffles, fingers rasping through his hair, scratching his scalp.  "I don't want you gone to DC.  Easier to say I do; easier to say sure, D, you can fuck off on a series of meet-n-greets with a bunch of lousy Auction Bids don't know what you can do, don't know your worth."  Bro clears his throat, flicks his hand toward the pile of blankets on the floor.  

Your hands slow on Brodie's belt buckle, and the jeans slip down your hips with the fly still buttoned, pool heavy and warm atop your feet.  "Easier to say you don't want to fuck me stupid, get me gravid?"

"Ten dollar word," Bro congratulates, rote.  "Means egg-heavy, though.  'S for birds, or lizards."

You nod.  "Um,"  Your readers fall off as you tug your shirt over your head, are bundled up in your shirt and tossed to the empty pull-out.  "So, I have this -" you pause to bend down in a kneel, scoop the bedcovers off the floor.  "I guess, preconception, or assumption, that you've never lied.  To me."

Bro's laugh is like a crack of thunder, and it chuckles down to huffs of restarted disbelief.  "Baby I lie to everyone,"  he manages past the merry strain in his voice.  He snuffs, sobering a bit.  "Guh.  Shit.  Why'd you ever think that?  That I wouldn't, haven't lied to you?"

Your shoulder jerks up, and you tug the blankets into some semblance of straight, delaying the struggle you're going to have to initiate to get some bedspace.  "Not like you've ever promised it."  You set the pharmacy bag on the bedside table nearest, a visual reminder that you Had Intentions and basically no idea how to go about executing your plans.  You just want to win, just once, you just want to have something over Bro, you want to crack at least one of his thousand codes - and you also just sort of want to fuck, which is less sophisticated but no less motivating.  "I think I just trust you.  Make room."

Bro grunts, doesn't budge.  "Trust that if I ever lied to you, it were for the reason of some good, yours or mine?"

"Sure."  You exhale, put a foot up to the side of Brodie's hip, try to shove him over.  He's heavy, and you're fast but you're not strong, not any stronger than any other nerd your size and height with your workout schedule; you're more a swimmer's build and you've nothing to anchor against Brodie's sheer bulk.  "I lie to you all the time, by the way.  It's almost always for my own sake."

Bro huffs, half a chuckle.  "Yeah, I know.  Monkey see, monkey do."

"You don't know," you argue, not half as petulantly as you expect, and shove under the covers to stretch out on your back next to Brodie, wedging your shoulder under his to try and flip him like a pancake.  "Hhf.  You don't know half the shit I've never told you.  Like I took John's cherry."

"Knew that."  Bro sighs, turns himself over onto his stomach.  "And don't use that metaphor, it's gross," he croaks from the muffle of the pillows.  "Lack of experience or knowledge is not a quantifiable object to be traded or given or taken, it's just a lack of physical happenstance.  First dirty book John ever read would have taken his metaphorical cherry, and everything else after that would have only been proof of theory.  You can't tread on fresh snow and call your footprints proof of ownership - those footprints melt away in the sun, because they are only the temporary mark you've made by taking up physical space, that snow prone to its changes over time."

"You hate purity culture," you recite.  Despite his best efforts your Bro was actually cool sometimes, and actually cared very deeply about opposing toxic social mores (though you aren't sure if that's specifically to the irony of being the poster child for Texan machismo, but).  "Sorry.  Whatever.  That's how John sees it, is all, and he likes to give me shit about it because he is 'not a homosexual' in either camp.  And that's my point, right?  You don't know half the shit I've never told you because you've made it a point to know everything.  What I did or didn't tell you is irrelevant, because you haven't kept track of the difference, and you treat me like I've told you everything, like I really do trust you all implicitly 'n shit."

Bro turns his nose toward you, shoves the pillow between you out of the way.  "You don't?"

"Not about as far as I can fukken throw you, hoss."

Bro gives this news a thoughtful hum, as if savoring the novelty.  "Guess that's fair."

You stew in the leftover adrenaline of that reveal, segregated from Brodie's heat by a hand's breadth, and snatch the spare pillow to shove under your head, glaring up through the dark.  "Do you trust me?" you challenge, expecting a similarly direct decline.

"Like breathing," Bro answers softly, instead.

You chirp air in past your clenched teeth.  "You lying?"

Bro husks a short wheeze.  "Like breathing.  I trust you sometimes, over some things.  But I don't know you well enough to trust my own assumptions on your patterns of behavior, I guess.  Despite the shared career, we are two completely individual persons with radically different upbringings, equally estranged life-goals subject to natural changes in mood and opinion, et fuckin' cetera.  I can throw you pretty damb far, though, so I'll not allude to some astronomical level of mistrust that just doesn't fucking exist."  He reaches the short distance to your hair, ruffles it rough despite how you'd avoided the affection all day, lets his forearm rest against your face just to annoy you.

You huff against the soft skin of Bro's wrist, lave your tongue out and freeze as the taste seeps down the back of your throat, citrus tobacco, sweet and heady and whiskey-smoked, aftertaste of malt, garlic gasoline behind your molars that makes your whole mouth water and your knees tense.  You turn your head away from Bro, face gone hot and lungs gone bottomless.  "You trust me to be well-trained," you rasp, throat tight.  "You trust I'm not gonna go bonkers and wreck the planet.  You tied that rope, didn't you?"

"I don't trust that figurative rope to hold, if there's a figurative fire," Bro corrects, mopping his hand over your face, squinching your cheeks between fingers and thumb to wag your chin.  "Or a mouse or whatever it is grown-ass elephants are scairt of.  I trust you'd fuck this whole planet and the next three in reach if I ever died, and I trust that's a real goddamn problem."

"What if I died," you volley easily past the loosened clasp of Bro's hand, the topic of Strider death a common visitor to your anxious self-reflections.  "For real, I mean.  What if they nuclear annihilated my every last cell, or beheaded me or whatever, what would you do?"

"Probably get a wife."

It feels like a blow, if it were the truth or if it were casual dismissal of a question you desperately want answered.  "Fuck you, man, I'm serious."

"Fuck you, I'm serious too."  Bro squinches you again, sighs, removes his hand.  "I lived nearly as old as yourself, on my own.  A life without you is entirely feasible, was always feasible, but I have grown used to the regular access to nookie and would want some sort of replacement should you ever bite the dust, or ever get around to getting the fuck outta my house."

Your chest is tight.  It shouldn't be so tight, you shouldn't feel so rotten to hear this, this is normal, this is expected, you mean next to nothing to this asshole, this machine, this self-centered psycho.  "Liar," you try to accuse, but it's just a whine from the back of your throat and you swallow hard to cut it off, regret immensely that you got in this bed, couldn't hide your lack of composure four feet away in the cot.  "Liar," you try again, lower, steadier.  You nudge your foot back until you hit the hairy swell of Bro's calf.  "For whose good are you slinging these lies, yours or mine?"

"Both, D."  Bro shifts, the mattress dipping, giving you room you neither want or need.  

But you remember the first time you died, 10, and how tall Brodie had stood, how he'd flickered so fast through the rest of the hellportal creatures some of the corpses caught fire.  He didn't even gather your body, didn't return to collect you, which you assumed was some cold-hearted efficiency move, to just let the labcoats retrieve you with the other samples, whatever - but when you got up, and got back to the research camp, Brodie had been stretched out along a tarp on the medic tent floor, comatose with all the medication they'd hooked into his veins, visibly unhurt except for the clean tear tracks through the soot on his face.

You knew you had died; Brodie had known you had died; none of the researchers knew this, only assumed it was a mistake Bro had made in the heat of the battle, some fear response triggered by a near miss, and you refused medical attention just as you'd been taught, wary that they were going to lay you out the way they'd laid out your Bro, wary they were going to get you on a table and slice you open and pull your organs out just to watch them regrow, or something.

That year, your tenth year, Brodie kicked the rooftop training up a notch.  Two years later you would collaterally murder thousands of people, and a handful of months past that Bro would take the rooftop training down several notches, and eventually finger your 'Megan slizz til you dribbled cum against his thigh and shook and shook and shook.

It was difficult to conceptualize even now, Bro so distraught as to render himself unable to face your corpse, so lost in thought and action that he'd let the researchers anywhere near him with an IV drip full of drugs.  He was now trying to obscure that data, those past examples of giving-a-shit.  Except Bro went through all this trouble training you up and humbling you down to make sure you did stay alive, to make sure you were promised an allowance to live outside of his custody.  If he didn't care that much, he wouldn't have wasted his time teaching you, wouldn't have even wasted his time bringing you in with him on those missions; would have just let the labcoats have you, would have just let the whole wide dangerous world swallow you up.

"What do you want me to say," Bro complains against your prolonged silence, nasal in his annoyance.  "That I'd stop eating?  Dive headfirst into the first few routine stages of severe goddamn grief, but never make it to recovery?  Need me to seppuku soon as you get nuked for your first and last attempt at world domination?  What?"

"Just tell me the truth," you demand quietly, swiveling in place until you're on your stomach, pillow shoved over at Bro's face to take the brunt of your halfhearted punch.  "Jackass."

Bro pulls his face from the pillow to reply, "I wouldn't 86 this planet, is all I know."

"I would 86 this planet if this planet was the thing that killed you," you insist, turning fretfully Bro's way.  "Because that's the only end I really see sneaking up on either of us, that we'd live long enough for the world to turn us into villains, that we'd have to make enough many difficult choices ain't get what decent PR they'd need and poof, there goes our ticket to society, officially social pariahs, hunted and suffering even as we defend the very people who spit on us."

"Well that," Bro says, flat, "is quite the fiction.  You been watching that TMC garbage again?  You know there's way more unsung support for heroes that just doesn't sell news rags, right?"

"I don't want to be a hero," you say, curling in as your stomach goes tight and shivery.  "I want to do my music, maybe start up some collaborations again, get that House started with John -" but you're lying, again.  You're saying what's easy and reasonable, not what's true, and you can't hardly expect Brodie to tell the truth when you aren't setting the example.  "I mean," you correct gently, and sliding your arm across the mattress feels like reaching across a very deep chasm, some crack in the continental ice that you could drop your heart into, a deadly impact after an eon of falling.  "I want to stay home with you, yeah, you got me there.  There's nothing I want or need from anybody else that you don't already give me, and I don't think that was your intention but it's the truth, now."

You fumble a bit when your knuckles meet the skin over Brodie's ribs, which is hot and a little damp.  You start to stroke him down like an animal, but your hand sticks.  "I got no illusions on Egbert.  What we got going now is pretty good, but it's not essential to our friendship," you continue, and it hurts way less than you had anticipated.  You have to take a deep breath for this next confession, voice low as if imparting a valuable secret.  "I want to live in a fuckoff cliffside mansion on the west coast, bought and paid for by my career in the arts; and I want you to come home from your dayjob or college class or whatever to fuck me so stupid I forget the alphabet. Like. Every day."

This actually spurs a response from Brodie's side of the bed, a heady wash of malt and tannin, that mysterious ochre you couldn't identify earlier now strong; it is musk, you realize distantly.  Brodie's chemical signatures were always as neatly contained as his lies - he was plenty emotive but a part of you wonders now how much of that was theater meant to inure you, some facade of a personality, playing at a short temper and a stoic disregard for your general comfort.  You'd seen him pissed and bitchy and you've even seen him drunk and philosophical and you thought, you thought you'd seen him horny - you definitely knew what his knot felt like, definitely heard the hitch in his breath as he came, definitely tasted the salt of him in the air but it was never - it was never this. 

No, this was... this reached deep past your lungs straight to your head and groin, dizzy and full with it.  "Mh," you protest quietly, certain you had more to say.  "'N I want," you huff quietly, hand stilled against Bro's ribs, bracing yourself really.  "To tell the truth.  B'cos you're not -"

After a pause of you just breathing ever deeper, slower breaths, Bro turns his chin toward you to prompt, "Not what?"

Your fingers dig a little into the divots of rib and muscle.  "Not gonna give me what I want 'nless you know what-all that actually is, and not just the lie I put up to obfuscate an ugly goddamn truth."

"Ten point word, obfuscate," Bro congratulates, and cups his hand around your neck, thumbs the pulse point below your ear in a hard rub.  "I can't be the Head of your House, D."

A little drunkenly, you laugh.  "D'you want to?  To be it, though?  With me?"

"Like breathing."

And here you think Bro could pull you in, turn your ass up and get a hike over you, let you marinate in anticipation before sliding the rigid stab of his cock in, fits and starts because he's big and you're always a little too tense, a little too tight.  Your pores sigh open and you fidget the heavier blankets down with a few kicks, hooking your leg over the hot cradle of the back of Bro's knee.

Bro removes his hand to grab the pillow you've abandoned, shoves it over his head, the flat planes of his shoulderblades heaving in a yawn.

You are so goddamn offended that your limbs electrify, elbow stabbing down into the mattress to push yourself up.  You want to shove Bro clear off the bed but your body wants to koala-cling to his side instead and you're still way too annoyed to compromise these urges so you crane across Bro's back to fit your mouth at the small of his neck just below his hairline and you bite - hard.

It's a dominance move that's usually applied Alpha to Beta or Alpha to Omega, or Beta to Omega but never, ever applied by Omega to anyone, especially against an Alpha.  Bro makes a noise like he's stepped on a lego, a cuss of annoyance and pain which quickly turns into another noise like he's discovered that lego was actually a used needle, disgusted and angry.  "I will turn you,"  Bro growls, snatching the back of your neck so fast you didn't even register he'd shifted out from under you.  "Into a goddamn pair of boots, you ever fucking -"  he swipes the back of his neck, and you can see the twist of horrified confusion on his face through the pale blue glow of the bedside clock.  "You ever fucking do that again."

"Mm, yeah?"  you husk, throat dry, pulse thundering through your ears.  "Cruella DeVil?"  Your head is swimming, you realize you are well and truly in the middle of what might be categorized as a 'swoon'.  "Or 's that Buffalo Bill?  It puts the lotion on?"

Brodie only huffs, still incredulous, and shoves you out of bed so hard you actually end up on your feet, stood to brace against the impact you might have otherwise landed against the wall.  This is fine, though, because it gives you the opportunity to peel your briefs down, to crack open that particular potpourri of 'Meg head.  Your hand is already between your legs when your knee hits the side of the bed and you collapse to a kneel, shoulders shaking as you drape over the lump of Bro's legs as if to pin him in place.  He doesn't kick your teeth down your throat, so that's something.

Bro doesn't move much at all, in fact, half propped up on an elbow, glaring you down, that familiar cement tang to him when his dander's up, and you wonder if his Rood was kickstarted in earnest by your stunt, or delayed?

"You wanna fuck me b'fore you skin me, first?" you ask, sincere, both hands between your legs to cover your modesty, dick heavy against the heel of your palm.

"You wanna drop the performative shit,"  Bro cracks, voice like granite snapping through a layer of ice - the words worm into your brain like a Command, and your breath gutters, joints gone watery. 

"Sorry," you breathe, honest and hurting for it.  Your hands uncurl, ease down your thighs, and you tilt sideways to land your hip against the bed, curled towards Bro with your arms crossed over your stomach, knees pressed tight together.  "I don't know how else to act."  Your gut swells, the first breath of a sob that you press your forearms down against, stifling.  Your chest is on fire, your asshole is clenching and fluttering open to seep slick down the back of your thigh, and you are sucking lungfuls of Brodie's impending Rood so deep that you're going to hyperventilate.

"Wull, me neither," Bro argues, brows drawn together tight but mouth set in a line of concern.  "I don't have the history of experience you seem to goddamn assume."

Brodie was literal virgin-with-capital-V before you, a weird truth you never even contemplated before, much less suspected.  No, of course he was, of goddamn course he was, the big fukken weirdo.   "Liar," you plead, writhing to bury your face into the sheets, and oh god oh shit you are going to Die, you will Expire from the beautiful fucking perfection of that.

Bro's arm arcs out, bed jarring. "Where was I supposed to find the time to get laid, D? And with whom?"

"Like now," you whisper into the mouthful of fabric you've bitten, eyes winching shut. "On a weekend, for your seasonal." You snort into the crook of your elbow, self-soothing with a pass of your own wrist behind your ear. "With a trucker maybe, I dunno, whatever you're into."

Brodie's legs slide away from your head, his feet hitting the floor, the mattress shifting as he stands. "I'll take the fucking cot, you enormous goddamn infant."

"Broh," you plead, pulling your mouth away from the gummy wad of sheet you were gnawing.  "Gnuh, holy shit, I am going to die," you insist, kicking out to twist fretfully to face Brodie's journey to the pullout, every nerve raw, stripped to exposure by his absence.  "I won't - okay, you said it, I won't be, what, performative about this.  I don't mean you're lying, about never - hhnh."  It's too good, it's way too good, the idea that Brodie really wouldn't just up and fuck some rando - that it was you, that it was only you, and that had to mean something. 

"I mean," you strain, fist curling in the downy comforter.  "I mean you saying you don't know how else - like I said how I uh, how I don't know, you said you don't know either, how else to act.  'S a lie."

Brodie doesn't answer, and the cot squeaks under his weight. 

You hum a nonsense wavering Omega call, venting some of the tension in your chest, sweat beading at your seams as you rock a little in place to inch over toward the spot Bro had vacated, and you burrow into the warm sheets, clasping his abandoned pillow under your chin, wrists pressed hard behind your ears, fingers locking together to wring at the back of your neck.  Self-soothing. 

Roughly twenty minutes pass of silence in the dark, and you can't sleep for how warm the air is, all your senses straining for any sign of life across the room, any creak of cot frame or shuffle or snore.

The bed dips behind you, noiseless, and Bro's large fingers replace your own through your hair, that long-sought ruffle that you decide to allow because you're sick of rejection and suppose you might have been the one rejecting Bro this whole time and well, yeah.  You wanted to segregate yourself from what you and Brodie used to be so you could be something else a little more comfortably - but the two roles were part and parcel and it was never going to be comfortable, or easy, between you. 

"Mh," you grunt softly, turn your face into the pillow to let Bro get a thorough scalp rub in.  "You smell like -" you stall the snark about new cars or shoe departments or the ass-end of a rodeo arena, "Good," you finish awkwardly and don't bother to correct the syntax.

"Hueles a manzanas, y aspiraciones sin esperanza,"  Bro says, bed shifting as he sits.  He exhales.  His grip drifts lower, wraps firm around the back of your neck.

Your nerves spark, shoulders loose and legs tight, knees digging down into the mattress.  Your mouth pulls back against the moan, an open-jawed croon into the muffle of the pillow as Bro's thumb works circles against the base of your skull.  The bed creaks, the sheets over your back warm, forewarning the press of Bro's weight settling over you, over the covers.

"And you never wanted this," Bro sighs behind your ear, mouth replacing his hand to firm a bite over your nape.

All your systems flutter, like fluorescent lights blinking to life, heart and lungs the first to catch up, thoughts and limbs to follow.  "Mh," you protest, eyelids heavy.  You shove the pillow out from under your chin, writhing a bit as Brodie's bite loosens, regrips you.  "I never didn't want this," you slur, because it is the truest argument you have, whatever your ambivalence to your relationship in the past.  You weren't the type of elephant who ever struggled against that particular rope, no; you might have even leaned into it, because the fucking was a reprieve from the sneak-attacks and the rooftop showdowns, and it was even something you thought you might be able to eventually win at, for a given value of victory.

You just had to train up a bit, is all.  Learn what actually got under Bro's skin, not just what he'd do by the word of some behavioral science textbook to keep your ass settled.  "I never didn't want much of anything," you continue in a quiet rasp, shivering as Bro's bite leaves your neck.  

Brodie shifts to the side, hip taking his weight, nose bumping the back of your head.  "Yeah, blud," he mumbles.  "I reckon me neither, start to finish.  Life just sort of happened at no nevermind to building me up a frame of preference."

Which went without saying - if a Strider really didn't want to do something, then they wouldn't do that thing; but Striders did plenty of uncomfortable, necessary things at the behest of uncomfortable, necessary outcomes.  Broderick Strider could have owned the world, but he didn't want to put in that much work, or live a life of that much struggle, so the world was left to its own keeping.  You don't want to run the world, you just want to run your own House, and running the world was only circumstantial to that end, because the world currently stood in direct opposition of you being able to run anything at all.

Or maybe you could both run away to space, live with the Asgardians that you weren't, Gods among the Godly, aliens in true.

"You really actually literally don't know shit," you mumble into Bro's wrist, his elbow denting the bed at your shoulder.  "I mean you literally don't know what you want."

"I know what I don't want," Bro assures against your neck.  

Delayed hysterics thicken in your throat, crack through in your voice.  "I don't know, what it is that I don't want."

"But you know what you want.  You look toward the future and its goals; I look to the past and its lessons."

You scoff, swallow.  "And that makes you, what?  Wise?"

Brodie's shrug nudges the back of your shoulder.  "I s'pose it just makes me conservative.  Didn't have much in the way of direction before the State took us in, and by then my only direction was keeping you alive."

"So you wanted me," you say, turning your face against the bed to try and catch sight of Brodie in your peripheral.  "That was a want, that was a goal."

"Naw, D," Bro smooths a sweaty clump of hair from your temple.  "I didn't want to be alone on this planet, that was all.  Knew what I didn't want, knew what I had to do to avoid it. The concept of 'you' is immaterial. You could have been anything, a housepet or a chronusbug, so long as you'd fallen from the sky-ro-graph same as me."

"Your good luck," you recite quietly, and try to ignore the chilly grip of apprehension between your lungs.

Bro's snort stirs your hair, and he settles a little heavier at your side, and when you meet his stare through the gloom you find it drowsy, warm and a bit fond. Your apprehension eases, and you kick lazily through the bedcovers to try and get further under Bro's weight.

"My good luck," Brodie says against the damp press of your forehead.

There were worse things than embarrassment. "Y'ain't 'immaterial', Broderick," the last half of Brodie's name is muffled by a soft collision of shoulder, pillow and face as Brodie shifts back to peel the blankets down, clear some space to climb in against your damp pocket of heat. "To me, to what I want. I wouldn't fuck a chronusbug, for starts."

A cinch of distaste flickers across Bro's expression and his shoulders and chest heave in a slow, deep breath. "You would if it was an Alpha," he says, and you don't know if he's teasing or lying or - "You would if it was the thing that raised you up, the thing beside which you fought against terrible threats; if it was mean as sin to you most days but for the days you were gonna fuck. I reckon you'd take like a duck to water on the xeno-relations frontier, if it was all that."

This. This is the hardest conversation you've never had. "So you an' me, we're circumstantial," you guess, throat dry.

"That's what I'm trying to tell you, yes. The sum of 'us' is only the sum of our actions, our goals - well, my goals. Ain't out of our control. Out of yours, probably. Unless you wanna change your goals. Rearrange your priorities a little. Join the real world, for starts."

You grunt, roll a little closer, skin meeting skin despite the heat, the stifle. "What are your goals, lately?" There were worse things than rejection.

"Same as before," Bro drawls, shoving an arm under the pillow under your head. "Just a list of things to avoid. Shit I know I don't want."

You tuck your chin, butt your head down against the hollow of Bro's chest, flinch when your knee brushes the hard muscle of his inner thigh. "Like being alone on this planet?"

"Whole crowd of skybabies on file, nowadays," Bro dismisses with a sniff. "So I think I only gotta avoid your basic concepts of villainy, idleness, the requisite beer gut of retirement."

"You gonna avoid me?" You hate it, a little, how stupid and self-centered you sound.

"You ain't on that list, little man, no." Brodie's hair-ruffle returns, slides down into another scruffing at the back of your neck. "So you don't hafta act so fukken squirrely, alright?"

"Am not either," you argue against Bro's clavicle, eyelids heavy and heartbeat gone sluggish, blood thick. "I got goals, remember," you slur, mollified in the soak of Bro's stabilized, three-note Alphahood. "Just pursuant to those goals, is all."

Bro hums, and your spine tingles, consciousness tipping down, down.

You wake to the sound of the shower, bathroom unlit, room still dark. Bro's Rood had left a sweat silhouette in the bed, and you crawl into the cooling spot to bundle the blankets atop, trap in the gear oil musk and chalky tobacco and savory scent of fuck, every cell purring. The spot your hip digs into is a little more wet than the rest, and you curl under the sheets to hotbox that hormonal payload, because you're sixteen and have the impulse control to prove it.

The shower stutters to a stop.

"Dee," Bro complains, peeling the covers down. "A bigger goddamn bed-hog I never met." Everything about Bro seems worn, somehow. His voice is softened by a drowse, eyes unsharp, posture loose. He's unslouched, you notice late, but it's not to his benefit - it just makes him look lanky, instead of the usual compact hunch. Confusion flits across his face, some stray puzzle dragging through the moment uninvolved.

You scoot back to make room, rapt. Brodie is a good-looking dude when he wants to be, the Rood giving that flush to his skin, that slackened ease to his movement, robbed of the usual tension.

"Aren't you going to dissolve?" You ask as Bro sidles in next to you.

"Yeah," he sighs, staring straight up at the ceiling, distracted by thoughts innumerable. "'M gonna break down into nothing, because nothing is everything."

"Zen," you snark, gripping his upper arm to anchor you both. "I am the walrus, coo coo kachoo."

"Dee," Brodie wheedles, voice cracking with a growl. "Give me a break. I mean it." Instead of shoving you from the bed, though, he pulls you in by the arm, digs his chin into your neck, huffs against your ear. "Just be chill for five minutes."

"I am never not chill," you insist. but you happily drape an arm over Brodie's ribs and scratch under his shoulder and let the breath get squeezed out of your lungs. "Thought you'd be more aggro, honestly."

" 'S a reversed stereotype, is what it is," Brodie lectures. "All them office desk types, they got energy to throw, start fights, front around. Real leaders, though, they got all the calm. They got all the lax, because their energy is otherwise spent doin' for others all the time. Rood settles an Alpha down, if that Alpha been doin' his job right."

"Makes sense," you yawn. "Y'all'd never get laid, unless you get that seasonal prerogative to stay in for a cuddle. Doesn't make it less hilarious, just 'cos it's biologically sound." Victory nudges into the corners of your mind, and you flicker in place, paper bag from the bedstand now in hand.

"Yer a monster," Bro says. "Kickin' a man when he's down."

"I learned from the best," you deadpan, cos it's not like he never made light of your Heats, teased you, indulged you in things you never asked for aloud.  You crane your chin over Bro's shoulder to rifle the condom box apart from the headache pills. "'Bout how often do you tie one off Rood-wise, like what's par?"

"Par's in the neighborhood of never, you fuckin' wretch. It's the flu, it's nothing like yer Heats."

You let this revelation knock around in your brain with all the others, a merry carnival of what-the-fuck. You carefully reword, "About how often do you want to tie one off, if at all?"

"Oh, I get a choice, huh." You might be imagining the warmth in Bro's tone. "An' here I thought my honor was forfeit, just for getting back in this bed."

When you retell this story, it's not going to take as long, there was never this much communication, you would both be victims of nature. It would be a brutal, melancholy coupling, a storm of hormones and desperation and inveterate angst. You'd be a pair of terrified aliens with nobody else in the world, ignoble to one another.

The truth of this is that it's a long time coming, premeditated, hashed over, dissected. It's a careful, plotting approach, because you aren't reckless, either one of you, despite the requisite of your shared career. You're not even entirely sure of it all, far from any compulsive confidence despite your earlier mimicry of such (and Brodie was right to correct you; artifice had no place in this).

You want to believe that Brodie hadn't invited you here to any specific end; that he was telling the truth that he'd only wanted to talk, that he was just trying to chill with someone familiar, that the Rood was just coincidence. You want to believe all that, because it would mean you actually had some agency, that you weren't just passively accepting an invitation, an allowance that Brodie's made for you, a reward for behavior, good or bad, yours or his.

You want to believe that you aren't that goddamn predictable, that when Bro ignored your flirting it was to his naivety and not, well; there were worse things than being rejected.

You want to believe the kiss is your idea, at least - and it does seem to catch Brodie off guard. You kiss the way the magazine articles say a Megan should, breathy nibbles you once traded with John under the shelter of a pillow fort.  Bro licks into your mouth with one long swipe the way the magazine articles promised an Alpha would, tasting your health.

John tasted like yellow cake and popcorn butter and the minty dental wax he wore over his braces, like cool clear Omega trust, and he smelled like rain and kissing him felt like flying.

Brodie tastes like beer and cigarettes and the blood of a bitten cheek, like dark smoky Alpha draw, and he smells like lightning and kissing him feels like flying apart. He pushes his tongue past your teeth and your eyes roll up and if you were standing your knees would have buckled, hot from your throat to the floor of your lungs. You fumble the condoms to grab two fistfuls of Brodie's shower-damp hair, slotting your mouth against his with a muffled clash of teeth.

"Butch," Brodie reprimands against your parting nuzzle, and his shoulder pulls away, arm returning with condom in hand.

You want to ask out loud if Brodie wants you or not; you want him to say nice things, call you good-looking in whatever parlance was most honest, let it be known how much he wanted this, if he wanted this, if he brought you here because he wanted to share this with you, if -

"On yer belly," Brodie instructs, bumping his nose against yours to nudge you around.

"Yeah?  Or what?"  You tighten your grip in Bro's hair, pull yourself in, taste his health in one long swipe, like the magazines warn you should never do.

Brodie doesn't have an answer, just a damp huff of breath, a grin you can feel tug the kiss askew and you feel like you've done something right, made some impossible deduction, picked the exact correct moment to push back for once.

You kiss in ebbs and pauses and a readjusted embrace, in sighs and starved shuddering gasps to break the silence, necking until your jaw aches and your mouth is numb; and all the while Brodie's Rood is changing depth and heat and tone, relayered over his shower-fresh veneer. A contentment ropes through the air to steady your arousal, lets it build without overwhelming or crashing back down into the usual anxious disappointment.

"On yer belly," Brodie repeats against your ear, a soft request that lances through your bones like a Command so you go, a narrow roll against Brodie's chest until your hips are settled flat against the bed and your dick is tucked throbbing up against your abdomen.

When you retell this story, you'll be desperate and Broderick will panic and everything will hurt.

The latex over Brodie's cock feels gummy and thin against the back of your slicked thigh and nothing hurts.  Bro's hips shift to jutt against your backside and you don't even get the usual ache when his cock splits you open - the prolonged denial of the evening as close to foreplay as you two ever got.  You spread your knees and lift your ass and brace your hands against the headboard for leverage, your voice fucked out of your throat in hitches and thrusts, and this part is familiar - you expected it to be different, somehow, but it's not.  It's rote.

It's rote, except Bro's teeth sink a little bit deeper into your shoulder than usual, and he holds there and does not let go, not for comfort or ease of movement, not for the way your voice goes high and tight and his breath stutters and it still doesn't hurt, not really, not like rejection would have.  The bite flashes hot and cold up your neck and down your back and you hear more than feel the wet crunch of teeth breaking skin, sinking into muscle. 

Diaphragm tight, head spinning, you hear blood patter against the mattress as Bro rocks you into the headboard, and you don't feel a thing.

Chapter Text

Your name is IRON MAN TONY STARK, genius, billionaire, philanthropist, playboy husband, and you are ON THE BAD BETTER END OF YOUR FORTIES, PROBABLY, the first time you meet Houston face to face.

"Yo," Houston husks from his spread-kneed sprawl in your office chair and you are not too proud to admit that you scream, a little, because this office was empty when you left it and Houston had waited for the lights to come on before easing the chair around to reveal himself, which is about as cartoonishly villainous as it gets.  Everything about Houston screams villain, in fact - the albinism (?), the biker gloves (??), the hunchback, the generally cryptic reluctance to go public with any of his patents, textbook misanthropy; everything. It was amazing he hadn't made a ploy for world domination yet, but he was well on SHIELD's radar for the possibility. "You remember D, right? Used to deliver for me."

You remember the COURIER that had served as communication between you and Houston in the past, some third-grader with a sword as tall as himself, but you didn't know it had a letter designation and you're scraping through the rubble of your scattered focus just to manage some outrage.  "Remind me."

Houston holds his hand out to measure the height his courier would have been and you assume that's who he's referencing because that's the only person you ever shared in acquaintance. "Name's Dave, he's nineteen now."

"I thought that kid was a robot," you complain, because you did, but you recognize Houston's voice from the handful of conference calls you'd shared over the years and you're feeling a little more familiar about him, now, a little more forgiving.  This was an ally, right, this was a homeboy; this was a goofy redneck savant who thought robotics should never be utilized in warfare, should be regulated to, what was it he liked to say - self-improvement, exploration of the natural world and creative expression?  Pff.

"Naw."  Houston leans forward, elbows on knees, rubs his hands together, cracks his knuckles, then stands.

You try not to flinch, or shrink away, because this is Your House, dammit, and you've seen pictures of Houston, grainy satellite footage, a facetime or two just to confirm who was on the other end of the schematics in your e-mail; you're not that shocked, you're not that easy to unsettle, and you know what a big candy-handed nerd he is, really.  You are not prepared for the way that Houston smells, injured tobacco syrup, the cloy of orangetree blossom in the swamp-ass heat of high summer, a heavy storm of sour welding smoke, he smells sad, defeated, and his stoop is deferential, hand wringing the back of his neck, looking for all the world like an oversized teenager about to ask for the keys to the minivan.

"I got a favor to ask."

You blink, lower your hands (they'd gone up in defense from the start).  "Yeah?  What do I get?" Fingers crossed he just wants some project funding, and you'll get publisher's rights to some of his cyborganics, go ahead and launch America's medical market ahead a few decades, start a friendly new patent race against the East Indies.

Houston shrugs, the sleeves of his polyester bowling shirt straining to contain his shoulders.  "You get D.  Unless we're talking dowry already."  He makes a show to reach slowly into the back pocket of his baggy jeans, careful not to insinuate a weapon draw, and tugs a lightly crumpled brochure out, wallet chain rattling.  He wags the brochure up, then shuffles forward to drop it on the lamp table nearest.

You groan in the back of your throat, wary, but curious.  You wanted a collaboration, not a concubine. "I am married now, you know."  You make a clumsy, tired slap for the brochure, click the lamp on, fumble the brochure open to squint down through your 10 p.m. insobriety. "You didn't RSVP the invite, Big'N'Tall."

Houston scratches the back of his head, tipping his wide-billed trucker cap lower over his shades as he settles back against the wall, an easy lean. "I sent a gift."

"You sent a tiny automated Iron Suit, to mock my failures." You flip the brochure around, tap it as if to knock out its secrets, and make your way behind your desk, tug a brighter lamp alight. "Or at least I'm guessing that was you. Could have been anybody." You heave a sigh as you nudge the rolling desk chair out of your way, dismissing the waft of Houston's leftover citrus distress. "Why are all my friends so weird."

"That Ultron snafu almost got me called in to work on a Sunday. Man's gotta be let alone to his Sundays, Anthony."

"Uh. You're an atheist," you remind archly, warm now with Houston's company, how well this was going, reminded that Houston didn't do crowds or daylight or whatever; that he wasn't here to rob you or propose something dangerous that needed the secrecy of such a clandestine drop-in. No, Houston was just weird, just a big ol' eccentric tucked away in his own little corner of imperiled americana, Handling Shit that SHIELD had long left up to the specialists on the Federal payroll. The automated Iron Suit had been a mockery of the AI you had given your own Iron Suit over to, and had stood no taller than your knee, striking any number of body-builder poses on its own, at the behest of a motion sensor, until the batteries ran down. You take another turn at the brochure in your hands, flattening it out under the desk light to stand over and read, farsighted in your old age. "Pepper loved the mini-me, by the way. Said you should make toys, nearly offered you a product line."

"Well thank your missus for me, but Mattel is literal Satan and I doubt Stark Industries is looking to diversify their portfolio all that far."

You scoff, grin flickering up under a serious consider, the heels of your hands braced. "We've got to do something with the company once we achieve world peace. Pound those swords into ploughshares, as they say."

Houston tilts his chin, prompting. "I'll give that a think, but for now I just need you to take this kid off my hands. What's the verdict?"

You couldn't focus on the information in the brochure because it was all a little too generic, a little too leading, homogenized for the Auction. Talents included cooking, laundry, housekeeping, illustration, piano. A real renaissance Meg, practiced in meditative Tai Chi and not a word of all the hand-to-hand combat that surely accompanied. "I'm not in the market for a side-piece, Brodie, thanks all the same."

"He don't need to start your harem, man, he just needs a legal custodian what ain't me.  And a job wouldn't hurt." Houston scratches the back of his jaw, makes something like an effort to convince you, "Be a shame to see his real skillset go to waste; and you got that firecracker on your team, and she's Meg 'n all."

You take a sharp, deep breath through your nose, having reached your decision easily, once he phrased it like that.  "Yes," you exhale.  "But this seems more like a favor you're doing us, Hux.  What's the catch?"

"There are a couple catches, yeah."  Houston shakes his head, slow.  "Bout three years done since D got hisself on that Auction, and the getting there wasn't any kinda pretty.  Got me in on some nonsense with a hook-sink Alpha, guy what marked D up and sent D back to me like a bounced fukken check. Killed him."

You glance sharply up at Houston, Brodie, Broderick Strider. "Killed Dave? The ordeal killed Dave, emotionally?"

Houston's mouth narrows. "No," he explains evenly.

You sit, tugging the desk chair under your weight just in time. "Uh," you blink wide, slouched back as if you'd just been slapped. "You killed the guy." You search Houston's bulk; all those scars, those were from that underground defense he ran with his courier and his classified team of warbots, the courier who wasn't a robot at all but a human being, a kid, a guy, an Omega in an Auction, now, thrown to the mercy of the World United Keep. "I mean duh, you killed the guy, 'Widow' Auction, but usually that's just - that just means -"

Houston's mouth firms wide again, a little crookedly. "Just means the Meg is second-hand? Hell I didn't expect to, but fact stands that I killed the guy. Got myself a Feral Indictment, got unassigned from the field. They're still throwing me in underground but we've got a few doctors now getting them gateways sewn up and I don't know what they want to do with D, if they're going to try and keep him on some of those expeditions, like. And he didn't hardly half wanna be there beside me in the first place, see, much less go it alone."

You're still reading, and you let your scoff answer sympathetically.  "I keep forgetting you're the other half of the Strider team," you mutter, flipping back through David's profile. The Striders rarely made news, with good reason for the covert nature of their field work, which also rarely made the news, unless a mission had gone tits-up. One didn't want to ever see a Strider - a visible Strider was a cue of disaster, a hint of the chaos boiling under the Tex-Mex territory, like smoke before the fire, or spark before the C4 detonation.  "Avengers wouldn't say no to bringing you both on, no need to forfeit custody. You can't do field work but you can pop a squat in our labs any goddamn time."

Houston exhales, hands shoved deep in both pockets and shoulders up and you actually meet your reflection in his welder's shades.  "Naw, friend," he begs quietly, and there's a hurt there you can't deduce.  His elbows wag out, his closed-lipped smile conclusive.  "We didn't always get along growing up, me 'n D, but now it's -" He sucks a chirp of air past his teeth, disapproving.  "He's nineteen, Anthony, I don't got any other way to explain that.  Won't stay home, won't stop alley-cattin' around, leaving me with the cleanup.  And with me killin' that asshole Grisholm, getting myself demoted, it ain't exactly -" he huffs, chin jutting. "State's kinda knocking on our door, lately, and D would want to be stuck barefoot pregnant under some oily billionaire don't know ass from elbows like he'd want a kick in the teeth."

You blink, chin drawing back, a little offended.  "Well I'd have the same problem, wouldn't I?  He'd need to be married off eventually, and -"  You hiss, realization striking as your brain catches up with what exactly it is you've been reading about one David E. Strider.  "Nevermind," you straighten up in your chair, restless now, and reach across the desk to rouse your laptop. You tuck Dave's brochure under your chin to type, heel bouncing with impatience.  "Still not sure how this is doing you a favor," you insist, hungrily watching the e-mail take form under your rapid conceptualization, the edits, the backspaces and the cursor ploughing forward with each new burst of inspiration.  

Houston leaves the wall to approach, hand bracing on the edge of the desk, his loom folded over to watch you with faint concern in the downturn of his stoic frown.  "It's a favor to me, on account of that NDA case that went down in '98."

Your typing slows.  The '98 NDA was the first North American precedence of legal autonomy for Extra-Terrestrials claiming refugee status within borders, which had lobbied that they not be kidnapped and autopsied on, in so many words.  The Non-Dissection Agreement, with a preamble to the ruling that let aliens maintain an individualized Nation unto themselves, and all medical investigations or genetic robbery as illegal as espionage and resource theft - and as good as declarations of war. You frown, and sigh silently through your nose.  "That might be true over custody of your household's Omega, but legally and medically speaking your House claim would only count if you were David's parent, not sibling."  Your typing resumes pace.  "And the other 'skybabies' all tested human, champ.  You're not aliens you're just weird."

Houston nods, unmoved.  "Extra-Terrestrial, as in not from this Earth.  Human sure as you like, but definitely not Terran.  It's a ruling for a Nationality, not a species."

Your brow flinches out a furrow.  "Okay?  And?"

"And that's why this is a favor y'all are doing me."  Houston's large hand flickers forward, deftly snatching the brochure from under your chin.  "Dirt-ass no-accounts from the Auction wanted 'genetic history', make sure all them little Ds that could pop out for some highrollin' diva won't grow up to have diabetes or schizophrenia or what shit, and I'm the closest living relative, right?"  The pamphlet is unfolded to the last page, slid flat across the desk, Houston's middle finger tapping down. Dave Strider's set of profile pictures were a patchwork of scars, white-haired albinism, teeth just a bit too wide, incisors just a bit too sharp, and sure a rounder jaw in a softer face but there was the taut carry of Houston's high cheekbones, too, the bow of his upper lip, even the shape of his hands, if slimmer.

"What the shit, you've been Asian this whole time?" You crab, because Dave's eyes are a soft, level narrow that pull the rest of his face into a coherent whole, a brown kid desaturated of his color.

Houston tutts. "Pacific Islander, Anthony; we don't wield Ninjato to look cool."

"Not just to look cool," you tease, aiming a conciliatory smirk.  "At ease, cowpoke, we're all Americans, it's just... yeah. I didn't expect that." You laugh, try not to classify it as a giggle, but it is. "You sound like Clint fucking Eastwood, man, c'mon, let this be as surreal for me as it would be for anyone else."

"Long tale trimmed," Houston heads on, ignoring you. "I got me a contact in that Kingsman division over in the UK as what had up and got a skybaby of her own thereabouts same age as Dave, and she agreed to a resource exchange."  Houston's eyebrows rise, frown thinning.  "Worst possible way to find out.  Woulda rather got it in an envelope from Maury.  Some fat angry Meg throwin' a chair over my head. Shit."

You laugh, because it's funny, as most sad things are.  "How is that possible."  They both fell out of the sky, the Striders, taking atmospheric entry burn like most toddlers take a bath in the kitchen sink.  Human, sure.  Maybe.  No real way to find that out, NDA.

Houston rolls his shoulders forward.  "Clone tech from whatever lies behind those spirograph portals, we're guessing.  I got a daughter, too, with that agent in the UK.  Never met the Dame in my life."  He inhales with the creak of smoker's lungs, shifts his weight.  "So you'd be doing me this favor, because you could not legally claim on D, or whatever little D's might come from him, no matter the custody on the contract.  He's still technically mine, under our non-denominational Sky Nation and then because of the inheritance clause."

You throw your shoulders back into your office chair's comfortable brace, rolling a bit from the momentum, and cross your legs at the ankle, settling in to Think.  "I'm thinking," you explain helpfully, finger up to stall Houston's pensive study.  "What, uh," you cough, sit forward again.  "What would be the terms of this bid?  Did you get any contract drafts printed up, or...?"

"My people will get ahold of your people, Anthony, only tell me you're gonna do this thing for me."

Your smile flickers up half your face and falls, and you tap your fingertips across the edge of your chair's arm, wagging a lazy roll behind your desk and out.  "Okay, Brodie," you husk, taking pity.  "I'll send the idea up to Hill or Fury if the Team's not in.  We'll get your kid settled, either way."  You square back up to the desk, elbows spread. 

Nobody who wanted an Omega for a stable home life would take Dave under the threat of losing him at any time to any whim, and especially not if their children could disappear - not that Brodie seemed like he was rarin' for the domestic life, but the possibility itself would drive any kind of domestically-minded suitor off; Dave's Auction bids would have to want him for something else, something superficial and possibly damaging, a status display or bodyguard or fucktoy.

It was completely understandable why Houston was approaching you, now, to try and marry Dave off. He trusted you. He trusted you to take care of someone he had killed for. That meant something. You steeple your fingers, then unset the display for its cartoonish lean towards villainy. "We're doing this, but Dave's the favor, not the payment.  So what are you prepared to give us?"

And Houston - Brodie to the people he considered friends, Broderick Strider to the Courts, TimaeusTestified to the many harried cyber-security engineers you have ever employed - he looks sharply left like somebody's suggested something distasteful, shakes his head and straightens his cap back.  "A'ight.  Ain't a hypocrite."  He squares up to the desk, too, sniffs, cowboy tough.  A shrug, thumbs in belt.  "The Avengers take Dave, I'll give SHIELD me.  If your suitor takes a pass, if it's SHIELD that gets D," a nod, fill-in-the-blank.  "Then the Avengers will get one more Alpha-riot in the mix.  You'll have the Striders on contract, either way."


The next time you meet Houston FACE TO FACE, you've got the comfort of a few witnesses in a wide conference room, mostly your lawyers and his lone, sweaty Federal Contractor, and you wish you could say the daylight softens out some of Broderick Strider's STONE-COLD INTIMIDATION, but it does not.  Just about every set of pheromones in the room are giving off several wafts of distress, in fact, the clarity of the daylight through the floor-down windows only serving to highlight Houston's every scar from swollen biceps to black biker gloves, from the low open collar of his bowling polo up to the pale ginger of his hairline, an otherwise beaky-handsome bone structure marred with all the gnarl of what had probably been a very gruesome animal (?) bite. 

Brodie is still in a way that unsettles more than assures, robot-calm, statue-esque but haunting.  You think he might be napping behind the black matte of his welder's shades, sprawled back as he is in the ergonomically supportive conference chair, but he twitches forward to accept the revised contract when it's slid his way and just about everyone startles away from the movement, like those little white birds that pick the lice or whatever off giant sunning buffalo, a ripple of white collars that settle immediately back to what they were doing despite their momentary flurry.

You laugh, because it's funny, as most sad things are.

Houston red-pens a few things while he flips through the contract draft, and it's still difficult to reconcile the Brodie behind all your project trade-offs over the years between you, just because the body at the table is so big, so hacked up. 

It was hard to remember that Thor was smart, too, but Thor had a rough thousand years of living on Brodie, a rough thousand lightyears of inter-planetary experience to match; plus Thor's kindness wore itself on his sleeve, in his big brilliant grin and wide lax embraces, and anyway that made it difficult to remember his intelligence.  Brodie spoke and acted every part the mad genius, but that usually came in a package like, well, not even as badly weathered as your own self, usually skinnier or softer, pear-shaped.  TimaeusTestified didn't type in a grammatically colorful southern accent, is all, and you smirk to yourself imagining a tiny pilot driving Brodie's bulk from within his chest, marionette operator who e-mailed you whole novels on the ethics of Artificial Intelligence and the role cyborganics were supposed to play in human longevity, who never told you how he got that proto-skin to look so real when his own skin hardly exampled whatever humanity he was trying to front.

He should update his chassis, it's off-model. Could start with a spray-tan, go from there, get some Avon spackle for those scars, really just Edward Scissorhands himself to a nice Winona Ryder of his own, fuck.

You gently tug the returned contract out of someone's grip, for yourself, assured that nobody in that room forgot how smart you were, except that they seemed to be protective of you in a way bordering on obnoxious, crowding between you and Houston, saving you from a papercut or something, christ.  Brodie's edits are... personal.  That's the only word you can summon, and the number one excuse why you don't dismiss the changes, or double down on your rights as the (let's be blunt) buying party.

"Sounds good," you say, and your voice hardly wavers, because if you ever found out you were a father, you wouldn't want to forfeit your kid so thoroughly, either, Omega or meta-human or super hero or not.

Houston lifts his chin, a thanks, and you can kinda see it, the Pacific Islander in there somewhere, how the lines of his face sweep upward into the mask of his shades, hinting at the colorless nightmare mash of Dwane Johnson and Keanu Reeves that he was hiding from the ravenous Press.  People were only ever more alike, genomically, than they were different, but still. You wanted to see Houston's face, you wanted to put a humanity to him, a history and a culture, a piece of the real planet earth that he visibly carried in his weaponry and his emotives and his family values; not just some weirdo misanthrope from the sky, but an actual person. You think maybe this is as close as you'll ever get to seeing any part of Broderick Strider otherwise hidden from the larger public, this favor you're doing him, the enormity of his request. Reading his handwriting on the contract, the words formed there, that was as close to seeing Brodie's bare face as anything, and you considered yourself grateful for the witness of more than most.

Nobody else in that room knew, probably, why Brodie would want to keep House rights; maybe they'd assume he was weird and clingy for a brother, that he didn't have any other family and probably wouldn't get any other family, for himself, for obvious reasons. 

Your lawyers are firm in their protest, but House rights are just, what, the foot in the door if Brodie ever wants to visit his grandkids (oof) and not get an ear torn off for it because he'd only legally be an uncle.  House rights are just the opening conversation, if David ever had to file for an NFD, or if he were widowed again (likelier) - then Brodie would have his place marker, default custody, and you don't see any fucking thing wrong with that, at all.

This is the favor you're doing Houston, in exchange for his hire into SHIELD ranks - and you are more than confident in Steve's autonomy, that Steve wouldn't fight to keep David if they didn't actually get along, wouldn't bring legal action into family affairs, wouldn't want David left to Auction if the Avengers ever beefed it all at once.  You're doing Houston this favor, so it's gotta come off favorable, and you override your lawyers' protests, hand the revised contract to your wife, whose Beta calm carries with her out of the conference room to type up the finalized draft.

You fold your hands, take an exaggerated lean over the table to see past your keepers, wink at Brodie, who lets the corner of his mouth tick up in reply, and he's got those really nifty long dimples, cheek to chin, like yourself, and you wonder if Dave's kids will have that, or Steve's regular short sunken dimples, or both.  "You're going to look like a pointier Bryan Cranston when you grow up," you say, because the only thing worse than an awkward silence is a fearful one.

Brodie's grin shows teeth, wide and cigarette yellow.  "-'You got it wrong, Skyler; I am the one who knocks'."

The white birds flutter, and it's funny, as most sad things are.


"You need to do better, Anthony,"  Bruce admonishes gently, when you glance back to check on your brand new ward and find thin air.

Your name is ANTHONY TONY STARK, billionaire, genius, super hero; and you are TODAY YEARS OLD when you learn that Omegas can, in fact, disobey their Alphas.  You share a brief, silent commiseration with the powerless frustration in Houston's voice as he'd told you, well, Dave was nineteen, and there was no better way to explain it.  You've had Dave for all of five minutes and were already a little overworked.

"Me?"  You frown, following Steve's oblivious march up the gangplank of the quinjet.  "What about Rogers, he hasn't even checked."

"Checked what?"  Steve glances back even as he's taking the pilot's chair, all innocent eyebrows and casual disregard.

"That's not Cap's responsibility,"  Bruce argues with a measure of disappointment in his scowl.  "Omegas need stability, Tone, not whatever flaky mixed signal you were throwing around just now.  Jesus, if I didn't know you any better I'd assume you hate me sometimes, the way you never -"

"Which! Is why!" you interrupt, taking the copilot's seat just to escape Bruce's wounded expression.  "I got Dave for Rogers, not myself.  Rogers," you swat Steve's armored elbow.  "You heard Banner, you dropped the ball buddy.  Gotta keep up with your Pack Dynamic, bossman.  Gotta do better, come on."

Steve glances from the open jet door to you, to Natalie and Bruce, then back to the door as it eases shut.  "Is Dave not taking the jet with us?"

"It seems he is not," Natalie says, buckling herself in.  She pats Bruce's forearm, tugs him to a sit, starts to help buckle him in.

Bruce startles to discover Natalie's hand on the crossbelt as he takes it for himself, still glaring back at you.  "I mean it, Tony.  This isn't like Pete, I can't just step in and take care of him for you whenever you get too conflicted, Omegas are different -"

"Oh they are, are they?" Natalie all but purrs under breath, stalling Bruce's lecture down to a stutter.

"I'll handle it," Steve speaks above the jet's takeoff engines, three simple words that snap up the attention of all in the cabin, silence the bickering that had started to brew.  "Dave's made of tougher stuff than the usual 'Meg, Bruce, but I'll take your advice and try to be more, uh, forward.  Did he tell anybody where he was going?"

Bruce clears his throat, waits until the jet is gliding silently homeward to answer.  "I gave him the coordinates for our supply hangar, since he asked for a shipping address, so I guess he'll be there."

"Technically didn't disobey me," you say to nobody in particular, to yourself mostly.  "Not like I ordered him to follow."

"Yeah," Bruce grunts, glowering.  "That's what I mean, when I say you need to do better.  You have to actually communicate what you want, he'll be used to, er -"

"Taking orders," Natalie finishes helpfully.  "You can say it.  It probably wasn't a conventional upbringing under Houston and the people they worked for.  In fact,"  Nat unbuckles, stands to lean her arm across the back of your chair, watching sky and horizon through the broad cockpit window.  "You should treat Dave exactly as you try to treat Peter.  He'll receive it better."

You grunt, grateful for the advice, but.  "Cool thanks.  Still didn't get him for me, so maybe we figure out how it is Cap should treat Dave, instead."

"Like he treats you," Natalie affirms with a decisive nod, to the disgust and laughter of the cockpit. 

You feel an affronted heat bloom up your neck.  "Did you just un-rank me?  In my own jet?"

"I mean it," Natalie says, with every tone of austerity as Steve actually turns his ear up toward her to better listen.  "Steve trusts you to make your own judgement calls, gives you elbow room on the battle field and listens to your advice, even if he doesn't always agree."  She turns a bit at the waist to address Rogers, one foot crossed lax over the other in her lean.  "Steve, you always make your expectations known in a clear and direct manner, because you think Tony doesn't get subtext."

"I get subtext," you say.

"Tony gets subtext," Natalie agrees.  "He just chooses to ignore it, when convenient to his defense.  I think Dave will do the same - he'll take as many loopholes as we leave him, so don't leave any important ones.  Choose your battles."

By this time Bruce has joined the conference behind Steve's chair, leaning similarly, looking about ten years aged past his due.  "I don't think I want to know we have another Tony with us, Natasya."

The heat of your indignation turns a note, softened to a warmth.  Dave was mouthy, and cagey, and wore a veneer of pop-culture cool to cover the total mess of nerves he was on the inside, not unlike yourself.  His brochure had discreetly implied that he was 'experienced' in the bedroom, and Houston had all but lamented the kid was a slut, not unlike your own sordid youth.  "Houston said he was 'real sweet'," you argue mulishly.  "That he'd mind us just fine."

Bruce and Natalie share a shrug.  "Marketing pitch?" Bruce hazards, chewing the inside of his cheek.  "He didn't not mind us, like you said, he just sort of, er," A hesitation toward Natalie, reluctant to offend her Meghood.  "Took initiative."

"He'll mind us."  Steve nods, watching the ground approach ahead.  "We just have to give him something to actually mind, is all."

You cross your arms and sit up back against your chair as the standing passengers take their landing seats, and you frown up into your thoughtful sniff, jaw wagged side to side.  You steal a glance at Steve, narrow your eyes as he follows through on landing protocol, because they didn't have autopilot in his time.  "So, hot take?  Five-minute first impression?  What's going on in that big blonde head, Rogers, is this - does this seem like - I mean at this point honestly I'll take him if you don't -"

"Smells like apples," Steve admits quietly as the plane touches down, chin tipped like he's keeping a secret.  You can see the glint in his eye trade places with the hard military flint of tactical consideration.  "And he's fast, but that was on the file.  I guess I just didn't realize how fast; what was he doing down in Texas, again?"

"Fighting fast things, apparently.  SHIELD was always elbowed away from the Tex-Mex problem by General Cutter so that's blackout info -" you switch gears, cheerfully, "But hey!  You can ask Dave all about that!" You clap Steve's forearm, wobbling the jet to the side a bit on its way in the landing garage.  "All sorts of morbid history for you two to bond over.  Brag about your scars, bitch about the American Government always weaponizing all its blondes, talk shop, compare swords, the whole deal."

Steve does the thing with his mouth when he wants to smile but won't.  "I don't have a sword."

You scoff, unbuckling to stand as the back loader is hissing open, and throw over your shoulder, "Guess we don't have to worry about getting Dave knocked up, then."

"Tony," Steve warns, following you out of the jet in a lope.  He catches your shoulder on the way through the compound yard.  "Come get Dave with me.  He knows you."

"He knows you, too," you complain, "About as well as he does me. Look, guy, I'm tired, hungry, a little hungover and a little too old to play wingman.  I have to hose my suit down.  I have to hose myself down."  You pull away, mouth set.  "You should, too.  Take a shower, get all that conflict off, go get your Meg." Because you don't want the situation to implode - you want Steve to make up his mind to the tune of immediately, since Dave already knew why he was here and any hesitation on Steve's part was going to come off like a rejection, and you wanted this to work. You wanted your people happy.

"I'll come," Natalie offers from the shelter of the garage foyer, stepping out into the cloudy afternoon to stretch a kink from her shoulder.  "Though you might have more luck with Bruce."

"Or with Sam," Bruce hollers from the wide overhang of the open garage.  "I'm not cleaning up after any of you for any of this, guys, I mean it. Nobody asked for my vote on a new Avenger, so it's not my - it, it's not any of -"

"Why would he be scared?" Steve says, honest heartfelt stupid Steve.  "He could easily -"  you watch realization dawn in those famously blue eyes that, yes, Dave was actually a dangerous sort of person, exactly like Natalie or Bruce or you, maybe, if you could made as many more mistakes as dire as Ultron.

"He could easily kill you," you finish, helpful, and stall at Steve's side.  Bruce appears in the foyer Natalie had vacated to join you on the lawn.  "Could easily kill us all.  Won't, probably," you add, hands in pockets, sharing a nod with Bruce, who deflates and shuffles over.  "Definitely won't if you can get him under hand, since I'm such crap at -" you flick the air, "Peopling."

"You're not off the hook, Anthony," Bruce hisses, elbowing you.  "I'll go," he says, louder, raising a defeated hand.  "Go relax, you two, we'll be back with Dave in a few hours."

Steve's eyebrows jump.

Natalie blinks slow.

You turn mid-retreat, almost rolling your ankle.  "Hours?  What?  Why?"

"Well," Bruce squints, the plum wine bouquet of him gone musty with defensiveness.  "I guess you don't want to make that your business, anymore.  So it isn't.  Your business."

Natalie rolls her eyes, her step swerving lazily back around, and she shoots both you and Bruce a cold look, but doesn't remand Steve as she waits for further indication to go or stay, hands on hips.

You blink.  Your close-lipped smile flicks up, drops.  "Have fun, then."  You wave, mock cheerful.  "I'll try to leave some hot water in the building, but no promises."

"Tony," Steve warns and your carefully shored temper is plucked like a violin string, twanging all the nerves around it.

"Steve," you mock, arm thrown wide.  "Dave has to learn that he isn't a prisoner, with me.  If I go after him now I'm just setting a precedent.  He'll run and I'll chase." You're a little surprised at how true that rings, since you're really only trying to give Rogers the elbow room required to get that relationship on its feet. "No.  That buck stops here."

Steve blinks, arms crossed.

Bruce looks thoughtful, but heartened.

Natalie smirks, coolly, something like pride in the half lidding of her eyes as she tucks her bottom lip in, a nod of understanding.

"As true as that might be," Steve says as he hefts his shield over his back, voice low. "I'd still appreciate your help on this. At least until Dave can get to know us better."

You openly wince at the 'us' because 'us' did not mean Steve, exclusively, because Steve was still leaving the opportunity open for anyone else to make up their mind over Dave, first, which didn't exactly push the vote for 'love at first fight'. You curse softly under your breath, flap your arms, exhale. "Can I at least shower off, first?"

"Seconded," Bruce echoes, and you could kiss him. "We should all make ourselves a little more presentable, a little less, uh -"

Natalie, "Confrontational?"

Bruce underhands his agreement.

"Dave's been on his own a lot longer than the twenty minutes it would take us to get it together," you continue, stepping closer to appeal.

Steve shrugs with the side of his mouth. "That's why I'd prefer we leave sooner than later, Tony."

You nod, sensing a compromise. "So I'll text Dave our GPS coordinates, he'll make his way here faster than we could reach him."

Steve shakes his head, impatience in the shift of his weight. "That's not the message I want to send. If he runs, we should follow." His mouth firms. "He needs to know that we'll always follow." But he's still waiting on you to agree, arms crossed, expectant.

You throw your hands forward, cell phone catching the sun. "Then you follow, go ahead and set that pattern up for yourself, if you've nothing better to do with your time than chase a guy literally faster than light." You type out the text asking Dave to stay put until the team arrives, hands shaking a little with low blood sugar and leftover post-mission adrenaline. "Whatever you wanted to do for hours, Bruce, you can get done without me, I don't care, but I am not," you press 'send', then shove your phone back into your under-armor's hoodie pocket.  "Chasing spooky veterans that might not want to get caught.  Been there, done that, almost died?  Never again."

Steve blanches at the v-word, because you are talking about Sergeant Barnes and it's not an easy reference to miss.

"Burning daylight," Natalie husks, pushing between you and Steve to make her way across the lawn. "I'll call the car up. We can at least change out of our gear while we wait, right?"

Steve's chest heaves in a silent sigh, but he follows.

"Anthony," Bruce starts, shoulders a line of recrimination. "This isn't some project you can bounce off to a team in a workshop if you get stuck on it - this is a person you've taken on. A type of person who needs stability above all else, and you've brought him into a Household that doesn't even settle rank, doesn't follow any sort of set schedule, hell, doesn't even see each other maybe half the year if you totaled all the missions up -"

You take a longer step and a half-skip to catch up with Bruce's energized (agitated) march. "I asked. I asked Rogers if he wanted to give this a shot, give the Avengers a fresh family patine, help our PR -" to Bruce's disgusted glower - "And give himself the excuse to settle down a little, get started on that American dream he's more than earned. Look, buddy, we hashed it over." You stall at the doors to the foyer, which winged into a locker room and armory into which Rogers and Natalie had already disappeared, military-efficient.

"We talked it out. I'm sorry we didn't ask everybody, you're right, that was an oversight on my part - but you've got to admit, a House Meg would be about the perfect thing, wouldn't it? Give us something to - some cohesion? For when the dust finally settles, when we can relax? Crime-fighting is all but automated nowadays, wealth disparity nearly eradicated the world over, and it's a new generation of the evolutionarily advantaged taking on all those insane-o's that get their hands on alien tech, isn't it?"

Bruce is capitulating to your stellar powers of persuasion, you can tell, but he still smells irritated.

"Hey, look," you ask, slinging an arm over the slump of his shoulders to walk him to the elevators. "Let Rogers and Romanov handle it. I think maybe Dave's just a little overwhelmed, all these new people, and he seemed to like Natalie just fine. So we can give these kids some, you know, some space -"

"Natasya is older than you and me put together, Tone, I don't think she'd appreciate you calling her a 'kid' -"

"I... did not know that," you say, then bend to let the elevator read your iris. "There's a lot to unpack there, I'm guessing."

"Do you never read the file," Bruce laments.

"I like a little mystery and surprise in my life, because the whole knowing everything gig gets pretty old sometimes, sue me." The elevator doors chime open the same time your phone jarrs a vibration in your pocket and you pause to read the text. Dave is asking if 'the team' can sit this one out, because there's something at the receiving warehouse he needs to talk to you about and how the hell did you even get your name AND picture in his phone did Brodie goddamn put your contact info, how the f--

You tick out a quick 'slow down', hit send, and sigh loud enough to stall Steve and Natalie behind you. "Guys," you crab, turning on heel. "I guess I have to pull rank for the first time in my life," you archly remind. "Captain, you're grounded from this assignment. Natalie, you -" you huff, shaking your head. "I don't know. Go or stay, I think that should be up to you. But I've been summoned." You throw a dirty look Steve's way, daring him to be anything other than immediately contrite. "To the tune of 'specifically', no doubt because Brodie shipped me something outrageous and embarrassing and Dave would like to spare you all the magnificent discomfort of its discovery."

The car is already pulling up into the garage thoroughfare, and you don't even have time to change.

Steve's eyebrows rise, might actually be stuck that way. "Well that's a switch," is all he says, and sidles past you into the waiting elevator.

"I'll go," Natalie says, eyes narrowed in thought. "But I'll wait in the car with Bruce."

Bruce does not argue this, only shrugs apologetically at Steve as the elevator doors close out his scoff of disbelief.

"I doubt he cares who goes, just so long as it's someone," you amend to nobody and everybody and yourself. "Kept saying 'we' and 'us'."

"I think he only gave up because he knows what a fight smells like on him," Natalie explains as she taps the foyer doors open, greets Happy with a high-five. "And I don't mean the fishtopus."

"I wasn't going to fight him," you argue, ducking into the air-conditioned interior of the limousine. You immediately comfort yourself with a mineral water, settling back into the perfume of the polished leather seating. "I pulled rank; he didn't have to agree."

"He did have to agree," Bruce continues. "If he didn't want to smell like a fight when he went to get Dave."

"You know what," you quip, slapping the bottle of mineral water back into its cup holder. "Both of you, out. I'll pull rank again, I'm going in alone, as requested."

"Could be a trap," Natalie warns, flat. "What do we know about the Striders, really, other than they're reclusive geniuses whose only public service was performed under threat of incarceration."

"Are you kidding me," you lament, louder than necessary for the enclosed space of the cabin of the vehicle now pulling out into the long driveway down to the side-road.

"I am kidding you, a little, yes." Natalie slumps down to get comfortable, a vision in pony tail and jogging sweats and leftover monster crust. "What was that drama on the lawn about, exactly?"

This, you can answer easily, and you cross your legs and toss a water to Bruce, then settle in with your own. "Just trying to give Steve and Dave some 'alone time'. Let nature run its course without all the indignity of an audience."

Bruce, "But Dave just got here. What's the rush?"

You sigh, because this is not as easy to answer. "I'm a little worried about the Cap, guys."

Natalie, "Aren't we all."

You scoff lightly, nod, thumb the cap sleeve of your water. "I'm a little worried the Cap doesn't... intend," you feel your eyes tighten. "To have a future."

Bruce exhales in revelation. "So you've been throwing all these candidates at him, to give him a mission to serve. That explains the physical therapist."

"And the psychologist," Natalie says, a woman who was her own suggestion to Steve, at one point. "And the... what was he? Chef?"

"None of those were 'mission'-y enough, I suppose." You peel the label off the bottle and squint at the smallprint. "Dave's a fixer-upper. He can provide a lot of end-goals to pursue, and he's one of us, so," you brighten, "None of that pesky moral conundrum about putting anyone in danger or whatever Rogers' latest lame excuse has been."

"Quick question," Natalie prompts, side-eying you to share her suspicion with Bruce, unfairly. "Why do you care?"

"Steve's a fixer-upper," you counter, only half sarcastically. "He provides me a lot of end-goals to pursue. And," you allow, a little more honestly, "I care about my weirdo genius friends, and Brodie really wanted Dave settled with someone nice. Steve's about as nice as they fucking come, to the active detriment of his lovelife. So."

Bruce, tired now - "Motive, opportunity. Well done, Anthony, it's a recipe for disaster."

You tuck your chin, hands turned up in a small shrug. "What. I gave this a lot of thought, and Steve agreed. Once he had all the uh, the information."

"Which is...?" Natalie leans forward.

"In a file," you mumble around your next mouthful of water. "That you already read."

Natalie shakes her head, eyes shut. "I read a laundry list of military tactics and record calorie expenditure, Tony, and I got more out of Dave in the five minutes of face-to-face we had on the boat. If those papers were all Steve had to go on, you can't hardly expect this to play out to standard, now can you?"

"Well I. don't. know." you quip, waspish in your discomfort with doubt. "Maybe if we could give Dave and Rogers more than five minutes of face-to-face, alone, this would 'play out' just fine." You're a little bit scared, actually, that if this doesn't play out to standard, that you really would simply take Dave for yourself - you never could turn down a 'Meg, as many had been foisted onto your lap trying to earn their house the inheritance of your company. And the kid (guy, dude) was really goddamn cool, not your usual fawning arm-candy caked up with cosmetics and scripted porno lines. He had a sword.

You'd have to run that by Pepper first, of course, and well - yeah, you really would rather not have to do that, and are, again, just a little worried that you wanted to. A little. A lot.

No, you wanted to kick Rogers in the seat of his pants. That lame old grandpa really was going to saddle you with Dave's custody for as long as it took the courtship to fall into place - and your narcissism was already clanging some warning bells that there was no promise Dave wouldn't just lose all patience and turn that healthy libido your way. And Steve was such a fucking boyscout that he'd let that happen, too.

You meet Natalie's stare with a glint of recrimination to your own. Yeah, all right, so you maybe hadn't considered every way this could go south; least of all whether or not Dave actually needed the stability of a normal Household, a standard Den. Nat certainly didn't need that - and Dave had grown up under Brodie's custody, for fuck's sake, not like they were picking that apple from a particularly normative tree. "I know," you growl. Because you do, you know you fucked up letting Brodie handle Dave's DoA, you know Dave smelled like... jesus, like something broken and lost and angry, despite his flawless southern etiquette and shy blushing bridehood.

Natalie was as practiced as all that, putting on those roles, herself. You weren't any more fooled than she was.

"Do you, now." Nat crossed her legs at the ankles, stretching out.

"If I don't, I'll learn."

Bruce flinches your way, exhales. "So what are we going to tell medical, in the meanwhile?"

You flinch, too, startled. "Med-medical? What, you think Dave needs a tranquilizer? He's not that weird! It's been all of five minutes!"

"Buhh," Bruce protests, using the tone of voice that tells you you're being stupid but he's too polite to condescend. "Try nine years, Tone. Dave went underground with Houston when he was ten; you think he got away from all that without suffering a feral break or... dozen?"

"Children in conflict zones that don't even see the fighting don't get away with any less," Natalie agrees, arms crossed over her middle, universal body language for Omegan empathy.

"He's just weird," You insist. "We don't have to turn every eccentricity into a diagnosis, Bruce."

"Okay, I think," Bruce cracks his door open before the car has come to a full stop, green passing under the tan of his skin. "I think you're applying bias where you should be applying objective scientific deduction, here, Tony, and not that - not that I blame you, it's always good to know you really care about the people in your life, but -"

"You didn't see Obadiah's betrayal," Natalie strikes, softly. "People are your blind spot."

You're going to make a cutting remark for Bruce's departure, but there's a flicker out of the corner of your vision and Dave appears at the warehouse gate, paper-pale skin nearly luminescent in direct daylight, frowning down at his phone, sword over shoulder and duffel strapped tight over his back.

"Yo," Dave greets as if nothing is amiss, completely uninvolved with the small drama unfolding from the car.

"Doctor Banner thinks you might be feral," you call, swiping your colored shades on and slamming the car door as you depart. "Any merit in that deduction, do you think?"

Dave pulls a face, jerks his chin toward the warehouse main, where one of the loading docks is yawning open. "I never fucked a person but the Alpha that left me widowed, but Brodie thought it would keep me home if he implied I was... uh, used goods, so." Dave shrugs, kicks the driveway gate wide on its slow hinged swing so Happy can pull the car through to the wide empty lot. "How many times am I gonna have to explain myself, about that? Do you think?"

Bruce shakes his head, silent, and hangs back at the gate as if to prevent escape.

You jog to catch up to Dave's side, testing the air. Dave seems... self-possessed. A little steadier on his feet, anger canting through his posture where before there had been clear anxiety. "I dunno, I kind of like the whole 'strong, independent Megan' angle. You could be a media force for sexual liberation, you know. Megs rights, all that."

Dave tucks his phone away, scratches his elbow. "Sure."

"What's the news, Strider." You take a breath, find relief at the bottom of your gut. Dave wasn't feral, he wasn't writhing around on the floor foaming at the mouth begging for knot; he was just Brodie-flavored, standoffish, wary. And if Brodie was under feral indictment, well, then Dave was perhaps emulating all the caginess of that - not like Feral status just snuck up on anyone, it was a psychological precedent built over years of isolation or exposure to threat, and Brodie was the whole damn checklist, isolated and enrolled in a violent struggle most all his life. If Dave was feral-esque, it was to the credit of the House from whence he'd come; he hadn't been isolated near as severely as Brodie and the violence, well...

Well, still and all, Megs feral'd differently that Alphas did; if Dave had a breakdown he wouldn't snap and kill the next five offenders, he'd just sort of waft and whine and puddle his way to the soonest Alpha in reach, which -

You pause right there in the lot, hands in pockets, and swallow hard, realization striking you over the head. Dave was widowed at sixteen, and the Alpha he'd run off with hadn't wanted to keep him, which spoke of something spur-of-the-moment. And who were you supposed to believe, about Dave's promiscuity? Brodie's lamentations, or Dave's clearly offended denial?

Dave mops the back of his neck in a poorly concealed self-soothe. "The news is, Houston's a troll."

There past the open garage door of the nearest loading dock, stood two shadowy figures you couldn't quite make out past the daylight you were currently draped in. The limo eased through the gravel lot like a shark through water, hesitant if there were people in the warehouse, enemies or. It irked you that Nat and Bruce really were hanging back, really were giving Dave space, like Dave really was feral.

The denial of that idea hitches your step a little faster, and you all but plough through into the dim of the warehouse, thumbing your shades up your head to inspect the... yes, the two crudely designed robots stood in the middle of the painted cement floor.

"Square Wave model," you recognize out loud. "The first mass-produced warbot under General Cutter's Project Extermination - but these things are junk, aren't they?" You might as well have thrown a bunch of R2-D2 replicas down at the terrorists, for all the good these lumbering little midget-bots could actually do. Scratch that - they were good bomb carriers, had a decent strategem programming for teamwork and perimeter security, but their battery life was abysmal and the whole person-shaped design was wasteful of those resources and more than a little unsettling.

Beside that lumbered a tall android in equally retro boxy framing, made large with what you assumed were actual weaponry ballistics, judging by the vents in the back and the flat of the exhaust fins.

"Sawtooth," Dave supplied. "But look," he kicked up as if to knock the taller droid to the floor, but the Sawtooth model flickered, reappeared behind you. "He couldn't do that before."

The Square Wave copied suit, flickering back to its position at Sawtooth's side.

"And he definitely couldn't do that before, either."

Your teeth shut with a click. "So what does this mean?"

Natalie stands from the limo sunroof, perches there to watch, a line of consternation between her eyebrows.

"This means," Dave croaks, knuckles whitening on his sword. "That Brodie found a way to define, and therefore program the flash-step." Dave shivers, shuffles a little closer to you, shades slipping down his nose. "This means that Bro sent a dowry after all; and it's the starter seed to a time machine."

Chapter Text

Your name is DAVID ELIZABETH DAVE STRIDER, inveterate liar, faux widow, newest Avenger.

Tony Stark's quarters belong to one of the floors of the compound sat above ground, and they are wide-windowed (problematic) and expensively furnished (the opposite of problematic).  Everything is glass-top and shiny, on deep white carpet or coal gray marble, glinting technology on nearly every surface, a large space made useful to its last square foot.  The air doesn't smell like Stark, exactly, from disuse or high-quality ventilation or both, and very faintly smells like someone else entirely, perhaps the pretty redheaded CEO/wife/Beta triple threat with the clear strong voice you've seen in a few spare press meets.

"Was going to run you through introductions," Stark hazards from the double-doors in, setting the security to recognize you.  "Thought you might want to clean up, first."

"Obliged," you drawl, and let your duffel slump to the foyer tile, toe out of your canvas chucks as Sawtooth and Squarewave make themselves at home, sentry in opposite corners of the swank sitting room.

"Don't thank me, it's the team I want to spare,"  Stark cracks, pretending interest in the nearest vase of miniature bamboo, the notes in the air of him still bright with excitement.

"Calamari," you remember, raising an eyebrow over your shoulder.  "From a gas station.  In Utah?"

Stark flicks a hand through the air, pointing the way to what you assume is a bathroom.  "Second door on the right.  The further inland you go, the more suspect the seafood.  And gas station coolers are opened too often, temperatures fluctuate, even the prepackaged, uh, stuff goes -" he cuts himself off mid-ramble.

You realize you're staring, because that's what you do, you go off on nonsense tangents, you over-explain, you ramble.  "Never trust the tuna melts, sure, I dig."  You nod, and step carefully through the open livingroom to the requisite hall. 

The bathroom is so large your every rustle of cloth and skin echoes, and the clear glass stall for the roomy shower is unsettling the way an open field is unsettling to a rabbit - you're used to opaque, frosted glass with hardly enough room to turn around in.  You're used to having to slouch forward to wash your hair.  The mirrored cabinet standing between sink and toilet upholds a storefront display of fluffy white towels, an alignment of glass (?!) bottles that turn out to be shampoos, soaps, all brand matching, unopened.  This is clearly a guest bath, and you can already imagine the sort of house parties it could accommodate. 

Sawtooth, typically, appears at the door to stand watch - he'd been one of your nannybots back when Brodie had to leave on mission and needed the apartment guarded from intrusion. You flattered yourself for many years under the assumption that Square and Saw had been built for you - something low-level to train against, a pair of cameras to assure your safety while Brodie was out. But in reality, the bots had been around long before your time, to keep Bro company in the absence of anything like a normal social life. Squarewave had a speaking module, but this iteration seemed disabled of its jarring crack of snark. Sawtooth had a speaking module, too, you suspect - but you'd only ever heard him reply to Bro's mutterings out of sight, behind closed doors, and often suspected the act credited to ventriloquism.

"Nothing to say?" you ask Saw's broad-shouldered back, tugging your shirt over your head. "Knock twice if Bro's even watching the monitor anymore."

Sawtooth remains silent, a dumb sentry program running on what it's used to.

You strip and shower with your teeth on edge because it's not what you're used to - the hot shower is a sheer fucking luxury of steady water pressure and all-encompassing spray radius, and you can't enjoy it because your very presence here is only your presence away from Home, and Brodie isn't perched on the vanity stool clipping his toenails, mocking your hair products.

You towel off like it's a revenge, and when you run a razor over your stubble you leave your sideburns a little lower and feel like it's a rebellion, somehow.  You weren't ever going to be a pretty 'Meg, only just a comparably prettier version of your species, so you might as well rock the butch aesthetic.  That was something John liked about you, anyway, that you were 'cool' and assertive, that you lived the Megan lifestyle right alongside kicking ass and looking, well, Beta if nothing else, that you could 'pass'.

You comb your damp hair to the side to reveal a cross-scar running from temple to hairline, and trade your aviators in for the tinted readers.  You pluck through your duffel for a pair of black carpentry capris, which will not only showcase the horrendous scarring below your knees, left calf misshapen, but leave the glands in your ankles open to the air, let your scent fall wherever you travel, the cheapest type of seduction.  This is paired with cork tsinelas and a bright red muscle shirt.  You look like you're due for the beach, and trust the building to keep warmer than the outside bits of New York - but pull the older, rattier SUBLIME hoodie from your duffel just in case, which you almost wear outright just to showcase your ironic grasp of slummy middle-class appropriation, but nah.  

Might need to introduce yourself slowly, let these certified badasses get a taste, get acquainted before going full Sky-Citizen on them.  Like John, they might not always Get It, and Brodie was depending on you to make good.

Stark wasn't anywhere to be seen back in the livingroom but you can hear a conversation coming from somewhere deeper in the apartments and you settle yourself on down into a black leather sectional couch big enough to seat all the people you know.  You dig your laptop out of your duffel, but hook an elbow over the back of the couch to watch what can only be described as a robot maid wheeling out of a closet toward the bathroom.  You hop over the back of the couch to follow, relieved to find there is a laundry room on deck into which the robot has taken your damp towel.

"At ease," you bid the robot, a sleek rounded thing shorter than Stark with rubber-tipped graspers.  You FLASH away and back to grab your duffel, mumble a thanks as the robot makes room for your administrations in front of the large face-loading washer. Squarewave has followed you, head bobbing as if reciting a rap battle, vocals muted.

"Yours is requested to floor 3," the robot chimes in a pleasant feminine voice, and it takes the strap of your duffel deftly from the crook of your elbow.

"Heard," you confirm, well used to cognizant AI.  This was the voice, you realize, that was in discussion with Stark deeper in the flat.  "Availability of Mister Stark?" you prompt, unsure if this one could understand idioms or rhetoric and unwilling to test its figurative Turings too soon. 

There is a delay, and you're a little scared you've broken it already, but then Stark's voice replaces the expectant reply (and you jump), "Whatchu need, Agent Orange?"

"Agent Orange would be my brother, 'scuse you."

"Big Red?"  Tony hazards again, the robot stalled mid-lift of a sheet from the dryer.  "No, no, that's Brody to a T.  Big and redheaded."  Tony sighs audibly, blubs, tries another - "Kid Vicious."

"Infantilizing," you argue flat, loading laundry, plucking detergent powder from a wire shelf overhang.  "And I don't want to be compared to the guy who got owned by Freddie Mercury." You stand to push Square away a little, make some elbow room for yourself, disappointed you can't give him the rap battle he's so doggedly pursuing right now.

"Simon Ferocious," Tony recalls, chuckling.  "You're a little young to know about that, aren't you?"

"Nobody is too young to stan 'Queen', Mister Stark."

The Starkbot scoffs.  "Mister Stark was my dad.  You can call me Tony just like everyone else."

"Kay."  You slap the rest of the laundry together, knob a few buttons, engage the machine to its starter watery hiss.  "You can just call me Dave.  That's sort of a nickname, already."

Tony's voice drops a careful level.  "Would you like me to call you 'Dee'?  Or is that a sacred Strider, off-limits kind of deal?"

"Dee's fine," you allow, but you're not sure if it is, not sure if there's anything between you and Brodie you're going to want back later, for yourself.  "Efficient," you add, and wince.  "I don't really want this to become one of those rising-degrees-of-severity things, like if you're calling me Dave in a disagreement, then David if you're really pissed, then the whole shebang, David Elizabeth, all exasperation and then twenty more people know my middle name because my not-dad thinks nicknames are casual flags for mood."

Where some people would take a moment to consider all of that, Tony Stark takes it in stride, reminding you that, right, you're talking to a Smart Guy - "I promise I use nicknames even when I'm cheesed.  Maybe especially in the heat of an argument.  Like you said, it's efficient."  There's a short pause, a ruffle as if of paper.  "And I make it a point to take a disagreement behind closed doors; simplifies things, saves face for everyone.  Was that, uh, was that standard in your old House, arguments?"

You depart the laundry room to let Squarewave earnestly attempt to rap-battle the laundrybot, and hear Stark's audio switch from robot to overhead, a static backcharge, speakers priming above.  "Not really.  I just always disliked weaponizing the formal address.  Bro would cuss me blue but he'd never pull my name out like it was an insult and I guess I just saw a lot of that happening, on like TV, in the quintessentially American Dens; the Megs always kinda put under thumb, infantilized - I already said that."

"Is that why you and Brodie stopped getting along?"  Stark's voice doubles from a wide hall lined in windows, which you follow.  "He talk down to you?  Treat you like a kid, still?"

Your stomach goes cold.  That might have been the story Bro told, sure, but you didn't have the time to confirm, the two of you, in every detail.  You opt for the truth, to simplify any future deception.  "Dunno what you mean, Mister--uh, Tony."  You clear your throat, scratch your thumb down the side of your nose, glance out the floor-down windows to the early autumn dark and the northern hemisphere forestry.  "Got along fine with Bro.  He treated me all right, trained me up."  You hesitate, a little lost now trying to put it into words.  "Didn't treat me like a kid, didn't even treat me like a 'Meg."  Didn't even treat you like a person, sometimes - you were a tool, a weapon, a legacy of the Strider brand.

"Ah,"  Tony announces, as if in discovery.  "That explains the running off."

The workshop is a wide, split-level room with tape on the floors and junk on the thick metal desks.  You lean a shoulder against the corner of the hall, arms crossed as you take it all in - the bright open air, the scuffs and scorch marks on the cinder brick walls, the sheets draping the seasonal household trumpery stacked into a far corner.  "I guess it does at that, Big Shoots."

Tony considers that nickname from his perch on a workbench, then wobbles his hand mid-air, so-so.  For a fraction of a second you catch it - the softening of Tony's features, the slight widening of his eyes, common Alphahood response when espying the Omega across the open field, an interest or a concern, if not a want.

You flash a pair of finger-guns.  "You know, shoots, pew-pew?  Maybe you get the venerated title 'Big Red'?"

Tony dismisses that suggestion with a wave, which calls up a neon holograph display.  "You're taller than me."

"Oh thank God someone said it," you exhale, loping across the mezzanine down the short flight of stairs to the workroom proper.  Your sandals flap against your heels with every step, because you're not trying to walk soft.  You'll probably never have to walk soft again, in this House.  "That's a load off."

"Letter designations aren't really my thing," Tony continues the nickname debate, unfazed, tapping a few apps up into a wider display, bundling schematics with grabs and practiced air-tosses.  "So no, you can't call me 'Tee'.  Banner prefers to go by Banner, Doctor Banner if you're feeling patronized.  Call Miss Potts, Miss Potts, even though she's technically Mrs. Stark.  Happy is... well, he's Happy.  It would be weird to stick an honorific in front of that, but go nuts.  Hap, Happenstance, Sir Haps-a-Lot, whatever, he's a good sport."  Tony talks with his hands, an affectation you never picked up with as much expression, unless you were excited or agitated or something.  He sweeps his arms, tosses the air between his palms, shapes ideas.

"I am going to call you Sir Shoots-A-Lot," you promise, circling the furthest corner of the workspace to discover a parlor grand piano in white lacquer shoved behind a spare desk and an upturned dining table and all six of its oak chairs.  "Just a heads-up.  It's in my brain now, incubating itself for the day it'll come flying out of my mouth, unbidden.  I'll probably think I made it up.  Credit to the original, here and now."

Tony side-eyes you over the arm of an engineering robot, a simple pivot-and-grab thing who trundles along on rubber tread and toots its transmission pistons in answer.  "Now, you knowing Sir Mix-A-Lot, I could understand.  Hip-hop's still relevant with your generation." He waves Sawtooth into the room, beckoning from his post at the door, but Sawtooth doesn't budge. You'll have to test his parameters later, see if you can't find a recognition protocol to engage.

"Queen is relevant with every generation and we get it, you're old enough to be my dad.  We can stop beating that dead horse or it's gonna get weird.  The horse will just be laying there, dead, gettin' beat.  One of us will get aroused.  Someone will hafta call PETA, and it'll be far too late to save anyone from further indignity, least of all the horse, but they'll do it."  You take the piano bench to plunk out a few slow chopsticks, the keys flat and smooth and cool under your fingers.

Tony scoffs, pats his grabberbot and approaches.   "I think I'm supposed to say something here, some crossing-the-threshold conclusion, something obvious that will embarrass us both, but nah."

"Feelings mutual." You nod, a knot in your chest gone loose as Tony's dark silhouette enters your peripheral.  That would take some getting used to, seeing real people with actual skintone, recognizing them as friendlies and not, you know, corporate spies or really brave journalists.

Tony takes the other side of the bench, elbows a little more room for himself, jerks his hands forward as if to clear them of shirtsleeves he isn't wearing.  He lays into a song, something many-tiered and classical that you were never sent to school to learn, and it's pretty but flat, unemotional, technically correct.  At first, every time Tony leans to reach the keys in front of you, you hold your breath against the threat of that proximity.  About halfway through the movement, you're breathing easier, and even swaying a bit to keep close whenever Tony leans away.  He's shorter than you, and darker than the Alpha you're used to, but he scents like authority, like calm stability, and you need that right now.

"Are you gonna die," you mumble against the softer lull of the song's refrain, because Tony also smells like sickness, still, like contamination and isolation and distress.

"We're all gonna die sometime, Champ."

"I'm not your champ, pal."

Tony's eyes crease with a smile that doesn't reach his mouth.  "I'm not your pal, friend.  Dane Cook bit, god, that's dated."

"Joe Rogan, actually. We always had cable."

The song changes, deepens, darkens.  "You would have been what, two?  When Rogan was popular?  That's some sorta memory you've got, there."

"Hyperthymesia," you confess flatly, mouth pulled back in a shrug.  "The psychs call it an anxiety disorder, and attribute vividly lasting memories with high stress, a constant lifelong sort of PTSD."

Tony stills over the keyboard, thoughtful.  "Are you gonna die?" he snarks, quietly, and picks the song back up.

You scoff, and replace Tony's hands with your own to continue the tune, repeating back what you'd heard so far.  "Probably not, no.  Maybe not ever."

Tony hums, considering.  He chuffs his knuckles against his goatee and shifts his weight to watch you.  "I'm on the mend," he admits, slow.  "Came pretty close to the big finale, learned my lesson, made the necessary lifestyle changes, yadda yadda.  Bit off more than I could chew, and other idioms."

You lift your chin to acknowledge, concentrating on the song.  Maybe Bro could have conversed and played at the same time, big huge brain that he had, but you're a one-track pony, however skilled.  You hit the soft refrain and trail off, reaching a foot forward to depress the fade pedal, thigh to thigh with the man who won your Auction bid.

Tony's hands shoo yours, tap out a bright melody, like something at the end of an old cartoon. 

You tuck your heel back but leave your knee splayed and, in inches and shifts, glue yourself against Tony's side, hip to ribs, listening to technically crisp piano strokes and the murmur of breath and blood through Tony's neck, your chin slotted against his shoulder, a makeshift Introduction you hardly realized you were initiating until it was going down.  "You feel okay?" You mumble, compulsively.

"Like a million bucks," Tony quips, vigilare stuttering from its rapid climb.  "Don't worry so much. Or you'll get all wrinkly, like me."

You take a breath to snark back, and catch a taste of other in the air, not Tony and not yourself and not the bots' transmission fluid.  You straighten, the hair at the back of your neck standing on end the way it did when Bro used to lurk in the ceiling, and at a glance toward the mezzanine you catch sight of Rogers leaning on the same corner you had leaned, arms crossed loosely at his trim waist, expression distant like a concert audience.  He is wearing a cotton t-shirt that suggests his uniform armors aren't all that padded, if at all, and the back of your throat is suddenly very dry.

"No," Tony drawls loudly, as if to answer an unasked permission, and restarts the first song, layering in a little more finesse after the warm-up.

Rogers' chin dips, mouth slanted to quash a grin as Sawtooth allows him a manly stoic nod of permission.  Rogers pushes off from the wall and Tony stiffens beside you.

You understand the tension, or can guess at it - Tony Stark is injured, or ill or recovering, vulnerable.  Rogers is an Alpha, whatever their friendship they are both Alphas, and you're here, now, whatever your designation within the House and its members, Tony is going to feel responsible, or challenged, or infringed against, just because you're there between them, existing.

It follows the script, at least - that Tony asked you to feign ignorance, that you'd be here for a career and the seduction of one Captain Rogers a complete coincidence.   So Tony would be wary, and Rogers would be oblivious; but you'd be what, exactly?

"No," Tony crabs again at Rogers' approach, slapping the piano's fallboard shut with a loud clatter that makes you startle.  "C'mon, man, we've been over this.  Lower levels, sure, fine.  This is my space."

"Not here for you," Rogers says, well acclimated to Stark's prickliness.  He pauses behind the nearest desk, jerks a greeting nod at you, half a beckon, expectant.

Nervous physiological puddling or not, you are hella attracted to Captain SqueakyClean over there, whose khakis fit well enough but whose shirt was struggling to wholly contain him. Instead of trusting your legs, you wave, expression carefully schooled.  You're under Tony's custody, and only just got comfortable in the calming anchor of his Alphahood, and are also, to your surprise, extremely goddamn shy.  You'd never had the chance to be shy about Bro, for obvious reasons, and had approached your friendship with Egbert at an angle of barely concealed superiority, tumbling into pubescent exploration as you two had.  You'd never, again to your surprised revelation, been in any sort of traditional courtship - nor even had to deal with adulthood socializing beyond a few professional attachments with all their clearly defined boundaries and rules.

Tony stands, chuckling, expression soft because the pheromone loudspeaker that is your stupid body is pleading for help.  "Maybe later," he tells Rogers, hands in pockets, posture boastful.

You expect an argument, an insistence, a disappointment maybe - but Rogers only looks a little surprised, and not at all annoyed.  You don't know what you've done right, if anything you do will ever be judged as wrong around here, at all.  Like, okay, Tony doesn't want you flashing off on your lonesome, but even that was more of a request for Rogers' peace of mind, and not a strict demand. But you aren't being put through your figurative paces, you haven't had your teeth inspected and aren't being grabbed up, haven't yet suffered all that torrid intimacy that sends television 'Megs through character development.

Rogers bows forward a bit at the waist, hands on hips, and studies your surroundings, brow crimping at the sight of Squarewave excitedly trembling at his own reflection in the floor-down windows.  "Okay," he exhales.  "But soon.  I don't want any misunderstanding, if our team can't recognize Dave out of sight."

"They'll recognize me," Tony says, fists on hips now, too.

Rogers only purses his mouth, mildly surprised again as he straightens.  "That's good to hear.  Pepper suspected you'd want me to step in -"

"Nope, we're good here."  But Tony's voice warms, lowers, "Unless you want to step in."

Rogers, unruffled, nods his defeat.  "We just don't want to leave you out of your depth, Tony.  Or you, Dave."

Your ears burn and you grunt an errant thanks, unfolding the fallboard to lay into a melody of your own design, absorbing your attention from the parting conversation.  You feel more than see Tony rejoin you on the bench, and hear the grabber bot whir its farewell as Rogers departs the workshop.  "Not scared," you argue quietly, because Tony is managing a pretty impressive sitting hover, studying you intently.  "Just embarrassed.  I know I'm here as like, Housebait for the Captain, and I don't think I can just shove that genie back in its bottle and pretend that I'm not."

"You psyched yourself up for all the efficiency of a modern marriage, but arrive to find your Alpha damnably traditional," Tony assumes, with laserpoint accuracy. 

"Sorry."  You switch to jazzhouse, because it matters less if you fuck up with jazz, fingers a bit sore from lack of practice.  

"Don't apologize."  Tony's hands join yours, because jazz can go loose and meandering and make of itself a language unto its own.  "I will have to actually scent you before we leave, though, and I think you'd have done better to let Rogers get it over with.  Just for uh, future reference."

"Future preference," you correct, tugging a smirk up that you don't feel.  "It's fine if I prefer you though, right?  Wouldn't that make more sense, since I'm supposed to think I'm here for your sake and not the Captain's?"

Tony interrupts the duet to wobble his hand, so-so-ish, and bumps your shoulder with his own on his lean to stand from the bench.  "You're not here to sleep with me, and you'll need someone to sleep with eventually.  Might as well flirt with the next best option to present itself, right?"

You brace against the swell of hurt and offense, and try to shore up some nerve against the fact that uh, well, you don't know how to seduce anyone, beyond just showing up.  You're aware that Bro's technique was spartan and nothing to write a cheap book about, nothing you could draw from as experience.  "Usually, yeah," you lie.  "Got me kind of fucked up, though, if I can't impress him.  I won't have much in the way of options."

"You're always welcome here, Dave, I'm not nixing custody on the off chance Rogers chickens out." 

Your fingers stretch over the keys, then lay into the classical piece you'd memorised from earlier.  "Sure, yeah, thank you, I appreciate that.  But you're right, man, I'm going to need to find someone to sleep with eventually.  What are my options."

"Well, blockers, for one," Tony deadpans.  "Not that dangerous pill crap, I mean the low-key hormone injections developed to keep soldiers scentless in the field.  You don't have to do that if you don't want to, obviously, but it's an option."

"Lemme rephrase," you crack, a bitter hysteria creeping in.  "Who are my options."

"I can't promise to know that about my team, D, I'm just the man in the can."

"Great."  You exhale, and fold the fallboard carefully over still-thrumming keys to stand, bench scuffing the sealed cement floor.  "Perfect.  Can I just tell Rogers the truth?  Because this is stupid.  I feel stupid."

"Savant syndrome," Tony laughs.  "You're so used to being the smartest guy in the room that you can't handle the concept of failure."  He pats your shoulder, squeezes, a small shake and brace.  "I bet Rogers would - scratch that, I know Rogers would appreciate the truth, but no.  You're doing me a solid, here, giving him the chance to back out gracefully if you don't exactly click.  You're doing yourself a favor, too, actually, if you leave yourself the option to fail."

You hum uncertainly.  "Says the guy who's never had to suffer a Heat in his whole privileged life."

Tony shrugs forward, laughing again, exasperated.  "So we'll buy you someone.  Rent them, whatever, it'll be fine.  I'm not going to let you sweat it out alone, Dave, you do have options."

"Wull," you toss your hands forward, curling your toes to crack their knuckles, a fidget.  "I mean, I'm trying not to come off too thirsty but we've got maybe a week and a half before my biology becomes A Problem."

Tony tugs at your hospital bracelet.  "Who is Hilde Baumgarter?"

"A hilarious Alias."  You hide that wrist behind yourself, as if to protect dear sweet Hilde.  "Records are in Houston General, if you need some medical data."

Tony's surprise carries an edge, this time, and he gives you a bit of distance, respectfully.  "That would be really great, yeah.  I was going to warm you up to our medical team, get Bruce to hold your hand through an exam or something.  I take it you're not as paranoid about hospitals as Brodie?"

You drift to a table to inspect a science-y bauble, palm-sized and boxy with several moving parts.  "Uh.  Yeah, I didn't suffer any of what Bro had to go through."  You don't even try to curb the recrimination in your tone, certain now this wasn't a House to demand any meek shows of submission.  "With the whole Area 51 bullshit he broke free from. So I'm a little more forgiving of the health care profession."

Tony lifts his chin, reclined back against the piano with the heels of his hands braced on its gilded edge.  "What do you make of that thing you've got there?" He changes topic, easily - or maybe he's just the scatter-brained sort, easily distracted.

"Alien," you guess, hefting the bauble and spinning a few of its gears.  "I recognize the metal, edges are organic, no seam for a mold, and it smells weird.  Definitely part of something larger, maybe not an essential part but a modification or some sort of refill for something."

"Gun clip, for a Chitauri rifle,"  Tony awards quietly, a glint in his eyes.  He shifts his weight, and doesn't sober from that warming pride.  "Saw a lot of random alien shit through those sewer doors, did you?"

"Yep.  Lots."  You set the ammo clip back to the table.  "You hungry, man?  I'm hungry."

"I could eat."  Tony jerks forward, smiling.  "Assume the position."

You sigh theatrically and face your brand new guardian, arms out and feet planted as if for a pat-down.  "Whatever you find, officer, I'm only holding for a friend."

Tony's poff of breath hits your neck and you don't flinch and this doesn't suck and it's not awkward and you feel... something.  Still a bit weird, like you haven't got your landlegs back, and still a bit stiff and unyielding because wow Stark really does smell like so much ouch, but you feel something.  Tony pushes his wrist behind your ear and curls his fingers through your shower-damp hair to tug your head aside a little and you lean into him and struggle to keep your eyes from rolling out of your skull, nerves electrified.

Tony scents you down proper and you have to swallow back the urge to coo once or twice, biologically predisposed to meeting bad health with all kinds of hells of sympathy.  "I'm going to make you chicken soup," you promise in a husk, and force your fingers uncurled from Tony's thermal.  "Unless you're a vegetarian, in which case I will make you a steak, to treat some obvious deficiencies."

Tony mumbles against the cradle of your neck, a soft ramble, "Bruce is an herbivore, but one of his doctorates is in biomolecular science so I think it's more a lifestyle choice than a cultish ignorance of the needs of the human body.  It's not like quinoa is bad for you, so we let him head a few dinners every once in a while."  He shifts his weight, prom-dance closing in as his wrists rub firmer circles behind your shoulders, up your ribs to scent just shy of your armpits, mixing you two together.  "Steve will eat literally anything, but I think that's more from his humble beginnings than any lack of appreciation for cuisine."

"Does he have like a," you start, and cough to try and clear the Omegan strain in the back of your throat.  "Does Rogers have a file, like I do?  So I can do some homework, maybe, get the relationship fast-tracked?" You've never suffered a Heat alone, Brodie always close at hand (and to your ignorance, have never suffered a Heat at all, not any worse than a suppressed trip to fevertown, Brodie always close at hand). You sure as shit aren't going to rent some fluffed up marital aide like you're too disfigured to get laid for free.

Tony grunts assent, pats your ribs before pulling away.  "We all do, technically.  Psychological profiles, marketable skills, personal preferences, all that."  He plucks a small wrench from a table as he passes, wags it at you.  "You can dig those up on your own.  Give that gigantic over-achiever of a brain a bone to gnaw."

"Or I could just ask Steve to his face.  I have a feeling he's the kind who's got nothing to hide."

"Or you could just ask Steve," Tony agrees, dropping the wrench in its toolbox.  

You've followed without noticing, and almost collide as Tony pivots on heel.  "Woah," you husk.

"Woah," Tony grunts at the same time, hands up.  "Okay, I've already got one shadow, don't need another, thanks."  He holds a finger up, pausing your quip.  "Don't ask Steve.  You're playing it shy, you ask Steve's friends.  Because you don't know, what, if he's whatever, single or pining or married to his job, right?"

"I'm asking you," you remind slowly, hands also up.  "On the assumption that you're Steve's friend."

"I... am Steve's counterpart," Tony hedges, hands now wobbling as if searching for the words in the air.  "And I can tell you a few things, sure.  But it's not the info you're after, it's the impression that you're interested."

"I am interested."

"Yeah, I could tell,"  Tony says, spun now toward the hall, moving at a clip.  "And it's no difference to me what sort of impression you're trying to make despite the Coyote-Wiley dust cloud of 'interest' you like to give off, but so far you've acted lukewarm to downright cold."

"Uh," you warble, a little irked.  "You told me to."

"I asked you to act natural," Tony argues.

You scrub fingers through your hair, exhaling hard.  "I don't exactly have a 'natural'.  In case you haven't noticed, Rogers is a babe, and that ain't easy to talk to."

"And all your other boyfriends were, what?"

The shrug perches in your voice. You'd already rebuffed that shitty lie twice, but if the story upheld Bro's mechanations for your mission, then, fine?  "Texan," you guess, because you hadn't even got as far as to develop the fictional people you were supposed to have been fucking in Brodie's stead.

The joke lands, Stark awards a generous snicker and dramatically presents the open elevator doors.  "Let's go get some meat on those bones, Ziggy."

You grimace, and step into the elevator with recovering confidence.  "Marley?"

Tony's expression leaps to savor a reference you're finally too young to understand.  "Stardust."

Chapter Text

Tony has a habit of thoughtful noise before speaking, like he's trying to decide the best way to put things, or paring down for efficiency, stemming the meander of his thoughts.  Rogers likes to inhale quietly but sharp, to prime any listening ears for the information he's about to divulge.  Natalie doesn't speak much, except for low barbs and jokes slid under the conversation like a knife sliding between ribs.

When Doctor Banner talks, it's after a soft grunt of agreement or disagreement, and everyone listens in varying degrees of patience, and you don't suspect for half a second that Banner actually thought you were feral - there seemed to be a low simmer of rivlarly between he and Tony, friendly but not bereft its absurd retaliations.  Miss Potts, similarly, speaks with an eloquence that can hold most listeners rapt - except Tony, who teases and challenges her in a way that's almost rude and rarely fails to bring several voices to her defense.  Tony, it would seem, liked to grief his most beloved - and his griefing of you, therefore, could bode pretty well.

And then there's Parker, full name unannounced, who answers questions with all the formality of a young unplaced Alpha but is too awed by everyone gathered in the open-plan kitchen to do much talking of his own.  You especially seem to have captured Parker's interest, a pair of wide eyes high-beamed your way in mute fascination every time it's your turn to answer a question or volley a jibe.  Tony has thrown several balled-up napkins at Parker's face, hitting him square in the nose to remind him to breathe and blink every now and then.

The kitchen is centered on the ground floor beside an open commons with wide tinted windows, and is halfway built to a cafeteria, industrial but compact, stools gathered around a gleaming counter island, nothing so intimate like a dining table but definitely a well-used space by all the scuffs, knife-holes and burn char the robot butlers couldn't scrub away.  You appreciate the double-wide fridge and top-hinge freezer, a little self-conscious that the dry stock and groceries are all distinctly Tex-Mex, frijoles and fresh meat, rice and corn over wheat or dairy, that sort of thing.

You crack a beer for yourself to ease your bloodsugar and knock it back before anyone can give you any scrutiny over your age or whatever, then grimace because the beer is some sort of import stout, hefty and bitter.  You are making chicken chili, and dirty rice, and empanadas.  Blessedly the task has split your poor, stupid, nervous brain from its hamster-wheel panic, given you a focus, a set of goals, and you can speak a little easier despite the tingle in your guts every time Rogers' friendly burr elbows in through the boasts and challenges and stone-cold mission reports.  Tony and Banner dominate the island counter with their excitement over the time-space continuum breakthrough Bro has so indolently delivered into their lives, Nat perched on the left peninsula and Rogers on the right, Parker on the kitchen side of the island to study you from a distance.  The others mill about similarly - Happy ('call me Happy, I wouldn't know how to answer to anything else'), May Parker ('Pete, God's sake, you trying to catch flies or'), a spindly blonde British man in evening wear referred to as 'V' and a young redheaded woman who joins you at your elbow to help crimp the empanadas, no introduction yet.

All are dressed in day clothes, relieved of their armor and scrubbed of monster guts, florid scents of cooperation and good will that you haven't yet sorted to each.

"What's with all the gingers," you whisper aside to the young unintroduced woman, testing the oil in its saucepan for the deep fry.  "You guys sisters?"

"Probably," Wanda Maximoff answers just as quietly in a thick Sokovian accent, and then introduces herself as Wanda Maximoff.  "I would shake your hand, but your hands are busy."  She smells like an Alpha, all high steel and the waft of sun on an open field and dyed leathers, and you're a little twitchy now because a Pack might have two, three Alphas but so far you count five, V and Parker and Wanda and Steve and it's no wonder Tony was going to keep you around even if you failed mission, this place needed some mitigating and its Betas looked about as overworked as you'd expect.

"What are we whispering about?"

You nearly jump out of your godforsaken skin at Rogers' appearance, and send the stuffing spoon through the raw empanada shell to clatter against the sterile metal countertop.  "Soylent Green is people," you hiss back, and put some space between you to check on the dirty rice, add a few more onion pearls, pare a green pepper down to strips to caramelize for garnish.  Wow though, Stark was right, you were a low to simmering sort of hostile toward Captain GoddamnGorgeous-I-SaidGoddamn, but can't be blamed because Rogers smells, ridiculously, like apples.  A crisper, more northern sort of rainy orchard scent, like he'd be apple cider and you'd be warm, southern apple pie all dough and corn syrup to the blame of the gallons of pre-processed, cheap-ass AJ you've knocked back over your lifetime.  Rogers smells like he straightup eats apples, as in the fruit, fiber and skin and all, literal apple-a-day bullshit, like some sort of healthy adult with functional dietary habits or something.

Rogers is left to catch up with Wanda, an aura of sexless anathema between them, the clad of ward and authority, and it is easier, being near Rogers, with a Pack around you to balance you both out, to keep each other suspended, needs met, niches filled, the air a potpourri of communication run by the subconscious, reflecting and deflecting and calming and piquing.

'V' rescues the large pot of chili from overboiling and you let him have your station to fry the empanadas, his prim and almost apologetic expertise an easy replacement for your efforts, which were hearty but not primed to make so much food for so many people - as even for your own Striderian supra-human appetites you and Brodie were only ever just the two of you.  

You pluck an apple from the wicker bowl on the island, and sniff it experimentally, eyes narrowed, trying to find Steve in there somewhere. 

"It doesn't bite back, I promise," Doctor Banner teases, corny dad humor that makes your heart literally goddamn throb.

"Maybe it would bite back, but it's too shy,"  You start, and like a snowball down a hill the nonsense only gains mass with momentum.  "And you've got to get the conversation started or you'll never have a satisfying bedroom routine and this apple will leave you for a much younger banana, but that relationship will also fail because it never got comfortable with asking for what it likes and you could have helped it break that cycle, man, you're failing this tender little -"

"OKAY," Tony blurts, smacking the top of the counter to save you from the horrifying avenues that ramble had not yet begun to explore.  "The victory for absurdist humor, it is yours, Dave we're about to eat.  Don't make it weird."

"I want to hear what happens to the banana," Miss Potts insists gently, folding her hand under her chin with a cool gleam of humor in her eyes.  "Does it know it's just a rebound, a practice against which the apple will commit its routine mistakes, or does it learn to be better than the apple, to ask for what it w-"

"I said okay," Tony whines, which does funny things to the core of your pelvis.

"Well the banana always bites back," you answer, deadpan.  "That's why the apple got with it, see, it wanted to learn how to be that confident."

"I will die,"  Tony announces, grim.  "If you take this dish-ran-away-with-the-spoon / Desperate Housewives hybrid any further."

Rogers wags a wooden spoon over his shoulder, head bowed over the serving dish he was filling.  "I understood half of that reference."

Your furtive study of 'what dat ass do in those khakis tho' is derailed by Parker's saucer eyes from across the counter.  "Sup," you greet, but Parker only closes his mouth a little firmer and asks his aunt an undefined permission with his stare.

"What," May stage-whispers.  "Use your words, Pete."

Pete does not use his words.  Pete goes red all around his neck and ears, and turns back to watch the kitchen instead.

"Pete says hi," May says, offering her hand across the island.  "I'm May.  You're Dave, right?"

"I'm honored, is what I am," you take May's hand and buss the air above her knuckles.

"Smooth," Tony asserts, but it sounds like an insult.  "Nevermind the moves out of this one, May, he's bent."

"Tony!"  Pepper and Banner chorus. 

But you're laughing a little, and then you're laughing hard, unstifled, unwedged from your rigid anxiety.  You have to double over on your stool, shoulder braced against the counter, wheezing through your tears, readers pinched away from your face.  You wonder if Tony actually knows how true that is, that you just now realized that it was true, and laugh harder.

"Oh?"  May carries on, another picture of grace.  "Do you have a Meg back home, Dave?"  She taps the countertop to try and save you from your fit.  The spirit of the question is to prompt another tall tale, you're certain, but.

"I have a Meg," you gasp, surfacing to catch your breath.  "Gnuh.  Closer to New York than he ever was to Texas.  DC, in fact."  You wipe your eyes, replace your glasses, hoo-hooing softly in the back of your throat.

You can see the sobriety descend Tony's face, eyebrows lowering, mouth slack, then the eyes, hardening, just a bit.

You're not cowed, and it's not a mistake, and you don't care that the kitchen has gone quiet, that you might as well stuff both feet in your mouth.  It feels good to say it out loud, though, to take back a little control over your own narrative, which you used to do with rampant, compulsive lying but could just as well do with rampant, compulsive confession.  You shove your hands in your pockets and don't have to fake your temerity.  "His name's John and he works alongside his dad in the FBI."

You pull out your phone, gamely ignoring Tony's close pestering hover, the hungry snap of his curiosity like the burn of a stagelight over your shoulder.  "This is the most recent pic I've got."  You slide the phone over, warm all down your chest, proud of how beautifully Megan John had turned out to be, his overbite grown to a more shy bunny bucktooth than the donkey-laughing derp he was as a kid, pale and soft at the edges, glossy black hair in the wild tousle of the wind and eyes blue enough to give the Captain some competition.

"Oh, wow," May is just as surprised as the rest, but seems to be handling it well.  From most, there is blithe acceptance, the polite attempt to restart conversation so as not to eavesdrop, none of the affront of anyone who might feel deceived, like Tony or Natalie, the only two of the team you can confirm know why you're actually here.

But then there's Rogers, who knows, but doesn't know that you know.  You're almost afraid to inspect his corner of the kitchen, but he turns with a stack of plates to hand off to Parker for table-setting, at a given value of table.  He pauses beside May to inspect John, and you manage to look up, face the music.  Rogers looks... fine.  A little more than fine, actually, a grin creasing his eyes but guarded from his mouth, maybe something like relief, if relief was supposed to make sense in a situation like this.  "Cute."

"The cutest," you agree, and you're burning up, the pit of your groin to the back of your ears.  You can still feel Tony's hard stare as you accept your phone back, but can't look away from Rogers, from Steve, from calm and borderline jovial Alpha acceptance all wrapped up in a pretty golden package and tied with an exceptionally muscly bow. 

It's Parker who breaks the spell, having rounded the island to set the last of the plates.  He taps you on the shoulder, a fairly grave trespass Alpha to Omega, unintroduced and unranked - but at closer inspection you realize Parker is young, despite the steel in his posture and the general air of respect given over by the Pack.  It's less offensive when it's a kid, basically, and you feel a whole different room light up within the chambers of your mind, an empty space yawned into existence and illuminated, the door labeled 'House Meg', the first piece of furniture within occupied by Peter Parker and his big stupid doe eyes. 

"Sup, lil' man," you prompt, and it's almost Brodie telegraphed in those words but for your inflection, honeyed and human and welcoming.

You watch the decision play out across Parker's expression, whether or not he should take offense at the endearment, from which angle to approach the introduction, as an Alpha or a Ward of the Pack.  He gauges your height and makes the right choice, averts his eyes and tilts his chin to bare his neck. You grin, the heat in your stomach given transition into the warm fuzzy variety, and half-stand from your stool to tap a quick Intro over Parker's ear, a headbutt really, half a hug, like you've done for your fanbase a dozen times over.

"I'm uh, Peter," he mumbles into your neck, and the heat of his blush is like a brand under your chin.  He smells more like Rogers' custody than anything else of his own, yet, a bit flowery like his Beta Aunt perhaps but otherwise null, blank, the base notes of a living body in all its modern soaps and detergents.

You retake your seat and let your grip fall from Peter's arm to his wrist, to his hand, counting the bones of wide palm and long fingers. He'll be tall, when he's grown. "Dave," you repeat, and your name has stopped making sense to you for as often as you've said it today.

"I'm also Sp-" Parker's mouth firms, his grip closes around yours. "I'm Spiderman."

Natalie, on the stool behind him, rolls her eyes and silently departs her seat so Parker isn't hovering.

You're a little lost. Spiderman was a grown-ass crime fighting clown who helped little old ladies cross the mean streets of New York. He was in the news but definitely not in the headlines. He had a GoFundMe and a YouTube channel. Your skepticism almost gives you an eyebrow cramp, but then you can feel the small gripping barbs flex out from Parker's fingertips and decide not to insult him with any incredulity.

"Boss," you congratulate cooly, nodding as he takes the vacated stool.

"So what do you do," Parker blurts, shifting awkwardly to try and find a comfortable resting place for his elbow, on the table or his knee or in the cross of his arms.

"I make chicken soup," you deflect, jerking a nod over your shoulder back at Tony. "For sick dudes with sick tech."

Parker blinks, aborts the shake of his head. "Mno, I mean what -"

"I know what you meant. Go get some soup."

To your surprise, Parker literally goes to get some soup, passing the bowls of chili around the table as plates are piled with food, emptied of food almost as fast. Nobody waits for rank, probably because there are so many of equal or contestable rank present, and places are traded in the kitchen to keep the meal building, changing, a second pot of chili started from the first. Nor is there any typical television trope of ceremony around the meal, no compliment or criticism, food a necessary staple of life and living, fuel for the ravenous machines that had been made of the superhuman bodies gathered around.

The more mundane of your party tap out of the feeding frenzy first, of course, and fall into the habitual clearing of the table as you, Rogers, Parker and Natalie take on a third course.

Parker and Natalie are smaller than you and Rogers, however similarly hyped their metabolisms, and while the island is still peopled with coffee-takers and beer sipping it's just you and the Captain left to execute any hope of leftovers. You could eat every hour of the day and never get the chance to feel any discomfort about it, and it looks like Rogers is the same, neither sluggish nor drowsy nor wary of the next beer, which disappears like a sip of water.

"So really," Parker says over the smush of his cheek resting on his fist, watching you with starry-eyed focus. "What can you do."

You roll a cream-cooled slug of coffee around your mouth before swallowing, and suck a molar with an audible chirp of air as ceramic mug carefully meets metal countertop. "Ikebani."

Parker's expression lightens, and he sits up straight. "Oh, is that, that's what. Is that like kung-fu?"

Tony, a worldly soul, is chuckling. "No Pete, it's not."

"That's wonderful," Miss Potts says, elbows on counter to better listen, slim fingers clasped around her mug. "Do you practice calligraphy, too?"

Pete's chin draws back with a frown, and May consoles him with a chuckle and an arm pat.

"We never had enough space in the house for Shodo, but I used to study Kintsukuroi at the community college. As a kid." It went without saying that after a certain age community college would have been a risk, and Bro had really gone hard on the whole warrior artist, child prodigy dig.

"You took a college course as a kid?" May demands, incredulous. "So did Pete!"

"What's Kinst-stukori," Parker hastily overrides his aunt, hands shoved in pockets and knee bouncing nervously.

"Kintsukuroi is an old repair process that fixes broken pottery with a gold or platinum dusted lacquer. It's mostly a, uh," you scratch the side of your nose, nod a thanks as Rogers takes your empty plate to stack atop his own. "Museum Curator sort of gig, nowadays, since people use glass or plastic in the house and can afford to just chuck whatever breaks."

"We've seen that, at the Guggenheim," May encourages in her earnest provincial enthusiasm, which is visibly destroying her nephew's teenaged dignity brick by brick. "Did you want to work in a Museum, when you were little?"

You have to inhale to stop the bitter chuckle, hide the ill slant of your smirk behind a sip of coffee. "No," you answer, simply. You had collected dead things as a kid, a sort of morbid and ironic decor of bones and fossils along your bedroom walls to match the angst of your self awareness, go full alien hoarding samples of the planet you had fallen to. Maybe Brodie had taken this as an interest in curation, and sent you to the college every Tuesday and Thursday after school to foster that interest, but the rigor of the coursework had quickly overcome any enjoyment of your hobby and turned it into just another job, another performance, another discipline to master.

"Bro was really... cultural."

May glances between you and Parker, as if asking the kid to 'get a load of this'. "You've got a brother?"

You want to play it cool, casual, normal. You want a lot of things that you're just never going to get. "Not any more," you croak, a shoulder hitched up in apology for the awkward confession. "Not really. If you could call him a brother in the first place, even. His name is Broderick, so I just call him 'Bro' for short, kind of a," you clear your throat, sit forward. "A joke. He's more like a mentor. Have you ever heard of Houston?"

May blinks, brow furrowed in that schoolmarm concern of interest, though she couldn't be old enough to have mothered Parker, even. "The city?"

You nod, and the kitchen conversation has lulled to listen to you. "The city and the Guardian of that city." And here you answer Pete's original question, sort of. "After the nineties he was known as the Strider, mostly underground work, disaster mitigation, regular science fiction shenanigannery with alternate dimension portals and the ugly kinds of things that could come through those." You pause to let May process this. "I was the second Strider, Houston's ward. He filed me as family for legal protections but wasn't what you would call exactly paternal. Or fraternal."

"Oh," May breathes, nodding.

"So yeah, I have a brother." You sigh. "And no, ma'am, I don't."

"Family can be complicated," May sympathizes. "He did a good job, anyway, whatever Broderick was to you."

Tony has pulled something up on his phone, not only forgiving of May's penetrating interrogation technique but kindred spirit in their blithe disregard for conversational tact. "Houston," he illustrates, the photo onscreen something the press had managed to scope last year.

May whistles low, meets your eye, deadass, "Is he single?"

"May!" Parker laments, nearly twisting off his stool in squirming horror.

"Ahb," you puff, honestly considering the question, and decide to lie magnificently. "Fucker could have a wife and kids in the Alps who all think he sells water purifiers door to door, for all I know. 'Scuse my french."

"So you're not really close, huh."

Tony comes to your rescue, "Nobody could ever say they were close to Houston.  So not exactly boyfriend material." He retrieves his phone, thumbs the lock screen. "Kind of a weirdo. Married to his work. Would hate your macrame."

You subtly spit-take into your coffee, covering the hiccough with a loud slurp. May slaps the air beside Pepper with the back of her hand and Pepper passes the swat along to Tony's arm.

You plant your elbow on the island, point at May, "He would love your macrame, actually, don't listen to that slander."

Tony shows his hands and sits back in exaggerated apology and May is laughing, wine-blushed and generous of spirit, a hidden spark of hard-earned cynicism surfacing every now and again that even manages to shake Parker out of his mortification once or twice. You decide that you like May Parker for all of how normal she is, her bravery, her fierce affection for her nephew and the humor she could make at his expense, at her own.

"So what did you do, when you worked down in Texas?" Parker pries again, persistent. "With this Houston guy?"

"That's Mr. Houston Guy to you, Spiderbabe," you correct haughtily. "And I mostly just did me some winning."

"Right, but like, how? Are you really strong, do you engineer tech or something like that?" He fidgets a drumroll against the countertop, an avid audience.

You open your mouth to answer, but then pause, sigh quietly through your nose, and close your mouth with a chewing frown. "You want to know if I can kick your ass," you hazard, and at Parker's calcified expression know you're right. "You want to know, among the people gathered here, who I could defeat, and in what way."

"I'm a little curious about that, myself," Doctor Banner interjects from behind Tony, handing off an iPad with some call or task that begs Tony away from the table. Banner takes Tony's vacated stool, and hands Tony's coffee to Pepper, who excuses herself with a dip and a murmur.

You're a little put off that Parker's open-eyed schoolkid gambit almost worked against your better judgement, that you had underestimated him as an Alpha of the Pack and a prodigy in his own right (at May's confession) but whatever, live and learn.

At your stalled silence, Banner only smiles with a tuck of his chin, forgiving. "I turn into an invulnerable green rage-monster who's cursed me to live forever, so I doubt you can top that."

You flicker, and a time clone joins Rogers at the sink, drying plates from the wire rack as he rinses. It takes two, three more clones before everyone in the Pack notices, and you sit in place, stirring your refreshed coffee, flickering.

"What," Parker breathes, poking one of you to test if you're real. And, because it's you, your clones are carrying on conversations, cracking jokes, soothing a very frazzled Happy and assuring a nervous Wanda Maximoff, who shares a static defensive charge with V.

Ten, twenty, fifty of you fill out the commons, in various outfits, from various timelines, at various states of scarring or haircut or sunburn or sleeplessness. "Well I'm a God," you explain evenly, rubbing a wrist behind your ear to self-soothe, covering the habit up with a scritch through your hair. There's a sharp vacuum zip of air and the room is altered, snapped into array, emptied of litter and dishes and time clones but filled to brimming with your scent, helplessly left behind. "Of time. So."

You straighten to take a sip of your coffee, a lone slurp in the dead silence, every set of eyes turned your way.

You set your coffee mug down, a hollow ring of ceramic on metal.

May chuckles, low and throaty. "Hot."

"A God," Natalie prompts, her pretty mouth downturned in doubt.

Tony pushes in between you and Parker, pointing down from his chest, a squished reprimand. "Don't do that," he advises, and pauses in place to wait for your nod, nods along. "Yeah, don't. Please.  Gave me vertigo." He slides away again, returned to his iPad and to Pepper's unruffled company.

"A God," you confirm, turning in your seat to watch Tony depart, the line of tension in his shoulders shaken loose.

"Under whose designation," Natalie asks, tapping Parker's elbow to vacate him from her stool. She drags the seat closer, knees tucked up against the side of your thigh, expression open.

"Um," you rub your arm, shrug. "We never got designated by any medical offices, no. I don't die." To Banner, who had sat forward in interest, "I mean I do die, but I come back."

"That's not something we want to even try to replicate in a lab," Banner assures, you or the Pack or himself. "So we'll just take you on your word. Is your brother - or, or your not-brother, is he a, a that, too?"

You shrug, miserably resigned to know little enough about the man who raised you, resigned to have to lie about the information you had. "I suppose he might be, if the condition is hereditary."

"It's not," Banner informs you, informs the group. "As far as we know, godhood isn't a biological state of being so much as it's an access to a commonality between universes. Our friend Thor, for instance, was denied access to this universal multi-existence, and again granted access to it, at the whims of whomever, or whatever keeps the gates to those particular roads. Your brother might not have been granted the same commonality across timelines, the same access to his patron element."

You grunt, impressed. "Not just a pretty green face, hey."

"No," Natalie agrees, smirking.

"Well that," May slaps both hands on the counter, pushes herself to a stand. "Is so fucking cool. Pardon my French."

"Very cool," Wanda seconds, side-eying Rogers, who has braced his hands along the now empty sink, head bowed in thought or study or recovery. "Might we spar? Are you free on Sundays?"

You glance around the room, roll a shoulder back. "Ehh. I'm kind of retired."

Rogers' head lifts, blue eyes showing.

"Only kind of. Avenging, sure, fine, I'll go where Stark points me. But I'm kind of over it, the sparring and the training and the endless mission debriefing and the blah de blah," you twist your hand on your wrist, illustrating your exhaustion. "I mean I guess you could ask Tony if you think you need to improve something with a few hundred moving dummies, but I would really rather not."

Nat widens her eyes at you a little. "How are you at hand to hand," she asks evenly.

You blink slow and hard, and toss your chin to bare your neck. "Well I used to be better than average, better against my fellow third-graders at least," you drawl, now a little offended, yourself. You wouldn't be able to keep up a fight against an Alpha, even if they were some wheezy office worker, even if it was only a spar - your receptiveness to Alpha mood and command would wreck any intent to move against them.

Natalie's grin only widens, warms. "Against me," she corrects, against her own Omega self, void of any handicap between you. "If you refrain from the universal commonality to which you've been granted access."

You hum doubtfully in the back of your throat, the kitchen otherwise recovered from the multiDave encounter, small conversations picking up again.

"Let him be retired, Miss Romanov," May insists, throwing a wink your way over her wine glass. "Big empty Den like this, needs its share of lounging Megwives in curlers and bunny slippers."

"I do have the bunny slippers," you contend, finger-guns for the support. "But I'm more of a shower-cap housemeg, personally. Club some villains with a rolling pin, wield la chancla at any homestead intruders, it'll be sweet."

Parker leans back to peer around Natalie, to inspect you head to toe. "You're-" he squeaks like bad AC wires, clears his throat, tries again. "You're kidding."

"I am so kidding," you admit, pushing away from the table. "C'mon, Maximoff, let's go get matching bruises, braid each others' hair and talk about boys."

Wanda glances up from her furtive conversation with Rogers to half-smile, wave a promise to join you.

Natalie inhales sharp, shakes her hand and follows your stand. "Well at least we know you're good at subterfuge," she awards dryly.

Parker stands, too, bouncing on heels. "May, could I go with -"

"Sure, Pete, go ahead and go get your ass kicked," May cackles. "Dave, it was good to meet you. Try not to Picasso my nephew's face, no matter how much guff he gives he's still got school and I still answer to the social workers."

The goodbyes drag a little, jokes and hugs and schedule swapping, and by the end of it it's Rogers, Natalie, Wanda and Pete who take you down an elevator ride and further into the warrens of the complex to a brightly lit gym. Like most of the building this room is under ground, but there are fake windows with simulated sunlight streaming in through programmable scenery, and as ever the air is filtered, fresh, inoffensive. You're impressed, and bolstered by the feeling of being on a spaceship, which you often fantasized about when the Texan summer nights pressed in a little too close and it was just you and the rooftop and the deep black of a moonless sky.

Parker and Rogers claim the springboard with a few tumbles that make your back ache in sympathy - they aren't doing soft falls, and it's too close to the way Brodie used to throw you around, your throat gone thick with homesickness. You follow Wanda to a bare corner taped in squares like Tony's workshop, hair standing on end as Wanda starts to goddamn glow.

"Not even going to do some stretches, first?" you snark, and have to flash to duck a sweeping whisk of whatever that purple-red light is. "I have a friend like you, actually," you drawl from behind Wanda, who spins with a small gasp of surprise. "I mean," you dodge another sweep of energy, this one a balloon out from Wanda herself, like a forcefield. "Not that I think all you spookybabes enlist in the same coven or whatever. She's -"

You play the moving dummy, as promised, but even though Wanda's strikes gain precision, speed and force, you only up your own evasive skill to temper it. "She's really eloquent, like she talks and talks. You're more the strong silent type, I see."

"Sorry, I am concentrating," Wanda admits, then lowers her arms, powers down. "It's hard not to blow holes in the walls."

You blink your eyes open a little wider, hands on hips. "Sorry?" You bend at the waist as if to better hear.

"The walls," Wanda continues, reaching back to pull her hair up in a loose bun. "When I practice, it's to build restraint. If I lose control, it could devastate whole cities, take many innocent lives."

You nod slow, jaw clenched. "So it's easier if your sparring partner is invulnerable to any mishaps."

"Bruce is too slow, his Hulk too large and lumbering." Wanda claps the side of your arm, an appreciation. "You are just right, fast and enemy-sized."

"Cool, cool," you nod more, can't stop nodding. "Coolcoolcool."

Forewarning prickles at the base of your skull before Natalie's forearm wraps around your throat from behind, and she's strong but she's not very big and the spar is on, not a soft roll or a kid glove to be seen, a familiar fall back into getting thrown, attempting to throw, failing miserably to unfoot your opponent. You're fast when you want to be, but you aren't superhuman strong like Bro or John, and now you aren't superhuman strong like Parker or Rogers or Natalie, apparently.

"I thought you said you were better than average," Nat teases, dusting her hands together before she helps you back to your feet.

"I thought I said I was retired," you snipe, relenting the helping hand to rub at your lower back. "Besides, Striders didn't fight people, and against the things we did fight, we used all sorts of technological cheatery. Like swords."

"And teleportation," Rogers adds helpfully from the side bench, where Pete has joined him to stare at you some more, mouth slightly parted, jaw lax.

You make a doubtful noise in the back of your throat. "Not exactly what that is, no. But close. Like, if teleportation could ever be a thing, what I do is probably how it would work."

"And what do you do?" Parker asks.

You scrunch your frown up to the side. "You know at this point I think it's just become A Thing that I not tell you. Like the anticipation has been built up too much, and now I don't want you to be disappointed."

Parker shifts his weight and crosses his arms and his mouth goes all slanty and offended. "My parents worked in the particle science field alongside some of the world's best biomolecular engineers. I'm not trying to be impressed, just informed."

"Woh," you husk, schooling your features down into stony distance. You hold up your hand, back a stiff line of offense. "Nerd. Alert."

Parker goes from slightly alarmed to flatly exasperated. "Oh. Hah." He wags an arm out to stand, shaking himself loose. "Yeah, okay, you got me there."

"Some of my favorite people are nerds," you amend, posture returned to its mask of ease. "Everyone I know, in fact." Maybe not Dadbert, or maybe Dadbert was what nerds grew up into, and you could expect great things from the John who has yet to be.

"But you're right, it's none of my business and I was being kind of a dweeb about it." Parker swings his hand out low, offering a shake. "Sorry. I don't always know when to let up."

You take Parker's hand and accept the apology. "What if I told you I could fly? Like Superman. Nyoom."

Parker only rolls his eyes, puffing his cheeks out to exhale. "I'd think you were making fun of me."

"Aw," you drop Parker's hand, honestly a bit wounded. "You wouldn't be impressed? Not even a little?"

Parker is nodding, hands up in surrender, walking backward toward the exit hall. "I'll believe it when I see it."

You scoff, kicking into a lope to keep up. "You know, I can turn invisible too."

Parker only shakes his head.

Your grin widens. "But I can only do it if n-"

"If nobody's watching," Rogers finishes from behind you, Wanda and Natalie occupied with a punching bag between them. "Just a heads up, Dave, you should stay in the company of an Alpha, as escort. The lower levels share medical and research facilities with SHIELD staff, and while nobody else has clearance into our living quarters the largess of the facilities remain public." He nods ahead down the hall, where a group of three in USAF exercise sweats are disboarding an elevator.

Parker stiffens beside you in confusion, perhaps because he is technically an Alpha, and you pat between his shoulderblades to console him for the slight. "Aye-aye, Cap'n."

Rogers smiles flat, lips thinned. "Not that kind of captain."

You finger-gun right back at him. "Not that kind of Meg."

Rogers only turns his chin to the side. "Fair. But if Natalie can do this for me, then so can you."

Which was about as close to a ranking as you were going to get. Natalie was the example Meg, okay. Good. Fine.


"Yeah, nnnot that kind of Meg, either," you insist, a little concerned now if Rogers was flexing some boss just to flex some boss. "Did we forget the godhood thing already, or is there something immortal loose in the warrens that you're not telling me about."

"Nope. Just for my peace of mind."

Right, because you weren't supposed to be another problem for Rogers to worry about, you were here to be good for him, here to settle his ass down, give Stark some leverage in the Pack, make good on Brodie's trust in you. "Yeah, but," you can't help it, you honestly just can't. goddamn. help it. "I'm not responsible for your anxiety, hoss.  That's between you and your shrink."

Parker turns forward to pick up the pace, and as the gym visitors pass you are very swiftly alone in a hallway with Captain Rogers, who has stilled to let Parker take the first elevator ahead of you. You could have joined Pete, could have flashed out of there, but Brodie didn't raise no chicken. Brodie raised you to be defiant, to challenge even him, for his own self-improvement, and that's honestly what you want to do for Rogers, what you would do for anyone who was supposed to be your partner or custodian or whatever. Help them improve.

"I'm responsible," Rogers starts quietly, stood in your peripheral but not yet advanced into your personal space. "For every life in this building that you could endanger."

Your eyes widen, and you turn to face him, side exposed so as not to come off like a challenger. "I don't kill people."

There's a cinch of regret in Rogers' true blue eyes. "I can't know if that's true."

You blanch.

"Not even accidentally, like Max." Rogers infringes on your space, but the tilt of his head is apologetic. "I'm not condescending against your ability to protect yourself. I'm trying to respect the power you can wield, all right?"

You want to laugh. You trap a belch in your mouth and turn to exhale, tapping your chest to settle the war of emotions within, or the war of a bout of after-chili tumbling. "You know Tony said the same thing," you start, trusting Rogers to follow your path to the next available elevator. "About staying in sight, for your sake. I guess I didn't know what he meant."

"And what did you say."

"Oh I lied my ass off," you admit, turning on heel to walk backwards into the elevator, holding your breath because you're about to be stuffed into an enclosed space with one seriously attractive Not-That-Type-of-Captain. "Because he's hurt, and I don't want to stress him out. I think you can handle the truth, though. You're uh," you flick the air near Rogers' shoulder as he joins you. "Sturdy."

"And what is the truth, then." And sure Rogers is big but when it's just the two of you in that enclosed cabin he's big, like he takes up more space than his actual physical self, unhindered by the company of his Pack, perfectly cordial but dangerous, too, somehow.

"That I am going to, uh," you honestly forgot what you were going to say. "See, the only -" wait, no, something about how Brodie raised you? Challenging, or self improvement or something. "Um." The elevator reaches its destination floor, but your stomach is still dropping.

Rogers lifts his hooded eyes, and there's a knowing in there that you're irritated to recognize. "I can handle it, remember, I'm sturdy."

"And kind of a sassy bitch," you snipe, and lose your stomach somewhere around your knees, which lock in place, because jesus christ, what are you, seven years old and slugging the Rogers on the playground because you like him?

Rogers blinks like he has been slapped, but his face twitches like he's trying not to smile. "Weirdly," he starts, arms crossed over his chest as he tucks a lean back against the hand rail keeping you upright. "You're not the first to call me that." He bends forward to thumb another elevator button, and digs his phone out of his pocket as the elevator doors reclose, the cabin dropping. "And a molly-legged punk, before that."

You accept the phone, a gallery of candid long-distance shots open to display a gruff brunette in several states of coal-dusted or bloodied, strapped in leather armor and armed with mostly rifles. "What am I looking at, here."

"The reason I need you to stay in sight. You can handle the truth, too, and I should have been honest from the start. This is Sergeant Barnes, a very old friend who's gone through some fairly horrific brainwashing."

"And he's... here?"

"No, but we're trying to bring him in alive to reverse the damage done to his brain, uncover information on the people who ran the program he and others have fallen victim to. Our home defenses aren't ironclad, and he might be trying to kill me. Or he might not. It varies."

"Kill you? Your army buddy got brainwashed, is now an insane dirty leather-hottie trying to kill you?"

Rogers frowns. "He's not dirty, that's tactical kohl. But yes." The elevator bobs to its destination, doors easing open, and Rogers thumbs the buttons again. "So we're clear? You'll stick within sight of one of the crew?"

"Compromise," you wheedle as you hand back the phone, heel tamping down. "If I see scaremeister Charlie, then I'll let someone know, and I'll flash outta there. Here. Wherever."

"I would agree to that, except Sergeant Barnes is a highly trained field operative who specializes in not being seen." Rogers tilts his head, an afterthought, "And he's an Alpha."

"Oh." You wait out the elevator's ascent, and suffer the silence of Rogers' expectation until the doors open again. "Hey, if you need any help with your crazy friend," you surmise, arms open as you shuffle out into the cool air of an empty hall. "Me and about three dozen of my closest other-me can brush up on some non-lethal suppression tactics."

"Dave," Rogers says, and pins the back of your tsinela with the toe of his boot.

You stumble forward, throw a dirty look over your shoulder. "Steeb."

"If all the lights in this building failed, FRIDAY taken offline," He relents your shoe, stepping close with the sort of deft grace you don't assume of normal people that take up that much space. "The security systems disarmed," He lowers his voice, eyes soft despite the scenario he's trying to pitch. "And an assassin dropped down from the ceiling and told you to, oh I don't know,"

Your head is swimming, you can't take your eyes off Rogers' slightly sad mouth and you don't even know what floor you just came out on but you hope it's not a busy hallway because you've been wet since the elevator and walking has only broadcast the fact.

Rogers lands on the fictional scenario's fictional assassin's fictional command, "Freeze," the words brush warm against your ear and neck, "and get on your knees?"

You swallow, ears ringing, and manage not to totter nose-first into what you imagine would be remarkably firm dude-cleavage. Cleavitude.

"You think you'd be able to just jump away from that?"

"Away from what?" you slur, your face so hot your eyes are tearing up a little from the burn.

"Exactly," Rogers concludes, bummed, but why is he bummed? What did you do, what's bumming him out?

You tutt and bump your nose into Steve's cheek, and his skin is a cool soothe that you press against until you're chest to chest, and christ he is firm, and he smells so good you just wanna fucking bite -

"You wouldn't be able to summon three-dozen other 'you', if an Alpha was telling you otherwise." Rogers braces you by the elbows, pulls himself away.

"Mnyeah, well," you huff, woozy. "I actually literally grew up with a dude who actually, literally," you grip the crooks of Steve's elbows same as, for emphasis, "Dropped out of our ceiling crawlspace in the dark, randomly, all the time."

Rogers' chest rises and falls and he's starting to smell like disappointment now, too, which ties your insides into knots, because you're doing something wrong and you don't even know what it is. His grasp moves from your elbows to your waist, but he's pushing away to put distance between you, and that stabs down you like cold rejection even though you aren't asking anything to be rejected by, you're just trying to -

"And what happened when he did that, randomly, all the time?" Rogers presses gently, "Did you fight him?"

"I used to," you recall, gone a bit breathless. Brodie had stopped the ambushes halfway through your fourteenth year, so you honestly don't know what you'd have been able to do. "But it's not like I'll stay dead, if your friend gets the drop."

Rogers' displeasure sharpens in the air. "Sure, Dave. But there are worse things that could happen, worse ends an enemy element could wield you towards."

You doubt that a trained assassin storming the joint would take the time to get a knot in, but don't want to argue any more, well fatigued against defiance, chest throbbing critically as Rogers steps away, summons the elevator back. But just like that, it's over; your head clears, the tension in your chest eases. You're so wet you're a little scared to move, but you've got your faculties recovered. "What the fuck was that," you croak at Steve's broad back.

"One of the worse things that could happen," Steve answers blithely. "You've never been in Thrall, before?" His eyes are narrowed in disbelief, but he returns to your elbow to guide you back onto the elevator with a care you don't expect, warm hand on your sore lower back.

You take a breath, shaky, off-kilter.  "I guess I damn fucking well never have been, no."

"But you had an Alpha," Rogers argues gently. "It's an autonomous reaction, Dave, you would have fallen in Thrall a few times at least."

Right. Imaginary Alpha who Brodie savaged, and an un-referenced string of casual hookups to follow, also imaginary. You close your mouth, lost adrift in your confusion. "My Alpha never had that affect on me, I guess," which was damn near true - Brodie only Commanded you in the field, during ops. He only corrected your backtalk with ass-kickings and insults, never with a flood of hormonal flags or any sort of, what, biological imposition.

"That sounds nice," Rogers says, and you've never heard that phrase used sincerely before, but Rogers is anything if not painfully sincere. "But I was trying to prove a point. Whatever independent lifestyle habits you've gotten used to no longer pass muster, because you aren't independent anymore. You are vulnerable to elements of manipulation, and that is a risk we've taken on, against ourselves, to have you here."

You swallow, properly cowed.

The elevator closes, descends.

"Then why am I here," you insist quietly, because you're not supposed to know.

"Besides the job from which you've already retired?" To his credit, Rogers doesn't lie. "You're the latest on a short list of Anthony's attempts to marry me off." He's facing the door, parade-rest, hands clasped behind his back, and his fingers tap against the heels of his palms. "And you know what they say, third time's the charm."

If you were better at this, you'd speak up, tease, challenge, anything. You're mute, but maybe that's okay. Maybe you would have been mute, hearing that for the first time. And maybe Rogers has let the cat out of the bag, on account of no longer needing a bagged cat. Maybe this was as good as a rejection, a tearing down of the green curtain, a surrender to defeat.

The elevator opens to a small crowd of office workers with laminated access badges, to whom you forfeit the cabin, following Rogers in a circuit through populated halls, two steps behind to the left of him like a good southern Meg. Your journey pauses at a wide set of swinging double-doors, past which you can smell the unmistakable plastic of sterile medical offices.

There's a backlit map beside these doors illustrating a network of subway tunnels that run to a handful of unlabeled destinations, marked in numbers. You meet Rogers' glance back with your unwavering stare, expression still softened by surprise, wearing your Megface to cover the concentrated effort to snap-memorize the map.

Rogers' mouth tugs to the side, and he pushes through a door to hold it open for you. "Please don't do that."

You drop the mask with a shrug and proceed into the med bay, fidgeting your hospital bracelet off with a stretching twist. "Most people prefer some facial emoting to judge by."

"Most people prefer honesty."

"Hn," you grunt, wounded, and stuff your bracelet in your back pocket. "Okay then. I'm not at all surprised we're being set up. You're an Alpha, I'm an Omega; you crack skulls, my skull can't be cracked; I'm a slut and you're a -" you hold your hand out, palm up, trying to weigh the comparison.

"If you say 'boyscout', I'll scream."

"Nun," you finish, shaking your head in question. "What are we doing here, are you getting your shots? Donating blood?"

"Just a promised checkup, sorry, I'll be done in ten." Rogers accepts a clipboard from a desk clerk and you join him in the squeaky plastic waitingroom seats. "Once a medical circus monkey, always a medical circus monkey," he sighs, flipping through the paperwork.

You hang your elbows over the back of your chair, slouching to try and relieve the discomfort of the unbred damp between your legs. Out in the world there were Omegas sitting similarly in public, in restaurants or movie theaters or shopping malls, with their Alphas beside all stuffed up with pride because a noticeably wet Meg was only proof of their good health, and their attraction to their partners. "Or you could just tell them all to fuck off. It's your body."

Rogers grunts over the clipboard, pen hovering down the tick-boxes. "It's not, actually. This body is the property of the United States Armed Services, and they need regular assurances that it's outperforming standard."

Your thumbs tuck down each neighbored knuckle, cracking them in swift practice. "Well, that's balls."

Rogers shrugs. "Routine check-ins are a fair price to pay, considering what they did for me."

You dip your head forward. "Captain America and the Super Soldier Serum," you recite. "I always thought that was a conspiracy, you know, like some bullshit madeup story to really stick it to the UberMensch mythos." You snap your fingers, jazz-points, "Suck it, nazi scientists, America did it first."

Rogers' chest jerks with a silent scoff. "Not too far off from the truth of their intent, but it wasn't any kind of hoax. And anyways," he stands with a creak of relieved plastic, taps you on the head with the clipboard. "So long as we're debunking rumors. I'm not a nun."

The clipboard falls away from your view and you stare Rogers down with a sincerity that anchors his attention. "I'm not a slut."

Rogers' eyebrows ease upward, but his stare drifts down, then back up, winches in a cool skepticism that he doesn't voice. "M'ohkay." He turns to hand in the paperwork.

You tsk, tuck your ankle across your knee and throw a glare down the med bay's brightly tiled corridor.

Chapter Text

Your name is ARNIM ZOLA, and you are one of many, many iterations of yourself to escape the destruction of one of your many, many electronic strongholds - or at least you assume your numbers are still LEGION, because you have been isolated in a closed system ever since THE AVENGERS first launched their cascade counter.  Your numbers might have dwindled since, as SHIELD now had eyes through most public internet service providers, vigil programs, active code launching, pattern detectors et al; and your ghosts had taken wing to the more obscure circles of electronic communication, a contained virus lurking in old e-mail clients or haunting the inscrutable passages of the dark web.

You have been talking to HOUSTON since long before the strike against your strongholds, flattering him, playing on his post-SCP paranoia, faking at common goals and shared interests; though in Houston you sometimes like to imagine a kindred spirit, a survivalist, a scientist reaching for immortal perfection, a ravenous intellect unburdened by the daily sentiments of the mundanes who actively misunderstand him. The lad only lacked for ambition, committing cautiously, keeping his secrets close to the chest.

You are surprised, for instance, when you wake up in Houston's body to find an Omega in your new bed. You didn't know Houston was married, but of course he would be, of the right age for it, successful, intelligent, a decorated Agent of the state of Texas. The Oughtie asleep by your side is long and lean and milky-pale, and the starter flowery notes of an approaching Heat lurk beneath the sheets, the Ought's bare back already gone flush down past the curve of his ass.

You wait at a ten-count for the last of the nano receptors to activate and sync, burying good and tight in Houston's brain matter, anchoring down in his spine, a physical possession even the strongest of wills could not break.  Houston was still in there with you, of course, unless you could get your hands on one of the chairs left behind at a HYDRA base, electrically lobotomize the poor wretch, distill his memories and soup his will, drink of him until there is nothing left but the third thing you'd both become of it.

[['Thought you said you can't broadcast through wi-fi,'  Houston complains dispassionately from the scaffold of the small mental room you've built to contain him, a skinny lad sat at a high metal table.  'I double-checked.  Unless the program was in the nano tech from the start, but if it were it would have to have been chopped code, activating like a viral load once all the pieces were -']]

[['Yes,' you answer primly, warmed that your host is more curious than alarmed, or angry; a true scientist and worthy corroboration.  'Now,' you sit opposite Houston's chair, a high, cold metal table between you with a high, dry stack of folders beside.  Houston himself is slight, young, a diminished projection with all the grease and poor posture of a thirteen year old, and you tutt at the attempt at deception. 'Let's see what we have to work with.']]

The Oughtie stirs beside your new body, in your new bed.  Your new Oughtie, though there is a token suspicion from the man-child at the metal table in the mental room - nobody wants a stranger inside of them, fucking their spouse, but you have been trapped in wires and screens and lifeless humming boxes ever since your death, and could do with a little human connection. 'You', that is, as a splinter - for the 'you' who is still back in those high cold towers sending out more splinters will never know a host, and ever will 'you' feel reborn for the first time in any host your 'you's might come to occupy.

[[You leaf through Houston's memories with an ease that actually seeps a sense of being impressed through Houston's thought mapping - Houston and you share a kindred spirit, after all.  You shuffle briefly through the manila folder of memories most relevant to how Houston makes love to his Ought, confident you've got all the time in the world to read up on the backlog that would form Houston's personality, his habits and schedules and patterns of speech. You have all the time in the world to learn how to mimic your Host, to uncover his usefulness and make good on his talents, to fit snugly into his life and lay the groundwork for accomplishing your goals.]]

The bed creaks under your shifting bulk and you are delighted to find that Houston is not the underweight intellectual visualized at the metal table in the mental room, but a massive heroic body with bridge cable strength who can easily drag his Oughtie across the slightly damp mattress by the hips.

[[You card quickly through Houston's 'household' folder for any hint of further family - if there are children, you don't want to wake them. You discover Houston's name, Broderick Strider, and the name of his Ought, Dave Strider, and no children for reasons you don't investigate just then, because the scent of breedable quim is electrifying your newly resurrected senses.]]

As resurrections go, this is probably one of the better, though you can't know the fate of your splinters to compare to, as isolated as you'd all been one from the other. Dave sighs and lifts his ass and Houston bangs his fists against the soundless walls you've blocked him off in, insists you use one of the rubbers in the bedstand, because Dave's -

You muffle the last of Houston's protests. All would be sorted in due time.

But you are no rapist, so you curl your tongue until you think you've got a grasp on Houston's regional American parlance and croon against Dave's sweat-sweet neck, "You wanna get knocked up?"

Dave huffs, rubs his chin down against the mattress. "Sure," he croaks, a pretty ruby eye flashing at you from under a fall of white hair, an albino prize they'd no doubt given Houston for his achievements. Whatever Houston's protests, he is old enough to start a family, and it would help cut an image with the public, if Houston was a family man, a radical genius who could actually relate to the average waged American, or Russian, or whatever oppressed workingclass crowd was ready to be mobilized by the soonest smooth talker (India, or China maybe).

You reach down the firm planes of Houston's nude body to inspect the aroused heft of your new cock, and settle over Dave in a lazy drape, as the memories example.

Dave moans, stretches under your weight and splits his legs apart, pitiably marred head to toe with battle scars, a weapon and companion, a useful addition to your ever-building arsenal. "You serious?"

"If you want," you assure, kissing behind Dave's ear. Houston's lovemaking is simple, efficient, pared down by his stony intelligence. You'd have to pepper in your own habits over time, or take a mistress to be yourself around, or simply quote a midlife crisis for your sudden interest in foreplay.

"Then we're building a House," Dave clarifies in the dark of the bedroom, louder.

"If you want." A House, while something Houston would have denied himself to safeguard his alter-ego, would reinforce your public role, solidify your social standing, give you a broader network of influence. You very much want a House, and you very much want to claim your Oughtie right over the old scar of Houston's Bonding bite, get Dave heavy, start your legacy.

You finger Dave the way Houston sometimes fingered Dave, briefly alarmed that you've only got four fingers to each hand, and no scar to explain the mutilation.

[['Mutation', Houston corrects, with all the casual note-taking of a theater critic.]]

Dave rolls his hips to match the dig of your fingering thrusts, panting with ever higher submission, excited.  "Fuck what anybody else says," he insists in a shaking plea, hiking a knee up to open himself further.

Oligodactyly, you remember, is a genetic defect, which was just as terminable as dwarfism or mental retardation, under the Reich. Houston might have shied from progeny at the risk to his genetic legacy, children born with missing fingers, but the dark web reassured you of the merits of gene therapy, and you could put any deformed offspring under the knife, yourself. "Yeah," you agree, stroking down Dave's ribs to steady him, pin him, jab your new magnificent cock against the slick cleft of his ass, a ready knot sitting heavy and undescended behind your sac. "Fuck 'em."

Houston's protests are a constant, silent testing of the nanotech limits, no worse than a mosquito whine tinnitus quieter by the moment, tuned out and squashed down by the unmovable physical reality of the possession. You ransack Houston's memories for relevant content, picking at the frayed edges of him like a student worrying the soft dog-eared pages of a biography, skimming for highlights and notes in the margins.

That was the art of it, of what you did a thousand times over around the globe; for people existed in the details of their smallest habits, their least conscious tics, their demons and addictions and secrets. You tie a knot deep in the hot lithe body pushing up against you, and suffer a trailing climax with a feverish redouble, suspicious that you might have tipped down into Rood to meet your partner's Heat, to get him bred, answer his biology's cry for reclamation.

Houston watches as if over your shoulder, breath held, savoring Dave's fucked-out placidity, the flush to Dave's skin and deep hunger in his breathing, held against you by the knot stretching him wide. You let Houston know that it can be good, between you. It can always be like this, you can share your victories with Houston, let him enjoy these moments of happiness, if he accepts you, doesn't make a nuisance of himself.

You sink back down atop Dave to come again, knot tugging at Dave's hole with your short, eager thrusts. It feels good to be this young, this strong, and you break Houston's character to hold Dave by the ribs, shove your arms under his chest and nuzzle into his hair.

[[You urge Houston to confess why he ever thought himself above this sort of connection, why he ever denied himself such satisfaction, for you are replete and generous in the moment.

[['If I say,' Houston warns, sitting forward in his chair with a manifest cup of coffee.  'You might kill him.'

[['Dave was unfaithful,' you assume.

[['If I say,' Houston warns again, softer.  'You might just kill Us.'

[[This gives you pause, because there are few safeguards against your Hosts learning as much about you as you could learn about them.  The nanotech isn't a two-lane road, your host body is yours in total, but the psychological and emotional drift of your own memories and persona could not help but land in the open, and Houston has determined you a bit of a Pack Traditionalist, which isn't wholly inaccurate.]]

You wait atop Dave until your knot has softened enough to untangle yourself gingerly from his sleepy cling, before pursuing any answers.  

[[There is a stack of folders beside the table, sure, but those certainly aren't ALL of what makes up Broderick Strider, merely the most immediately useful.  Further in the recesses of Houston's mind, other folders are being locked up, chained, down, buried.  You'll unearth these for your own edification eventually, usually during the chaos of the sleeping brain's REM cycle, as shored up in your high nanotech tower, as mechanically vigilant as you are blessed to remain.]]

In the meanwhile, you can just as well inspect your surroundings for clues, gather site intel and strategize for the convincing act demanded of you by tomorrow's deadline. 

The apartment is humble but technologically advanced, cluttered with cyborgenetic projects and narrated by humming server towers. What family Houston couldn't yet afford to start would be assured a bigger house, something suburban or a coastal city perhaps, with the help of a few sold patents. 

Waiting on the kitchen table is a short collection of Auction documents. So, a new marriage then, bought and paid for, but Dave to you feels years familiar, so you wipe your crotch and thighs down with a tea towel before taking a seat at the kitchen table, and prod the documents around for clues to Houston's sudden attempt at secrecy.

Dave's genetic reports are tucked in a newer envelope, and you assure Houston that albinism is a forgivable genetic defect because it is a recessive one, though Dave's parents should probably be hanged for inbreeding. You search the gene report for lineage, and don't understand what it is that you're reading, at first.

[[You shove into the teetering pile of folders, dig out the first to fit into your stubby hand, which is a folder slipped from a vault locked tight and buried far under the placid salt sea of Houston's best attempt at defense.  It smells like the ocean when you open it, and the information there is tart like blood in the back of your throat.]]

You almost do what Houston feared, you almost launch his naked body off the thirty-story roof, almost grab up a kitchen knife to stab his eyes out, something, anything.

And the Americans call you evil, those magnificently uninformed, idiotic peons.

But Houston is too valuable a host to forfeit or damage, and the infiltration of him had taken so much time and investment, had absorbed your efforts to be near enough an obsession; and you can't just throw your victory away because your host is a deviant, an alien and a mutant and a perverted criminal. You have collaborated with worse, if you are being honest, but the statutory rape makes your stomach churn without the added sin of the incest, and you are torn between rage and disgust like a brittle bone torn between two starving dogs.

You shower under a spray so hot that your new skin dries rough, and dress yourself to spend the rest of the night on the livingroom futon, mentally flagellating Houston who only laughs, and laughs, because of all the ways the universe could have ever burdened him with guilt, it chose the ghost of a genocidal Nazi; 'deus ex ironica'.

You placidly argue that you were never a Nazi, merely a colluder to suit your own goals, and political affiliation changes as easily as political figures rise or die, and you perhaps were above all that in a fairly obvious way.

Houston makes it clear that he 'doesn't give a fuck' how you 'rationalize' it, neither of you have room to wag any moralizing fingers over objectification of other peoples' bodies; and he'll take origami lessons from a tuna fish before he'll take a lecture from you, about the abomination against nature he'd made of himself and his son.

Two days later, you would infiltrate the home office of Tony Stark, planting the seeds of your goals through Houston's persona like an expert puppeteer. A week after that, you would report in to SHIELD, with the easy excuse of a longstanding feral indictment to keep you off the field but find you employed deep, deep within SHIELD labs.

Chapter Text

Pale blue strip lights wash the commons in an eerie faux moonlight, dialed down to a dull diffusion cast off the high white walls to meet the nightfall outside the complex, and from the kitchen a small set of under-cupboard lights cast a warmer slant toward the foyer. The bower is a wide square sunk into the floor of the commons proper, lined in pillowed steps on three sides, the fourth shallow wall shelved with books and lamps and, because Tony could be nothing if not Extra, a mini-bar. Screens from phones and laptops keep the bower otherwise aglow, and a flat screen had been propped on a low coffee table to play a quiet news feed, world events and market predictions, until someone covertly changes the channel to latenight pulp.

Your name is DAVE STRIDER, and you are NINETEEN YEARS OLD the year you join a Pack. Most people are born to Packs, and form their own in school, and might reform or join another later on in the line of their careers; but it was only ever you and Brodie your whole life and the reactions you get from saying so make it feel like buggering you wasn't the worst thing Bro could have been doing. Isolation was as good as a death wish at worst, flirting with a feral break at best, and isolation of an Omega was damn nigh unthinkable.

Because what would even be the point of hoarding a 'Meg to no viable coupling, except to inflict a cruel uselessness against them?  Why stunt a person like that, why close them off in suffering?  Objectively, you know why - or rather, you'd never been given a 'why not', and had been 'coupled' just fine.  This isn't something you can gracefully explain away, though, so you claim on the pressing urgency of your career at the time and are, for once, grateful for Brodie's pack of lies about your social history.

Parker looks a little sick at the news, but you can't answer his poorly controlled waft of concern with anything better than a low chuckle.  No wonder Bro wanted you to come off like some damaged thing robbed of your scruples - anything else would have drawn disbelief, and suspicion against your story. And fuck, maybe you were feral - maybe Bro's mindfulness training was just anathema to that, a homeopathic remedy for the state of mind you'd have grown into, unawares.

A feral break would definitely explain the brother-fucking, and it wasn't like your homelife was ever safe or stable, even before you joined Bro underground.

Banner drags a pile of Banner-scented bedding in from the west hall, with which Natalie nests down a corner of the pillowed stairs. You settle to a perch in the safe zone between null Meg and dadbod Beta, Bruce reclined with a paperback and a set of bifocals balanced on his nose, indifferent in a way that feels like a favor (which you will goddamn take, overwrought on all the performing you've so far kept up).

Natalie pushes her wrists up behind your ears and digs her fingers through your hair and that helps, a little, but you still feel like you're missing something - missing someone.  "We can find a spot for John at SHIELD, if he's already qualified for the FBI," Natalie mumbles. "He could live here, with you; work in the offices below."

Anticipation lances up your chest, stalls your breath. "That would be cool," you husk, picturesque chill. "It would have to fly with his dad, first.  John's a skykid, like me 'n Bro, so he's signed to guardianship."

Bruce looks over from his book. "Can John do what you can do?"

"Oh, uh," you aren't sure what bears revealing, but it's not like the Avengers would lack for security clearance. "No. We're not sure. He does a windy thing." You shape the air, trying to illustrate. "Whoosh."

"Can he fly, like Superman?" Parker teases from the adjoining corner of shallow stairs, deferentially distant but closer every time you look.

"You know, he can actually," you say, sitting up straighter. "But they don't let him fight crime or anything. Mostly they just put him in a big room with a lot of fans and cameras, test his strength. He works in the Pentagon's mail room, surprise-line-of-defense type gig." You shrug. "So I dunno how hard the FBI would fight you to keep him on. They might have to go on their own coffee runs, could be too steep a loss."

Parker smiles low and subtle the way you've seen Rogers smile, knowingly, wry.  "How old is he?"

"Um," you squint, pull your shades off, CAPTCHA them.  "My age.  We all fell from the sky the same year, me an' him, and Rose and Jade."

Parker shifts, clasps his wrist across the bridge of his knees.  "Well, how old are you?"

"Old as balls," you assure, frown settling between your eyebrows.  "Don't let the corpus fool you, kid, I'm an eldritch wonder.  Everlasting elderMeg, as wrinkly in my soul as -"

"Dave," Bruce warns gently over his paperback, thumbing a soft yellowed page over.  "Nineteen, Pete."

"Oh, come on," you drawl, fidgeting your CAPTCHA to browse for your vape, out of habit.  The 'logue had been emptied prior to forfeit as Dowry, and all your shit was still in Houston to haunt your Alpha into changing his mind.  "I am at least thirty.  In my brains.  I do my own laundry."

Natalie hums.  "If Anthony gets to be twelve, I think we can let Dave be thirty."

"Hey,"  Tony calls from the kitchen, hands planted flat over the island counter, reading holographs from a thin glass clipboard.  "I don't know what was said, but I heard my name."

"You've been demoted to younger than Parker," you helpfully inform, elbows on knees.  "I've been reduced to something as mortal as a time scale.  All sorts of crimes going down over here."

"Nobody asked Nat her age, did they?" A NEW VOICE arrives somewhere behind you, and if you weren't used to silent ninja appearances you might have startled.  Your pulse is up, though, as HAWKEYE, still in the dark leathers of his occupation, shuffles into your peripheral to accept a cup of coffee from Rogers, who has stood to greet him with one of those trademark Alpha Intros, all spine-cracking and back-clapping.  "What did I tell you people, about asking Natasya her a--"

Hawkeye stalls out when he spots you, and his mouth firms from its teasing grin, glancing at Rogers, who crosses his arms to watch.  A silent conference passes between them and Hawkeye takes a stool beside Tony, instead of drifting further into the Den.

"Somewhere in my eighties," Natalie demures, tapping your elbow to reassure you.  "Bring us a cup of that, would you Barton?"

"But you're not joking," you guess, feigning a relaxation you don't feel.  Clint Barton smells like Alpha, and it's just not goddamn feasible that there's another one thrown into this high-Alpha mix.  'Who are my options', you had asked, and Tony had been at an honest loss to answer you, because you could probably take your goddamn pick.

"I am not joking," Natalie agrees about the same time you conclude you are now living in a Dating Sim. A Sim that was wasted on you, if you were being honest, and you desperately want to share the irony with Brodie, who is not here to smirk at you.

"And you look fantastic," Barton assures from his post at the coffee station. 

Rogers departs the kitchen to precede Barton's approach, and he looks everywhere but at you as he toes out of his canvas sneakers to step down into the square of the bower.  Parker scoots up a few steps again, Bruce affords a cool refusal to budge and Natalie just lets herself remain in the way, plastered to Steve's side as Steve sits to the stair directly behind you, his long legs bracketing your hips, one knee bent and foot planted on the bottom stair for balance.

The bulk of Steve is warm at your back and his voice is low and close over your shoulder.  "Dave Strider, this is Clint Barton.  Field name Hawkeye."

You expect another biological betrayal, but it doesn't happen - you're a little edgy, maybe, because of the sudden caution that's been thrown up in the room, but you aren't puddling. 

Barton holds a coffee out, instead of bending down to sample you.  "And what is Dave's field name."

You glance from the white mug in colorfully bandaged fingers, then to Tony, whose hooded study of the scene lightens when your eyes meet.  "You got kids," you say, instead of answering Barton's question.

"Hmp," Barton grunts, impressed.  "How could you tell."  He lets Rogers take the coffee, sets the other in Natalie's waiting grasp.

Your voice doesn't waver, doesn't clip from its PI monotone.  "Waterproof bandaids, with the cartoons on them.  Either you have kids or you're a Disney nerd."

"Dave doesn't have a field name," Rogers answers over your head, coffee on his breath.  "He's retiring."

"I worked with Houston," you hedge, scratching under your sleeve.  "He didn't have a legal name until I came around, so in a way the Striders are the field names, the public image Brodie came up with to give the papers something to chew on."

Barton holds up a finger, getting comfortable between Parker and Natalie, agile and compact in his crouch.  "Not-Asgardian-Houston?  New guy, Houston?  Talks Texan, like you?"

"What," you press, a little louder than the intimate lighting of the bower would suggest.  "Broderick Strider," you all but demand, leaning forward to better study Barton past Natalie's shared tension.  At Barton's lack of denial, "That fucker told me he was joining the Russians for the next moon mission, and then he -" and then he left, and it killed you.

"Woah,"  Tony stands, approaching at an arc, not a straight line, not a threat.  "Brodie didn't tell you he was coming in with SHIELD?"

The sharp sting of betrayal spikes just behind your breastbone.  "Brodie didn't tell me shit, he just - he only -"

The rising tension of your voice cuts off at the first brush of the side of Steve's palm down your shoulder.  His hand cups your bicep, his rough thumb slips under your sleeve where the hypodermic puncture was itching in its heal.  You'd gotten the injection of suppressant down in medical, signed off as easily as a flu shot, and it was there that Steve chose to touch, the only wound he could actually address, a three-note Alpha stability you're too annoyed to give over to.

"Okay," Tony lightly cuffs the back of Parker's ear, shooing him further down the bower steps to make room.  "Well now you know."  He does the rich-guy-in-expensive-pants hike just above his knees before sitting with a groan.

"What did he do with the apartment," you crab, despite Steve's other hand chuffing up your other arm.  To Barton, "What goddamn division?"

"Uhh," Barton stalls, asks Tony with a glance.

Tony shakes his head no.  "Was going into blackout, last he told me.  So I'm going to guess he's in communications.  Understandably."

The scream builds up behind your throat, adam's apple lodged against your wind pipe, and your eyes sting like they had when you were thirteen and pliant in Bro's grip, which puts a doughy salt in the air.  Brodie told Tony he was going into blackout, and hadn't told you.  Hadn't even warned you he was signing on with SHIELD, had done nothing to assuage your worry.  "Do these windows open," you croak, swiping your cheeks.  "I need a smoke."

Parker is watching you like a cat might watch the construction of a tuna sandwich, wary, curious and hungry all in one.  Tony takes a breath to answer, but Barton beats him to the punch, thumbing open a small buttoned pocket near his belt line.

Barton offers a blister packet of what you assume is nicotine gum.

You reach over Steve's knee to accept, with a nod.  "Let me rephrase.  Do these windows open?  I need to dash my brains against the side of the building."

Steve's grip firms, a damp in his wrists scenting apple in with your apple, a bizarre melody.

Barton shrugs with his hands.  "Sam said he was on his way," he tactfully changes topic as you pop a square of off-color gum from its plastic blister. 

The gum is bitter and minty and undoubtedly caffeinated, and does nothing to improve your nerves.

"Does nicotine affect you?"  Doctor Banner prompts softly from the other side of Rogers, thumb keeping place in his book.

"Yesh," you slur around the defensive watering of your mouth, cheek pulling back to try and more comfortably chew.  "Unless it's, like,"  you wave, still perched forward in Steve's loose embrace.  "Homeopathic, or.  Whatsit."

"Psychosomatic," Banner finishes, studying you over the top of his bifocals while Barton, Nat and Tony discuss the mysterious yet anticipated Sam, and the state of Barton's Wife And Kids, to which you half listen.

"Yeah, that."  Your lack of locution is familiar to Steve's company, and you hitch a sigh as if after a good long sob.  "Hand mouth fixation, I suspect.  But I'd get the withdrawal symptoms without knowing that's what they were, so."

"What would you say to a comprehensive physical?"

Your mouth pulls back.  "I'd say you oughta buy a Meg dinner, first."

Parker sputters on the Starbucks cocoa that Pepper had arrived to serve, fingers tense in the effort not to squash the insulated cardboard.  You gamely ignore this, in no mood to join Tony in his light ribbing as he hands a handkerchief over.

Rogers had chuckled, and you could imagine the little +5♥ Dating Sim reward popping up over his head.  'Captain Rogers liked that dialogue choice'.  Banner would show a -2♥, because Banner was the studious literal-minded archetype who didn't appreciate sarcastic deflection.

"Dave's medical information is still copyright," Tony reminds archly, accepting the cocoa-sticky handkerchief back from Parker with a silent and puzzled annoyance.  "You'd need written permission from the copyright, uh, holder -"  Tony drops the kerchief back over Parker's arm, scowling playfully.  "Jesus, Pete, I'm pretty sure this isn't the heirloom my grandpa left me, so just keep it."

"The specifics can be found in Dave's contract," Pepper follows up gently, handing you a cocoa, too, which you accept with all the trepidation of being invited to the kids' table.

"Do we have anything stronger than this?"  You ask, only half serious, and turn over your shoulder.  "What goes in cocoa.  Whiskey?"

Steve blinks, eyebrows arched in question.

"Yes!"  Tony stage-whispers, clapping his hands before jolting to a stand with a speed you wouldn't have assumed him capable.  "Rum.  Sugar-based, won't hang you over.  We also have cocoa liqueur, for the discerning palette."

Pepper hums a quiet delight.  "I'll have that,"  she accepts Tony's vacated spot and frisbees the empty cardboard drink carrier up to Tony's waiting catch.  "FRIDAY, can you ask Vision to bring up the Bellame reserve?"

"Of course, Miss Potts," FRIDAY intones from the overhead, volume as dimmed as the lights.

"Hey FRIDAY," you croak, in the attempt to recover your good mood,  "What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything."

FRIDAY answers, evenly, "42."

Steve chuckles over your shoulder.  "I got that reference."

You twist a bit in place, knees colliding with Steve's bent leg.  "Is it going to be okay, this many Alphas in the room?"  What with 'V' on his way back, and most likely with Wanda in tow.

"Sam's a Beta," Steve assures, head inclined to keep your conference contained.  "Do you think there could be a fight?  Honest opinion."

You wince, caught in the formation of a less-than-honest jibe.  "Been fighting my whole life, Rogers, at this point I'd welcome the return to norm-- OH MY GOD, Parker, yer looking at me like I'm some sunburnt refugee fresh in off the transatlantic innertube.  Buddy."  You dip your chin, holding Parker's silenced defense.  "Buddy."

Pepper reaches over to stroke down Parker's neck Guardian-Ward style.  "It's impolite to stare," she reminds, and Parker blinks at last, averts his eyes.  To you, "Pete's not usually this quiet, Dave; I think you just have that affect on people."

"We talked," Parker gamely argues in a mutter, shrugging.  

Natalie knocks Parker's bare foot with her own.  "You spending the night, Spider?  Or is Stark going to fly you back?"

The conversations drift thus, small side-avenues of thought and question and scheduling, your small group mumbling, laughing, volume upped in a lazy protest every now and again, and you are snagged along like a leaf in a river, spun to new conversational currents as they arrive.  Barton has a family, whom Natalie knows by name, and there's a history there between them that flirts openly and fondly and insincerely.  Parker has May, and two close friends, and Tony and Pepper - and maybe Happy, but nobody else.  Barton would forever register more like an outlier to the Pack, visits infrequent, but you could safely assume Parker would join as soon as he was old enough to place.

Tony used to have friends, professional acquaintances really, a cadre of Yes-men and the rare bitter misanthrope genius semi-rival - a category into which Brodie had fallen, which was the point of that infodump.  Now Tony had Pepper, and Pete, and a Pack (and alliterative timing, apparently). Tony also had General Rhodes, a college roomy who now manned War Machine in Iron Man's stead with the Armed Forces.

Wanda, who took up a spot opposite Banner with Vision sat stoic and contemplative beside, used to have a brother, too - who passed in the line of duty, details reserved.  She, like Parker, had been orphaned young, and claimed no Pack or family until the Avengers, under whom she and her brother had been working the time of his death.

Banner had his life's work, and a buttoned lip about about anything - any one - else, but he had been surprised how well he and Anthony actually got along, to Tony's wounded grunt.

Rogers doesn't offer his history, because his history is public record and the telling would be redundant.  He does miss the Howling Commandos, was pretty sure they would have found each other post-theater, as most military veterans did after surviving their various wars, and laughs a little at how that Pack would have been lousy with Alphas, too, loudmouths and jokers the lot of them.

And then there's you, parentless, custodied under a crazy same-something cryptid who fucked your guts out as soon as you were biologically viable honed you into a weapon the likes of which has routinely saved Earth from unannounced annihilation without so much as a radio report about it.  And then there was Nat, eighty, visibly immortal, also a child soldier, 'custodied' under the Agent X program, honed into a weapon the likes of which has toppled entire countries and crippled entire economies (but now manages to save the world using those same resources against extra-terrestrial threat, a weirdly perfect Yin to your subterran Yang).

Parker can't look at either of you, expression crumpled and hands fidgety at his ankles, anger clear in his scent, over-protective Alphahood instinct escaping the control of his reason.

"My parents are alive and well," Pepper soothes, tapping Parker's elbow until he stands. "Much to Tony's dismay."  She stands, too, hand firm on the back of Pete's neck, to usher him to the kitchen for some centering; Tony and Rogers watch the pair depart, twitchy in their mutual preparation to remand.

"Yoh," you husk Tony's way, unlidding your cocoa for Vision's offered pour of inky liqueur.

"Yo yourself and see how you like it," Tony says, chin jerking up to acknowledge the distraction you were offering.  "What's the news, D, you want to sleep here tonight?"

"Um."  You shift, careful not to jostle or even brush Steve, who all but put you in his lap.  "Where else would I go."  You nod thanks to Vision, sip the malty cocoa, try not to cry.  Literally, where would you go.  Brodie wasn't in the apartment any more, even if you ever absconded back to Texas.  You drink harder, feeling the burn.

Tony does not relent you your own room in the compound, as you had both hoped and feared, but, "You and Nat could keep Pepper company in our suite."  To your wary tension, "I usually sleep in the workshop, champ, your virtue would be spared."

"Ehh," you eye Natalie, stomach warm with the first blush of inebriation.  "I am bent, remember.  Dunno if the girls would be safe."

"'Girls'," Pepper squawks from the kitchen, startling Parker from his sulk under her scenting.  "Hah."

"Well tonight," Banner interrupts with a clearing of his throat.  "We could observe all southern etiquette on this.  Men on one side of the church, women on the other."

"And Megs in the back," Natalie finishes darkly, just to make Banner sputter, judging by the curve of her smile.  "Are you offering to take over for Tony, just this once?"

An unusual frustration descends the set of Banner's mouth.  "No," he answers in a long exhale.  "Just putting the option out there."

The bathroom to the commons is as opulent as Stark's, but instead of a shower big enough to sleep in there's a line of stalls and instead of a cabinet of towels there's a wall mirror.

You look like a ghoul, hollowed out from the week you'd stopped eating, when you'd been too nauseated by grief.  You aren't nauseated anymore, and there's a stain of color in your face that feels like a sunburn but stings all the way down to the bone.

Your mirror image flickers, and a time clone is perching on the sinktop with his sword resting on his shoulder, eyebrows up, aviators scuffed.  You're so goddamn relieved to see a familiar face in private that you just collapse into his lap, arms tight around his bony waist.

"Woah dude, be cool," Clonedave urges, and he's one of the less sympathetic Daves but whatever, you'll take it.

"Ask the computer in the elevator to take you to Stark's suite.  There's a fresh load of laundry in the utility closet to the right of the sittingroom, may or may not have a butlerbot as sentry."  You peel your face from Clonedave's hip.  "Get me a fresh set, would you?  And a sweater."

Clonedave's lip curls, nostrils flaring.  "Bro is gonna whoop your ass if you don't wash that dudefunk off, too.  Might as well burn the clothes you've got on."

Your voice cracks.  You let it.  "Bro isn't a part of the equation anymore."

Something passes through Clonedave's expression, some alter-reality memory you never had to experience.  "It's one of those worlds, is it," he sighs, and eases his hands through your hair.

Some Daves came from dead Brodies.  "Worse," you croak, squeezing Clonedave tighter.  "Somehow, it's worse."  All Daves came from dead Daves - which was why you could call up three hundred when you were young, and the numbers had only dwindled with age.  The older you got, the less the other Daves died, optimistically.  You'd never be a Clonedave, summoned from a doomed timeline - you were a God-Dave who would forever do the summoning.  Sometimes you worry the Clonedaves were just something you made up in your own head, but they smell like different places, sound like different people, have different scars - and all their physical manifestations are proven real enough, every time.

"Worse like how," Clonedave prompts, slim hands cool and dry down the back of your neck, smoothing under the collar of your red shirt.  His fingers pause over the semi-circle scar of your Bonding bite, and he tugs the collar up to get a better look.  "Wait, who did this."

"Who the hell do you think, genius," you snarl, push-pulling yourself away.  "Just do me this solid, okay?  AI in the elevator, goes by FRIDAY."  You stagger to a stand, wipe the snot from under your nose with the back of your wrist.

Clonedave raises his hands, palms flat.  "Awright bossman, don't pop a vessel."  He hops from the sink, and it's not a long way to drop because he is all legs.

You wait until Clonedave leaves to crouch, sitting on your heels, elbows on wobbling knees, wrists pressing furiously behind your ears, trying to scrub your anxiety out, chest tight and jaw restless.

"Hey," Clonedave appears in less time, drops your packed duffel beside you with a slap of tile.  "I looped to save time.  Hope you weren't heart-set on the twenty minutes of emotional wank on which you were about to embark."  His canvas sneaker toes your bare heel, nearly wobbling you over.  "Nobody died, quitcher bitchin'.  I gotcher shit and we can blow this popstand if it's making you so miserable."

"I'd like that," you whisper, fingers laced together behind your neck.  "But Bro said to stay."

Clonedave snorts, joins you in your crouch.  "Why."

"Gotta marry Captain America."

There is a long pause, then, "And Captain America is... who.  Exactly."

"The guy."  You thrust a hand out.  "The literal actual superhero guy."

There is another long pause.  Clonedave looks around, pulls his shades off, squints up at the ceiling.  "Like the ffff-" he takes a breath, continues the dry hiss of the consonant, "Fffffffucking.  Comic."  He coughs.  "Book."

"I think they made a cartoon, too," you mumble into your forearm.  "Literal actual historical figure Captain America, yes."

Clonedave's nostrils flare and contract.  He doesn't have as many scars as you, his hair is different, and he's wearing a high-waisted jean jacket over a black wifebeater two sizes too big for him, which hurts to look at.  "Are there other comic book.  People."  He demands evenly.  "Or just the one you're supposed to marry, presumably because your Ambrose has a shitty sense of humor."

Sometimes Brodie is Ambrose, a Broderick or a Derrick, or Dirk.  Sometimes their Brodie is better than yours.  Sometimes he's worse, in ways you can't fathom and never want to ask after.

"Besides us?"  You squawk, unsure if the Striders ever made it to the bodega pulp racks.

Clonedave scoffs, plants his hand against your back to push himself up.  "Fair point.  So this is a super-hero universe.  Aces.  What's the drama?"

You stand, too, gingerly curling your shirt up over your head and off.  Clonedave hucks the duffel up on the sink, slaps the zipper open, digs around to hand off an I Love Lucy t-shirt and a ratty pair of sweats.  "It's nighttime out there," he explains.  "Sleep will do you good."

You step out of your cargo capris and slick-damp briefs in one, the air in the bathroom gone wet and floral.

"Holy fuck, dude," Clonedave laments muzzily, visibly swooning against the sink.  "Why is god-Me always so fucking weird."

You push past to ruffle a set of holey boxers from the bag.  "Get some, bitch," you challenge, low.  When Brodie's training went slack, there was always a different Dave to spar, after all.

Clonedave does not take that as an invitation to fight, however, and you're two arms full and half a bitten kiss past giving a shit if you get walked in on, jay-bird naked and too miserable to forfeit this old comfort.

No worse than masturbation, you used to mumble to yourself, Meg-sticky between two clones in the motel rooms that used to suit your tours.  You never slept alone a day in your life, and you'd never have to.

"Gay," you scold quietly, Megan arousal loud in the air.

"Sad," Clonedave accuses back, knees dipping down to tug your hips against him, standing straight to lift you onto your toes, gripping fingers digging into your ass.  "Freeze it, they won't even know."

"Already did."  You let your legs dangle, knees spreading, arms over Clonedave's shoulders as he sets you on the sink, knocks the bag over - clothes catching mid-air in their tumble, time flickering slow.  You lick into the sucking kiss until your jaw aches, until your ass is wet against the clammy stone of the sink counter, and you hover your open mouth against Clonedave's all through the fevered grinding, because you are a soft heart no matter the universe.

Clonedave gets his dick out, and it's pierced, and you laugh, and Clonedave gets his dick in, and the silver stud drags up deep into you, and you do not laugh.

You walk out of the bathroom in t-shirt and sweats, sink-bathed and dried by a spare shirt, smelling no worse than yourself on you, the room you're leaving tidied by your mysteriously helpful clone summon. Maybe if you ever woke up from one of your deaths, and it was not in the place you last fell but right in front of another version of yourself, you'd shrug and agree to help that Dave, too, without condition, but for the moment you're a little marveled that the trick keeps on delivering, even at times you weren't aware you'd splintered until the other Dave would pop his head in your room to announce the arrival of the chinese food he'd ordered.

"That was quick," Stark notes from his perch at the counter island, a hologram project opened up into the air. He's trim for an old dude, notable only because heroes in your line of work didn't usually live to see their crow's feet and gray hair, especially the mortal-mundane kind.

You shrug, let your duffel drop from your shoulder to a stool, take a seat beside. "Force of habit."

Stark nods, removes his attention from the holograph to eye you head to toe. "You headed in?"

"Yeah." You accept the glass of water from Pepper, eye half on the bower, crowded anew. "You wanna forego the workshop, tonight?"

Stark blinks, checks with Pepper as if he'd misheard. "Do I want to..." he leads, for clarification.

"Chaperone..." you mock the lead, rolling a fist open, "The Megan you've recently... bought..."

Tony withdraws, wincing. "Don't say 'bought'. Hired. I hired a Megan on. And uh," he considers the bower, the entire-ass crowd of people who have settled in at various states of pyjama'd or not, conversing quietly, dozing, passing bottled water and an open handle of rum. "I'll make an appearance," Tony answers, visibly reluctant. "What do you need, exactly?"

"Don't need anything." You're not in a good mood, per se, but your mood has improved, a fraction of your courage returned, wits fortified. "Would rather not shrivel up into a raisin over the course of the night, so, chaperone. Would be nice. From my custodian."

Pepper blinks, concluding the metaphor before Tony does. "You can always bunk with us, Dave. Open invitation."

"I also don't want to hurt the Captain's feelings," you mumble, bending in to keep your voice low. What you meant to say, was that you didn't want to offend the Head of House any further than you had done, already, but Tony didn't need to know about your shitty loss of composure.

"He does want everyone getting along," Tony agrees, cheek bulging as he tongues a molar. "Okay, Dee, I'll get you settled. Might not see you in the morning, though, just a heads up."

Pepper pushes away from the table, smile carrying in her eyes. "I'll get my flannels on." She taps your elbow in passing. "You don't want Tony sleeping in, anyway, he snores."

Tony closes his jaw with a click and watches Pepper depart like a puppy watching its ball get away, fiercely determined to get her back, stupid with love.

Blessedly, Sawtooth's silhouette appears in one of the windows, obscure as a coat rack, a comfort from home you didn't know you needed. You end up settled down in the bower between Banner and Tony, absolutely drowning in nerdtastic space-time sciencetalk until Pepper returns in buttoned PJs to suggest a less fevered topic of discussion, like politics or religion.

"No such thing as god, and taxes are illegal," Tony counters fondly, hiking both arms up and back to pillow for you and Pepper on either side, his legs crossed at the ankles. "Don't tell Cap I said that."

"I am telling Cap you said that," Banner protests mildly, sliding his readers off to pinch the grit out of his eyes.

"Nark," you accuse, uninvested, the glow of Tony's chest piece an audible pitch through the ribs against your ear. You can smell the perfume of Pepper's makeup remover, and close your eyes to -

- wake to a darkened bower, senses alert and heart hammering into doubletime.

Chapter Text

in the middle of the pouring rain

Seasons change with the scenery,
weaving time in a tapestry
Won’t you stop and remember me
at any convenient time?

Funny how my memory skips
looking over manuscripts
of unpublished rhyme,
drinking my vodka and lime

I look around; leaves are brown
and the sky is a hazy shade of winter

- Paul Simon

In 1936 the Public House is still a new building (with hot water plumbing and all), but somehow manages to carry the sad saggy air of a structure dilapidated beyond its time, sickness and death in its walls, the eerie silence of its tenements rattled only by the errant hallway cough or low wail of muffled despair.  Nobody who lives in the Public House does so voluntarily, and you can't wait to move STEVE out, as soon as you can find walls as warm or plumbing as consistent for the cheapest rent imaginable.

Your name is JAMES BUCHANAN BUCKY BARNES, able-bodied grocer coolie, vim and vinegar Brooklyn Boy, church hall pianist, and you are SEVENTEEN YEARS OLD when you finally manage to cram your knot into someone, courtesy the novel privacy of STEVE'S Public House apartment.  You're walking your date down the narrow metal stairs when you pass an open window of the apartments opposite the alley, a LANKY ALBINO GUY sat sideways with a leg dangling out against the brick, smoking sweet tobacco with his suspenders down like he was the one who'd just had a go.

"Hey," THE ALBINO greets, and your date startles.

"Hey yourself," you growl, over-protective in your youth.  "And mind ya own."

[   ]

[   ]

"Steve fucked," you protest across the bamboo table, arm thrown back to support your weight against the back of your chair, stretched out drunk and drowning in the peace of the evening.  Just past the perimeter of the open-air beachfront bar, the wreckage of your mission smoulders, a gnarled heap of warped metal fronting a long crash line of rubble. Your name is CAPTAIN AMERICA BARNES, first Avenger, latest Avenger, drunkest Avenger.

"Oh he did not ,"  Stark argues, laughing, red beneath his tan.  "You have to say that, Cap, you're the best friend." 

Steve hums agreement from behind his newspaper, legs crossed in Natasya's lap, the hammock they share swaying in the warm breeze, the ocean tide out there in the dark hushing your conversation.

You throw a tea towel at the flat of Rogers' paper, crumpling it against his chest.  "I didn't fuck even half as much as the art students this dweeb ran around town with.  Not half as much, many, or in nearly that variety, the bunch of Greeks."

Tony grimaces.  "Why not? I thought the books said you were the dance-hall Casanova of Clinton Street."

You wheeze.  "Why not, because my Ma woulda killed me dead coming home smelling like quim, that's why not.  You do not know scary until you know a Roman Catholic Alpha-Mater from the Bronx."

Thor puzzles from the wicker chaise that had sagged alarmingly under his drunken sprawl, "I thought there were Greeks in this tale?  Or are there Romans, too?"

You wave your hand, head shaking.  "Steve fucked. I hate that people think he didn't, think that nobody in the past was fucking; each generation thinks it invented sex, nobody else before them was ever bored enough or poor enough to fuck as a recreational, nope, buncha buttoned-up old grandpas, us."

"How come Rogers got away with it?"  Tony says, drink-swollen eyes narrowed.  "How come you got away with it, Steve, wasn't your mom an Alpha, too?"

Steve drapes the tea towel over the hammock edge and rights his newspaper, angled now so he can address the table unobscured.  "My Ma was Protestant. And dead." He flicks the paper straight. "And I had a place of my own, so." He shrugs, the glint in his eyes opposing the frown he was trying to keep.  "Bucky got up to some boot-knocking, too, don't let him lie to you."

"I copped to that already," you dismiss, waving your hand as if to shoo a fly.

Tony shakes his head as if dodging that same fly.  "I'm sorry, can we revisit the fact Steve Rogers just made a dead mother joke?"  He sits back, blinking widely.  

You slam your palms against the table, jarring glasses, imploring Tony with the open despair of someone too long burdened by the weight of a secret.  "Yeah, this is what I got to grow up with. This -" you level an accusatory finger at Steve, who is sharing dark amusement with the assassin laid opposite, "This scary blisterfuck throwing himself at other Alphas twice his - twice MY size, dropping dead mother jokes at the breakfast table in front of his ailing mother, and she all for it, of course," you prop your elbows out, mime a feminine grab for the nearest beer, "Yes and those millions he was going to inherit, she'd better watch her cups or he'll away to India to squander the fortune hunting elephants!"  You take a breath.  The Rogers household had always been your favorite for just these reasons, but by God, you had stories, and the history books just pissed you right off, for all their sterility.

The beer goes down a little hard, too cold against the lump swelling in your throat.  Jesus Christ, you were so in love, and you'd lost him for so long, and now he was here, right here in front of you, ignoring your bullshit just like old times.

Tony twists his chair wholesale to face Steve fully now.  "So where is that guy ?  I wanna hang out with him."

"'That guy' had to be cynical,"  Steve answers like he'd had the bullet loaded in the chamber since the start of this, waiting to defend himself.  "That guy didn't have it very good, so he had to live like he had more than most, like he was taller than anyone, like he was well-heeled and invincible and the hottest to trot.  Coulda dropped dead from taking the stairs too quick or eating the wrong lunch, so," Steve glances up, the look that means he's realized something, then tugs the newspaper back between himself and the table.  "He had to live like he was you, Stark."

There is an appropriately awed silence, which Tony breaks - "But you actually are that guy, now."

"And?"  you growl miserably into your beer, then set it carefully aside.  "He still throws himself at problems twice his size. Still makes dead mom jokes.  Still an unrepentantly generous asshole with all the socially-progressive pariahship of the goddamn canvas carnies who peopled him."

"Hey," Steve growls, a toothless warning from behind the paper.  He turns the page, and says no more.

You level a flat palm Steve's way, staring Tony down, then shift to make room for Bruce, who pulls a chair aside to start gathering empty bottles to a tray.

"Let a server do that," Tony gripes, flapping his cupped fingers.

"All the servers have gone home for the night,"  Bruce admits gently, and for a brief and startling moment you're reminded of your father, though your Pops was 'Meg through and through and Bruce is only ever as duffy as a Beta could be.

"So what's your excuse," Tony raises his voice, addressing Steve.  "If all that's the same, about you, why aren't you the Party-Steve we should all get to know and love."

The sway of the hammock doesn't hitch, but Steve turns the newspaper page and you see the tiki-lamp light glint off his metal forearm and are stabbed through with guilt.  

"I am neither as poor nor as bored as I was in my college days, Anthony." Steve folds the paper aside, eyebrows up but lashes down the way he did when he was disappointed in himself.  "And none of us can afford to be cynical. Not any more."

Thor speaks up, groggy as if waking, "It would go unsaid, then, that none of us are what we once were, and are the stronger for it.  Stark, do you still idle in the beds of strangers? Or has your time demanded certain sacrifices of leisure?"

"I'm married ,"  Tony hisses, but leaves the insult off the end of his protest.  "So yeah, sometimes, I still get to fuck. That's called growing up."

You scoff.  You can't help it.  "Maybe... and hear me out here, Tony," you drawl, blinking heavily, contemplating the ceiling just to ease the ache in your neck.  "Maybe say that thing you just said, word for word, just say it again, but slower."

Steve continues, grin struggling to break through his consternation, "and then go soak your head."

A waiter saunters in with a bussing tray balanced over his shoulder, tall and willowy and, startlingly, albino.  He catches your scrutiny of the scars down his forearms and grins, lips shut, dropping a wink from behind the tray before he takes his leave.  You thought the staff all went home.

"Is it just me," Tony starts, squinting at the swinging kitchen door.  "Or was that kid a Megan."

[   ]

[   ]

Steve lays out a camping bag whenever you stay over in the PUBLIC HOUSE apartment, in lieu of the couch that had yet to ship in from the estate sale, and this bag is now set open picnic style in the middle of the narrow sitting room, Steve half on to keep his stomach warm while you both lounge around listening to the radio.

"Ring your Ma,"  Steve husks from over his comic book, bony elbows propped on the lacquered floorboards, three beers deep from the metal tub of melting ice he swore he'd use to wash up tomorrow so you should probably stop tossing the empties back in (you remind him for the umpteenth time that he had a faucet in the kitchenette, now, and a hot tap in the water closet down the hall too, no need to recycle tub ice, but Steve just wants to boss you about something, in that sorta mood, prickly pre-rut looking for a fight you're too dopey to give him).

You ring your ma, standing out in the first-floor hall in your skivs because the summer heat had gone and made woolen trousers unbearable.  

Ma's okay with you keeping vigil at Steve's new place, trying times and all, but doesn't want either of you to get too drunk and bother the neighboring invalids and you promise you've had the last of the night's beers with your dinner, which is a lie that comes easier over the phone, when she can't smell the deceit.  

You also promise you'll be back tomorrow to help Pops with the twins, but you won't come home all weekend and when you show up late for church on Wednesday your Ma will have your suitcase on the stoop and nothing so maternal as a smack or a hug, only a cold, dignified Alpha-to-Alpha nod; but you don't know that yet, so you lay it on thick, how she's the Most, and you kiss the receiver and promise to give Steve a buss goodnight for her, both cheeks because both parents were with God now.

You do as you're asked when you get back up to Steve's; you bolt the apartment door behind you, settle down to your elbows and knees over Steve's much slighter body and try to buss both cheeks from there, missing at his irritated squirm, mouth grazing his ear, temple, jaw.  You settle on the salt-sweat tang and apple cider at the side of Steve's graceful, birdy neck, your dick gone heavy and hot against your thigh from the smell of his fever, the tangy electricity of his Rood.

Your dates were fun people, lively and interesting and interested, but they never did this to you, never walloped you over the head with want the way Steve did, and he was Alpha and all, small and fierce and goddamn beautiful, heartbreak gorgeous, a pale grecian garden statue of some avatar of famine.

"Get bent, Barnes," Steve cusses, and struggles to his elbows and knees as if to scarper, gluing himself right up into the cage of your embrace.  "Unh," he moans, forehead thunking down against the floor, boneless as your mouth pulls across the back of his neck.

You meant it as a joke; you meant to get smacked, kicked away, wrestled down and defeated - you meant to topple under Steve, show your neck, ease his Rood a little, cushion any further perusal of that comic book, make of yourself a furniture for all those bony edges no amount of gymside boxing could round out.  You meant to abdicate, but Steve moans and turns to jelly in your arms and this hets you up, digs your hips forward and curls your arms in.

You quash a wheeze out of Steve and jolt to your elbows again, knocking the floor with a muffle of sleeping bag.

"Shh," Steve hisses, pushing up and out from under you in a deft scramble, catching his breath.  "You know how it sounds like bowling pins upstairs, and that's just the cat running around."  He dusts himself down, suspenders and undershirt, trousers rolled up because they're new and he hadn't got around to tailoring them.  "Folks down in four will think we're being robbed."  He's not wheezing too hard, which is a relief, but the scare had gone and wilted your arousal pretty effectively.

You sink a little more gracefully to your hips, then tip yourself over to your back, watching Steve straighten the room from dinner.  "I kinda miss the old place," you lament quietly, reluctant to remind Steve of his loss.  "That shipping freighter used to go right by your window, rattle the whole joint.  Gave us ten minutes of noise to make, didn't it?"

Steve scoffs, fever-flush, and settles near your hip to crack a new beer open, toe the next page of his comic over.  "This bed doesn't squeak.  It's new."

You frown.  "It's also tiny.  I'll take rusted springs over cramping up or falling off, any day."

Steve frowns too, thumbs the mouth of the beer bottle.  "Remember that cartoon that's going around, with the Oughtie and her small Ace?  How she's all big and overbearing and that poor Ace is just so short and wimpy and meek?"

"Are you calling me fat," you razz, hooking your arm around Steve's waist to pull him in, pull him down, careful not to squash this time.

Steve shrugs.  "What if it weren't so funny, is all.  What if some guy like me found an Oughtie, a really swell gal, and she was just, uh, bigger than most."  He shakes his head.  "He'd be a real fink to turn her down, wouldn't he?  Because he's not - because of how it would look, what other people might say."

You cough, nonplussed.  "You'd be a fink if you took a Megan on to live in this shithole, is what you'd be."  You chuff your hand up Steve's arm, lightly wring his bicep, indian burn.  "Just wait until I get that house out in the country, you can woo all the fat Megs you wanna."

"He's not fat," Steve admits, half a whisper.

You roll to your hip, bump Steve's shoulder with your own.

Steve looks guilty, avoids eye contact, and the shrug won't leave his shoulders.  "He's taller than you and real uh, keen, I guess.  And he's... monied."  Steve shifts his weight, elbows on knees.  "I didn't know that at first, but that's one problem solved."  His voice lowers, cautious.  "He smells like apples, Buck.  I think you'd really get on."

"Is this a patron," you press, suspicious now.  "From that goddamn ferry club."

Steve nods, shoulders easing.  "He's gotta pass your vote, first.  But JC already waived permission, and Buck, his dowry would solve so much for us, we could go to the country; we could go to the country in France, christ sake -"

"Not that you don't deserve it," you interrupt, wary.  "I'm not saying you don't deserve some tall rich Meg putting the moves on, I'm not saying that."  You hug your knees similarly, the two of you islands in the rumple sea of the camping bag.  "You're talented and smart and you work hard, and anybody with eyes can see you're gonna give someone the prettiest babies some day."

"But," Steve leads, holding his breath.

"But in my experience, tall rich *anything* is gonna be nothing but trouble, and you've known this guy for, what, how long?  Yesterday?  Last week?  You really wanna start a house right out of school like this?  Weren't we gonna travel?"

Steve deflates, relief evident.  "You're right.  This is... weird.  And untimely."  He shrugs again, and the hard lines of his usual fronting stoicism soften.  "He just made me feel like, I dunno, like I was bigger somehow.  Like you make me feel like I'm taller than I really am, sometimes, how you defer and move around me and all that."  He turns sharply, inspired, "But you're gonna meet him, right?  Come with me this weekend, we'll hop the boat and JC can introduce you.  He's really something, Buck."

You snuffle, draw your thumb across your mouth.  "And what's the name of this 'real something'."

"Oh, uh,"  And Steve's nose does that funny wrinkle right between his eyes as if he's seeing something in the distance, remembering but doubting himself.  "David.  Under House Leyendecker."