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You could drown in those eyes, I said

Chapter Text

"And who might you be?" Methos asks the not-quite-mortal rummaging through his cabinets.

The man, who looks quite beat all to hell and worn down to nothing, long dark hair hanging dank past his shoulders, clothes fit only for burning, whirls to face him, throwing a knife as he spins. Methos, who saw the beginning of the motion as the man started to move, catches the blade and raises an eyebrow.

“That was rude,” he informs the man, who is staring at him in wonder.

“I…” the man says. There is a whirring sound; Methos pinpoints it to the man’s left arm.

Ah. That’s why he looks so familiar. Methos has seen his face on the news for the past five weeks.

“I have some gumbo in the fridge,” Methos says. “I assume you’re hungry?”

The man’s eyes are lovely and wide and he looks exceptionally young beneath the filth. He is not human; the buzz is faint, but there. This boy was meant to be an immortal and something happened, which is… odd.

Methos hasn’t had a cause since his brothers died. And world class assassins do not break into civilian homes looking for scraps.

“You need help, child,” Methos says, letting the full weight of his age fill his bearing, his tone. “I am qualified to give it.”

“I…” the boy says again. “They called me asset. He called me Bucky.” He sounds lost. Very broken.

Once, Methos would have delighted in breaking him all the way down and building him back up into the sharpest weapon. Going from the footage, someone has already done that. Somehow, he has slipped their leash and gone on the run. Surely, someone is looking for him.

Methos gives the boy his gentlest smile. It has terrified kings but seems to provide the boy some measure of comfort; the tension in his body lessens. “Would you like me to name you?” he asks.

The boy nods. Methos has seen slaves, in ages long past, who knew nothing but the will of their master. They floundered without it. This boy needs direction. How lucky he is to have broken into Methos’ house.

“How about Benjamin?” Methos offers, slowly stepping forward. The boy tenses again, lowering his gaze. “I am Matthew.” His current identity is a researcher into neurology, Dr. Matthew Carmichael, the lowest man on the ladder at a research institute. His life has been quiet since he left the Highlander. Peaceful. Boring.

World crises happen when Methos gets bored. This boy is perfect as a distraction.

“Benjamin?” the boy echoes softly. Gods, he is truly shattered, isn’t he? How perfectly wonderful.

“Allow me to heat up some dinner for you, Benjamin,” Methos suggests oh so gently. “And then, a bath, I think. After that, we can decide what to do.”

The boy’s buzz is muted, yet valiantly fighting. Every government in the world is seeking him; that Hydra-beast is definitely searching for their lost assassin, as well.

This is truly a lucky meeting. Benjamin has found himself perhaps the greatest guardian in the world, for Methos protects what is his viciously. And this boy is his.

He heats up a bowl of gumbo and pours the boy a glass of water. The boy stands in the middle of the kitchen until told to sit at the table and does not eat until Methos says he can. He drains the glass; Methos refills it three times until the boy’s thirst is quenched. Benjamin stands passively in the shower nook, eyes on the ground at Methos’ feet. Methos sighs, strips his own clothes, and steps into the stall, where he proceeds to bathe the boy as thoroughly and clinically as possible.

The metal arm is beautiful. The scars, too, in their own way. They are scars he should not have. “You are quite the mystery, aren’t you?” Methos asks rhetorically.

Benjamin’s eyes are such a beautiful blue. He is not a blank slate, not entirely. Methos has broken enough people to know when something remains. “You’re going to be extraordinary,” Methos tells him. “Now, come. You need to rest. We’ll plan tomorrow.”

He dries the boy and puts him to bed. Benjamin has no idea what to do with the pillow or the blanket. He watches Methos with a wary gaze. His owners were not kind, clearly. There is strength in his body, his reflexes. He is very dangerous.

“Be here in the morning,” he orders, putting every millennium he has lived into the words. “We have much to discuss and plan.”

“Yes, sir,” Benjamin murmurs.

.

In the morning, Dr. Carmichael tenders his resignation and puts his parents’ house (which he had inherited when they both perished in a boating accident) on the market. He then disappears.

Matthew Ash and his younger brother Benjamin are born at 6:53 am on a Tuesday. Benjamin is a soldier ill-served by his country and Matthew a baby terrorist because of it.

There is an island owned by an old friend of Matthew’s and it is there they go.

.

In his long life, Methos has learned that a little bit of kindness can do what years of cruelty cannot. He slowly draws out the man who was. There is much Benjamin remembers, but none of it is in order and all of it lacks context. Methos helps him make sense of it, aided by judicious use of the files Black Widow so kindly leaked. There is little of Hydra’s asset in it – at least, little stated plainly. Methos can track Hydra’s use of their asset, though, and he calmly shows it all to Benjamin, who remembers enough of the man he was to be horrified.

He was a good man, that is obvious. Methos comforts him and Benjamin sleeps curled in Methos’ embrace. They are brothers, after all.

“He… he said I was James Buchanan Barnes,” Benjamin tells him. “Bucky. And the museum said so, too.”

Methos researches James Barnes for Benjamin. He was a good man. And Benjamin reads it all but none of it seems real. None of it, in fact, matters.

“Would you like to go to this Captain America?” Methos asks, keeping his utter disdain for superheroes out of the words because this is Benjamin’s decision.

Benjamin shakes his head. “I’m yours now,” he says.

Five months of kindness after seventy years of cruelty… Methos gives Benjamin his brightest smile.

What Kronos could have done with this boy would’ve made Hydra shudder in horror.

.

Methos designs obstacle courses to see what Hydra’s greatest weapon can do. Benjamin is truly a force of nature, nigh unstoppable. Methos shows him new tricks and picks up a few of his own. Benjamin is already fluent in the eight most widespread languages; Methos teaches him a dozen more and he picks them up miraculously quickly. The longer he is in Methos’ care, the louder his buzz gets.

He was meant to be immortal but Hydra fucked that up. Methos is quite interested to see what the result will be.

.

Methos knows the time has come when Benjamin asks, “What are we doing?”

They have been on the island for two years and three months. Benjamin Ash is quiet and solemn. He has a quick wit but lacks the forwardness to make jokes in public. He loves to read science fiction and ancient history texts, writes poetry that would’ve made Byron weep in envy and pain, and can shoot a man a mile away or tear through an entire unit of soldiers with his bare hands.

“I do not want to rule the world,” Methos tells him, sitting back in the chair. “But I do want to continue living in it, and I am tired of people fucking everything up.”

“Am I your weapon?” Benjamin asks, peering at Methos from beneath his dark bangs. He still looks exceptionally young, but he’s no longer starving and filthy. In fact, he’s in better shape than he ever was in Hydra’s care.

“No,” Methos says. “You are my partner.” He smiles the smile that once caused Caspian to shy away and is pleased when Benjamin does not. “I am not a good man, brother. But you are.”

Benjamin’s arm whirs. He bites his lip. He says, “Yes, Matthew.”

.

They start small. Methos told the truth when he said he did not want to rule the world; he never has. Kronos had, but Kronos would have burnt it all down in a rage. Silas wanted peace and quiet to raise his animals, and Caspian a bloodbath that would have swallowed the earth in a sea of red.

Methos has always been content to arrange things to his liking and allow someone else to take the fall. That is not, however, the role he has assigned Benjamin. He has yet to find the ideal figurehead, but Captain America is looking quite… perfect.

.

They begin the purge with what remains of Hydra and SHIELD. How else to catch Captain America’s attention?

“Bucky Barnes loved him,” Benjamin confesses as they watch the coverage on the news.

Methos leans over to kiss Benjamin’s forehead. “I know that, brother. Don’t worry.”

“I’m yours now,” Benjamin says, those lovely eyes of his so wide, so blue.

Oh so gently, Methos says, “I know, brother,” and leans back in to give Benjamin’s lips the softest kiss.

Chapter Text

"Bucky?" Steve asks blankly, watching Bucky and a stranger approach. Bucky has a knife in his metal hand and holsters his gun with the real one, while the stranger holds no weapons at all.

“Captain,” the stranger says, sounding like he’s Brooklyn born and bred, just like Steve and Bucky, back before everything, “it is good to finally meet you. I’m Matthew Ash.”

Steve just blinks at them. Sam and Natasha are clearing the other side of the compound; Stark’s their eyes in the sky from New York. This was supposed to be the last true Hydra installation left, but all Steve found were bodies cooling on the floor. He knows why now.

“Bucky,” Steve says again. “Please, look at me.” Bucky’s eyes go from watching the door to Steve. “What’s going on?” It’s been two and a half years since DC. Since there was even a whisper of Bucky.

“We’re remaking the world, Captain Rogers,” Matthew explains, tone so kind that Steve wants to smash his smile in. “We need a public face, though. I’m afraid I don’t inspire people and, well.” He smiles at Bucky, who smiles shyly back. “The world would just be bewildered about my brother here, wouldn’t it? You understand, of course.”

Steve flicks his gaze between them before settling on Bucky. “Brother?”

“My brother Benjamin, yes,” Matthew says. “He was a soldier, left for dead by his country. Horrible things happened.” Matthew’s smile is no longer kind at all. “I couldn’t let that stand, of course. That’s where our movement comes in.”

“I… none of this makes any sense,” Steve says. “Bucky –”

Bucky interrupts him to say, “Bucky Barnes died.” He looks down, biting at his bottom lip. “I’m Benjamin,” he says. He raises his head to meet Steve’s eyes. “I’m Benjamin Ash. I can’t be your Bucky anymore.”

It feels like a punch. No, worse. It feels like waking up decades in the future and knowing most everyone you ever knew or cared about had died while you slept.

“We’re remaking the world, Captain Rogers,” Matthew repeats, so gently Steve wants to choke him. “My brother and I can do it. We would like your help, though.”

Steve wants to die. Instead he asks, “How’s that different from Hydra?”

Matthew raises an eyebrow while Bu--Benjamin tilts his head, probably hearing the same thing Steve does. “Incoming,” Benjamin whispers.

“Non-lethal unless required,” Matthew murmurs back, and then Matthew smirks at Steve. “We don’t want to kill anyone who might become a threat, Captain. Threats are such good entertainment.” He laughs softly but Steve can’t focus on him while there’s a struggle happening out of sight between his three best friends.

Benjamin comes back with Natasha and Sam; Sam’s limping and carrying Natasha’s unconscious body. “Cap, you’re alright!” he says. “Thank fuck.”

“We’ll be in touch, Captain,” Matthew says.

Steve knows that he should check on his team, his friends -- instead, he watches Benjamin and Matthew soundlessly walk out of the room. At the door, Benjamin pauses to glance back, chewing on his lip. Just like Bucky used to when searching for the right words.

“I…” Benjamin says. “He loved you. More than… when he fell, he was at peace because you didn’t.”

Steve wants to die. Wants to have never woken up. Wants to wake up from this nightmare. But he just looks at Benjamin, who looks so fucking sad. So gutted. “I’m what came after,” Benjamin says. “I just… I can’t be yours. Do you… please understand?”

“I’m still yours,” Steve says because it’s the only thing he’s sure of. He can hear Matthew, waiting in the hall. “Please. Whatever he’s doing, how’s it any different from Hydra, Bu-Benjamin?”

Benjamin smiles and it isn’t anything like Bucky’s smile at all. “Remaking,” he says. “Not destroying.” And he walks out the door.

Steve sags down and Sam demands, “What the fuck was that?”

.

Back in New York, working off Steve’s sketch since none of the recovered camera footage had a workable shot of Matthew Ash, Jarvis searches. Steve tries to explain what happened, but he still doesn’t really know himself.

The problem is… he already knows what his answer will be, whenever Matthew gets in touch.

He knows that Bucky’s alive now, whatever name he wants to be called. And he wants to be wherever Bucky is, whatever Bucky’s doing. It doesn’t matter.

And Matthew, that fucker, whatever his game, he knows that.

Chapter Text

After their first contact with Steve Rogers, Matthew and Benjamin return to the island. Benjamin tucks himself into his bed and tries not to remember the years before the asset, when he was Steve’s. (Over twenty years, he was Steve’s. They were good years. Fifty as the asset. A decade and a half being broken.) He spends three days and nights curled up beneath the thick blankets Matthew provided when he realized how sensitive Benjamin was to chilled air.

On the fourth morning, Benjamin goes downstairs to Matthew’s war room, settles into his chair, and asks, “What next, brother?”

He is no longer the asset; he does not crave purpose anymore. But he owes Matthew; he loves Matthew the way Bucky Barnes loved Steve Rogers. (The asset did not love. The asset obeyed because the price of defiance could not be borne. The asset was a weapon that could turn at any moment – and, at long last, has.) Bucky Barnes stayed in war for Steve Rogers, died for Steve Rogers. Forced the asset to save Steve Rogers.

“Next?” Matthew says with that gentle smile that always warms the chill in Benjamin’s bones. “Now, brother mine, you send the captain a message.” He holds out Benjamin’s phone. “Anywhere in the world that has sentimental value to the boy inside the warrior.”

Benjamin remembers a conversation in the mountains. He takes his phone from Matthew, scrolls through the contacts (it is not surprising that Matthew somehow has Steve Rogers’ personal cellphone number) until he finds Captain, then types in [Cyclone, noon, five days] and hits send.

Matthew presses a kiss to his forehead and asks, “Hungry?”

“Yes, Matthew,” Benjamin answers, powering the phone off.

Chapter Text

Matthew Percy Ash has a doctorate in Developmental Psychology and he published numerous articles and worked in a research facility until he went off the grid two and a half years ago. Benjamin Jonathon Ash has a BA in English and was a Marine till he was reported KIA – coincidently enough, three years ago.

“Well, he’s clearly not dead,” Stark says. “Also, he’s Bucky goddamned Barnes. Somehow.”

Natasha does not reply; her focus is on Steve, who clutches the hardcopy file with shaky fingers and has not looked away from the screen with the younger Ash brother’s information.

She remembers the Winter Soldier’s face perfectly, both from DC and from decades ago. The information in the file is false, but as flawless as if she’d done it herself.

“Is he Hydra?” Sam asks, flicking through the electronic file on the elder Ash. “Maybe he’s cleanin’ house so he can take over. With Barnes’ help, he could probably do it, too.”

“Gotcha!” Stark crows and opens another window, where he flings a new file. “Look at this fucker, Dr. Carmichael, disappeared three-ish years ago. Before him,” another file tossed up, “we’ve got Dr. Pierson, who vanished eighteen years ago.” Four more images are added, each with a new name, all of them set side-by-side.

There are minute differences, which Natasha recognizes as the effect of very well utilized makeup; she’s done that herself, to add or subtract up to fifteen years to her body’s age.

“So, what, clones?” Sam muses, reading through Dr. Pierson’s transcript. “Another bastardized version of the serum?”

Natasha glances at Benjamin Percy’s marriage license, dated 1964, the same year Adam Pierson was born. “This is something else,” she says. “If it was Hydra, these lives would’ve been different.” She flips to Percy’s death certificate, the same date as Adam Pierson’s graduation from Durham, an entire ocean apart from each other. “Probably just as quiet, but… he would’ve been in other fields, mixed up in the government.”

Steve still hasn’t looked away from the younger Ash’s picture.

“You had contact with them both, Steve,” she says. “What were they like?”

She and Sam had located Steve on the ground floor, engaged with possible hostiles. She hadn’t even realized they’d been spotted until Barnes lunged around the corner. She hadn’t had time to defend herself or Sam and woke up in Sam’s arms over an hour later. Barnes, the Winter Soldier –at some point between DC and that last Hydra installation, he’s become even deadlier. Matthew Ash is probably why, but all they have is corrupted footage, except what’s in Steve’s head.

And Steve, unfortunately enough, is completely compromised.

“Steve?” she says.

“Uh, yeah, sorry,” he says, closing the hardcopy file and finally looking at her. “Matthew is definitely in charge,” he adds, glaring at the sequence of photos. “He’s not Hydra; he thinks Hydra’s stupid. And, uh…” Steve brings a hand up to rub at his forehead. “I’m pretty sure Bucky remembers almost everything, but –” He shrugs. “I don’t know how, but Matthew’s got him convinced, and it’s not about destroying things.”

There’s something he’s not saying. Steve looks down at the file in his hands and mutters, “I gotta get some air.”

As he leaves, Stark says, “That was weird, right?” with a glance at her. “J, watch Cap. If anything happens, let me know.”

“Of course, Sir,” Jarvis replies.

Sam looks from the door back at the sequence of Ash’s identities. “There’s always somethin’,” he says.

Natasha chuckles, “Hey, you followed him.”

“Sir,” Jarvis says, “Captain Rogers has exited, holding his phone.”

“Could just be goin’ for a walk,” Sam suggests.

“I vote we don’t risk it,” Natasha says, hurrying to the elevator.

“J, let’s get into Cap’s texts, call logs, emails, anything that goes to his phone,” Stark’s saying as the doors close.

.

Steve has eight phones they know about; none of them have anything odd or incriminating. Jarvis loses him on the subway.

“We really need to know what the fuck they said to him,” Stark says.

.

At 2:33 in the morning six days after Steve Rogers walks out of Stark Tower and disappears off the face of the planet, Jarvis says, “Pardon me, Sir, but you have an incoming call.”

Natasha is two days into reading every dissertation any of Ash’s identities ever wrote; the man is both impressive and terrifying. Banner and Clint returned eighteen hours apart but Thor is still off-planet, performing duties as a Prince of Asgardr. Everyone but Natasha and Stark are resting or meditating.

“I told you to hold all calls,” Stark mutters, flipping through his contingencies for a Captain America Gone Rogue. Apparently, he had plans in place for all of them, as well as Sam, Pepper, and Colonel Rhodes.

“The caller claims to be Matthew Ash, Sir,” Jarvis says.

After a pause where Natasha and Stark share a glance, Stark says, “Patch ‘im through, J.” Stark nods at Natasha and says, “This is Tony Stark. Who am I talking to?”

“Your AI told you that, Mr. Stark,” an accentless, deep voice says. “Call me Matthew, please.”

“Alright, Matthew,” Stark says. “What’ve you done with Cap? And how the hell did you get Barnes?”

“I found my brother starving, cold, and alone,” Ash tells them. “Who is there you with you, Mr. Stark?”

“This is Natasha Romanoff.” Little harm can come from him knowing of her presence; hopefully, like so many men (even after her past was splashed across the internet) he will underestimate her.

“Ah, yes, the spider.” Ash chuckles. “It is an honor to meet you. I have long been a fan of your work.” Natasha rolls her eyes. “Captain Rogers is safe, Mr. Stark, Ms. Romanova. He came to me of his own volition and he will come to no harm in my care.”

Natasha closes her eyes in realization, a bit of fondness, and a healthy dose of disgust. “You dangled Barnes in front of him.”

Ash chuckles again. This time, there is nothing pleasant about it. “It was an obvious weakness, yes. The captain wishes you to know that we need not be enemies, your team and mine.”

“And which team is Steve on?” Stark asks, signing trace? Jarvis flashes two more minutes on the far wall.

“Captain Rogers is on whatever team my brother is on, Mr. Stark,” Ash says. “I can promise there will be no unnecessary civilian deaths. Non-combatants will be recognized and unmolested. Turmoil will not engulf the world.” After a moment of silence while Natasha and Stark just stare at each other, the same expression on their faces, Ash continues, “I am not a nice man, you understand. But my brother and the captain are.” He pauses while the seconds count down, and then he says, “Stay out of my way.”

“Fuck!” Stark shouts at the same moment Jarvis says, “Inadequate time for a trace.”

.

They rouse everyone from sleep, of course, and play the call for them.

“Well, that’s… creepy,” Banner says when it’s done.

Sam succinctly sums up the situation with, “Shit.”

Chapter Text

"It's beautiful," Steve says, carefully looking out over the water instead of at Benjamin. Benjamin's in a pair of dark swim trunks, torso and metal arm bare to the world, and Steve has to constantly remind himself not to look.

Each of those scars on Benjamin’s skin is another punch in the face. Is the voice that talked him through fevers and declared forever blankly asking who the hell is bucky?

"It's quiet," Benjamin says after a moment. "Would you like to sit?"

Steve sits.

.

Benjamin is not Bucky. It only takes Steve a couple of days to stop tripping over the name, to stop comparing the two. (Well. It only takes Steve a couple of days to figure out how to hide that he is comparing the two.) Matthew mostly ignores him (except for smirks) and Steve can go anywhere on the island that he wants save for a biometrically locked door that leads to what Benjamin calls ‘the war room’ when Steve asks.

Benjamin smiles a lot. He reads really bad science fiction novels and tells Steve things he’s never wanted or needed to know about ancient cultures and various royal dynasties. Sometimes, he spends whole days tucked over a notebook, writing something long hand that eats Steve up alive with curiosity, but he will not break Benjamin’s shaky trust.

Because that’s the thing. Steve knows it’s a holdover from Bucky, but Benjamin trusts him. Nowhere near as much as he trusts Matthew, but Benjamin does trust him.

So Steve’s days are full of runs along the beach, sketching the landscape, watching the news on Matthew’s satellite TV (it hasn’t been leaked, yet, that Captain America is missing), catching up on the few shows he actually likes. Benjamin has a list of terrible SyFy channel movies, so at night, the three of them eat whatever Matthew prepared for dinner and check another movie off.

This is not at all what Steve thought would happen when he met Benjamin at Coney Island.

.

“You’re more patient than I gave you credit for, Captain,” Matthew says on the thirty-third morning. He’s leaning against the sink, smirking, wearing a loose pair of sweatpants that hang off him. Which means they’re Benjamin’s.

Steve clenches his jaw and looks away. Matthew laughs softly.

“Ruling through fear, Captain, is something I can manage just fine on my own,” Matthew says. It sounds like the continuation of a conversation he and Steve never had, but it does get Steve to look at him again. “I have, in fact, at different points in my life.” He’s smiling, gazing at something that isn’t there. Steve shivers and guesses why. “Ruling through fear is easy.”

“You want a figurehead,” Steve says, meeting Matthew’s gaze when it focuses on him. “Someone who can draw everyone’s attention while you direct them like a puppet on strings.”

Matthew nods. “Alexander Pierce was a tyrant-in-the-making, just like Johann Schmidt. They had vision but lacked the finesse to truly succeed.” His lips twitch but not exactly in a smile. “They lacked the experience.”

“Which you have,” Steve says.

“Yes.” Matthew grins, bright and wide. He looks no more than thirty at the oldest, decades younger than Schmidt and Pierce both.

Steve and Benjamin look that young, too. But Matthew isn’t strong like them. His senses are sharp, yes, but not superhuman. His reflexes are as fast as Natasha’s, maybe faster, but not up to Steve and Benjamin’s.

“What is the endgame?” Steve asks. He’s in, he knows he’s in. Whatever it is… as long as it doesn’t destroy the world. And maybe even then.

“The age of god-kings and warlords is over, Captain Rogers,” Matthew tells him, uncrossing his arms and turning to grab a mug from the cabinet. He walks to the fridge and pulls out a jug of pineapple juice (homemade, Steve knows). “The world is too large for any one person to rule. That is why every attempt has failed.”

“And how are you gonna succeed?” Steve crosses his own arms. He could kill Matthew right here and now. He could have every damn day he’s been here. He knows it, Matthew knows it, and Benjamin knows it. He could kill Matthew, hack one of the electronic devices, and call Jarvis. All of them were given emergency codes after Project Insight. Wherever it’s used, anywhere in the world, Jarvis will pick it up instantly.

That Steve hasn’t used it yet means he went willingly and stays willingly, or he’s dead.

But if he kills Matthew, that means he’ll lose Benjamin for good. Even if he gets Benjamin back to the US with him, it won’t –

“A single man, or even a group, Captain,” Matthew says in the same lecturing tone Bruce adopts sometimes, “is too small to successfully rule. And when the ruling body grows too large, it results in infighting that leads to bad policy or a stop altogether. Surely you’ve noticed the stagnation in your home country?”

Steve doesn’t react but Matthew smirks at him again. “What I intend to do, Captain Rogers, with your face, is to begin a subtle reshuffling of the world’s movers and shakers. It is a bit like what Hydra did, but their endgame was always scorched earth.” He pours another mug of pineapple juice and offers it to Steve.

After a moment’s hesitation, Steve takes it.

Matthew turns his back and heads for the door. He pauses to say over his shoulder, “I quite like the world, Captain. There will be casualties of course, but I will make sure for yours and Benjamin’s peace of mind that they deserve death.” He meets Steve’s gaze. “And Benjamin will not be the weapon used, Captain Rogers.”

Steve doesn’t say aloud, If he is, I’ll kill you. Matthew’s sharp nod shows he hears it anyway.

.

Every morning, Benjamin sits on the beach for anywhere from five to thirty minutes. Sometimes he has a book or notebook, sometimes he just watches the waves. Sometimes, he stretches out on the sand and naps.

Steve sits beside him sometimes, when invited. If he’s not, he returns to the house after his daily run to shower.

“He used to want to bring you to a place like this,” Benjamin tells him one morning. “Where it was always warm. Where people wouldn’t judge or hurt you. You, your ma, his sisters. He wanted all of you safe and happy.” Benjamin glances at him before dropping his gaze to the sand, where his flesh hand is forming a tiny little sand pile. “And then, the asset – it used to dream of warmth. We didn’t have the word for it, but I know now that’s what the asset wanted.”

“I wanted somewhere like this for you, too,” Steve says. “You worked too hard. In the war, you used to paint these pictures with words for me and the guys, a beautiful paradise where there wouldn’t be mud or cold ever again.” Steve wipes at his eyes, biting back tears. “And then, when I put the plane down…” He sighs heavily. “I imagined somewhere like this.”

He’s never told anyone how long he was conscious. He’s not gonna start with Benjamin, who has his own traumas with ice that far outweigh Steve’s nap.

“He,” Benjamin says. “I.”

Steve glances at him. Benjamin’s chewing on his bottom lip and his flesh hand has flattened the sand pile. He looks back out at the waves to give Benjamin a moment.

“He told you stories,” Benjamin says. “Can you…”

“Of course.” Steve leans back onto his elbows and Benjamin mirrors him, then turns onto his side, eyes on Steve’s face. Steve thinks for a second and then grins. “Okay, so, I gotta give some context for this,” he says. “There was a raid that went FUBAR about ninety seconds in –”

.

The fiftieth day, Benjamin leads Steve into the war room.

Chapter Text

When they are fifteen, Steve (in a fit of jealousy and rage) kisses Bucky square on the mouth.

When they are twenty-five, Steve (in a whirlwind of relief and hope) kisses Bucky with blood on both their teeth.

When they are thirty, Steve (in heartache and envy) watches Matthew kiss Benjamin.

Steve had twenty years with him. Seventy years without him. Thought him dead for a day, and then for almost 800 days. Steve’s been in love with Bucky Barnes for his whole life, it seems. Since he was six years old.

Before the serum, Bucky was the only person who cared who didn’t treat Steve like glass – except in bed. In bed, Bucky was gentle and slow, always making sure it didn’t hurt. After the serum, Steve had to be careful, and they never had time. (In hindsight, knowing what he knows now, none of the bruises he left on Bucky’s skin lasted nearly long enough.)

Peggy asked him once if he was sure in his choice. Bucky and the guys were packing up for a mission and Steve had to get some last minute intel, and Peggy had just gotten back from a mission of her own.

He really could have loved her.

“I am,” he said.

When Steve jumped onto the plane, he knew. When Peggy pulled him into that kiss, so did she.

But Steve woke up and life stretched in front of him.

An assassin that frightened Natasha shot Fury through the wall and then attacked Steve.

A mask fell off a killer’s face and Steve burnt down the same organization for the second time.

When they are fifteen, Steve thinks everything might be okay. Yes, life is hard and they have to hide, but they are both young. Happy. He has no idea. He thinks sometimes that they might even get a happy ending, not like his ma and dad.

When they are thirty, Matthew pulls back slowly and Benjamin follows, eyes open and mouth pouty, and it guts Steve where he stands, watching.

Bucky Barnes died a long time ago. Benjamin is Steve’s friend, and he’s different from Bucky, but not in the ways that matter. He’s still a good man, the best man Steve knows. The best man he’s ever known.

Steve turns away and runs along the beach until he collapses, staring up at the moon.

When they are fifteen, chest heaving in fear and hope, Steve pulls back from Bucky. Bucky stares down at him, mouth open.

They have their whole lives ahead of them.

Chapter Text

Methos has been a brother, a scholar, a medical doctor, a philosophical doctor, a slave, a merchant, a husband, a father, an assassin, a warlord, a god-king, and Death on a Horse. He has been many more men than that. He is, in fact, still all of those men. Identities are not lost when he sheds them; they lurk in his mind, beneath his skin, there to be called up as needed and put aside when not.

He misses Kronos and Silas, even Caspian. They spent a thousand years together and then three thousand apart, but he loved Kronos. He liked Silas. Even Caspian, to some degree, due to familiarity and understanding. Caspian was a monster, yes. They all were monsters.

Duncan is seeking him. Joe was promoted a few years ago to the head of the North American branch, and he and Duncan are still friends even though Duncan has a new Watcher now. They’ve both spent the last decade or so in Los Angeles.

Methos shed Adam Pierson, newborn immortal, nearly twenty years ago. He had grown bored with Duncan, though not Joe, not yet, and gave Pierson a very violent end: a car accident so terrible it resulted in decapitation. Of course, Duncan hadn’t wanted to believe it but there were witnesses, and then a head separated from the body in the remains of the explosion from the fuel leak. The Watchers believed Adam Pierson to be dead. Only Joe and his daughter knew that Methos died with him.

Everyone believed him to be dead until people began poking around for Matthew Ash.

Methos loves the Information Age and being a millennial. He has the largest digital library in the world, with access granted only to him and Benjamin. The ability to send messages and receive news from across the globe is perhaps his favorite thing, presently.

Kronos was not patient and did not enjoy waiting for the right moment. Silas was and did not, either, but he lacked the foresight required for most of Methos’ plans. And Caspian – Caspian was cunning and vicious, but also perhaps the maddest person Methos has ever met.

Seventeen times, Methos ruled a nation, with or without formal borders. Only three times was it known that he ruled. He knows how to rule through fear and terror, and he knows how to make the people love their king. He knows how to make people want to die for someone else’s safety, though never has he felt that himself.

Good men don’t live for over five thousand years. Great ones do.

.

Caring for Benjamin began as a lark to escape boredom. It quickly grew from there. The boy is easy to like. At the outset, he needed a keeper because while he could obtain food, clothing, and shelter to survive, he lacked the self-sufficiency to thrive. Methos does love him, and perhaps given time, it could even rival the love he felt for Kronos.

Of course, Captain Rogers is a complication. That’s fine, though; Methos enjoys complications. They do so liven things up.

.

The island is small; perhaps the size of Manhattan. It has one dwelling: a bungalow with two floors above ground and another below. There is also a small landing strip, though usually Methos arrives by ship. As far as anyone knows, it is uninhabited, though was once utilized by pirates. It has a name in official records, but Methos calls it The Pale Mare, or just Mare. Of course, he also owns 126 properties throughout the world, and he knows that Duncan is beginning the search with the three he knows about in North America.

Very few people would connect the late Adam Pierson with small-time terrorist Matthew Ash, especially with the vanished Matthew Carmichael between them. (He quit his job, sold his house, and disappeared. No one is missing him. No one is bothering to look, either.) Despite their physical similarities, until recently, people could not be so unchanging for thirty years. Minds would seek out reasons and people would not question it.

Then alien god-princes led invasions via wormhole and supersoldiers survived seven decades being frozen. Methos knows the Watchers must be exceedingly nervous.

He also knows what step one of his plan for Captain Rogers is.

.

He cannot risk sending Benjamin and the captain away from the island together; he also cannot risk leaving them alone on the island. He trusts Benjamin (as much as he trusts anyone) but the captain is still a threat. He cannot leave Benjamin alone, either, because that is another danger all on its own: there are still ghosts in Benjamin’s mind, and if no one is present to call him out of his head, well.

It is easy enough to enter the Watchers’ electronic records; Adam Pierson had helped design the system, and though they modified it when he ‘died’ and became immortal, they didn’t rebuild from the ground up, which means sixteen of the various backdoors he left are still operational.

Of course, he does not destroy Adam Pierson’s file. He simply edits it – as well as any photo of him on record, and from the Watchers’ he spirals out, slightly changing each of them. Unfortunately, he can’t do anything with hardcopy files and photos from across an ocean, so he, his brother, and the captain will have to leave the sanctuary of the Mare before Methos is satisfied with the state of the captain’s loyalty.

“Don’t worry,” Benjamin murmurs, gently pulling the laptop from Methos’ grip. “You’ll see – Steve’ll be with us, all the way.”

Methos smiles up at his brother, and the smile widens when Benjamin drops to his knees, glancing up at Methos through his lashes.

“I do so love your eyes,” Methos tells him, reaching out to cup his cheek. Benjamin moves into the touch and presses a kiss to Methos’ palm. “You and I, brother, we’re going to change the world.”

Benjamin surges up to kiss his lips and Methos puts the planning on hold for a while.

Chapter Text

“Looks like we’re not the only ones trying to find Matthew Ash,” Natasha says. “Jarvis, can you trace this back to the source?”

“Of course, Ms. Romanova,” Jarvis replies. “Also, Sir requests the entire team convene in the communal kitchen; Dr. Banner has prepared lunch.”

Natasha sighs, setting her StarkPad down. Clint pretends to still be asleep, hoping she won’t – and, nope, she pokes him sharply in the back. “If I have to go to lunch, so do you,” she tells him without sympathy.

He rolls over to pout at her, giving her his best puppy eyes and all she does is raise a brow. So he sighs heavily and sits up. His back still twinges a little but it’s much better than it was; he’s almost back in top form. “When are we gonna bring SHIELD in?” he asks as he drops his feet onto the floor and stands, stretching his arms up above his head. His shoulder pulls the slightest bit, which means he’s still locked out of the practice range Stark built right after Loki –

Nope, not thinking about that.

“We’re not,” Natasha says.

“What?” Clint pulls on yesterday’s shirt and sweatpants, turning to look at her.

Natasha serenely gazes back. “SHIELD never existed the way we thought it did,” she tells him. “Coulson is rebuilding on rotten ground and Tony, Steve, and I had agreed we wouldn’t be part of it.”

“And now that Steve’s gone?” he asks, following her to the door. “SHIELD or whatever, won’t they have more resources?”

“Than Jarvis?” Natasha laughs.

“Okay, that’s a good point,” he admits, pushing the button for the communal floor.

Just like Natasha, Clint had been given a choice: be ‘recruited’ into SHIELD or put down as a threat. He likes to think he wouldn’t have killed Natasha, but he can’t honestly say for sure. He grew used to being betrayed a long time ago, so Coulson’s not-death and attempt at resurrecting SHIELD is probably more comforting than it should be. And he could go join up with Coulson’s team.

If Natasha was, he would. But his top loyalty is to Natasha, so he’ll stay where she stays.

“We should probably stay out Ash’s way,” Clint says, and doesn’t realize his mistake until Natasha’s sharp gaze is pinned on him.

“Well,” she says, “guess we know what the conversation will be. Don’t we.” She gives him a small, pleasant smile.

Shit.

.

“Clint has intel on Matthew Ash,” Natasha announces to the room, shoving him into a chair at the head of the table.

“Not really,” he protests, trying to stand back up. She doesn’t let him. “Look, it was a long time ago,” he says. “I’m probably not remembering it right.”

That’s a lie. And Clint Barton is an excellent liar, but Natasha is looking right at him, and she’ll always be better.

“Look,” he says, licking his lips and dropping his gaze to the table, “this isn’t – it has nothing to do with the team. I’m not compromised. But we shouldn’t make enemies with this guy, alright? If we stay out of his way, everything will be fine.”

He believes it. He really, truly does. The moment he saw the picture of Matthew Ash, he knew.

“Just tell us what you know, Clint,” Dr. Banner says.

.

Roughly thirty years ago, Clint discovered how Barney was making money. He didn’t approve. His disapproval (and stupid declaration that he’d be telling Carson) got him a beating he barely survived.

What he didn’t know at the time was that the way he’d helped care for the horses had earned him the good will of the Horse Master, a wanderer known to the circus only as Ben. Ben was friendly and told everyone he was on a journey of discovery; he’d been at Carson’s for six months and had taken the old Horse Master’s spot when he’d stopped the man from whipping one of the pretty white mares, beaten him into the ground, and charmed all of the horses into maneuvers they’d never been trained for.

Ben heard the fight (if fight it could honestly be called, since Clint was already mostly unconscious and never had a chance against Duquesne and Chisholm anyway) and stepped in. Clint doesn’t really remember most of that night, but he woke up in the hospital with a broken leg, three broken ribs, and the second-worst concussion of his life – and Ben was sitting beside him.

“You, my friend,” Ben had told him in that thick southern accent, “are a fool. Luckily, God protects fools and children, and you’re both.” He’d patted Clint carefully on the less-bruised shoulder, paid the entire medical bill, and vanished.

It wasn’t until Clint became an assassin that he looked Barney, Chisholm, and Duquesne up. All three of them were dead, and Chisholm and Duquesne’s entire empire had been rooted out and lit on fire. The whole operation was gone, and it happened within weeks of them attacking Clint.

There’s a lot Clint doesn’t remember about his time with the circus; head wounds suck. But he remembers Ben’s face, and it hasn’t changed at all. Clint examined the timeline Tasha put together for the identities they’d uncovered; Ben was probably Benjamin Percy, on the way to being Adam Pierson. It doesn’t make sense, stopping to help a kid and then destroying the men who’d hurt him, and then hopping a plane to become a college student a world away, but it’s what Ben did.

.

“If you all want to make a move on him, I’m in,” Clint says. “Of course I am. But what do we have so far? That he hates Hydra. Well, so do we.” He shrugs, looking up at Natasha. “Are you so against him because he’s got Barnes and Cap? I just… we should make sure we’re doing this for the right reasons.”

“Ms. Romanova, I have completed the trace,” Jarvis announces.

“Alright,” Natasha says, “let’s eat before the food gets entirely cold. Jarvis, tell us what you’ve uncovered.”

.

Duncan MacLeod has a very long history. He runs an antique collection agency, teaches martial arts, and volunteers with homeless children. He also looks entirely too young for his age, has a lot of blood on his hands, and is searching for Matthew Ash.

“So, who’s gonna make contact with this guy?” Stark asks, rubbing his hands together excitedly.

“I am,” Natasha answers, “with Sam.”

.

He knows it’s a dream. It smells and feels like a hospital room; his hearing is on the fritz, and he rolls his head to the side, and there’s Ben.

Clint didn’t know how to sign then, but he understands when Ben signs, [Hello, child. You look terrible.]

It’s a dream. Both of Clint’s hands are broken but he signs back with useless fingers, [You look the same.]

Ben laughs. [Of course I do.]

They stare at each other for a little while, and then Ben asks, [Do you know why I saved you, Clinton?]

Clint shakes his head. He’s always figured it was because he was good to the horses, so he replies, [Horses.]

Laughing again, Ben rolls his shoulders. [You lived, child. You have grown stronger. And there will be many days ahead for you to fight.] He stands and leans over Clint to press a gentle kiss to his forehead, the way Tasha does sometimes – but he hasn’t met Tasha yet. Has he? He looks at his hands and they’re big, with scars he didn’t get till SHIELD. (It’s a dream.) [You should die soon. This is the best age; you have already matured and have yet to weaken. Die soon.]

He wakes up in his bed in Stark’s tower.

Clint really hopes they don’t make Ben – Matthew Ash into their enemy. He’ll be on whatever side Natasha is and that’s that.

Chapter Text

“This is stupid,” Steve says, arms crossed, pouting. He’s in a soft, worn white T-shirt and loose sweatpants, his hair a little longer than he likes it, a pair of running shoes on his feet, and the most pretentious sunglasses he’s ever seen on his face.

His part of the plan is to act like an American on vacation who gets lost in Paris while on his morning jog and stumbles into the HQ of whoever it is Matthew is after. He’s supposed to raise a fuss and draw as much attention as possible, so that security is focused on him instead of Matthew and Benjamin, who will be sneaking in from a neighboring roof.

When his mental countdown hits one, he starts jogging.

.

It goes off without a hitch. He stumbles into the lobby and when he ‘realizes’ that it is not, in fact, his hotel, he raises holy hell about it, playing the buffoon American tourist perfectly. The guards try reasoning with him; a clerk returning from an errand run tries to maintain peace; Steve stays petulantly unreasonable and it is so much fun. It takes all his self-control to shout at the people just trying to do their jobs instead of double over laughing, and he only allows them to escort him out and give him directions when the timer in his head hits zero.

.

“Well done, Captain,” Matthew tells him. Matthew is wearing dark jeans and a red long-sleeved shirt, Benjamin a black hoodie and blue jeans, both of them in work boots. They’re holding hands, with Matthew tucked into Benjamin’s side, and it sends a quick bolt of pain through Steve’s heart, but he shoves it aside.

“Success, then?” Steve asks, falling into step beside Benjamin.

Matthew grins at him. “They didn’t have much hardcopy on me in the records room; now, they have none. All of the old guard have retired, anyway, and the new ones don’t have much use for hardcopy anymore.” He laughs. “I so do adore millennials.”

.

They are in Paris under the identity Matthew created for Steve: Stefan Reynolds, an American brat who is using his daddy’s money to see the world. Benjamin is Ben Yates, Stefan’s best friend, and Matthew is Max Adams, Ben’s boyfriend. Stefan brought them with him mostly to piss his rich daddy off, because dear old Dad is as conservative as they come. (Steve’s personal belief is that Stefan is utterly in love with Ben and has been for years.) (He knows that Matthew knows that.)

They have a suite at the most expensive hotel in Paris but Matthew doesn’t truly trust Steve alone, so he spends most of his time in their company. He sketches Paris from the window and from memory, and then he sketches Bucky. Not Benjamin, not yet. The Bucky that was before the fall.

He glances up from the sketchpad to see Benjamin draped across Matthew, completely asleep. Matthew is running his fingers through Benjamin’s long hair, eyes on Steve. “We should talk, you and I,” he says softly.

Steve sets the sketchpad aside.

.

He knows that Matthew is older than him and Benjamin. Older than Pierce, in both experience and time. He knows that Matthew has ruled countries and killed people. Probably a lot of people. He knows that Matthew isn’t quite human, but differently than Steve and Benjamin and even Bruce.

“If I were to tell you that I witnessed the sacking of Troy, what would you think?” Matthew asks. His fingers in Benjamin’s hair never still, or the hand that’s smoothing along Benjamin’s back. “If I were to tell you that I stood on the doomed isle of Atlantis before it sank beneath the waves?”

Steve considers for just a moment. “Two weeks after I woke up from a seventy year sleep,” he says, “I had to fight an army from outer space.”

Matthew laughs quietly. “Touché.”

Silence falls again as Steve watches Matthew watch Benjamin’s face, so much younger in sleep than Steve has seen since before Pearl Harbor. He finally says, “I’m in this, Matthew. Whatever this is. Benjamin is with you, so I am, too. But I need to know the facts to be of use.”

“Bucky Barnes,” Matthew says, “was like me. You aren’t and never would’ve been. But he was.” He glances away from Benjamin’s face to meet Steve’s eyes before looking back down. “I don’t know how old I am; I’ve claimed 5000 years for the past 2000.” He pauses but Steve has no idea what to say, so Matthew continues, “Whatever his masters gave Bucky Barnes, it changed him enough that the quickening didn’t spark as it should.”

“Quickening?” Steve asks.

With a nod, Matthew says, “How we recognize each other. Our essence, if you will. We die and come back from all but one kind of death, so your friend would have survived that fall no matter what.”

Steve closes his eyes and turns away.

“Captain,” Matthew says, “I have seen cultures rise and fall, walked every path, touched each coast. I survive. Those I protect survive until I spurn them.”

“If you spurn him,” Steve says, shaking his head, “I’ll kill you. I’ll find that one way.”

Matthew chuckles. “I know, Captain.” He bends down to press a kiss to the tip of Benjamin’s nose.

They sit in silence again until Matthew says, “Perhaps you should contact your old team, see what they’re choosing to do.”

“You trust me enough?” Steve asks.

Matthew’s smile is small, sincere. Steve hasn’t seen this one before. “I trust that you want what is best for Benjamin, and that you’ve realized I am.”

Which, yeah. “Okay,” Steve says. “On our last day here, I’ll call.”

.

Matthew doesn’t remember how old he is. Steve wonders what that must be like, what wonders and horrors Matthew’s seen.

They have a week left in Paris before returning to Matthew’s island (The Pale Mare, Matthew calls it, with a quirk to his lips that means it refers to something) and they take advantage of their covers as American tourists trying to splurge Stefan’s dad’s money. Stefan buys ridiculously expensive things to give to Ben because Ben always smiles like it’s the best thing ever, and Max buys old books, and Ben picks out pointless little trinkets for Stefan that Steve will treasure forever because Bucky used to come home with baubles that’d caught his eye and he thought the artist in Steve might appreciate.

Stefan doesn’t look at Ben the way friends look at friends, but that’s no one’s business but theirs.

On their way to the boat launch, where Matthew’s private ship is waiting (and it’s under a different name with no connection to any cover), sitting in the back seat while Matthew drives and Benjamin watches the scenery, Steve calls Natasha.

He’s in this, whatever this is. Matthew says he’s not a good man but Steve and Benjamin are. And Steve’s staying, till the end of the line, wherever that is.

Chapter Text

Natasha’s phone starts playing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ as she steps out of the elevator to meet Pepper for breakfast. “Jarvis, track the location now,” she orders, “and let everyone know someone is using Steve’s phone to call me.” She then hits [accept] and answers. “Hello?” she asks neutrally.

“Hey, Natasha,” Steve says. He sounds a little sheepish, but not like he’s in any sort of distress and trying to hide it. “How’re things going?”

Steve has been missing for 98 days. None of Natasha’s contacts could find him. Stark and Jarvis couldn’t find him. They found where Matthew Ash had been under previous identities but not where he currently is. There hasn’t been a single trace of Barnes since a month after Project Insight went down except for the footage from that last Hydra base.

“Steve,” she says gently. “Where are you?” She steps back onto the elevator and it immediately goes to Stark’s floor, where all of their intel has been deposited.

“I’m sorry I left without telling anyone,” Steve says sincerely.

“You got a message from Ash that night, didn’t you?” Of course he did. “Did he threaten Barnes?” It wouldn’t fit with what he’d said about his ‘brother’ but that doesn’t matter at the moment.

“No, he didn’t,” Steve says. “And he didn’t threaten anyone else, either. And it was Benjamin who texted me.”

She blinks in disbelief as the doors open. Steve called Barnes ‘Benjamin’ and didn’t trip over it. During his entire search, he never once called Barnes anything but ‘Bucky,’ and he beat the shit out of multiple operatives who called him ‘asset’ or ‘Winter Soldier.’ He also raged at Sam, Stark, and Natasha, when they used ‘Winter Soldier,’ so everyone who wasn’t Steve eventually settled on ‘Barnes.’

“Steve,” she says as the wall flashes, [two more minutes] and everyone gathers around. “Are you going to come home?”

Steve sighs. “Put me on speaker, Natasha.” The seconds count down on the wall as Natasha does, and then Steve says, “Hydra’s been burnt to ash and ground into the dirt. I wouldn’t be part of something like that, and I’d have gotten Bucky out for the third time. So you can trust me when I say what Matthew’s going to do, it’s not like Hydra.”

Trust you, Rogers?” Stark scoffs. “You’re compromised six ways to Sunday.”

“Cap,” Clint says, “ask Ash if he remembers a kid he once helped at Carson’s circus.”

“One second,” Steve tells them, and there’s muffled talking that Jarvis will clean up for them later, and the timer is counting down down down, and then Steve says, “Matthew is still impressed with your skill on horseback.”

Clint laughs, bringing a hand up to rub his forehead. “Fuck.”

“Anyway,” Steve says, “I just… wanted to let you all know that I’m safe. I’m well.” He pauses. “I’m happy.”

“You waited three months to let us know?” Sam asks. “Thanks.” He’d taken Steve leaving the hardest, spent days combing through everything they had on the Ash brothers, trying to work it all out.

“I’m sorry,” Steve says again. “But we don’t have to be at odds.”

Stark laughs. “Cap, I don’t know where you’ve been, but people wanting to rule the world? We’re always gonna be against that.”

[45 44 43] goes the countdown, and Steve sighs loudly. “We don’t want to rule the world.” We. He’s gone beyond compromised and Natasha actually feels disappointed, saddened. She truly did like Steve Rogers. He was a good man.

But she knows well that every man has a breaking point.

“Steve,” Banner says. “Please. Tell us what the plan is, then, if it’s not to rule the world?”

[28 27 26] “I’ve got to go,” Steve says. “I’ll call back later.”

“Fuck!” Stark shouts as the call ends.

“I ascertained that Captain Rogers is currently in France,” Jarvis announces.

“He’ll be gone by the time we get there,” Clint mutters, leaning against the wall.

“I have cleaned up the tape, if you would like to hear what Captain Rogers’ companions said during the call,” Jarvis says.

“Play it,” Stark orders.

Natasha closes her eyes and listens.

[ “Matthew, you helped a kid at Carson’s circus?” Steve. Bewildered

“Ah, yes.” Laughter. Matthew Ash. Accentless. “He was quite impressive on horseback. Let him know I’ve met few who equal him.”

“Got a minute left. Don’t waste it.” Barnes. Soft.]

The room is quiet for a few minutes, then Banner asks Natasha, “Was that enough data to begin analyzing?”

Natasha hasn’t wanted to cry since she thought Fury died. Not till now. “Yes,” she says. “It’s enough to begin.”

She doesn’t want to have to kill Steve. She liked him. She liked him a lot.

“Well, Widow?” Stark demands. He’s angry. Sam’s furious, too, but Natasha doesn’t have it in her.

She looks at Clint. “I need more information before I begin speculating,” she says. “Now, I’m late for breakfast with Pepper.”

There’s no point in calling the number back. In the elevator, she sends a text anyway.

[Steve. Don’t do this.]

No one has seen Captain America in over three months and everyone’s getting antsy.

She gets a reply as she’s stepping off the elevator.

[Natasha, it’s already done.]

.

They track the phone to the trunk of a rental car in Paris. It’s locked but Natasha guesses the passcode (Barnes’ birthday) and it’s been cleaned except for one message on the notepad:

[Ruling the world is a foolish dream, Avengers. Here, there shall be nothing to avenge. I am not a fool, and neither are my brother or his dear captain.

Be warned, though. I protect what is mine most viciously. Leave us in peace and stand aside.]

It isn’t signed, but it doesn’t need to be.

.

Tucked into Clint’s arms, Natasha murmurs, “Tell me about the Horse Master.”

Clint describes a friendly man, who was kind to the animals, who protected them. A man who stepped in when he could’ve kept walking and saved a no-account kid’s life, paid off thousands of dollars of medical bills, and disappeared.

He’s the kind of man Natasha would not have believed in, before the man sent to kill her spared her life and offered her another way.

“I really don’t think we should make ourselves into his enemies, Tash,” Clint whispers into her hair. “But it’s up to you. I’ll follow you.”

And that’s the most terrifying thing of all.

Chapter Text

“You know what the worst part is?” Sam asks Natasha, hands clenched around his can of Coke. He wants something stronger, strong enough to erase the sense of bewildered betrayal – but. But. He needs to keep his head, and it wasn’t really a betrayal, was it?

“The fact that we should’ve seen it coming?” Natasha says, daintily sipping her lemonade. “I didn’t see it coming, Sam. You didn’t have a chance.”

Sam once asked Steve what made him happy and he wants to believe Steve was telling the truth when he said he didn’t know. Then the Winter Soldier happened, and Sam is pretty damn sure that Steve’s anger (which had been obvious then and was obvious now) had changed. He knew that Steve was angry, but he kept it tightly coiled. He didn’t act on it.

Steve didn’t bring in any Hydra operatives, didn’t leave any for the various government agencies. He executed them, whether they were involved in the Winter Soldier program or not. Sam could have stopped him. Maybe. He didn’t try.

Sam followed Steve around the world, talking with him about everything from movies to their families. Of course, a lot of the conversations were about Barnes. About bringing him home. About what would be waiting for him when they did. Sam, honestly, didn’t hold out hope: even if he could be salvaged from the mess Hydra left, the American government would definitely have plans for him. He tried telling Steve but Steve was just so determined, so hopeful.

He should’ve seen this coming. Steve Rogers wanted a happy ending for Bucky Barnes, and maybe Matthew Ash is offering him that. Every man has a breaking point, and Steve…

“He’s saved the world three times,” Sam tells Natasha. “He’s such a good guy.”

“Yeah,” she says with a sad little smile. “I know.”

They had a talk about that one night, him and Steve, huddled together in a decrepit building while a snowstorm raged outside. Steve put out heat like a furnace and Sam was more than happy to curl up with him. They talked about Schmidt and Loki and Pierce, about saving a good portion of the world, and maybe the whole thing.

Steve’s voice shook with either anger or despair, Sam couldn’t tell, when he said that the world owed Bucky for the last seventy years. Twice Sam’s lifetime, that’s how long Hydra had Barnes. Steve was asleep in the ice and Barnes was being tortured and torn apart and remade how his captors wanted. Sometimes, Steve’s anger was tangible.

Captain America wasn’t chasing Barnes. Sam can see it now. And maybe the endgame shifted while Sam watched, oblivious. Because Steve Rogers is a good guy, and back before the war (The War, because it always has capitals when Steve says it) there were lines he wouldn’t cross. Things he wouldn’t do, not even for Bucky Barnes. (Maybe. But, honestly, maybe Sam’s never known him as well as he thought.)

“Or,” he says, staring out the window of (one of) Stark’s private plane(s), “or maybe, Barnes was always the breaking point.”

He can’t be sure, anymore. He gave his loyalty to Captain America and he got Steve Rogers, and he should’ve known, really, because Captain America is Steve Rogers is a soldier who still hasn’t made it home. Sam knows soldiers; he is one. Steve’s no different, really.

And… “What if Steve’s right?” he asks, looking at Natasha. “What if we should join up with Ash?”

She shrugs. “Well, hopefully MacLeod can shed some light on the situation,” she says. “I don’t have nearly enough data to be certain of anything.”

He gave his loyalty to Steve. And Steve just walked out. Two years of traveling and fighting together, and Ash dangled Barnes in front of Steve’s face and Steve left. No warning, no word. Just gone.

Sam realizes now, halfway to LA to talk to some guy, that it’s not Steve he’s angry at.

He’s angry at himself because he knew this was coming and he still got blindsided. He looks back out the window, grits his teeth, and tries to reason it all out.

If Steve’s involved, it’s not a plot to destroy anything. But beyond that, he’ll have to wait for Steve to get in contact.

He’s just gotta be patient. Great.

Chapter Text

“Duncan,” Joe says for the dozenth time in eight months, “if the Old Man doesn’t want to be found, he won’t be found.”

“I found him before, in Paris,” Duncan protests, same as he has eleven times before.

With the advantage of hindsight, Joe knows that Duncan only realized Adam Pierson was Methos because Methos wanted Duncan to figure that out. He’s explained that before, too. But Duncan, the honorable and noble idiot, is also the most stubborn person Joe has ever met.

“Old Man?” a woman’s voice asks. “Would that be Matthew Ash?”

Joe glances over at the same time Duncan spins around, hand going behind the counter where he keeps a spare sword. A pale young woman with bright red hair and a tall black guy stand just inside the book store; the bell didn’t ding when the door opened.

“Hi,” the woman says. “I’m Natasha, this is Sam. We’ve been tracking Matthew Ash and discovered he’s actually Adam Pierson? And, well, y’all were his friends, right?” Her smile is shaky. “I’m sorry, but we think he’s kidnapped some friends of ours. We just want to make sure they’re safe.”

“One’a our other friends is a hacker,” Sam says, and his smile is even shakier. “He was able to track Ash to Pierson, but the trail dries up there.”

Natasha nods. “Look, we know he’s older than he looks. Please, is there anything you can tell us?”

Duncan glances at Joe. Joe sighs and steers his chair from behind the counter. “We should talk in the back,” he says.

.

The story Natasha and Sam tell is possible, if unlikely. According to them, their friends James and Steve were taken by Matthew Ash (which Joe does believe is Methos’ current identity) for some terrorist plot. Unfortunately, the authorities don’t believe them. There are no signs of foul play – or, in fact, any evidence at all except their friends being gone.

“Look,” Natasha says, “James isn’t… he’s been through a lot. He’s not all there anymore. So, Ash started with him. And Steve, there is, like, literally nothing Steve wouldn’t do for James, so Ash took James and Steve followed, and now they’re both gone.” She wipes a hand roughly across her eyes.

“We know Pierson, Ash, whatever his name is,” Sam says, “we know he’s your friend. And if he’s not involved, that’s awesome, we’re sorry to waste your time and accuse your friend of stuff he didn’t do. But we’re not sure. So, please.” Sam’s eyes are very wide and sincere. “Is there anything you can tell us? Anything at all?”

Duncan looks from the pair of mortals back to Joe and Joe nods. “Sure. There’s lots I can tell you. But first, why don’t you explain why the Black Widow is interested in a researcher and how she managed to lose Captain America?”

The Black Widow drops the act immediately; Sam and Duncan just gape at him. “Impressive,” Natasha says.

Joe shrugs. “You leave an impression on a guy. And Project Insight terrified me, so I paid a lot of attention to the news in the months after it.”

She nods. “Understandable. And I lost Captain America because Matthew Ash has the person he loves most in the world. Steve went willingly. I can only assume he stays willingly, as well. But we have no idea what Ash’s plan is and I was hoping you would.”

Duncan just looks bewildered and finally bursts out with, “But that doesn’t make any sense!”

“What you’re describing,” Joe says, “it is fully within Adam’s capabilities. But I honestly have no idea why he’d be doing it.” He shrugs. “And I haven’t had contact with him in almost twenty years.”

“Nor I,” Duncan says.

“Which is why you were looking for him,” Natasha muses, those sharp eyes going from Joe to Duncan and back. “What can you tell us about his character?”

Duncan is fairly bristling; his trust in Methos is still shaky. Their friendship never truly recovered after the Horsemen debacle. For all his age, Joe sometimes feels older than the Highlander. Of course, Joe also has the benefit of a few chats with Methos about those days, chats Duncan wouldn’t have had the stomach or patience for.

“He’s a good guy,” Joe says. “Patient. Has his own code of honor.”

Just because I don’t like to fight doesn’t mean I can’t.

“He protects what’s his,” Joe says. “And you won’t find him unless he wants to be found. Whatever game he’s playing…” Joe shrugs again. “I trust Adam. And if Captain America went willingly, then you probably should wait.”

Natasha’s face is expressionless, but Sam nods. “Thank you for your cooperation,” the Black Widow says. Joe has no idea what she might have gleaned from him and Duncan, but he has faith in Adam. He owes the Old Man that much trust.

.

“What was that, Joe?” Duncan demands as soon as Natasha and Sam depart.

“Adam’s up to something,” Joe says. “We should stop looking for him and let it play out.”

“And if it’s dangerous?” Duncan asks. “Or to do with that time?”

It will be decades, perhaps centuries, before Duncan can begin to forgive Methos for the Horsemen. And Joe understands, he really does. But he doesn’t have decades and definitely not centuries, and he also understands how people change. They grow.

A long time ago, Methos was Death on a Horse. He did horrible things. But the world was different then. And when the Horsemen tried to rise again, Methos stopped them.

Whatever he’s doing with Captain America and whoever James is, it’s probably going to hurt someone. But… some people need to be hurt. And Joe’s not the man he was, once.

So he says simply, “I trust Adam,” and wheels back to the front of the store.

Chapter Text

“I’m not Bucky,” Benjamin says, settling onto the sand beside Steve. Steve’s sketching the sunrise; he and Bucky never had the chance to have a conversation about all the colors the serum let Steve see. If Benjamin didn’t have other things to discuss, he’d ask, now. Instead, he’ll ask later.

“I know you’re not,” Steve replies without looking up from shading the right pink onto a cloud.

“Bucky loved you.” Benjamin looks down at his mismatched hands. Bucky Barnes had been a good man. He’s not sure he can ever live up to Bucky, but he is trying.

“I loved Bucky,” Steve says, sounding wistful. “I still do.” His hand pauses and Benjamin doesn’t look up to meet the gaze he feels. “But I’m your friend, Benjamin. Not because you used to be Bucky, but because of who you are.”

The words are sincere; Benjamin doesn’t need Bucky or the asset to tell him so. He can feel it, in the bones Hydra let him keep. The words are sincere and kindly meant, but they still hurt.

Even after all the days of kindness with Matthew and Steve, he still does not know how to handle it.

“You can…” He is not sure how to phrase it; his research was not much help. None of the options sounded correct and he did not dare ask Matthew.

There have been no punishments, since he met Matthew. He had nearly killed Matthew on the third day, a violent reaction to a gentle touch on the shoulder. He might have even killed Matthew entirely, had the lightning flickering its way up Matthew’s shattered torso not distracted him, broken him from the asset’s fear.

Even for that, Matthew did not punish him. Had instead sat with him for hours, telling a story of four brother kings who traveled from ocean to ocean and had many adventures.

He is (almost) sure that Matthew would not punish him for what he wants to offer Steve. But should Matthew become angry, he will take all the punishment so that Steve has to suffer none.

“If you…” He shakes his head, because that is not right, either.

“Benjamin,” Steve says, setting the sketchpad and pencil onto the sand, turning to face Benjamin (though Benjamin still does not look up), and gently taking both of Benjamin’s hands with his. “Whatever it is, you can tell me or ask me.”

“You loved Bucky,” Benjamin says in a rush. “I can be him for a little while. If you want.” The memories are there to guide him and he can slip in to the shadow, let the ghost out for a little while.

Steve doesn’t move; even his fingers, warm around Benjamin’s, still. He holds his breath and Benjamin looks up to his face. Steve is –

Crying. No.

Benjamin doesn’t know how to deal with anyone crying; the asset always ignored tears, so it is no help, but Bucky—

“Stevie, sweetheart, hey, what’s wrong?” Bucky asks, leaning in to kiss the tears away. “It’ll all be fine, you know that.”

Steve jerks away, lunging to his feet, and takes off down the beach, leaving behind his sketchpad and pencils. Benjamin carefully collects them, letting Bucky fade back into the shadows.

.

He confesses to Matthew. Whatever punishment he has earned, he will accept.

Bewilderingly (or not, since there has been no punishment for any other mistake), Matthew does not punish him. Instead, Matthew leads him to their bed and tells him to get comfortable, then wraps around him and asks softly, “Do you know what you did wrong?”

Benjamin considers. Finally, he suggests, “I offered what is yours to another?”

Matthew shakes his head; Benjamin feels the motion behind him, keeping his eyes closed, body tucked in as tight as possible against Matthew’s. “You are your own, brother. I am possessive, yes, but I’ll not shackle you the way your masters did. I’ll welcome you always, and if you leave, I’ll follow discretely to keep you safe. But if you want to bed Captain Rogers, you can. If you want to be his friend, you already are.” He presses a kiss to the back of Benjamin’s head. “You offered him a lie, Benjamin. He knows Bucky Barnes is dead, that you are not Bucky Barnes. He is not at peace with it; he probably never will be. But you offered to pretend to be his dead lover and he probably wanted to accept.”

“Why didn’t he?” Benjamin asks. He would have willingly worn the mask, given Steve anything he desired.

Matthew sighs into Benjamin’s neck. “Because the lie would’ve faded,” he murmurs. “You would have put Bucky aside and become Benjamin again.”

“Oh.” He can’t wear the mask forever, but if Steve wanted, for hours here and there – but that would be cruel, wouldn’t it?

Oh, Stevie, I’m sorry, Bucky whispers from his corner of Benjamin’s mind.

“He’s going to be angry,” Benjamin says. If Matthew doesn’t want to punish him, Steve might –

You know better than that, Bucky protests. His ghost is loud today. Probably because Benjamin purposefully called him up.

Oh, but he’s been so cruel to both Bucky and Steve today.

“Give him time,” Matthew counsels. “Let us sleep, now. Tomorrow will come soon enough and you can track him down for apologies.”

Steve loved Bucky. Benjamin thinks that Steve likes him well enough, but would he – Bucky loved Steve. Benjamin thinks what he feels might be love.

Maybe if he offers as Benjamin?

.

Steve is back at the same spot the next afternoon, with the same sketchpad, though turned to a different picture.

“That’s me,” Benjamin says in shock, staring down. Steve’s only drawn Bucky before.

“Please don’t do that again,” Steve says. He doesn’t look up.

“I won’t,” Benjamin promises. “I’m sorry. I just… I wanted to do something nice for you. And you love him. And you miss him.”

Steve sighs heavily. His fingers still on the page. “I don’t know how Matthew explained it to you, you and the asset and Bucky. But I don’t see you as three separate people, any more than the little guy I was and who I am now are different. They’re both me.” He glances up at Benjamin and then out over the water. “I can’t be that guy again, even if sometimes I want to go back. You’re Benjamin. But you’re also the asset and Bucky Barnes. People change. Sometimes they can go back and sometimes they can’t. Sometimes they shouldn’t.” He shrugs. “Maybe you can become Bucky again, if only for a little while. But I won’t ask that of you unless you want it.”

He turns to completely face Benjamin, leaning back to ask, “Do you?”

“No,” Benjamin confesses, hanging his head in shame.

Steve rises to his feet. Benjamin does not shy back because he will take whatever Steve thinks he deserves. Steve reaches out to cup his face with both hands and says, “Look at me, Benjamin.”

Benjamin slowly lifts his gaze to Steve’s blue blue eyes and is distraught at the tears he finds. “I can,” he says, “if you need –”

Steve shakes his head but his hands remain firm, his palms warm on Benjamin’s skin. “You are still Bucky where it matters, Benjamin. I promise. I knew him my whole life and I’ve known you for long enough – you’re him and he’s you, and I’ll take whatever you want to give me. But that’s the thing, Benjamin.” He leans forward to rest their foreheads together. “You have to want it. Don’t give me anything because you think you have to or because I want it.” Steve pulls away, lets his hands drop.

The words are on the tip of Benjamin’s tongue as Steve slowly gathers his sketchpad and the pencils. He could say them. He could ask Steve to take him to bed, could show Steve how much he’s learned since he was Bucky.

Steve smiles at him and trudges towards the bungalow. Benjamin turns to watch the waves, the words unsaid.

Chapter Text

Sid feels the buzz while he’s out getting his morning coffee on the way to work. He covertly glances around Starbucks; the staff are all the usual people and none of them have ever felt like pre-immortals, so he dismisses them. After he gives his order to Frankie, he loiters at the side of the counter, trying to figure out who is new and who isn’t.

He can’t be sure, but Sid finally settles on the only guy tripping his danger-signal: a big guy with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing a black sweatshirt and jogging pants, hands tucked into the pockets of the sweatshirt. The guy’s hunched in and seemingly lost in his own head, but Sid’s had 500 years to hone his instincts. This is the source of the buzz. The guy, though… he either has no idea what’s going on or he’s the best actor Sid’s seen since that time Amanda got him in trouble with the bishop.

After grabbing his latté, Sid leaves Starbucks and stays within range of the buzz. He calls his boss to say he won’t be able to make it in: food poisoning. Apparently, there was something heinously wrong with his breakfast burrito.

Sid hasn’t fought a challenge in almost 50 years and something tells him he does not want to start with this guy. The best thing to do is observe and make a decision once enough data has been collected. The guy exits with three drinks in a drink tray and walks at a pretty good clip; he almost loses Sid twice, but Sid manages to keep up and follows the guy to a pretty nice hotel, not that far from his office, in fact, and decides to not draw attention by going in.

It almost feels like there’s another buzz in the hotel, but that’s unlikely. Sid heads home because he needs to err on the side of caution and practice his swordsmanship.

.

That night, Sid goes back to the hotel, slips in with a big crowd, and settles down in a chair in the lobby pretending to read a newspaper. He can feel the buzz so he knows the guy is somewhere in the hotel.

In his 500 years, Sid has fought thirteen challenges. He usually runs, but he’s invested in this life. He likes his job as a computer programmer, loves his apartment, and is pretty sure he’s falling for Yvette, the woman he’s been flirting with for eight months, who works in the PR for the company. He can’t really run anymore, anyway; he’d need more than a few days’ warning to create a new identity. He has an emergency stash, of course, just in case, but he doesn’t want to.

So, he can either challenge the guy or wait until the guy challenges him; talk to the guy and see if he’s just passing through; or go home right now and forget about the guy.

The problem, of course, is that the guy had to have felt Sid’s buzz, even though Sid didn’t see any hint he did. So the guy might track him down, taking away any advantage Sid might have.

In the back of his head, Dixon laughs. He barely won his last challenge, and only did through tricks: he shot Dixon after Dixon proved Sid couldn’t win in a fair fight. Shot him and took his head. The guilt kept him up for about a week after, but… well. Sid likes life. Dixon’s quickening almost overwhelmed him in the first few minutes but Sid fought him down and ran. Didn’t stop running for a year because Dixon’s memories showed that he had a couple close friends and they’d miss him. Sid had even spotted a couple people who tripped his memory – he knew he’d seen them somewhere before but he couldn’t place them. So he ran.

Dixon was about 800, and his friends a little younger, which mean they all had at least two centuries on Sid. And this new guy, Sid has no idea how old he is. But he moves like the mercenaries who killed Sid, in his first life. Sid really doesn’t want to fight him.

So he sighs, sets the paper aside, and goes home. He makes it as difficult as possible to follow him, of course, to be safe.

He doesn’t feel the buzz till he’s already locked the door and reset the alarm.

.

In his first life, Sid was Li, the son of an artisan. He learned his father’s trade and was struck down by marauders two weeks before his arranged marriage to the daughter of a merchant. They hadn’t been wealthy by modern standards; neither had they gone hungry. He had been prepared to do his duty.

Instead, he was murdered with most everyone he cared for and rose from death. He’d thought himself cursed till he met his teacher. For a long time after, he still thought himself cursed. Jin taught him for twenty years, to fight and to live and to hide. Sid never took on any students of his own and avoided immortals when he could. He preferred to live quietly and learn a new trade before moving on, watching as the world changed around him.

He likes to think he’s a good man, that he always has been.

.

“Hi,” the white man in Sid’s apartment says, slouched in his favorite chair, a sword balanced on his knees. “Sid Kingsley, computer programmer, 26 years old, orphan, single.” He grins, eyes sharp and cold. “Let’s talk.”

“Okay,” Sid agrees, immediately sinking down onto his sofa. “I don’t want trouble.”

This guy, whoever he is, can suppress his buzz. Jin had only mentioned the ability a couple of times, said it might be possible for the ‘old ones.’ Jin didn’t count himself amongst the theoretical ‘old ones,’ even though Sid is pretty sure he should count since, at the time, he was over a thousand.

“Good, you’re smart,” the guy says. “You can call me Adam.” His hand is still on the hilt of the sword, though his fingers are loose. “You followed my student today. Why?”

“He was new,” Sid says promptly. “And had a buzz. I was trying to decide if I should challenge him or not.”

“You shouldn’t,” Adam says kindly. “There are few people on this planet who could beat him in a fair fight, and I’ve taught him to never fight fair.”

“Okay.” Sid nods, trying to smile. “I don’t like challenges, I try to avoid them. But I like this life and I want to keep it as long as possible, so I didn’t run.”

The guy taps each finger of his free hand on the blade. Sid watches nervously for a few moments before looking back at the guy’s unreadable expression. “You’re one of Ke Jin’s,” the guy says. “He’s a good boy. Honorable.”

Jin is over two thousand years old. Adam calls him boy, and it’s not said like an insult. It’s just a fact. Sid swallows down the taste of fear and says, “Yes, sir. My teacher is honorable. As am I.”

The guy smiles a little nicer than before. “So if I tell you we’re just passing through, my student and I and a friend, we’re on vacation and hanging around a few days before moving on, but then we’ll be gone and your peaceful life remains undisturbed – if I tell you all that, Sid Kingsley, you’ll go about your usual routine, you won’t return to our hotel, and everyone’s heads stay on their necks?”

“Yes,” Sid says. “All of that sounds perfect.”

“Good.” Adam rises to his feet and sheathes his sword in the same movement. “You know Duncan MacLeod?”

Sid blinks. “I – am familiar with the name?” Of course he’s heard of Duncan MacLeod. The guy kills more of their kind than anyone but head hunters.

Adam chuckles. “Call him up and ask about Watchers. Don’t mention me.”

“Okay,” Sid says. “Um. It was good to meet you?”

“I’ll see myself out,” Adam says.

Sid follows him to the door to lock it behind him and holds down the panic attack by the skin of his teeth.

.

Before tracking down Duncan MacLeod’s newest contact information, Sid calls Jin. They haven’t actually interacted face-to-face in about a century but Jin always leaves his newest identity’s information at one of Sid’s boltholes. Once he’s suitably calm and convinced himself running would be pointless, Sid dials the most recent number he has for Jin.

“I think I just met an old one,” he says after Jin answers. “He said to call him Adam.”

“Fuck,” Jin says. “Are you safe?”

“Yeah, he didn’t want to fight. I just…” Sid shudders.

“Tell me everything about him,” Jin orders. He listens in silence as Sid explains the events of the day, starting with Starbucks. When he’s done describing the minute details on Adam’s windbreaker, Jin says, “Stay away from this Adam and his companions.”

“I intend to,” Sid assures him.

“Good.” Jin sighs. “I think – my teacher once told me of a man as old as the ocean. I’m sure that’s impossible, but there are legends of the oldest of us. And you’re certain there was no buzz until you were already in the apartment?”

“Completely certain,” Sid says.

“Then he must be truly ancient.” Jin is quiet for a few moments and Sid grabs a beer from the fridge. Jin says, “He told you to contact Duncan MacLeod about watchers?”

“Yup,” Sid mutters after draining the can. He grabs another and drains it, too.

“I’ll look into it,” Jin says. “You go about your life. I’ll let you know what I discover.”

“Okay.” He rubs at his eyes. “I’m sorry I bothered you, Jin. I just… had no idea what to do.”

“It was no bother, Li,” Jin says in Sid’s first language, in the exact dialect of home. “It is my responsibility as your teacher. Now, take a hot shower and rest. Live your life.”

“Yes, teacher,” Sid replies and hangs up. He takes a shower, goes to bed, and dreams of his parents, of the marriage that never happened, of a life that would’ve ended nearly 500 years ago.

.

In the morning, Sid takes a taxi to work. He flirts with Yvette as usual, but this time, he also explicitly asks her out. She agrees to meeting at Sid’s third-favorite restaurant on Thursday at 7pm. He catches up on his missed work, fixes a mistake one of the interns makes, and eats lunch at his desk. He leaves promptly at 4:30 and takes another taxi home instead of risking the bus.

If he runs into Adam’s student, he’s pretty sure Adam will consider it an attack, or the student might. Better to not take chances.

.

Wednesday morning is foggy. Sid pulls on his ‘alma mater’s sweatshirt and walks to the bus stop.

He startles a little when he feels the buzz, tries not to panic and glance around desperately. There are mortals waiting with him so he knows nothing can happen, but –

The buzz fades.

Sid goes to work. Goes home. Goes to work. Goes home, gets ready for his date, meets Yvette. Arranges a second date. Goes home, goes to work, goes home. He throws himself into life.

.

Two weeks after meeting Adam, Jin calls Sid and – in the calm tone that means he is beyond utterly furious and all the way to enraged – tells Sid what Duncan MacLeod had to say about watchers. Three days later, Sid is pretty damn sure he’s figured out who’s watching him.

He could disappear. He doesn’t want to. He could really have something with Yvette. This is the best life he’s had in over two hundred years.

So he walks over to Bob’s office and says, “We need to talk.”

Chapter Text

“Oh, shit,” Eliot says. Alec looks over from his tablet and Parker from her lock collection, but Eliot is watching the alert scroll across the bottom of the screen. “Fuck, I can’t believe she finally went through with it.”

“Um, Eliot?” Alec asks. “What’s up?”

“Just…” Eliot laughs, shaking his head. “An old friend. Enemy. Fuck if I know.” He laughs again and Alec shares a glance with Parker. “Anyway, I need to call Sophie.”

Parker tosses over the phone they keep just for calls to Sophie and Nate, and Alec sets his tablet aside. Something’s not right with Eliot, he’s known it for awhile now, talked it over with Parker. Maybe Eliot will finally tell them.

As the call connects, Eliot meets Alec’s eyes, then Parker’s. Something settles inside; Alec sees him physically relax. “Hey, Sofia,” he says. “Have you talked to Cassandra lately?”

.

Eliot allows them to hear the whole conversation but it doesn’t make much sense. Eliot and Sophie talk for less than five minutes, about Cassandra’s grudge towards someone named Adam and apparently a very large favor was cashed in, and Eliot isn’t sure which side he’s on. When he hangs up, he sighs heavily.

Alec throws the news story Eliot was watching onto the big screen and asks, “Can you tell us what we’re lookin’ at?”

Parker walks over and drapes herself across Alec’s shoulders. Alec knows she must be giving Eliot her best puppy eyes. “Matthew Ash,” she says. “Anti-army terrorist action, blah blah blah. Wanted dead or alive, more blah. You know him?”

Eliot grins. “We’ve met,” he murmurs, standing and stretching. “I’m goin’ shower,” he says. “And then… well, there’s some stuff you should know.”

Alec and Parker watch him go. “I’ll join him,” she says, rubbing her cheek against Alec’s. “You get your list ready.”

“On it,” Alec says, heading for his super-secret laptop that no one else can access.

.

Since about week two of their second job, Alec’s been keeping a list of stuff about Eliot Spencer that does not make sense. How quick he could move, how many different styles of fighting he knows, what he’s survived in the years Alec’s known him. How quickly he heals. How he hasn’t aged in the near-decade Alec’s known him, and he hasn’t slowed down at all. He fights now just as well as he did when they met.

The list clocks in at 208 items, things he’s wanted to ask Eliot and never quite worked up the nerve. He showed it to Parker when they first got together and she actually had a couple to add.

Alec’s created and discarded a dozen theories and what Eliot tells him was actually his third: Eliot’s an immortal. 800 years old, give or take a decade.

“So’s Sophie,” Parker says. “That’s why you called her.”

“Cassandra with her grudge against Adam,” Alec realizes. “He must be Matthew Ash, and they’re both like you.”

Eliot nods. “When we met, Sophie took me under her wing. I was very young and would’ve gotten myself killed. She was only a little older than me but she’d already figured a lot of things out.” He chuckles, reaching out to take Parker’s hand, and says, “First time I saw her in two centuries was when Nate brought us to that show.”

“So, why do we care about this?” Alec asks, nodding towards the news story. A base in Florida had been bombed but (“miraculously,” the talking heads kept saying) no one had been injured or killed.

“Because Cassandra’s framing Adam but he’s got his own game going, and this is gonna get her killed,” Eliot says. “I owe her, but I owe him, too. I was hopin’ Sophie might know somethin’.” He slumps against the back of the couch. “But she fell out with Cassandra 500 years ago. Rebecca could maybe do somethin’ but she died a couple decades ago.”

Eliot reaches out to take both Parker and Alec’s hands. “I can’t honestly be sure who’s in the right here,” he confesses, “so I’m not gonna get involved.”

Alec is relieved and disappointed at the same time. Parker says, “Can we ask you about the stuff on the list now?”

Eliot’s eyes narrow. “What list?” he growls.

Clicking off the TV, Alec pulls his laptop onto his lap and says, “This list. Number one: how goddamned fast you move.”

“Oh, fine,” Eliot mutters. “Sure.”

.

This is the thing about Eliot: he once told Parker not to ask because he would answer.

Knowing now that Eliot’s life is at least 800 years long – what could he have done for Moreau that was so bad?

That is not a question on the list.

.

Alec keeps a watch on the Matthew Ash story. He knows that Eliot is, too, and he really hopes the situation doesn’t get so messy that Eliot will decide he has to step in. Whatever he owes Cassandra, and whatever he owes Ash – Alec prays every night that neither debt outweighs how much Eliot values his and Parker’s lives.

He calls Sophie the morning after Eliot comes clean and she says, “Don’t worry, dear; I’m doing what I can to keep Eliot out of the situation.”

“But you’re in it?” he demands because he doesn’t want that, either.

She laughs gently. Damn, but he really misses her. They should have a team reunion dinner or something soon. “Of course not, Alec. I called my teacher for help. Amanda has her fingers in more pies than I do.”

“Okay,” he sighs, relieved. “What are y’all doin’ next week?”

“Dinner with you, I believe,” Sophie says. “Something French. Eliot knows what I like.”

“Alright,” Alec says. “See you then.” He pauses; she waits him out. “If somethin’ changes about the situation, you’ll let me know, right?”

This time, he waits her out. “I cannot make that promise, Alec,” she finally says gently. “But I will do my best. See you soon, my dear.”

She hangs up. Alec lets his phone fall and goes to Eliot’s training room, where he’s guiding Parker through – looks like fencing with sticks. “Get in here, Hardison,” Eliot commands. “I’ve been slacking on your training.”

Alec goes to them, sending up another prayer to his Nana’s God.

Chapter Text

Clint's out walking his dog when Benjamin Ash (the motherfucking Winter Soldier) falls into step with him. "Hi," the greatest assassin in the world says with a (shy? WTF?) smile. "Do you have a minute?"

Clint's emergency beacon is back at his shithole apartment, where Tasha's taking a bubble bath. “I dunno,” he answers, eyes going to Lucky. “Do I?”

He looks up to see Ash also staring at the dog. “I won’t hurt him,” Ash says, meeting his gaze. “Or you. I’m just here to talk.” His smile is small and – shy? “I’m only armed with a knife,” he says, clearly aiming for reassuring. “Matthew and Steve wouldn’t let me leave without it.”

The Winter Soldier, ex or not, doesn’t need a knife to be dangerous. Even on his best day, Clint knows he’s got no chance at close-quarters combat. So he says, “Okay. Let’s walk and talk.”

Lucky sniffs Ash for a second before wagging his tail and pulling on his leash, and Clint asks, “So, I hear you’re blowing up army bases now?” because he really does have a deathwish.

“That wasn’t us,” Ash tells him, gloved hands tucked into his hoodie’s pockets, his head tilted down. Clint knows the ballcap he’s wearing is hiding his face from the cameras. “If it had been, there would have been casualties.” Once again, his tone is attempting reassurance, and Clint just shakes his head in baffled wonder because this kid -- this kid is the Winter Soldier?

They walk in silence for a block, letting Lucky set the pace, and Clint watches out the corner of his eye as Ash gazes at everything with wide eyes. “It’s changed so much,” Ash finally says. And then, “The asset got away, once.” He turns his head to meet Clint’s startled gaze, and then he looks back at the buildings. “Ran here. Got caught on the way.” His entire body shudders and he shakes his head before continuing, “The aftermath was – bad.”

Bad. Clint shudders, too, and then tugs Lucky back when he tries running into the street.

“We all read what Tasha dug up,” Clint tells him. “I know that saying sorry for it is, well, fuckin’ useless. But I am. Sorry.” Shit, Clint’s terrible with words. Give him a nervous horse over a traumatized assassin any day.

But Ash is grinning brightly at him, and then drops down to rub Lucky’s ears. “You knew Matthew,” Ash says as Clint crouches down, too. “You’ve met the gentler side of him. That’s why I’m here.”

Clint sighs. “You want me to deliver a message to the team.”

Ash nods earnestly. “Steve talks about all’a ya. He doesn’t want to fight you.” He flat-out giggles as Lucky licks his chin.

“But he will fight us,” Clint says. He really doesn’t think Matthew Ash is a danger the way Hydra was. But his wagon’s hitched to whatever Natasha does, the same way Steve’s with Benjamin, who is with Matthew.

The laughing boy vanishes as Ash’s whole body stills. His head slowly turns towards the south and every instinct in Clint’s body is screaming that he run while he still can. Lucky’s ears go back as he growls, facing the same way as Ash.

Whoever it is can’t be Hydra ‘cause the Ash brothers eradicated what was left. Clint feels his heart drop as he recognizes the team leader stepping around the corner, gun already drawn.

“It’s SHIELD,” he tells Ash. “I swear I’m not with them.”

“Take the dog and get out of here,” Ash murmurs, rising to his feet. “Go to the Widow, she’ll keep you safe.”

Clint tightens his grip on Lucky’s leash, gazing around, spotting five snipers in nearby buildings. He has no weapons – and is he really gonna choose the Winter Soldier (ex or not) over what’s left of SHIELD?

Lucky likes Benjamin and is still growling at SHIELD. Fuck.

“This is a really bad idea,” Clint mutters, standing back to back with Benjamin. “Tell me you have a plan, Benny.”

“Benny,” Benjamin murmurs. “I like it.”

“Agent Barton,” Colleen Davros calls, halting her team’s advancement. “We’re here for the operative known as Winter Soldier. You can go home.”

These are Coulson’s guys.

“It’ll be fine,” Benjamin says softly.

There isn’t a lot Clint knows for sure. But he can’t walk away now. “Agent Davros,” he says, picking out another sniper, “I’m not an agent anymore. Pretty sure Cap told your boss to go fuck himself.”

“Captain America is missing,” Davros practically snarls. “We all know that monster beside you killed him.”

Well. Two dozen operatives against an enhanced assassin, a regular assassin, and a dog. There’s no way for this to end badly.

“You spotted the snipers?” Clint asks. He doesn’t really care about his own life that much, and he knows it’ll take a whole hell of a lot to bring Benjamin down, but Lucky –

And then he spots Matthew Ash at the end of the street. “Uh, Benny?” he asks. “Did you know your brother’s here?”

“Yes,” Benjamin says. “Get to Stark’s tower. SHIELD will probably think you an enemy now. I’m sorry.”

Clint has to decide: stay and fight or get his dog to safety. “If you kill any of them,” he says, mind made up, “they’ll hunt you forever.”

Benjamin chuckles softly. “Noted.”

Matthew Ash holds a finger to his lips, twisted in the evilest smirk Clint’s ever seen. Clint scoops Lucky into his arms and runs.

He doesn’t look back.

Chapter Text

Methos stays out of sight, trailing Benjamin and Clint Barton. He’s barely in range for Benjamin to feel the buzz and part of him thinks he shouldn’t have let Benjamin take on this task alone – but. He trusts his brother. And Benjamin had asked so sweetly.

Any security measures Steve had been familiar with have probably been changed in the months since his desertion of Stark’s tower. Steve is busy seeing how close he can get before being spotted and so it falls to Methos to ensure Benjamin’s safety. He’s also curious at how Benjamin fares on his first solo op.

When he notices the operatives getting into position, he lets Death to the fore. Some of his rage cools when he sees that Clint Barton stands with Benjamin and he allows Barton to spot him. He gestures for Barton to remain silent and his presence apparently gives Barton leave to flee with his dog.

All of the operatives are mortal. Methos does not know who they belong to, nor does he care. Eighteen on the ground, six spread throughout the neighboring buildings. The leader is waiting for some signal and Barton’s pre-immortal buzz has faded. Civilians are fleeing because of the tactical team, and a handful remain, smartphones filming. If the Avengers weren’t aware of their presence before, they will be quite soon.

He enters the nearest building with a sniper in place and heads for the roof, pulling out his phone to call Steve. “How do you feel about the deaths of a team threatening Benjamin?” he asks. “I’m not sure who they answer to.”

“So that’s why they lit out of here in a hurry,” Steve says. “I feel fine about it. Should I join you or hold the exit?”

He wants to join them, Methos knows. But Benjamin’s safety is and always will be Steve’s priority.

“Hold the exit,” Methos orders. “We’ll be there soon.” He ends the call, slips his phone into his pocket, and pulls out a gun. Benjamin trusts the snipers to him.

Death takes aim.

Chapter Text

She doesn’t remember her first death, or the life she had before it. What she remembers is waking to a woman holding out a hand who said, “Come with me.” She took the woman’s hand and went.

.

When the woman asked for her name, she said, “Laura.” It was the only thing she knew for sure.

The woman had smiled. “Call me Anne.”

.

Amanda and Sophie Devereaux are sisters, though it is unknown when or how they met. Amanda was Sophie’s teacher and they parted ways at some point in the 1300s. Amanda is a prolific and successful thief; Sophie is a con artist and harder to track. They both, however, seem to have a standing appointment with Rebecca because every three hundred years, they return to wherever she is and stay for no less than a month.

.

Around 1900, the Watchers lose all trace of Sophie. She is believed dead.

.

His name was Elia, and he was a mercenary. She was Sofia, and she was a wealthy man’s mistress. He was sent to kill her lover and instead found a woman who had a way with a blade.

His first death was quick and sudden, and he woke to his killer waiting, still holding the sword.

Sofia introduced him to her sister Anabela. He needed a teacher; they needed a bodyguard.

.

The Watchers have little information on him; the scant details are all extrapolated from the Devereaux sisters because over the centuries, five Watchers have died because Elia realized he was being followed.

Thankfully, he parted ways with the sisters after about a century, though the exact date is unknown.

.

The last time Giovanni sees Magda for two centuries, he’s escorting her to a ship that will take her to the United States of America. “You could come with me,” she says, leaning into his side, her head resting on his shoulder.

He chuckles softly, mirthlessly. “There are still men I need to kill,” he says. “I’d wish you luck but you don’t need it.”

She kisses his cheek and departs. He watches her go and then turns to head back into town. On the way, he sees the man who has been following Magda across three countries and makes a slight detour.

.

Sophie Devereaux is not, of course, her true name, as mortals understand it. It is not the name her mother gave her. She has never used the name Laura in any of her cons because it does hold a special place in her heart.

She is a grifter and a thief. She has been many things to many people and loved most of them.

She misses Rebecca. She’s sure she’s losing herself to all the women she’s been because she can no longer bask in Rebecca’s serenity. She loves Amanda but it’s not the same.

The mortals are charming and she does swiftly come to care for them. Nate Ford is fascinating; Sophie could spend a century studying him and not fully understand him.

But it is Eliot Spencer that she joins the team for, that first time. She knows her brother – he does partnerships, not teams. She joins for Eliot but she stays because together, the five of them are something magical.

.

She met Cassandra through Rebecca, though the two ancients didn’t truly get along. At first, she thought Cassandra was interesting and spent a few years with Cassandra in her cottage in Donan Woods, learning a bit of Cassandra’s various arts. However, she eventually grew to find it boring and so when her sister passed through, Sophia went with her.

She didn’t think of Cassandra again for 500 years – not until Eliot calls her to ask if she’s spoken to Cassandra lately.

If she thought it would do any good, she’d order him to not get involved. Instead, she assures him that she’ll look into the matter and calls Amanda.

After she explains the situation, Amanda says, “Fuck. I’ve lost track of Adam. Joe was complaining about it the last time I visited Duncan, so the Watchers have, too. If Cassandra provokes him – ”

“To be honest,” Sophie says, “I don’t care about Cassandra or Adam. I just don’t want Eliot involved. Can you try to find out what’s going on? I’ll do some digging, too, but I’m with a mortal right now who doesn’t know.” Or maybe Nate does and is waiting for her to broach the subject; that wouldn’t be surprising at all.

“Of course, sister,” Amanda says. “I’ll call in two days.”

.

She has met Adam. She knew him as Benito and he knew her as Maria; it wasn’t until much later, after talking with Rebecca and Amanda that she learned who Benito truly was. She likes him; he is charming and sophisticated, and helped her with a truly complicated con simply because he was bored.

He also once saved Elia from a headhunter; she does not owe him for that, but Elia does. What debt Elia owes Cassandra, Sophie has never known.

Elia honors his debts. That’s why she wants him to stay out of whatever is brewing between Cassandra and Adam – not only for their mortals, Nate and Alec and Parker, but for Eliot’s own sake.

.

She curls up beside Nate and asks, “Do you believe in happy endings?”

He sighs, setting down his book to run his fingers through her hair. “I did for a while,” he says. “And then for a while I didn’t.” He kisses her and then asks, “What about you?”

Sophie rests her head on his shoulder and says, “I don’t remember anything about my first life except my name.” He doesn’t vocally react but she feels the way his body tenses. “There are so many things I want to tell you,” she says. “Will you listen?”

Nate relaxes. “Of course I will,” he answers. “To anything you want to tell me.”

She takes a deep breath. “My name was Laura."