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Watch the Sky Go Dark

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Thanos makes landfall with his endless navy, his infinite ships, and it takes years of war to force him back into the water. Bodies and flotsam wash ashore for miles up and down the coastline, and Bucky wakes with the taste of sea salt and smoke on his lips.

He’s filthy and bloody, but he has been for years. It only matters now because the war is over.

“Weddings,” Clint says, red-eyed and pale in the hazy morning light. They slept where they fell last night, just barely past the tideline, half-blind in the smoke and the dark.

There were bonfires, Bucky remembers. All along the shore. They burned bodies, and flags. Ships full of Thanos’ dead. Everything the enemy left behind.

Bucky’s hair is a tangled mess of knots, curled up and stuck together with the blood that dried there overnight, hanging half in his eyes. He brushes it away from his face, and he watches Clint watch him.

He’s beautiful, even now, even like this. Dirty and weak and so tired Bucky can almost track the thoughts slowly stitching themselves together behind his eyes.

He’s still beautiful somehow, despite everything. But that’s not Bucky’s concern anymore.

“Clint,” Bucky says.

Clint shakes his head. “Weddings after war,” he says. He pushes himself up onto his knees. The sand clings to him, shifts and settles restlessly beneath him.

Bucky opens his mouth, but he can’t think of a single thing to say. Well, maybe there isn’t anything left.

Last night, after everything, they crashed together like waves on rocks, like bodies against a barricade. Bucky knew the whole time that it was the last time. He watches the realization form on Clint’s face. He doesn’t look away. He watched men die, watched his own hands bash a man’s skull into a split frothy mess.

If it hurts, he thinks, that’s good. It means you aren’t dead yet.

But it’s different when it’s Clint. It’s always been different.

“Wait,” Bucky says. He starts to sit up, but Clint presses him down, hands on his shoulders, leaving Bucky in the last place they shared together.

“I knew,” he says. “I always did. It’s fine. It was worth it.”

Out of the two of them, Bucky’s the one with rank. Weddings after war, but Bucky’s the only one with a ring. He wears it around his neck, on a chain he keeps tucked under his clothes. It came with a letter, one of the three he’s received since the arrangement was made. Bucky wrote a dutiful three letters back, and, since the third, he’s received nothing else.

For over a year, there’s been nothing except a promise neither seems to want.

Bucky reaches up to his chest, presses his hand over his heart. The ring is just a slight bump under cloth, but it’s well-forged and sturdy, shining even now. If Bucky ever shined, he went dull years ago.

“Don’t go,” Bucky says. “To the wedding. Clint, you don’t have to--”

Clint’s hands tighten around his shoulders, and Bucky stops, forces himself to swallow back the rest.

“It’s your wedding, Buck,” Clint says, with a smile so hollow it’s like they didn’t win anything. He leans forward and presses a kiss, feather-light, to Bucky’s forehead.

“I’ll be there,” he says, but then he’s gone.

 

- -

 

When word came that Thanos had turned his eyes on them, Gotham and New York brokered a peace that had evaded them for decades. It saved them from annihilation, but that alliance is an unsteady thing without an enemy to lean against. The Waynes and the Starks are sometimes careless, but they’ve never been fools. Even while they prepared for war, they planned to protect the peace that was meant to follow.

The heirs were spared the indignity of marrying old enemies, but the diplomats merged lesser families with little restraint, stitching up the bleeding borders and sending second sons and lesser daughters to marry the cousins of nobles they’d put in the ground.

Jason Todd, even as a disinherited exile, is considered quite the step-up for someone like Bucky. Jason brings no lands to the marriage, but he is legally a Wayne, and he has amassed considerable wealth through his wandering years.

Nobody in polite society would call Jason a mercenary or a murderer. Nobody talks about what he did in those years when he was out of Wayne favor. He came home when Gotham was burning, and all was forgiven after that.

Although, if all were truly forgiven, Bucky can’t imagine that Bruce Wayne would allow his adopted son to be sold off to a northern knight with no family or wealth to speak of.

“You don’t have to,” Steve says, the morning of the wedding. Prince Grayson and his court have been in the capitol for a week, but Jason has yet to arrive. “I could talk to Tony. We can—Buck. Listen to me.”

“I know what I promised,” Bucky says. The promise was never his choice. He was given a contract with his name already printed, and all he did was sign. He didn’t choose Jason, and Jason didn’t choose him, but they both signed. They sent rings. They swore.

Whatever they wanted, whatever they may have planned, they are bound to each other now.

“Bucky,” Steve says. He’s been at a loss since the war ended. They are all soldiers without a war. It’s difficult, being useless after being so critical for so long.

“It’s all right,” Bucky says.

“Maybe he won’t make the wedding,” Natasha says. “He seems inclined to disappear again.”

But word comes through less than an hour later that Jason Todd has made the city, that he’s been here since last night. Four separate pubs have run dry of ale, and the streets are flooded with drunks toasting the wedding that has yet to happen. The word – from Prince Grayson, through Clint – is that this is only to be expected.

They are lucky, apparently, that nothing is currently on fire.

“Well,” Sam says. “At least he’ll liven up the place.”

 

- -

 

“Do you have to be so handsome?” Clint asks, when Bucky’s dressed for the wedding and waiting for word that Jason has stopped drinking long enough to don his formal clothes.

They haven’t been alone since the war ended. Clint’s been evasive, and Bucky hasn’t chased. He has no right. He never had any right. He should’ve ended things as soon as he hung that ring around his neck.

“I suppose you can’t help it,” Clint says, studying him.

Bucky wants to reach for him. He wants to kiss him. He wants to say he hasn’t slept, can’t sleep without him. Keeps waking up half out of bed, heart beating hard in his chest, convinced that something’s wrong, that someone came in the night and took Clint away.

He wants to say he misses him. But it’s cruel. Clint’s loyalty is a blind, limitless thing. He’d give Bucky whatever he wanted, if he were callous enough to ask for it.

“Natasha picked the clothes,” he says.

“She’s heartless,” Clint says, but he says it laughing.

This is the very best way this could have gone, so Bucky doesn’t know why it hurts so much. They’re still alive. Improbably, unbelievably, they’re both still alive.

“Where will you go?” Bucky asks. “Afterwards.”

“Ah, well.” Clint shrugs. Before the agreement, before having a title or land meant getting married to an old enemy, Clint used to joke with Tony about what parcel of the realm he would be gifted for all the times he saved the heir’s life.

Afterwards, he refused every offer Tony made. And now Bucky has a keep and a husband-to-be, and Clint has nothing.

“I thought I’d see your new keep,” Clint says.

Bucky swallows. “Clint, you can’t—you have to let this go. You have to let me go. Please.”

“I will,” Clint says, chin up. “I’m going to. But I want to see your keep.” And Bucky’s spent a whole lifetime arguing with Steve, so he knows a stone wall when he sees one. “I want to see where you’ll be.”

A moment later, his face softens. His eyes drop, studying the intricate weave of the carpet. “I want to be sure,” he says, slow and quiet, like it’s shameful, “that I know the way.”

He asks for almost nothing. He gives everything he has. There’s nothing Bucky could deny him, however much it costs.

“Yes,” Bucky says, a room away, too far now to ever touch him again. “All right.”

 

- -

 

If Jason Todd is drunk at the wedding, it is impossible to tell. His feelings on the marriage itself are infinitely easier to read.

He slouches through the ceremony, sighs heavily when it drags. When prompted for his ring, he stares blankly for a long second and then turns to grimace at Roy Harper, who fishes the ring Bucky sent out of a pocket and throws it over the heads of two rows of assembled dignitaries. Jason catches it out of the air and slides it onto his own finger.

Bucky thinks he couldn’t possibly be more derisive, couldn’t convey his contempt with any more clarity. And then the priest presiding over the ceremony invites the two of them to kiss, to confirm their commitment in front of their gods and their kings, and Jason looks into Bucky’s eyes for one heartbeat and then another and then he tips his head to the side and spits right onto the marble floor.

 

- -

 

“I thought for sure he’d leave,” Dick Grayson says later, after the feast and several cups of wine. He’s the heir, and he should by rights have stopped speaking to them so casually years ago, but, although he seems to have resigned himself to the weight of his title, he never quite grasped the extent of its privileges. “I never thought he’d actually go through with this.”

“Bit disingenuous,” Natasha says. “Offering a prince you don’t intend to give.”

Dick shrugs. “Harper was going to stand in.”

Roy Harper is another disgraced son, but he isn’t a Wayne. He’s a duke’s son, not a king’s, and, as such, he’s much closer to Bucky’s equal than Jason is. If he hadn’t been assumed dead when they were drafting the marriage contracts, it’s likely that his name would’ve been written across from Bucky’s.

Bucky thinks the truth of the matter is that nobody expected Jason Todd to survive the war. Or, perhaps more fairly, nobody expected both Jason and Bucky to survive.

But here they are. At peace. And married.

If it feels like another kind of war, Bucky supposes they’ve earned that. What would any of them do with peace?

“Do you think he intends to stay?” Bucky asks. He shouldn’t. The look Natasha gives him is painful in its kindness.

Dick smiles, but it doesn’t make it past his mouth. His eyes have been sad since Bruce Wayne summoned him back from Bludhaven to put that circlet on his head. “I’ve given up thinking Jason intends anything at all.”

 

- -

 

“So,” Jason says, later, when they are drunk and alone in a bedroom that someone has decorated with entirely too much enthusiasm. “Do you want to fuck?”

Bucky’s had knives to his throat that felt friendlier than that question. He stares at Jason, tries to parse why he would even think to ask. Does he want to?

“I believe,” he says, “that it is tradition.”

Jason laughs at him. However mocking he was at the ceremony, he seems friendlier now. Maybe it’s the wine. “I don’t have much respect for tradition.”

“Yes,” Bucky says. He knows that. He thinks everyone in this city and this country and this part of the world knows that.

“I don’t kill on command,” Jason says. “I don’t march on command. I don’t fuck on command. So if you want to fuck, I’m not opposed. But I did my duty playing polite for the wedding. That’s the extent of my obligation to tradition.”

Bucky raises his eyebrows. “You spat on the floor.”

Jason smirks. He’s flushed from the wine. Muscular and bright-eyed and handsome. Bucky can’t decide which is worse: the idea of putting his hands on Jason, or Jason putting his hands on him. “Didn’t spit in that old man’s face, did I?”

Bucky looks at the bed.

He’s done so many things he didn’t want to do. He’s killed men in beds like this. He’s killed men who begged him not to. He’s left bodies in fields to rot and putrefy, and he’s sent bloody soldiers back into battle, sent them to buy time with their lives so the rest of them could retreat.

Jason, he’s told, once ambushed a camp at night with his outlaws and slit the throats of fifty unarmed men before disappearing back into the night. He decapitated the heads of seven of Thanos’ spies and sent them to him, rolling loose and half-rotten in a reeking canvas bag. He killed one of Thanos’ generals by burning her alive.

He’s a nightmare, a story soldiers tell each other in hushed undertones. He’s merciless. He’s a monster among monsters.

They’re a matched set, the two of them.

When he blinks, the bedcovers swim before him, and, for just a moment, he’s looking at a pool of blood.

“No,” he says. “No, I don’t think I want to.”

Jason shrugs like he couldn’t possibly care enough to be insulted. “Well,” he says, a moment later, “would you like to fuck someone else? That blonde archer? Your captain? I have some new friends at the pub who would happily welcome me back if you’d like some time without me.”

There’s a ring on Bucky’s finger, and it is meant to symbolize an unbroken promise. There’s a ring on Jason’s, too.

“We did swear,” Bucky says, “not five hours ago that--”

“Oh, come on, Winter Soldier,” Jason says, eyes bright, grin crooked. “We aren’t the type of men who keep our word.”

Bucky looks away. He breathes in over his teeth, concentrates on the way the air fills his lungs. There is no reason, he thinks, to allow Jason to hurt him. Jason’s a cat playing with a string; he doesn’t care who it’s tied to.

“I would like to sleep,” Bucky says. “It’s been an eventful day.”

Jason stares at him for a moment and then shrugs. “Sleep, then,” he says. Like what Bucky does is nothing to him.

But when Bucky undresses and maneuvers under the blankets, Jason falls in beside him, still half-dressed, drinking the dregs of wine straight from the decanter he carried all the way from the feast. He sets the decanter aside, perilously balanced on a nightstand, and sighs heavily.

The sheets are pushed down to his waist. Bucky has seen men more scarred than this one, but they were old men. There’s some kind of unremarkable tragedy in the layering of all that raised scar tissue over young, golden skin.

“Changed your mind about fucking?” Jason asks.

He doesn’t like it, Bucky thinks. Being stared at. “No,” he says, and he pulls the sheets up to his chin, closes his eyes.

Jason doesn’t say anything else. He leaves the candles burning. Bucky doesn’t put them out.

 

- -

 

He wakes up with a knife to his throat. And that’s fair, he supposes, because his own hand is curled around Jason’s neck.

“Oh good,” Jason says. “Awake?”

Bucky blinks muzzily down at him and carefully releases his grip on Jason’s neck. “Did I start this?” he asks.

“Arguably,” Jason says. He lowers the knife. “You moved over me.”

“I get out of bed sometimes,” Bucky says. He opts not to disclose why.

Jason nods and then breathes out, stretches his shoulders as he resettles. “Well, you’ll have to go the other way. I don’t like people crawling over me in the dark.”

“No,” Bucky says. He can understand why. “Sorry.”

Jason yawns. He’s much more reasonable, Bucky thinks, in the middle of the night. “’s fine,” he says.

He doesn’t apologize for almost slitting Bucky’s throat. But a moment later he sits up and puts the knife on the nightstand. Still within reach if he stretches, but not so close he’ll grab it on instinct again.

So this is peace, he thinks. He wonders if it’s agreeing more with Clint. But, if it is, he doesn’t want to know.

 

- -

 

If the roads are passable, if the bridges haven’t been burned, it should take them ten days to reach Bucky’s keep. He’s never seen it. The knight it belonged to betrayed the Starks and allowed Thanos’ army to move freely across his lands, and so, once they’d routed him out, Bucky had dragged the traitor back to the capitol and executed him in front of Howard and Maria Stark and a crowd of cheering onlookers.

He didn’t ask for the land. But it had to go to someone, and the Starks were running short on loyal knights.

It’s a small company, headed north. Jason seems amused to find Clint waiting, dressed in new clothes but carrying the same bow, the same worn quiver. He walks toward the archer, and Bucky catches his breath, tries to remind himself that inexact handling of Jason Todd could very easily start a war. With Todd’s outlaws, at least, if not the rest of the Waynes.

Clint’s watching Jason with wary eyes, but whatever Jason says seems to catch him by surprise. His face flickers and then falls, cautiously, into a smile. By the time Bucky makes it across the courtyard, Clint’s smiling that familiar rueful grin.

“You can tell Harper,” he says, “that if he ever wants a rematch, he knows where to find me.”

“Does he?” Jason asks. “And where will that be?”

Clint’s expression doesn’t change, but his eyes dart briefly toward Bucky and then back to Jason’s face. He hesitates, for just a second too long.

“He’ll be coming with us,” Bucky says.

Jason looks between them. It’s impossible to know what he thinks. It’s impossible to guess what he knows. Bucky feels outflanked. He shifts, reflexively, between Jason and Clint.

The inquiring expression on Jason’s face seems to resolve, but Bucky couldn’t say what that wry twist of his mouth means. “Good,” Jason says, sudden and decisive. “I always feel more comfortable with a good archer around.”

Clint nods, half-smiling, but, as they watch him walk away, he seems just as uncertain as Bucky feels.

This is, Bucky thinks, a terrible decision they’ve made. But it’s just the latest in a long string of them, and, anyway, it doesn’t seem like Jason much cares.

Still. There was something in his voice. Not bitterness, but something related. I always feel more comfortable with a good archer around.

Bucky catches him halfway to the stables. “You could bring Harper,” he offers, “if you wanted. If you’ll--- you won’t know anyone there. You shouldn’t be lonely.”

They didn’t win a war to be alone. They didn’t do all of that just to lose everything anyway. They didn’t.

Jason looks at him and then he looks at Clint. When he turns back toward Bucky, he smiles. Softer than Bucky expected, almost wistful. “I’d be lonely anywhere I went. But you should bring your archer.”

Bucky stares at him. He should say something, but he’s lost. He’s used to battleplans, to strategy. To wins and losses, clearly marked, easily known. He’s used to war. Maybe it’s all he’s meant for.

He’s thinking, somehow, about Jason in the dark, with a knife to his throat, and the way he’d relaxed as soon as Bucky looked at him like he knew him.

All those scars, all those lessons the world tried to teach him, and Jason still didn’t draw blood when he woke up scared.

I’d be lonely anywhere I went.

He thinks about the letters Jason wrote him, rambling and wry and clever, with intricate sketches of new weapons he and his outlaws had spotted Thanos’ soldiers wielding. He thinks about the short missives he sent back, polite but distant, with maps of dangerous roads and fallen strongholds clearly marked.

He wore Jason’s ring around his neck for years, but they are nothing to each other. That isn’t Jason’s fault.

“You’ll have to visit him in his own rooms,” Jason says, giving Clint a considering look over Bucky’s shoulder. “Because if he climbs over me in the dark, I’ll gut the both of you.”

But they’re bound to each other. And whatever Jason may think, Bucky is a man who keeps his word, whenever he can.

“It won’t be like that,” he says. When Jason laughs, he shakes his head. “It can’t be like that.”

He watches Jason spin the ring he gave him around his finger, watches the way he looks at Clint. When Jason reaches up to clap him companionably on the shoulder, it’s the first time he’s touched him, except for when he held a knife to his throat.

“We’re supposed to be dead,” he says. “We were supposed to die a dozen times over. So I think, the three of us, we can do whatever we damn well please.”

Whatever we damn well please sounds like a lie, a fairytale. But so did peace during wartime, and here they are anyway.

“It won’t be like that,” Bucky says, one more time, just so Jason knows he means it.

Jason smiles at him, and this one must be honest, because it’s the first time it’s reached his eyes. “For your sake, Winter Soldier,” he says, “I hope that’s not true.”

Whatever it will be, it won’t be what it was. For the first time, that thought doesn’t settle like a body dropping into a grave.

Chapter Text

Clint isn’t listed on any registries. He doesn’t have a sign. His name shows up sometimes online, posted to forums for people who find themselves in magical distress, but SHIELD always takes those down. Still, it’s hard to hide a witch. His whole building knows what he is, and half the block, as well. He doesn’t mind. It’s a good cover for why he’s always gone. Anyway, if someone needs him, he wants to be found.

He’s reconsidering that now, though. It’s four in the morning, and someone’s pounding on his door. If this were a SHIELD problem, they would’ve taken the door down by now. If Natasha needed him, she’d come through a window.

Four in the morning is an inauspicious time. Right after the witching hour, when consequences start setting in. This is a witch’s business.

There’s an old superstition about witches being nocturnal. The reality is more people get cursed between three and four in the morning because that’s when witches, like everyone else, are crankiest.

When Clint pulls open the door, he’s not at all surprised by what he sees. A man a year or two older than Clint, dressed like any early twenty-something with more cash than self-control. He smells vaguely of whiskey, and he’s dressed like he looked very good about six hours ago and has been sliding into a sort of glorious disrepair ever since.

He perks up when he sees Clint, but he doesn’t say anything.

“Hey,” Clint says. He probably should’ve put on a shirt. He can feel goosebumps prickling up on his arms. It’s mid-February, and he hasn’t redone the heating charms on his apartment in the past couple of months. The heater hasn’t worked since he moved in. “You need something?”

The man just stares at him, bright-eyed and intent. He doesn’t speak, doesn’t nod, doesn’t make any attempt at all to communicate.

Clint yawns so hard his jaw pops. He squints at the man in front of him. “Cat got your tongue?” he asks.

The man’s eyes bug out a bit, and he steps forward, an optimistic little shuffle like he’s planning to sidestep past Clint and move right into his apartment. When he steps fully into the light, Clint can see it, finally. The curse perched across his mouth like someone slapped him, little stitches of magic holding his lips together.

“Oh,” Clint says, studying the spellwork. The man goes still and then pouts his lips out, like he thinks his cheekbones need any help. “Someone wanted you to shut up, huh?”

The look he gets is so adorably longsuffering that Clint has no choice. Whatever Natasha thinks of his standards, however much Coulson might despair of his misuse of his skills, there’s no way he’s going to leave this guy out here, magically muzzled, until the business witches get up in a few hours.

“C’mon,” he says, and he puts a hand on the guy’s shoulder, leads him inside.

The man looks around curiously, even going up on his tiptoes to scan farther into Clint’s apartment. There’s not much to see, and, if he’s hoping for some kind of menacing magical laboratory, he’s going to be deeply disappointed. Clint’s witch enough for what he needs, but he isn’t given to theatrics. He’s got a few dried herbs he mostly uses in soups, some amethyst clusters Natasha gave him scattered around the entry points.

The man doesn’t seem interested in the herbs, though. He instantly zeros in on the coffee pot.

“Sorry, it’s broken,” Clint says. He shrugs at the dubious look he gets. “I’m gonna buy a new one, but I’m busy, you know? Coffeeshop’s just a couple blocks away.”

The man studies Clint for a second and then looks pointedly over to the windows of Clint’s apartment. Snow is visibly falling outside. It’s melted into this guy’s hair, actually. He must be cold.

“Yeah, I know,” Clint says. “Listen, you cold? I can get you a jacket.”

That thin shirt he’s wearing looks great, but it also looks like it’s offering about as much insulation as the napkins they put in the bottom of takeout bags.

The man just stares at him. After a moment, his body jerks, a full-body flinch like he just stepped on something sharp.

Clint tips his head. “Can’t communicate at all, huh?”

He gets another long look. This time, the despair on his face is almost pleading.

“Damn, you must’ve been really running your mouth.” Clint grimaces and then shakes his head, rubs the back of his hand across his mouth like he’s trying to take the words back and eat them. “Or maybe you just ran into a real asshole. Sorry. I don’t mean to blame you. This is bullshit. But don’t worry. We’re gonna fix it, okay? I'm gonna help you. Just, like. Let me wake up a bit.”

The man walks forward and buries his head in Clint’s chest, wraps his arms around him. He squeezes tight, and his hair is wet, and the front of his shirt is damp, and Clint yelps from how cold he is, pressed against Clint’s still bed-warm bare chest.

The man pulls back to blink at him, and Clint pats him comfortingly. “No, it’s fine. You’re just cold. Hold on, okay? I’ll get a sweater.”

He gets two: a nice one Natasha gave him and an old hoodie Clint stole from Coulson’s office. It takes him a minute or two to find the nice one. When he finds it, it’s folded up neatly in his dresser, which is absolutely the last place he’d ever go looking for clothes, so Natasha must’ve put it there.

By the time he makes it back to the kitchen, the man has dissected his coffeepot with a fork and a butter knife.

“Holy shit,” Clint says. “Are you a mortician?”

The man blinks twice, looks from Clint to the guts of the coffee machine and then back up again. Clint covers his entire face with his hand. “Just don’t,” Clint says. “Don’t listen to me. I think I meant electrician. Except you were—you know, it looks dead.”

The man spasms again, kneeing the cabinet hard enough to knock a surprised breath out of him.

“Oh God,” Clint says. “Sorry. Don’t try to answer me.”

The look he gets for that is so dry that Clint starts laughing. A beat later, the man’s shoulders shake, and Clint realizes he’s laughing, too. As much as this curse will allow.

It really is a shitty thing to do, Clint thinks.

“Here,” Clint says, holding out the very soft purple sweater. “Put this on if you’re cold.”

The man takes it immediately and tugs it over his head, and his hair is a wreck of riotous half-curls, all mussed from snow and a long night of questionable decisions, but he’s handsome anyway. Even in the too-bright light of Clint’s fluorescents, even with a curse keeping his mouth latched shut.

“Okay,” Clint says, “let me look at you.”

The man puts down his silverware and visibly preens, pushing his hair away from his face, waggling his eyebrows. He mock-smolders at Clint, and Clint laughs, moves closer to get a better look. The man stills when he gets close, and Clint catches the way he puts his hands very carefully on the counter, fingers spread like they’re ready to dig in and cling.

He’s braced, Clint notices, like he’s waiting for someone to knock him off his feet.

Whoever cursed him, he thinks, was angry. And probably drunk. Magic works best when you mean it, and Clint knows better than most that there’s nothing like rage and alcohol to make someone’s emotions run raw and feral.

If his dad had any magic in him, nobody in that house would’ve survived. But Clint was the only one.

Maybe that’s how he learned to always keep his intentions vague, to meander through life, to never want anything as sharply as he could. Natasha’s will is honed to a razor’s edge, but Clint keeps his dull. It’s safer, he thinks. Anyway, it causes fewer problems. And it left him, also, with the ability to read what other people want, to hold all the details in his head without narrowing his focus, to look at any bit of magic and puzzle out what its creator intended.

“Wow,” Clint says. He feels his mouth screw up in disgust. “This is shitty. I didn’t make this curse, you know? This wasn’t my idea.”

The man just stares at him, big brown eyes intent on Clint’s face.

“You’ve gotta do something useful,” Clint tells him. He hates how it sounds, the accusation it implies. This is the part of undoing curses that he hates, how much it’s like working through a crime scene, how clearly he sees into the ugliness of other people’s pain. “I’m sorry. That’s what it wants. Do something useful, probably for a witch, and it can be undone.”

He can hear it, is the problem. He tells people he sees more clearly from a distance, but he also sees more. And right now, what he sees, is someone snarling Shut up and do something useful and then slapping this man’s mouth shut.

He turns away from the thoughtful look that crosses the stranger’s face. There wasn’t even a flicker of anger, no outrage at all. Just acceptance, just reorienting toward the problem.

Clint looks around his apartment, desperately trying to find something painless and simple for him do. “You can—um. The trash needs to go out? There’s a chute down the hall. Don’t worry, though. I’ll bag it. I’ll carry it. You’ll just have to actually throw it away. Here. Let me--”

There’s a strange noise behind him. A click and a hum and then a burbling.           

When Clint turns around, his coffeemaker is brewing.

“Oh my God,” Clint says, “you’re a fucking necromancer.”

The man’s shoulders shake again, eyes bright with laughter, and Clint hustles across the apartment in his socks so he can tap his finger against the man’s lips, melting the curse away.

“There,” he says, “you’re---”

“You are,” the man announces, “absolutely adorable. You still have Christmas decorations up. Why is everything you own purple? Do you want this coffeemaker to be purple? I can make it purple.”

“Oh hey,” Clint says, grinning at him, maybe a little dopey. “All better, huh?”

You’re better. You’re best,” he announces. Perfunctory and certain, like he’s reading it off a label.

It’s stupid to blush, but Clint’s an easy mark before coffee. He rubs at his face with the sleeve of Coulson’s hoodie, like maybe he can wipe it away. “Stop it,” he says. “It was easy.”

“I can’t believe you answered the door topless at four in the morning,” the man says, earnest and openly admiring. “Please tell me how to ascend to your ‘tits out at trouble’ philosophy. I need that kind of confidence.”

The blush is absolutely getting worse. “I just,” Clint says, with an off-kilter shrug. “Figured if there’s trouble, a shirt’s not gonna save me, right?”

“Fascinating,” the man declares. “You’re really underselling how distracting you are with your shirt off.”

Clint laughs and shakes his head, looks away for long enough to regroup. “You wanna talk about who did that to you?” he asks. He’s not much of a witch, and his skillset is geared more toward undoing than getting even, but it was a shitty, mean thing to do. And he’s old enough now, strong enough now, that he likes to stop things like that, when he finds them.

“Nope,” the man says, with a small, rueful smile. “I wanna talk about you.”

“I’m Clint,” he says, since that seems like the safest thing to offer.

“Tony,” the man says back. And then he reaches over, and his hand curls around the handle of the full coffeepot. “Can I get you a drink?”

Chapter Text

The thing is, James is young too. Next to Tony, nobody notices. Next to Tony, nobody ever notices anyone else. And James would resent that, probably, if he weren’t so busy being thankful for it.

James is seventeen and gangly, away from home for the very first time. Every sideways glance and raised eyebrow and shared look that passes over his head hits like a push, like half this campus is trying to shove him back where they think he belongs. Like they all know a secret he never learned, like I don’t belong here is tattooed on the back of his neck.

But he’ll be eighteen by the second week of September, and he’s starting to fill out his shoulders the way his dad promised he would. Day by day, he can’t tell a difference. But sometimes he looks at himself in the mirror, and he sees an adult standing in a kids’ shoes. Someday, he’ll wake up, and nobody will be able to tell him he doesn’t have a right to be here.

But Tony’s just a kid, through and through. Young and loud and impulsive. A genius, sure, but that only matters if he makes it to adulthood, and James is giving Tony’s liver a 50/50 shot of giving out before senior year.

Hell, if these first few weeks are any indication, Tony might not survive the semester.

“Just be a good example,” James’ mom says, when James calls to complain. “He’s a lot younger than you are, James.”

James isn’t sure there’s an example in the world that could save Tony Stark, but, compared to the people Tony’s opted to associate with, James is a damn saint. Always does his work, always goes to class. He’s home and sober by 10pm on weeknights, which usually gives him a solid three or four hours of silence in their shared dorm before Tony crashes in, drunk or high or both.

James can’t afford Tony’s excesses. He doesn’t have Tony’s money, doesn’t have his last name. It’s a harder fight for him. They're running the same race, maybe, but James is starting two laps back, sprinting full tilt just to catch up.

So maybe he does resent Tony. Not for the attention, but for the ease. For all the things he never had to work for.

For all that free time, all that wasted time. For every night Tony spends drunk at some club that would never let James past the door. For the way Tony seems to own everything he looks at.

Maybe neither one of them really belongs here, but nobody’s ever going to tell Tony Stark to leave.

But that’s less about Tony than it is about the system that marked him out, and James doesn’t really have the heart to hold all of that against him. He’s just a kid. His mother’s right. In so many ways, Tony’s a lot younger than he is.

That what he thinks about, when Tony finally comes home. How young he is, really. Just baby fat and bad ideas and a bored, brilliant brain, spinning itself in circles. Drunk prodigy Bambi, tottering around with a compass in his heart that points him unerringly toward every worst possible decision.

James is about to turn off the light and try for an early night when he hears it. Footsteps in the hallway, irregular and halting. Tony, he thinks. Probably drunk. His suspicion is more or less confirmed when someone starts messing with the lock.

Tony can never seem to keep up with his keys, but he’s alarmingly talented at picking locks, as long as he’s sober enough for passable hand-eye coordination. James lets sixty seconds of effort tick by before he summons the pity necessary to go let Tony in.

He’s a mess.

“Oh,” James says, staring. “Shit, Tony.”

It’s never been more apparent how young Tony is than at this moment, when he’s lost his shoes and his shirt and has either been crying or got body glitter stuck in his eyes again.

“Hey, Rhodey,” Tony says. He makes a face, an elaborate rendition of regret. “Did I wake you up?”

He’s leaning like he’s about to capsize, and James doesn’t even know where to grab him to steady him. He’s distracted by the lipstick on Tony’s chest, the garish red someone’s used to spell out poor little rich boy in large, looping letters that scrawl from collarbones to belly button.

“Who the hell did this to you?” James asks.

Tony looks down at his chest and frowns. He tips his head one way or another and then sighs, heavy and forlorn. “I thought she was writing her number.”

James gets his hand around Tony’s shoulder and tugs him into the dorm. “C’mon,” he says, “get in here.”

Tony trips into him, nearly rebounds face-first into the doorjamb, and James has brief, visceral visions of the fallout of letting America’s Future Braintrust concuss himself into a TBI. To prevent untold damage to himself, his family, and his country, he scoops Tony up in one quick movement, hauling him up and over his shoulders.

“Wow,” Tony says, hands scrambling at James’ back, damn near toppling them both before he settles, going limp with a contented sigh. “Wow, Rhodey-bear, this is romantic.”

“It’s a fireman’s carry, Tony,” James tells him. “This has gotta be the least romantic way to carry a person.”

“Nah,” Tony says, with exactly the kind of casual authority that makes him occasionally insufferable, “that’s piggyback, right? No one’s a sexy backpack.”

James thinks it over for a second. “Sure,” he concedes.

Tony hums, face mashed into James’ shoulder. “Plus, firemen are dreamy.”

Dreamy,” James repeats and drops Tony onto his bed. He does it carefully, gentle enough that he feels a little ridiculous, but he doesn’t want to jostle him too much. He doesn’t want to hazard any sudden movements settling poorly with the unknown contents of Tony’s stomach.

Tony nods and then flops his hand over his forehead, mock-swooning. “All that protective gear,” he says. And then, wistfully: “The helmets.”

“Okay, champ,” James says, getting a hand under Tony’s head long enough to slip a pillow between his skull and the sheets. “Don’t get yourself all worked up. You need to sleep this off.”

Tony blinks up at him. His hair is a half-curled, spikey mess of open defiance. His hair gel says 24-hour hold! right on the bottle, but it’s given up – or been sweated out – in less than twelve.

James looks at him, caught in a strange moment, and thinks about entropy.

Everything falls into chaos. Every bright spark burns out. Here’s Tony, fifteen years old and so Goddamn smart that some insecure professors won’t even let him speak in class, and, if the world doesn’t learn how to be more careful with him, it’s going to destroy him before he ever lives up to any of that potential.

“I hate sleeping,” Tony tells him. Earnest and petulant, rubbing at his face with the heels of his hands. “There’s so much to do.”

“Yeah, you’ve done enough for today,” James says. He ducks into their shared bathroom and comes back with the cleanest of the handtowels, damp with warm water from the sink.

“I just,” Tony says. He holds his hand up, makes a sharp, agitated gesture that looks like he’s trying to turn a volume knob to maximum. “I get so bored.”

James thinks it’s probably less about boredom and more about not liking what his brain does when he doesn’t keep it constantly occupied.

“So build something interesting,” James says. “Do something interesting. What’s interesting about a club, Tony? You go, you drink, you puke on your shoes. You come back. Your puke shoes sit outside and make the hallway smell like death.”

“I knew you were still mad about that,” Tony grumbles.

James rolls his eyes and starts wiping the lipstick off Tony’s chest. “I’m just saying, you don’t have to do what people want you to do just because they want you to do it. It’s okay to tell these people to fuck off. Jesus, Tony, they’re not even nice to you.”

Tony stares up at him. It’s impossible to tell, but James thinks he’s already lost weight. They’ve been here for less than a month. James is starting to suspect that Tony only eats when he puts food in front of him.

Be a good example, his mom said. But if a lost sheep is running headlong toward a cliff, you don’t post up a picture of a sheep staying where it's safe and call it a day. Some people need more help. Tony needs something that’ll hold against the mob of scavengers who’ve been stalking him since he stepped on campus.

“You’re nice to me,” Tony says.

Maybe that’s the problem. Hell, most of the world is probably willing to be nice to Tony Stark if they’ll get something out of it. His attention, his money, his time. That isn’t what Tony needs.

The lipstick’s just a faint smear of red now, still stained into his skin. James doesn’t know how to clean it off without dumping Tony into the shower. What the hell would he know about how to get that much red lipstick off someone’s chest? At least the words aren’t legible anymore.

“I’m taking your fake IDs hostage,” James says.

“No,” Tony says, more gasp than words. He pushes himself up on his elbows. “What? Rhodey, that’s cruel. That’s inhumane. You wouldn’t.”

James steals Tony’s wallet out of his pocket and flips it open. All the cash and credit cards are gone, but he’s got three separate fake IDs, and James finagles them one by one out of their sleeves. He holds them up so Tony can see them, and he looks grief-stricken, like James is kidnapping his pets right in front of him.

“You can have one back for every forty-eight hours you’re sober,” he tells him. “Starting with the one that says you’ve forty-five.”

“That one’s my favorite,” Tony says. “That was the first one I made. I was twelve.”

“Yeah, I can tell,” James says. The picture on that ID involves Tony in ridiculous formal wear, hair combed to the side, frowning sternly at the camera. The Tony in the photograph is very clearly twelve years old. “Please tell me this has never worked on anybody.”

“Well, it’s usually the bribe that gets them,” Tony says.

James huffs out a disparaging breath and puts the fake IDs in his own wallet. “Yeah, I’ll bet it is.”

Tony stares up at him, fully focused like he only ever gets when someone somehow finds a problem he can’t immediately solve. He studies James like he’s some unknown species. “Do you want a bribe, Rhodey-bear?” he asks.

He thinks about it for a second. Not because he’s really considering it, but because that’s how his brain works. Not as quick as Tony’s, not as intuitive or imaginative. Practical, thorough, meticulous. Tony takes whatever’s handed to him. If James is going to teach him anything, he hopes he’ll learn to start questioning whether what’s offered is worth what it’ll cost.

“Yeah,” James says. “I want a sobriety bribe, Tones. I want forty-eight hours.”

Tony groans and flops back onto the bed. “You’re impossible,” Tony tells him. “You’re a buzzkill.”

“Yep,” James says, and he doesn’t even feel bad for it. “Now, sleep it off. Timer doesn’t start until you wake up sober.”

“Ugh,” Tony says and winds his arm around his pillow, curls his body up like a comma.

James doesn’t count the points of his spine, but he could. He could count his ribs, too.

“We’re getting breakfast tomorrow,” James tells him. Tony grumbles back, but James is pretty sure he’ll feel differently in the morning. “You want some water before you go to bed?”

“Hush,” Tony says, kicking his feet in James’ direction. “Stop, shush. I’m trying to pass out so we can get to your stupid timer.”

James rolls his eyes. He putters around the room, turning off lights, locking the door. He fills a plastic cup with water from the sink and leaves it on Tony’s nightstand. He tugs the sheets – kicked down halfway to the floor – over Tony as he passes.

When he finally climbs into his own bed, he realizes Tony’s watching him. Quiet, again. Uncertain, or maybe just confused. He’s got his head turned to the side on the pillow so he can see him.

“Drink your water,” James says.

Ugh,” Tony replies. But as James reaches to turn off his bedside lamp, he sees Tony’s hand stretching out, reaching toward the cup James left for him.

“Thanks, Rhodey,” Tony says, sounding small and tired in the dark.

“Yeah, Tony,” James says, thinking about those words on Tony’s skin, thinking about how wobbly he’d been, thinking about how none of those assholes had even thought to walk the drunk fifteen-year-old to his door. “You’re welcome.”

Chapter Text

They tell him after the bite check, when Clint’s still putting all of his clothes back on. He slips the hoodie over his head as a member of a team, but, by the time he’s got his arms through the sleeves and the hood pulled back away from his face, he’s the designated sacrifice.

“Barney,” he says, mostly under his breath, not bothering to put any real heat behind it. “Come on.”

Barney looks uncomfortable. He also looks hungry. “What do you want me to do, Clint?” He gestures toward the others, who aren’t even looking at them anymore. “You think any of those guys are gonna volunteer?”

I didn’t volunteer,” Clint says.

The guy who did the bite check, the one who looks like he should be processing someone’s loan paperwork, is studiously recording something on a clipboard. Two nights ago, Clint was so hungry he put a packet of expired Taco Bell salsa into some boiling water in a doomed attempt to trick his stomach into thinking he was eating real food, and, this morning, he gutted an elk with a pocket knife, and now here he is, and this guy has a clipboard.

And a mechanical pencil, what the fuck.

“Someone’s gotta stay.” Barney claps Clint on the shoulder. “Better you than me.”

“Fuck you,” Clint says. Because the guys have been talking about this compound for weeks. He heard they have showers. He’s been dreaming about those showers. And now he’s stuck as collateral in a jail cell, a hostage to ensure their good behavior.

“We’ll come get you on our way out,” Barney tells him. “Tomorrow morning, maybe. Or Wednesday.”

That would matter more to Clint, probably, if he had any clue what day of the week it was.

“I fucking hate you,” Clint says, but he doesn’t mean it.

“Love you too,” Barney says. As far as goodbye words, they’re better than Clint would’ve expected.

 

- -

 

Clipboard locks him into the cell with an apologetic smile. “We’ve tried to make it as comfortable as possible,” he explains.

There’s an honest-to-God bed in here, so what does Clint care? Really, he shouldn’t complain. “But I shot that elk, you know?” he says, to Clipboard’s retreating back.

Clipboard hesitates and then turns back to face him. His expression is politely curious. “Did you?”

“Yeah,” Clint says. “And I’m not even gonna get any of it.”

Clipboard consults his clipboard. “We have a bow registered to one of the others. Is that incorrect?”

“No, I mean. Chisholm? Yeah, he’s got a bow.” Clint shrugs. “I didn’t bring mine in here. No offense, but I kinda need that thing to live, and I don’t know you people. So I stashed it.”

Clipboard gives him a level look. “I’m mortally offended by your prudence,” he says.

Clint isn’t completely sure what that means, so he tries for a winsome smile. “Yeah, I get that a lot.”

Clipboard’s cool analysis cracks for just a moment, and he smiles. A beat later, it’s gone. “Were the rabbits yours too?”

Clint scrubs at the back of his neck. “Most of ‘em,” he says. “I feel bad, you know? Thumper. Thank God there’s no Disney moving with singing elk.”

He doesn’t get a smile, but there’s something like one, hanging just at the edges of Clipboard’s mouth. “Thank God,” he says, and Clint’s not sure, but he thinks it’s a joke. He smiles, just in case.

 

- -

 

It’s not so bad, being a hostage. The cell’s kind of small, and Clint doesn’t like being locked in anywhere, but there’s a window, and it’s nice, not having to constantly monitor his surroundings. What’s a zombie gonna do? Chew through steel bars?

Anyway, as it turns out, there are showers. And he gets to use one.

“It’ll be a little cold,” Clipboard warns him, as he escorts him across the open grounds, past the raised garden beds, right by a group of kids playing with what looks like actual LEGOs. “One of our engineers is working on something called a ‘thermosiphon,’ but we keep telling him that hot showers aren’t actually a critical necessity.”

Exactly no part of that statement would’ve seemed real to the Clint of forty-eight hours ago. “No shit,” he says. “There’s still engineers?”

Clipboard gives him one of those thoughtful looks. Clint’s pretty sure it’s just him trying to pinpoint what kind of brain damage Clint has.

“We have a couple of engineers,” he says. “A physicist, a botanist. An astrophysicist.”

An astrophysicist, Clint thinks. Shit. “Well, sure, gotta have an astrophysicist. Zombies can’t get you in space, right?”

“Right, exactly.” Clipboard hides away another small smile and then they’re at the line of shower stalls, and Clint gets completely distracted, damn near peels out of his own skin he ditches his clothes so fast.

The water’s not even that cold, he realizes, once he’s in there. They keep it in tanks above the showers, and the sun must heat the water, because he’s barely shivering afterwards.

“Jesus Christ,” he says, poking his head over the top of the curtain so he can try to express to Clipboard, with his eyebrows, how amazing he feels. “I get why you feed the engineers now.”

Clipboard doesn’t seem to follow his logic. “We feed them because they live here,” he says.

Like that’s it. Like that’s the only qualification. Clint’s the best hunter in the group, and, two days ago, he was eating hot salsa water.

He ducks back behind the curtain, scrubs at his hair with the borrowed towel. He climbs into his cleanest set of clothes and emerges into the world the closest to civilized he’s been in something like six months.

“Speaking of,” Clipboard says, “it’s dinner time for you.”

 

- -

 

There’s a hamburger and a side salad. Clint stares at it like it’s a mirage. It feels like a mirage. There’s red and green lettuce and baby spinach and little grape tomatoes cut in half and sliced cucumbers and bright orange bell peppers, and there is also a hamburger.

“It’s an elk burger,” Clipboard tells him. “Do you prefer peaches or blueberries?”

“I will,” Clint says, half-breathless, air knocked clear out of his lungs, “literally blow you every day for a shower and a salad.”

“Ah.” Clipboard moves his hands like he wants to make notes, and the look he gives Clint is oddly flat. “That’s not the sort of barter economy we run here.”

Clint’s not really listening. He has transcended auditory processing. His mouth is watering so much he’s a little worried he’s going to drown in his own spit.  “Are these fucking radishes?”

“Yes. Peaches?”

Clint blinks at him. “On the burger?”

“Breakfast,” Clipboard tells him. “For your oatmeal.”

Clint honestly, legitimately almost passes out. He curls a hand around the bars to settle himself. “I get breakfast?”

For a moment, Clipboard’s expression is downright disapproving, but it resolves quickly into another smile, different from the others. “As long as you’re here, you’ll eat three times a day.”

“Oh my God,” Clint says. He picks up his plate. He takes a moment to brace himself. He’s still not at all prepared for the way the bell pepper hits, all bright and crisp, crunching satisfyingly between his teeth. “I’m not gonna get scurvy,” he says, quietly, like a prayer.

“No, Clint,” Clipboard says. “Not while you’re here.”

“I love you, Clipboard,” Clint tells him, looking right into his eyes so he’ll know he means it.

Clipboard weathers the admission with the tolerant kindness of a man who gets that every day. “My name is Phil Coulson.”

 

- -

 

Barney and the others steal a bunch of shit and disappear in the middle of the night, leaving all their stored weapons and supplies - and Clint - behind. Clint finds out when he wakes up to find Clipboard – Phil Coulson – and a frowning blonde man staring at him through the bars of his cell.

“…no breakfast?” Clint tries, studying the serious set of Coulson’s mouth, the angry slash of Blondie’s eyebrows.

“Your companions ransacked the infirmary, incapacitated two of our guards, and left a hole in our fence,” Coulson tells him.

Clint grimaces. “Jesus,” he says. “What a pack of assholes.”

Blondie nods in agreement. “That pack of assholes just made off with all of our antibiotics, so we’ll be going after them as soon as it’s light.”

Antibiotics, Clint thinks. And sure, they need them. But they don’t need this compound’s entire supply. For fuck’s sake, this place has kids.

The trade value, though. He knows how much something like that would be worth. Not enough to make him go along with it, but, then, they waited until he wasn’t around to make their move, didn’t they? He wonders, suddenly and sickeningly, if this was always the plan.

“Okay,” Clint says. “Sure.”

The blonde steps up to the bars. He’s an intimidating figure. An inch or so shorter than Clint, but far more heavily muscled. He could probably throw Clint across the room. “Do you know where they’re going?” he asks, oddly polite for a man who must be here to beat the answer out of him.

“I mean,” Clint says. He pauses, thinks it through. Makes the same decision he was always going to make. “I’ve got some ideas, yeah. And they’re assholes, I know. But my brother’s one of them. So, I’m sorry, but I’m not gonna tell you anything.”

Blondie’s eyes are blue and completely unreadable. He stares at Clint like he’s reading something written in the backs of Clint’s eyes. His hands are curled around the bars, and Clint studies his knuckles, sizes up his arms. Tries not to imagine how much it’s going to hurt, when the punches start.

“Even if he felt inclined to talk,” Coulson says, slow and measured, “I’m sure they’d know better than to go anywhere he could tell us about.”

Which is probably true. But that just means Clint’s even more useless than he thought.

“Right,” Blondie says. His hands drop away from the bars, and Clint tenses, waits for Coulson to hand over the keys. But Blondie just turns and leaves, sharing a brief look with Coulson as he goes.

Clint breathes out when the door shuts with Blondie on the other side of it. “Jesus, that guy’s intense.”

“Mm,” Coulson says. He doesn’t look happy. Clint didn’t really appreciate how friendly he was being, until he packed all that warmth up and put it away.

“So, uh.” Clint breathes out, pushes his hair off his face. “What happens to the unclaimed luggage? I mean, are you guys gonna kill me?”

He wouldn’t blame them. Not really. It’s an ugly world, and this is a nice place. The only way to keep it nice is to make sure people don’t think they can get away with what Clint’s people just did. And if he isn’t worth anything to the people he’s been with since the world ended, he doesn’t know why the hell people like this would care about him at all.

Coulson’s quiet, just watching Clint.

“C’mon, Phil.” Clint leans against the bars, gets as close as he can, given the physics of the situation. “What’s the protocol? I just wanna know what I’m dealing with.”

“We don’t have a protocol for this,” Coulson tells him. “This has never happened before.”

And Clint really didn’t need to hear that he was the very first piece of collateral that no one bothered to reclaim. He closes his eyes, tries to pretend like that doesn’t hurt. Anyway, whatever’s coming next will hurt more, so he might as well enjoy the way he feels right now.

“You should be with better people,” Coulson tells him.

“Yeah, well. I’m with the people I have,” Clint says. “And it’s a bit late for that anyway.”

“We’d probably let you go,” Coulson offers, mildly, “if you cooperated with the Captain’s questions.”

But Captain Blondie had murder in his eyes, and, whatever Barney’s done, Clint isn’t going to help anybody kill him. “That’s my brother,” Clint says.

Coulson’s eyebrows tick upwards. “That doesn’t seem to matter to him.”

Clint shrugs. “Maybe not. But it matters to me.”

Coulson considers him. He has a hell of a poker face for a man who seems like he never gambles with anything he can’t afford to lose. Finally, he sighs, and there’s something about the way he looks at him, resigned and troubled and begrudgingly admiring, that makes Clint feel like maybe there’s a way out of this after all.

“Don’t you think,” Coulson says, “that it’s time you gave that loyalty to people who’ll return it?”

Clint swallows. Something fitful stirs in his stomach, and he thinks, shocked and incredulous, that it might be hope. “Sure, maybe. You know anybody like that?”

Coulson’s mouth twists up and then flattens out. “I might,” he says. And then, like a peace offering Clint didn’t do a damn thing to deserve: “Let’s discuss it over breakfast.”

Chapter Text

“I am aware,” Tony says, voice a little loud, maybe – maybe – the tiniest bit hysterical, “that human trafficking is morally wrong. I was confused about the basic premise of the conversation. I thought it was a very convoluted metaphor for the military industrial complex. I did not realize people were actually for sale.”

Pepper doesn’t take her hands away from her face. She doesn’t say anything.

The freshly defrosted assassin to Tony’s left doesn’t say anything, either. He hasn’t spoken at all. Tony doesn’t know what that’s about. Maybe the mask muzzles him. Maybe they cut his vocal cords. Maybe he’s actually three Hydra-trained ferrets in a human suit. Tony doesn’t know.

“I thought it was a joke,” Tony continues. “What the hell else was I supposed to think? ‘Hail Hydra,’ Pepper. They said Hail Hydra to me, Howard Stark’s only son, and so I thought--”

“You didn’t,” she says. She peels her palms off her face so she can point at him, gesture so sharp and accusing that it damn near rocks him back on his heels. “You didn’t think. You never do. He doesn’t even have a passport.”

The assassin, somehow, unfathomably, considers this the optimal moment to reach into one of his seven hundred little side pockets and produced a handful of passports. A literal handful of passports. He’s got at least four, and he holds them out to Pepper like an apology.

Pepper looks at the passports, looks at the assassin, and then makes a noise like she’s going to be sick.

“Hey, buddy,” Tony says, trying to pitch his voice into something comforting, hoping like hell that it doesn’t send the assassin into another one of those weird disquieting spirals he goes into when he thinks Tony’s giving him an order he doesn’t understand, “hey. That’s great, okay? You can just—yeah, I’ll take them. Thanks. Hey, why don’t you—there’s, like. See the chairs?”

“Don’t talk to him like that,” Pepper says, giving him an open-mouthed sneer of shock. “Why are you talking to him like you’re picking him up from kindergarten? Oh my God, how old is he?”

“Jesus, Pep, I don’t know.” Tony waves the passports at her. “You think any of his documentation is accurate?”

“Just,” Pepper says, to the assassin. “Just, please. Just sit down, and we’ll work on this.”

The assassin sits down immediately. Right there, on the floor of Tony’s private plane. He stares up at Pepper like an attentive dog midway through the obstacle course, waiting for the next order.

“Oh my God,” Pepper says.

“Yeah,” Tony says. He breathes out, wishes he’d had the foresight to drink half as much and leave twice as early last night. Two nights ago? It’s been a hell of a conference.

“Tony.” Pepper’s staring at the man like he’s some lost stray. Tony’s starting to think maybe she’s been a little overexposed to firearms. Any normal person would be dismayed by the firepower this guy has casually strapped to his chest.

“I know,” Tony says. And then, “I couldn’t leave him, Pep.”

He doesn’t even remember much about the place. Just that it had been dark, and cold, and possibly underground. His brain had been spinning and stuttering, stuck on the fact that living human tissue cannot survive in cryostatis, that absolute zero should rupture cell membranes, that, even if they’d somehow solved the cryo problem, rewarming a body like that should wreck it, should leave it cracked into pieces. Should hurt, unimaginably. Should hurt every time.

And they’d said they'd frozen and woken him dozens of times. Dozens.

No. Even drunk and reeling, Tony couldn’t leave him there.

Pepper’s eyes are finally sticking to those guns displayed in their holsters. “Are they.” She fidgets, shifts her weight in those towering heels, and Tony tries not to think about how fast she could run, if she had to. If there was anywhere at all for her to run. “Are they gonna come after him?”

Tony gestures around them, at the plane, at the airport, at the whole of Sokovia. “Hell yes they are, Pepper,” he says. “Can we go?”

She flinches, just a little. “Right.” For a second, she looks exactly as wide-eyed and unsettled as she used to look, back when she was freshly hired and still too timid to raise her voice, no matter what condition she found him in. And then she nods, and she’s Pepper Potts, jaded and unimpressed and endlessly competent. “I’ll tell the pilots.”

 

- -

 

Tony sobers up during the flight, but the assassin doesn’t disappear. Dutifully, methodically, Tony knocks back a couple of pain pills and a begrudging ginger ale. Still, the assassin stays where he is.

He looks ridiculous, Tony thinks. He looks like some child designed him. All that black body armor and the multitude of black accessories: mask, boots, gloves, makeup.

Hydra – because Hydra, somehow, is still around - wanted Tony to fix his arm. It’s not his fault he got confused. They opened the conversation with: “We need you to fix a machine.”

He’d been expecting a machine. He’d agreed to a machine. He’d bartered – tongue in cheek and laughing all the way into his own doom – for a machine.

He has forty-eight hours to kill whoever he wants through this dead-eyed walking weapon, and then he’s supposed to return him, with a fully functioning arm.

A person. That’s a person.

“Pepper,” Tony says, in his cheeriest voice, “your assistance, please. I’m going to be violently ill.”

“Oh shit,” she says.

 

- -

 

There’s a small cluster of islands in the Pacific, isolated enough to be unpopulated, out of the way enough not to be strategically important. It’s a family property. Howard bought the islands sometime in the post-War scramble. He never did much with it, but there are a few belowground labs, some security measures. A rarely-used but well-maintained landing strip.

Tony should take this hitman to the authorities. INTERPOL, maybe. SHIELD? The CIA. Hell, he could just call Rhodey and say, “You would not believe the door prize at this year’s conference.”

But there’s a quiet noise, a buzzing. The stuttering click of some dying motor or caught gear. Anyway, Tony can smell it, after a while. Something’s burning.

When he stands up and moves across the plane, the man barely blinks. He turns his head toward him, chin leading, eyes never sharpening, and it’s so mechanical that Tony briefly reconsiders his ferrets in a suit hypothesis.

But when he runs his fingers downs the bare metal arm, light and exploratory, checking for wayward patches of abnormal heat, the man’s breath catches. It’s a quiet thing, wouldn’t be noticeable if he didn’t already have Tony’s full attention. Not a gasp, not a sigh. His breathing just stops, just for a moment.

It’s so human, Tony thinks. Maybe the most human thing. Machines don’t flinch. Animals don’t brace for pain; they try to evade it. It takes a human will to hold the body still, to know pain is coming, to wait for it to land.

Isn’t that what Tony does? The whole night, this whole year, his whole life since his parents died, tripping further and further into a sinkhole, braced for a rock-bottom nobody ever lets him find.

When you’re important enough, Tony knows, when you are irreplaceable, there’s no end to what people will do to keep you functional. Like leaving vodka in tastefully resealed water bottles, tucked away at podiums, the whole crowd rapt and attentive, pretending not to notice how his vowels start to slur midway through the presentation. Like showering him with praise no matter when he shows up or in what condition, like springing him two weeks early from rehab in a company limousine stocked with champagne and filled with military reps.

Not that Tony isn’t complicit. Not that it isn’t all his own damn fault. He’s a horse, led to a trough of whiskey, and it’s his own choice to drink. Just like it was always Howard’s.

At least no one ever thought Howard Stark would do Hydra any favors.

Tony takes his hand off the man’s metal arm. The whole thing’s too hot. Feverish, sick. He’s an engineer, not a doctor. That they came to him shows exactly what they think of their pet assassin.

But, still. They picked the best. And it was a gamble. Howard Stark’s son, after all.

So this man, Tony thinks, is just like him. Too critical to fail. Special, singular. Irreplaceable.

All the more reason to take him straight to INTERPOL and hustle Pepper into the loving arms of whatever witness protection program can hide her. But a Stark is a Stark is a Stark, and Tony’s not giving up anything he can fix or improve.

 

- -

 

He has thirty-eight hours left of his allotted murder time. They’d said it so casually. They said all of it so casually. Tony had been drunk and high and out of his mind, laughing along. It was like a mad, manic, grown-up version of musical chairs, everyone dancing, everything spinning, and then the music stopped and Tony realized that there hadn’t been any damn music. Nobody else had been playing a game.

What pain medication he has isn’t having any effect. The man – the Soldier – finally opens his mouth to tell him, blankly but not unkindly: “The mechanics don’t use anesthetic. I don’t require it.”

“Buddy,” Tony says, wrist-deep in the innerworkings of this guy’s actual arm, “pal, all three ferrets in the meatsuit, please don’t say shit like that to me. I think they used a cheese grater to filter last night’s vodka. I’m gonna puke again.”

“My apologies,” the Soldier says.

He’s a biddable creature, Tony thinks. For now. “What happens when my forty-eight hours are up?”

The Soldier considers him. “I report back to my handlers.”

“And so what’s the play?” Tony moves quickly, tries not to think about how what he’s working on is patched directly into a living person’s body. “I have you do some dirty work for me, and then they use that to blackmail me into working for them forever?”

“I have some suggestions,” the Soldier says. “I was given information on people you might like to neutralize.”

Neutralize, Tony thinks. He’s too hungover for this.

Every morning, he’s too Goddamn hungover to function. By noon, he’s too buzzed to remember what he promised himself at dawn.

“Justin Hammer,” the Soldier says.

Tony scoffs. “Please. He’s not worth the effort. I’m not gonna damn myself forever over Justin Hammer.”

“Obadiah Stane,” the Soldier offers.

Tony pulls back, shoves the goggles off his eyes just long enough for this guy to appreciate the incredulity on his face. “Obie? Why the hell would I want anyone to hurt Obie?”

The Soldier considers him, implacable, unreadable. He has pretty eyes for a serial killer, Tony thinks. He wonders what the rest of his face looks like. “He is betraying you,” the Soldier says. “If you would like, I can show you the evidence.”

But Tony can’t trust anything this man tells him.

“Can I have you kill anyone?” he asks.

“No,” the Soldier says.

“Can’t turn the dog against his masters, huh?” he asks. A second later, he breathes through the sting of his own stupid mouth, rolls his eyes at how shitty he is, just on reflex. Just because nobody ever checks him anymore. “Sorry. That was shitty.”

“Not inaccurate,” the Soldier tells him.

It’s not even that much work, fixing the arm. He could upgrade it while he’s in there, wants to, but he’s got just enough self-control to resist upgrading the arsenal of a fascist death cult. By the time he’s done, he has thirty-six hours left.

“What the hell am I gonna do,” he says, to the Soldier.

The Soldier stares back at him. There’s nothing in his eyes but focused, unwavering attention. Tony’s reminded, sickeningly, of a dog waiting for a raised stick to be thrown. “Whatever you like,” the Soldier answers.

Tony’s sick again. The Soldier, laughably, ludicrously, helps him clean up the mess.

 

- -

 

He has thirty-four hours left. The Soldier reports he isn’t hungry, isn’t thirsty, isn’t tired. Well, what he actually says when Tony asks is: No maintenance required.

“What can you tell me about Hydra?” Tony asks, as he chews at some stale crackers.

“I can tell you nothing,” the Soldier says.

Tony shrugs. “What can you tell me about yourself?”

The Soldier blinks. His eyes track to Tony’s face. “What would you like to know?”

“Who were you,” Tony says. “Before this. Where were you born?”

“I am the Winter Soldier,” he says. “I always have been.”

That can’t be true. Nobody’s born with that much dark eye makeup. Nobody’s born a killer. Tony thinks about it, for a moment. Hydra’s little nursery, all the sleeping babies curled up with stuffed skulls, their chubby fingers wound around the skull’s tentacles.

He shouldn’t have to solve this while so hungover his eyes feel like they’re being pushed out of his head. But if he starts drinking now, he’s just going to lose time until he runs out. And he doesn’t know what’s going to happen then.

“What’s your name?” Tony asks.

The Soldier’s eyes unfocus. He looks away. “Winter Soldier,” he says.

 

- -

 

He sends the islands' employees away. He sends Pepper away. There’s a fight about it, but he wins. He always wins, when he really wants to. People mostly do what he says.

He starts climbing around in old warehouses, examining the weapons in storage, all the bits and pieces of projects that his dad never finished. There’s something in his head that wants to be a plan, but there’s something else that’s busy chewing through his cerebellum, raging its fiery fists against the walls of his skull.

His stomach feels swollen and shipwrecked. If he gets sick again, he’s going to walk into the sea.

“I’m gonna take your mask off,” Tony says, when he decides he wants a break. “You need to drink some water.”

“I do not,” the Soldier says. “But you can do as you like.”

Tony’s been doing as he likes for years, for his whole damn life. Looks how that turned out. Somehow Hydra looked at him and thought Yes, he’s one of us.

And what has he done, he wonders, that they thought he would do this? Would he even recognize it, if he knew? Sometimes he wakes up to projects he doesn't know, hours of work he doesn't remember, designs he wouldn't have let out of his brain, if he'd been aware enough to know that they were simmering at the surface.

It’s not difficult to remove the mask. Tony’s holding it in his hands in seconds. The Soldier looks softer without it. It’s very humanizing, Tony thinks, but he’s not sure humanizing is really what he should be doing right now.

“Here,” Tony says. He puts a cup of water in front of the Soldier.

The Soldier considers it for a long moment and then lifts it to his mouth. “Most poisons have little effect on me,” he says. “We haven’t found many that can fully incapacitate me.”

We haven’t found many, Tony thinks. Which implies that they have been experimenting. Which implies that there are some that can.

“Well, hey,” he says, “I haven’t found many that can fully incapacitate me either. And I partied in the ‘80s.”

The Soldier’s mouth quirks suddenly into a smile. It’s gone a heartbeat later.

There’s a person in there. This, right here, is a human. This is a person who doesn’t know his name, who does what he’s told, who’s followed every order he’s been given. Tony knew he was a person because he bled, earlier, when he fixed his arm. But, at the time, it only meant he would likely die if Tony shot him in the head or slit his throat or bled him dry. At the time, it just helped Tony narrow down the how of what he knows he needs to do.

The smile, though. The smile complicates everything else.

Tony’s been making a plan like he’s alone, but there’s someone else here. He’s been figuring out how to block a shipment, how to keep Hydra from reclaiming its weapon, but that’s not what’s happening. This isn’t a theft; it’s a rescue mission.

“You were someone, weren’t you?” he says. “You used to be someone.”

The Soldier’s eyes have a machine’s focus, the blank window of a command-line interpreter waiting for input, but his mouth pushes inward. His lips catch between his teeth. “I have always been,” he says, “the Winter Soldier.”

But there’s something else. There’s someone there. And Hydra gave him to Tony so he could kill whoever he wanted, but he’s never wanted to kill anyone until this exact moment, until he stared into the dead eyes of a machine that bleeds, that used to laugh, that still sometimes smiles, and he realized exactly what kind of monsters made him. Exactly what kind of monster looks at Tony and thinks it sees its kin.

“JARVIS,” Tony says, as he steps away, as he jogs toward the lab, “we have work to do.”

Chapter Text

He doesn’t move like he’s new, but every verifiable bit of gossip says he’s been damned for less than a year. Anyway, Natasha says he is, and Bucky stopped second guessing her a long time ago. “New blood,” she tells him, out of the side of her mouth, as she steps neatly over one of the bodies.

New blood, like she’s anything else.

Hell, like Bucky’s anything else. Half a century of unnatural life isn’t anything, really. Just a blink. There are bars older than him in Brooklyn, pieces of his childhood still discoverable in the wild. He’s known vampires who have to go to museums to visit what’s left of their humanity. He’s killed vampires who were turned before electricity, before steam engines, before compasses.

So Bucky’s new, and Natasha’s new, and this guy, he’s just on the fresher side of that.

“Dick Grayson,” he says, with a smile that probably broke hearts before that extra set of canines made his mouth into a threat.

“Used to be Nightwing,” Stark clarifies. For Bucky, probably. Or Banner. Or anyone, honestly. Stark likes to let people know how much he knows. It’s a prey response, painting paper shields, but they’ve all got their neuroses.

“Used to be a lot of things,” Dick Grayson says, and now that smile’s rotted toward rueful, eyes dropping to the ground before rebounding up to Steve’s face.

He’s handsome, Bucky notices. Beautiful, really. Bucky can see, in the fickle light of a back alley at midnight, watery neon blue cutting across his face like a fresh bruise, exactly why someone would want to immortalize a face like that.

“Thanks for the help,” Steve says. He reaches out his hand, and, in a crowd of normal people, no one would’ve noticed the half second of hesitation before Grayson extends his own hand.

Nobody here is normal. Barton’s probably the closest, and that’s really just an indication of how skewed the audience is.

“Come back to the Tower,” Stark offers, because he’s exactly the sort of mad bastard who won’t tell his teammates when he’s actively dying but will invite a bloodsucker home within seconds of meeting them. “I’ll fix that phone.”

Grayson laughs. His phone is in his hand, and there’s a vampire’s fang embedded right in the middle of it. Bucky watched him throw it. If he’d thrown a knife instead, he would’ve impaled that vampire right through her throat. But he’d done a bit of impromptu cellphone dentistry instead, and Bucky’s more charmed by that than he should be.

“Sure,” Grayson says. He smiles again, and he finally looks his age. It’s such an awkward human smile, lips pressed firmly together, teeth tucked away.

Bucky smiles back, shows his teeth. Grayson’s gaze catches and holds and then drops.

 

- -

 

At the Tower, the Avengers dissipate, tucking away to their respective corners. Nat disappears first, probably to feed from Barton, and Banner ducks out to do whatever it is Banner does when nobody’s bothering him to save the world, and Steve goes to make his report.

Bucky follows Dick Grayson down to Stark’s lab.

He doesn’t come down here often. Doesn’t spend a lot of time in Tony’s territory. Too much guilt, too much grief. He looks at this place and thinks about what Tony could’ve been, if he’d had more time with his father, more time to learn from one of the few people who ever had anything to teach him.

That guilt’s all his, though. He creates and consumes it. Stark’s certainly not the source.

Stark’s come around on him, which he did all on his own. Bucky never tried to earn his forgiveness. He knew, always, that he didn’t have the right. But Stark got there anyway, probably because he’s forever hoping the world will find its way to forgiving him.

Bucky should tell him to give up on the world. But he’s been telling Steve for decades now, and it’s accomplished absolutely fuck all.

“You need a tune-up?” Tony asks, gesturing at Bucky’s arm.

“Just here to visit the boys,” Bucky says, and he side-steps around him to get to the robots Stark keeps threatening to disassemble or deprogram. They whirr and spin their metal limbs, and he pats them one by one.

“Adorable,” Dick says, but it’s impossible to tell if he means Bucky or the bots.

“They only like him because they think he’s one of them,” Tony says. He sounds jealous. He might be. Jealousy comes easy to Stark. Someone taught him that the only acceptable ways to show affection are jealousy and expensive gifts.

There are emotions you have to pry out of Stark like you’re taking the shell off a turtle, like it’ll kill him to let you have them. But he’ll hand you the ugly ones for free.

Bucky understands the impulse. Fortunately for him, his warning signs are visible from the outside, so he doesn’t have to put in quite so much effort.

“This phone’s an insult,” Tony says. He’s waving Dick’s phone at him. “Just get a Goddamn Nokia.”

“Don’t do that,” Bucky says, carefully disentangling himself from DUM-E’s grip. “He doesn’t mean it. He’ll sulk for two weeks if you do.”

You got two weeks,” Tony says. “This guy gets one. I make exceptions for men who can do the splits without stretching first.”

Bucky rolls his eyes. “I can do the splits without stretching first.”

Tony rolls his eyes right back. He’s better at it, more theatrical. “I haven’t seen any evidence of that.”

Bucky turns to Dick, who’s watching this interchange with a strange, strained smile. “I’m sorry he’s like this. He’ll finish with your phone faster if you pretend to laugh at his jokes.”

Dick shrugs, and, now that Bucky’s looking, he can see that the strange part of his smile is the sadness. “I don’t actually need the phone back. It’s just a burner.”

“Oh, a burner phone,” Tony repeats, like it’s something salacious and not a practical reality they all live with. “Is that why it doesn’t have a bat on it?”

It’s not Bucky’s fault, the way he clocks every hit. The Winter Soldier’s not gone; he’s just on a leash. Bucky’s always going to focus on weakness. He’s always going to know when someone’s hurt. And that flash across Dick’s face, that’s pain.

“Tony,” Bucky says.

Tony hurts people without meaning to. Bucky knows what that’s like. It’s a kindness, he thinks, to tell him. It’s a mercy.

“Sorry,” Tony says, immediately. His eyes track across Dick’s face. “Shit. Are you not— is there bad blood?”

There’s a beat after the words leave his mouth where no one even breathes. And then Tony drops his face into his palm. “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” he says. “Sorry again. That’s--”

“It’s okay,” Dick says. “It’s a figure of speech.”

“I’m an asshole,” Tony says.

“Maybe,” Dick says, with an affable shrug. “But you didn’t mean anything by it. It’s fine.”

Tony’s hands drop from his face, twist anxiously near his waist. “What do you want? Do you want a new phone? I’ll give you one SI won’t release until next year.”

“I told you,” Dick says, gently this time, “it’s fine.”

Bucky likes him, he realizes. The realization is sudden and definite, like a key turning in a lock. He likes him, and he thinks he’s sweet, and he wants to help him. “You hungry?” he asks. “We’ve got some bagged blood here. Banner’s been working on it. Tastes fresh.”

“Oh.” Dick hesitates, eyes jumping to Tony and then back to Bucky. “Yeah, if you have enough to spare.”

“This isn’t a place of scarcity,” Bucky tells him, partly so he can watch the way Tony instantly preens. “And you shouldn’t let yourself run so dry.”

He hadn’t meant to notice. There are things he can’t help but see. Like the pain on his face earlier, Bucky’s been tracking the pallor of his skin without meaning to. He’s clocked, also, the way Dick can’t seem to keep his eyes off Tony’s bare throat.

Dick doesn’t say anything. He watches Bucky carefully for a moment. “It’s under control,” he says, finally.

“It always is,” Bucky says, prosaic from the decades of experience, “until it isn’t.”

“You down a few pints?” Tony asks, perking up. He jerks his thumb toward his jugular. “I can spare a bit.”

From clear across the room, Bucky can see the way Dick’s breath catches. Used to be Nightwing, probably saved the world a half-dozen times in the last half-dozen years, and he’s walking around New York starving to death, with a burner phone and no wallet.

It’s not Bucky’s place to judge the way people punish themselves. Hell, he’s fed his own heart to the wood chipper of self-recrimination often enough.

He just wishes it wasn’t always the kindest people doling out the harshest punishments to themselves. Like all that rage they can’t direct anywhere else just circles back to eat them. All these good people fashioning themselves into uroboroses of misery.

Grayson clears his throat. Bucky can tell by the look on his face how much trouble he’s having. It’s hard to turn down fresh blood offered like that.

“You drink fresh blood ever?” Bucky asks.

For a second, Dick looks stricken and then he just looks like nothing at all. “No.”

Bucky missed most of Nightwing’s active years. He doesn’t know the exact timeline, doesn’t know when he lost that last fight as a human. But prolonged dry spells aren’t uncommon in new vampires, particularly ones who didn’t choose to turn. Bucky can see how it would be difficult for him to have much faith in his self-control. Dick Grayson has all those heroic impulses, that tendency toward self-denial for the sake of others. He’s probably not used to coexisting with the inclination to destroy.

Nobody asked Bucky to have any control. That wasn’t the point of him. By the time he had enough of his mind back to want to stop himself, he’d built up a tolerance.

“You could try it,” Bucky says. “You won’t hurt him.”

Dick does that smile again, the one where he hides his teeth. Keeps his lips pressed shut, teeth neatly tucked away. He doesn’t want to be what he is, but neither does Bucky. At some point, you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t change.

“I might,” he says. He shoots an apologetic look to Tony. “I might hurt you.”

Tony shakes his head, and now his smile’s sad too. “You won’t.”

“I might,” Dick says, louder.

“No,” Bucky says. And he doesn’t show off often. Not anymore. Every now and then, for Steve, so Steve can see the friend he misses who never came back from the war. For Tony, too, for different reasons. And now for Dick, moving so fast that even Dick can’t track it, clearing half the room in half a second. “You won’t.”

“Wow,” Dick says, shocked breathless. The look he gives Bucky is all mixed up, half alarmed and half admiring. When he smiles this time, he forgets to hide his teeth. “They weren’t kidding about you.”

“I have my own tricks,” Tony adds. “Trust us, I’ll be fine.”

Dick’s eyes move between them. When he speaks, his voice is too quiet for Tony to hear. Just for Bucky, then. “Is this okay? Are you—I don’t want to--”

“We’re not like that,” Bucky says. “It’s fine.”

Not yet. Maybe not ever. They could be, but Bucky likes what they have. He likes the orbit of their friendship, likes the way they fit together. Likes it too much to gamble on losing it. Anyway, he thinks it’s good for Tony, to have someone around not making a play to own or control him. It’s good for Bucky, for the same reasons.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Dick says, to Tony.

“Don’t worry,” Tony says. “I’m an expert.”

He isn’t. None of them are. Bucky’s the oldest vampire on the roster, and it’s not like any of the elders ever gave him any advice. Nightwing, he heard, got turned as a joke. He wonders who the hell’s laughing. He wonders if maybe he should make sure they don’t ever laugh again.

He can hear Tony’s heart beating if he concentrates. A little fast, which is normal. Tony’s heart only slows down when he steps into the suit.

When Bucky puts his hand on Dick’s shoulder, he leans into him. Just a little. Doesn’t seem aware of it. He’s cold to the touch, which is just another sign that he’s starving.

Bucky doesn’t understand all these righteous people. Steve, and Stark, and this guy, too. They’ve damn sure given enough to the world. He doesn’t know why they won’t take what they need from it. He doesn’t know why they see themselves as reservoirs to be drained but never fed.

“Come on,” he says, and he puts his hand around Dick’s shoulder, lets him lean his whole room temperature body into his side. “If you do the splits on the way over, he’ll probably let you take an extra pint.”

Chapter Text

Frank breaks his arm in autumn, when a staggering display of parental incompetence necessitates the kind of athletic stupidity he meant to leave behind a full decade ago. This is exactly why he goes to town so rarely. Osuna’s not big enough to attract the attention of the truly worthless, but it’s big enough to support a saloon, which is how a five-year-old boy might find himself left to mind a horse wholly unused to the sights, sounds, and smells of near-civilization.

If Curtis were around, he’d tell Frank he had no damn business leaping onto a spooked horse, no matter what that horse was dragging along behind him.

But Curtis would’ve done the same thing, and, anyway, he isn’t here. No one from back then is here. It’s just Frank, so what’s it matter?

The boy’s fine. Bones bend better when you’re young. The bones in Frank’s arm – ten years too old for this kind of nonsense – fracture in disgust, and Frank has to haul himself, humbled and furious, to the town doctor to get it set.

“How much you charge for this anyway?” Frank asks, as Banner’s carefully finagling him out of his shirt.

“Haven’t decided yet,” Banner replies. Against his better judgment and all his assembled history with medical practitioners, Frank is fond of Dr. Banner. There’s something disarming about the combination of his soft voice and soft hands and razor’s edge sense of humor. “Was going to base it on how much complaining you make me listen to.”

“Hm,” Frank says. “Cheaper to cut it off?”

Banner blinks his big doe eyes at Frank, but his smile curls up crooked, a little wry. “Now, Frank, think about it from my point of view. I cut this arm off, and that’s a one-time charge. I fix this break, and who knows? You might be called to play hero any number of times in the future.”

“Never again,” Frank says. “Next time I see a kid getting dragged, I’m just gonna pay my respects and mind my own damn business.”

“Sure,” Bruce says, hands slowly closing around Frank’s arm. “That’s what you excel at, Frank. Minding your own damn business.”

Frank sets his teeth and closes his eyes, tries to make as little noise as possible as the doctor does his work. He’s not sure why he bothers. Pride, probably. Although he’s not sure when that came back.

Banner feeds him enough whiskey and distracts him with enough needling that Frank doesn’t remember until he’s already on his horse that he never paid him. “Doc,” he says, “your fee.”

Banner shrugs and smiles up at him. With his glasses and the cut of his clothes, he looks like somebody’s lost schoolteacher. But Frank knows the stories, same as everybody else. Doctor Banner is a kind man, and a good doctor, and, when provoked, he has a charming habit of bludgeoning bad men to death with his bare hands.

“Don’t charge for heroics,” Banner says. “Go home and rest that arm.”

Frank considers arguing the point, but the truth is he’s got one usable arm and winter’s two months out. There are good odds he’ll need every penny he can scrape together just to survive until spring.

“Appreciate it,” Frank says. Makes himself say.

The doctor smiles at him, and his eyes fall over Frank’s shoulder, back toward that saloon. “That boy’s father,” he says. “He in there?”

Frank chews on the inside of his cheek, thinks it over. Well, if he doesn’t tell him, Banner’s just going to find out from somebody else. “Sure. Last I heard.”

Banner nods. “Take care, Castle.”

“Sure, Doc,” he says. “Give ‘em hell.” And then he gets out of there before Osuna makes more of a mess of him than it already has.

 

- -

 

It’s a nuisance, doing every damn thing with his left hand. Wouldn’t be so bad, probably, if he had someone around to help him, but he’s been living alone since he left New York. There were plenty of hopeful widows on the way west, but Frank’s buried one wife and two children, and he’s not digging any more graves. Couldn’t keep the last family safe, so he sure as hell doesn’t deserve another.

It’s just difficult. Every morning dawns a little colder and later than the last, and he needs time to speed up so he can get his right arm back and slow down so he doesn’t freeze to death in January. He can barely hunt, feels clumsy and stupid. He’s saving the chickens for desperate times, but those desperate times are coming faster than he can prepare for.

A week or so after the incident in town, he hears someone on his porch before dawn, moving quiet, almost soundless.

Frank thinks it’s probably one of any number of enemies he’s made over the years. Some dead man’s friend or brother or son, come to collect revenge while Frank’s one-armed and vulnerable. But when Frank kicks his door open and levels his rifle at the figure on his porch, it’s just Roy Harper, wide-eyed and guilty, standing over the carcass of a stout doe.

“Morning, Frank,” Roy says, recovering quickly. He smiles, big and sunny, too sweet for a grown man with a bit of blood still smeared on his hands. “You’re looking well.”

Frank stares at him. Looks at the doe. Looks back up at Roy. There’s a blush working its way across Roy’s face, and Frank’s coming to the realization that Roy’s plan was to leave the body and get out of there before he got caught.

“You want coffee?” he asks.

It’s a calculated lure. He knows exactly how much Roy Harper likes coffee.

“Oh,” Roy says. He hesitates, visibly trying to convince himself to say no. “Well, I don’t—I wasn’t actually--”

“Come in,” Frank says. “Have some coffee. I’ll put on a shirt.”

“Not on my account,” Roy says, and that blush darkens, spread across his whole face. He chokes, a little. Blushes even worse while Frank studies him. “I mean. You don’t have to—I wasn’t planning to stay.”

“Clearly,” Frank says. “Come in.”

He turns and walks back inside, and Roy follows after him, making plenty of noise now that he’s been spotted. He settles politely at the table and fusses with his shirtsleeves while Frank goes about getting dressed and making coffee.

“Why’re you leaving dead things on my porch, Roy?” Frank asks, when Roy’s taking his first cautious sip of coffee.

Roy’s eyes dart all around like he’s trying to come up with some plan to convince Frank that he was not, in fact, doing exactly what they both know he was doing. “Well,” he says. “Well…”

“I would’ve known it was you even if I didn’t catch you in the act,” Frank says. “Everyone else who likes me uses a rifle to hunt.”

Roy grimaces. “I can hunt with a rifle,” he says.

Frank knows damn well that Roy can hunt with whatever he chooses. Frank wouldn’t bet against Roy Harper killing a cougar with a river rock, if he got it into his head to do it. The first night Frank met him, Roy was so drunk he couldn’t count past four, and he staggered out of the saloon well past midnight with a borrowed pistol to shoot a rattlesnake in the street.

Took its head off in one shot. Didn’t even really seem to aim. He was still holding a shot glass in his right hand.

Drunk and stumbling, shooting with his left, shooting with someone else’s gun, and it was still one of the most beautiful things Frank’s ever seen.

“Sure,” Frank says. “Did you?”

Roy fidgets. “Well,” he says, drawing it out. “Well, no.”

Roy prefers to hunt with his bow. Plenty of people in town have opinions on that. Plenty of people have opinions on Roy Harper in general, but Frank’s only opinion is that he’s damn impressive with whatever weapon he sees fit to use, and all the gossips in town are damn lucky that Roy’s too affable to teach any of them better manners.

Frank just stares at him. After a moment, he takes a long sip of his coffee, keeps his eyes on Roy’s face while Roy does the same.

“Heard about what happened,” Roy says, gesturing at Frank’s arm. “You got hurt saving some kid.”

“Saving,” Frank says. “I don’t know. Kid might’ve been fine.”

Roy’s frown takes on mulish undertones. “Heard he was getting dragged through the street.”

Which has to be the first time in history that the town gossips were right. Of course, Roy might’ve been talking to Banner. “Horse could’ve stopped,” Frank says.

Roy’s face moves like it wants to scoff and smile at the same time. “You always gotta be difficult?” he asks. He makes it sound like Frank’s some kind of marvel.

“I don’t need any charity,” Frank tells him. “Particularly from someone who doesn’t have enough himself.”

Roy shrugs, and that small, nervous smile takes on impish undertones. “Kinda seems like I got one arm more than you do, Frank.”

The light through the kitchen window is making Roy’s red hair glow, and he’s a loud, wiry, fidgety man, but it occurs to Frank, all in a breath, that he’s going to miss his company as soon as he leaves.

“Kinda seems like,” Frank says.

 

- -

 

Roy keeps stopping by to leave dead things on his porch, like a cat trying to prove its worth. He leaves other small gifts too, bird’s eggs and chickweed and sheep sorrel. Once, when Frank is in town for the day, he comes back to find that Roy’s been chopping his firewood for him, too.

He should tell him to stop. He would tell him to stop. But he can’t seem to catch him.

Maybe he doesn’t try as hard as he should. The truth is, his arm isn’t healing as quickly as he needs it too. And even with Roy Harper sneaking around, doing chores for him, he isn’t doing enough.

Every winter is a challenge. There’s only barely enough time to get ready in a good year.

The first snow falls in October. Frank isn’t prepared.

Neither is Roy, apparently, since he knocks on Frank’s door, shamefaced and shivering, with two rabbits and his bow. “Hello, Frank,” he says. “I’m really sorry about this, but--”

“Get inside,” Frank says, and he pushes the door open.

“I meant to get home before all of this,” Roy says.

There’s not much snow yet. But if Roy’s worried about the weather, Frank should be, too. “You’re fine to stay,” he says.

“I could sleep on the porch,” Roy offers.

“You insult me like that again,” Frank says, “and you will.”

It’s nice, actually, having him around. Roy’s very loud, even when he’s trying not to be, and he has to be the liveliest thing this cabin has seen since Frank built it. He bullies Frank out of his own kitchen so he can cook what he promises will be the best meal Frank’s had all week, and Frank’s only mildly aggrieved to find that he’s right.

It could be awkward, maybe, when it’s time to sleep, but Frank decides he won’t allow it to be. “Bed’s big enough for two,” he announces, while Roy’s busily cleaning dishes like that will save him from ever having to go to bed at all.

“Oh.” Roy sets the dishes down very carefully and clears his throat. “Frank,” he says, “there’s. It’s. You should know--”

“If you think you’ve been subtle,” Frank says, “please don’t ever play poker for money.”

The wide-eyed look Roy gives him indicates to Frank that he very much does think he’s been subtle.

“God help you,” Frank says.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Roy mumbles, eyes dropped to the floor.

He’s tucked his arms close to his body, shoulders hunched inwards. Everyone in town has some kind of opinion about Roy Harper, but Roy’s never seemed to care what anyone thought until this moment. When he thinks, somehow, that Frank represents some kind of threat to him.

“You might as well just bring me flowers next time,” Frank tells him. “I know you walk right by every kind of wildflower on your way here.”

Roy’s still for a second and then he looks up. His smile is a beautiful, fragile thing. “Snow’ll kill most of them,” he says.

“I can wait til spring,” Frank says. “Are you coming to bed?”

And now Roy’s grinning, wide and heedless, moving so fast it’s like he thinks Frank’s going to change his mind. “Do I have to wait til spring for that?”

Frank rolls his eyes. When Roy crashes into him, he wraps his good arm around his waist. “No,” he says, “right now’s fine.”

Chapter Text

There is a poacher in the woods. And it wouldn’t matter, the prey he takes, but he’s using it to keep the errant captain and his adherents fed. Hydra’s witches haven’t smothered the spring with another long stretch of winter storms only to have its own soldiers starve and the captain’s survive.

“Bring me his bow,” Pierce says. “And his head.”

“Yes,” the Soldier says.

It is only a poacher. The Soldier has brought back the crowned heads of kings, the hearts of knights and queens. A poacher in the woods is nothing at all.

But, he thinks, as he sets off into the snow. But. If it were only a poacher in the woods, why would they send him at all?

 

- -

 

It is cold in the woods, but the Soldier cannot die of cold. He rests, sometimes, but he always rises again. The poacher leaves a trail when he sees fit. The Soldier follows, as he must.

If it were properly spring, the woods would not abide a thing like him. But he owns the woods in winter, and the poacher, however clever, is just a fox leading a chase that can only possibly have one conclusion.

“You know,” the poacher says, once, from the very top of a ridge that the Soldier could climb, but not quickly enough. “I could kill you, if I wanted. Don’t you think it’s strange that I haven’t?”

But it is winter. And he cannot.

“And even if it didn’t kill you,” the poacher says, staring down the length of his arrow, “it would hurt.”

It would hurt, yes. It would hurt quite a lot.

The Soldier looks up at him. He’s a lanky thing, and lean. There’s an affable inclination to his features, a friendly crook to his mouth even now. He’s handsome, and bright-eyed, and there’s a ruddy flush to his features that makes the Soldier think his hands would burn if he touched him.

“It is still too cold for me to bleed, poacher,” the Soldier tells him. “Loose that arrow, and I’ll return it to you in due time.”

The poacher’s mouth flattens out, and his eyes roll, more in exasperation than anger. “‘Too cold for me to bleed,’” he repeats, in a mocking tone.

“Well,” the Soldier says, temporarily wrong-footed. “It is.”

The poacher lowers his bow, tucks his arrow back into his quiver. “The seasons’ll change or that curse will break. I know it.”

The curse cannot break. It is carved into the Soldier’s bones, worked into his heart and marrow. The curse will break when his body does. And it’s the curse that keeps his body whole.

“You know how this ends, poacher,” the Soldier says. “Come down from there, and it will be over. There’s no reason to exhaust yourself running.”

“I’m not a poacher,” he says. “My name is Clint Barton, and I serve Anthony Stark. And these are his lands, and his animals, and he can’t steal what he rightfully owns.”

The Soldier does not see how any of that matters. He moves for the ridge. Deliberately, but not quickly. It’s the fox’s fatigue that ends a chase, not the hound’s speed.

“Anthony Stark is dead,” the Soldier says. “The regent will be crowned.”

“Maybe,” the poacher says. “But who killed King Howard? Who killed the queen?”

There is a strange sensation in the Soldier’s hands, a feeling like he’s holding them close to a fire. He can hear, distantly, a woman, calling a name. There’s something in his mouth that tastes like blood but finishes clean and sharp like ice.

The arrow, when it comes, hits the Soldier in the thigh. It does not bleed, but it hurts. And he cannot climb or run until he finishes the painful process of digging it out.

By then, the poacher is gone.

 

- -

 

There is an ache in the Soldier’s teeth. He is holding his jaw too tightly. Something at the back of his throat wants out.

It is full dark, no moon to speak of, and the starlight is not enough to show the poacher’s tracks. The Soldier has been waiting for dawn.

The light is too thin to see what it is that he coughs into his waiting hands. He feels it, instead, runs his fingertips across its thin, branching arms. Slick with cold blood, hard-edged with frost. Delicate, he thinks. He holds it in his hand until the pink mist of dawn fades through the trees, and then he sees.

Flowers.

Pale blue star-shaped petals, with a bright yellow ring and a crown of white at their hearts. His own blood, smeared across the stems, staining the petals.

Forget-me-not, he thinks. The voice in his head is familiar, but it is not his own.

It is still too cold for him to bleed, but here it is, pooled in his palm. Red and bright, like he is a living thing.

The poacher must know a witch.

The Soldier crushes the petals with his hand, clenches his fist again and again until there’s nothing but pulp left behind.

 

- -

 

The warmth is terrible, and it is spreading. He can feel it moving through him. Sometimes the pain stings so brightly that he can’t make sense of the forest around him. Sometimes he falls to his knees and retches and heaves and coughs and shakes until something tumbles from his lips: flowers, and feathers, and the hungry, cutting edges of arrowheads.

It is midwinter in the woods, and blood drips from his jaw in fine, swaying strings.

But he cannot go back. He has been set on a mission. The poacher must die.

He follows what tracks he is given. He knows he is being lead in circles when he finds the poacher’s footprints have pressed the tattered edges of bloody petals into the snow. But the chase is not his choice. The poacher can lead him where he likes. The chase will end as it’s meant to.

The Soldier will not run dry of blood.

He weakens, though. And then, even though he’s not meant to, even though the curse should keep him awake until the witches let him rest, he sleeps.

He dreams someone else’s life. He dreams summer, and sunlight, and the captain’s face, younger and laughing.

He dreams that the prince is not dead. He dreams that he is hidden.

He dreams that, once, he knew where the prince was. And he dreams that, when Hydra came to take that knowledge from him, he gave up everything so they couldn’t have it.

When he wakes, the poacher is just steps away.

“Oh Bucky,” he says, like an offering, a sacrifice.

The Soldier pushes himself up onto his hands and knees. Blood and spit and flower petals rise from his throat, flood from his mouth.

He has to kill the poacher.

He will not kill the poacher.

Will has been absent from him for so long that it burns, roils in his stomach like a live thing swallowed whole.

“You’re waking up,” the poacher tells him.

He’s dying, he thinks.

His bones are burning under his skin. The curse they inked onto his bones is boiling off.

He spits more blood onto the snow. It hisses and steams.

“Bucky.” The poacher’s hands are warm and careful, fingertips drawing across his shoulders, up his neck, pulling the wet tangles of his hair away from his face.

The Soldier’s chest seizes. His fingers scramble into the dirt. There’s something squirming in his stomach, beating against his ribs. Something hungry and desperate and howling. Something buried at the core of him that wants out.

He shakes. He wonders what it will be. More petals, more feathers? A handful of arrowheads?

But when he spits fresh blood onto the snow and the anxious, fever-hot shivering of his body goes still, there’s nothing in his mouth. Nothing with a shape.

Not until he lifts his head and stares at the poacher and the strangeness of his face resolves into a dozen memories, a hundred. A thousand. “Clint?” he says.

Clint smiles at him. When he blinks, the tears in his eyes track down his face, and it feels wrong, seeing them. Feels worse than any of the flowers, feels worse even than the arrowheads. “Hello, Bucky,” he says.

And then he leans close, and he kisses him. His mouth is warm and soft, familiar.

The Soldier dies in winter. But Bucky does not.

Chapter Text

It’s strange, because, before it happens, he wouldn’t have even said he liked Tony Stark. Knew him, sure. He’s known him for damn near ten years at this point, since the night he broke into Stark Tower to steal schematics so he could piss off Bruce by upstaging his newest weapons upgrade. He’s known him since before the Battle of New York, before Iron Man, before Afghanistan. Known him for a long damn time, but never liked him.

Not really.

Jason’s not even sure he likes him now. It’s just that there’s something about the way the arc reactor rolls across the broken asphalt that makes him feel like it’s his own heart, unrooted and rolling.

It’s still glowing. Steady blue light, visible even at midday. It should be flickering, Jason thinks. Should be fading.

The whole world is still, and Jason is years in the past, remembering the time Tony ambushed him into helping him swap the reactors.

“Don’t be so squeamish,” he’d said, lying there with a hole the size of a can of peaches in his chest. “I’m going into cardiac arrest. Make it happen, Red.”

“You’re in some Goddamn hurry to die,” Jason had said, low and mean, but rushing to help anyway. It had been a long time since anyone had trusted him with a thing like that. Nobody in his life. Nobody looked at Jason and thought: he’s going to take care of me.

But, back then, Tony didn’t have anyone else. Back then, Jason didn’t either.

That’s Tony’s heart, he thinks. Very clearly. In the silence of the frozen world, he thinks that and nothing else.

It clatters and jolts and rolls to a stop, the very edge of it touching the toe of Jason’s boot.

That, he thinks, again, is Tony’s heart.

Usually, he can feel the Pit brewing. Usually, there are warning signs. Green lights at the edges of his vision, a feeling like something electric brewing in his back teeth. A noise, like a howling, getting louder and louder.

This time, there’s nothing. He’s fine, and then he’s gone.

He doesn’t know how to explain the rage to people. He doesn’t try. Mostly, when he has the presence of mind to think about it, he tries to forget it entirely.

The truth is, it feels like nothing. It feels like going a hundred miles an hour in the Batmobile through Gotham’s twisting streets, feels like freefall, feels like moving so fast there’s no time to process. It’s all instinct; it’s all forward motion.

It’s him, coming up to breathe, blood all over his gloves, a shard of someone’s Goddamn tooth embedded in his gauntlet, and Captain America looking at him like he’s trying to call whether he needs to be put down for the safety of the public.

“Wow,” he says. “I think you and Dr. Banner need to have a conversation.”

“Aw, Jesus,” someone else says. “What a mess.” The archer, maybe. Not Roy. Roy would know better.

“Okay, back up, you voyeurs,” Tony says. “Clear the room. Haven’t you ever seen a guy get a little rowdy before? C’mon.”

“Tony,” Jason says. And then, “Tony?”

Because there he is. Out of the suit, looking winded, looking bloodied up, but fine. Breathing, standing, still alive. There’s an arc reactor glowing in his chest. An older model, Jason thinks.

Jason gestures with his hand, which is how he realizes he’s been holding the other arc reactor against his chest. “What the fuck,” he says, scrambling not to drop it. “I thought you were fucking dead, you asshole. You piece of shit. What the hell is this? Just throwing your heart all over the place, like that’s fine. Like that’s acceptable behavior. I can’t believe you.”

“Woah,” Tony says. “So you’re upset.”

Jason goes to throw the arc reactor at Tony’s face, but his hand won’t let go of it. He’s holding it carefully; he’s been holding it this entire time. He’s starting to realize that he might’ve just embarrassed himself in front of all of the Avengers and half the X-Men.

“Fuck you,” Jason says. “I just watched some shitbag pull your heart out of your chest. And you’re fine? What the fuck.”

“Well,” Tony says, hands on his hips, looking ridiculous in his base layers, like he’s about to go snorkeling with whale sharks, “you’re the one who said I shouldn’t leave important organs just dangling on the outside, so--”

“It’s a bad fucking idea!” Jason yells. “I don’t wear my lungs like earrings, Stark. For fuck’s sake. I can’t believe you just—and it fucking glows. You’re like a boss fight in a video game. Where’s the weakness? Oh, I don’t know. Could it be the glowing blue orb at the center of his chest?”

“Right,” Tony says. “Exactly. So I created a backup system.”

“A backup system,” Jason repeats.

“It’s important,” Tony tells him, “to always have a spare battery for critical equipment.”

Jason stares at him. A spare battery, he thinks. For critical equipment. “I’m gonna kill you myself,” he announces.

“Good luck sweetheart,” Tony says, and, for no reason at all, Jason curls his hand tighter around the arc reactor, holds it closer to his chest.

“Um,” Captain America says.

“I actually,” Cyclops says, a little rushed, “have some questions. Related to the, uh. The fight? So if we could just--”

“Yeah, definitely,” Captain America says, hustling quickly across the blood-splattered asphalt. “Happy to talk about that, sure.”

“Gotta make a report,” Hawkeye adds, hurrying to follow.

“I want to see how this develops,” Thor says, with a wide, cheerful grin that slips off his face when Black Widow grabs him by the cape and starts physically dragging him away. “But,” Thor says, sounding wounded and surprised, “the way he cracked that mutant’s skull when he thought Stark was dead. It was very romantic! I want to see--”

“Thor, buddy,” Hawkeye calls back, “your internal monologue’s doing that thing where it’s on the outside again.”

“Is this some secret?” Thor says. “Are we to pretend that--”

“Let’s go to the Tower,” Tony says, louder than necessary and enunciating very clearly. “Let’s just—we can talk there.”

“Yeah, let’s got to the Tower,” Jason says. And he’s self-aware enough to acknowledge that he’s only yelling because he can’t seem to get his heartrate to drop low enough to speak like a normal human person, but he doesn’t know what the hell anyone expects. The Pit never leaves him feeling steady. “We could’ve left the second you did your Lazarus impression. I’ve just been out here in the street where people can see me. Let’s go.”

He tells himself to drop the arc reactor. Tony clearly doesn’t need it. At the very least, he could just hand it back to him. But, in his head, he keeps seeing it roll, keeps replaying that moment in his head, and he doesn’t trust Tony to look after himself. He doesn’t. So he keeps it, holds tight, keeps reminding himself, every time he hears that clatter in his mind, every time he thinks about the hole in Tony’s chest, that he’s fine, that he’s walking, that he’s safe.

“I should’ve told you,” Tony says, stepping closer. His voice is quieter, more careful.

The Avengers and the X-Men are very loudly discussing cleanup and arguing over which of their respective billionaires is responsible for covering the damages this time around. Jason should go offer his own funds, since he’s technically the one who toppled the traffic light by throwing the telekinetic mutant right through it, but he’s busy. He’s having a whole moment here.

“There was no reason to tell me anything,” Jason says. “I’m not even on your team.”

Tony gives him one of those looks that conveys, quite clearly, how much he wants to run his mouth and how impressed you’re supposed to be that he isn’t. “Right, you just keep showing up to every one of our fights by coincidence.”

“I do not,” Jason says, immediately defensive. “I’ve got my own shit. I wasn’t even here last Tuesday.”

“Last Tuesday with the sentient topiaries?” Tony raises an eloquent eyebrow. “The pacifistic sentient topiaries that posed no threat to anyone and were expressing their legal right to protest?”

“Topiaries don’t have First Amendment rights,” Jason says.

“That’s really not the argument we’re having.”

“We’re not having an argument,” Jason says. “I thought we were going to the Tower. You owe me a drink. You owe me an entire wine cellar.”

“Sure,” Tony says. He gestures up the street. “Shall we?”

Jason swivels on his heels and sets off. He left his bike around here somewhere. The memories are settling in his mind, less like dominos falling and more like raindrops tracking wayward paths down a window. His skin itches; his thoughts keep fracturing.

He didn’t even know he liked Tony Stark.

It’s just that he understood him. Maybe he’s been rooting for him. Maybe he likes the trajectory of Tony’s whole rocket-powered redemption arc too much. No mutant abilities, not metahuman powers. Just a man with a machine in his chest and regret in his past, saving the world anyway.

Maybe he just likes the way Tony Stark does whatever the hell he thinks he has to. Looks every evil thing right in the eyes and says: Fuck you, stop me.

“I thought you were dead,” Jason tells him. The rage is bleeding out of him. It always burns too hot, always takes too much of him with it. He needs to eat, needs to rest. He’s starting to feel light-headed. But maybe that’s just the relief.

“Yeah,” Tony says. “I might’ve been, you know? I only built that drone because you yelled at me.”

That’s too much. Jason doesn’t know what to do with that kind of responsibility. Hell, he can barely keep himself alive. And he’s failed at that before.

He rubs at his chest, smears blood across the uniform. He’s still holding the arc reactor. It’s dented and scratched and still glowing anyway.

“Fuck’s sake, Stark,” he says. “I need you to be more careful.”

“Yeah,” Tony says, and he smiles, sideways and hooked up at the corner, a little knowing, a little resigned. “We’ll get to the Tower, we’ll go to the lab, and you can tell me all the ways I’m not superheroing correctly.”

“Great,” Jason says, reactor safe in his hand, Tony safe at his side. “Sounds fucking lovely.”

Chapter Text

Jason wakes up in a hospital. He can tell by the smell. Also, the sheets. If he were in the Batcave’s little recovery area, the sheets would be higher quality, and the smell wouldn’t be so sharply clinical. Also, Alfred would be playing some of his music, one of the old records that would signal to Jason, even while sleeping, that he’s somewhere safe.

There’s no music. There’s the beeping and whirring and hissing of strange machines. Footsteps in a hallway, rubber soles squeaking on linoleum. And there is, Jason realizes, someone breathing to his immediate right.

“Hey,” someone croons, the second Jason tenses up, “you’re awake.”

“Goddamn fucking Deadpool,” Jason says, without even opening his eyes. “What the hell.”

“Aw,” Deadpool says, audibly perking up. “You remember me! I was worried, after that head injury, maybe there’d be some amnesia. But don’t worry, I had a plan. I was gonna tell everyone we were married.”

Jason considers, briefly, projectile vomiting all over Deadpool’s face. But he’d probably have to open his eyes to make sure he hit his target, and he’s absolutely too dizzy to do that right now.

Anyway, his mouth is too dry for it, so he just retches as loudly as he can. The movement makes something in his chest ache sharp and mean, but it’s worth it.

“No, I was,” Deadpool says. “It was gonna be our cover story.” His gloved hand curls around Jason’s, and Jason flaps his hand at the wrist, tries to dislodge him. He’s weak, but he still has his pride. “No, Red, listen. I was gonna take you home, but we’d sleep in separate beds, all respectful. And I’d steal you just, like. The shiniest fucking ring, Red. So many rubies. I know you like your color scheme. And then--”

“This,” Jason says, still tugging on his hand, “is just the plot of that fucking Goldie Hawn movie, and you’re not--”

“No, shush. Shush. That movie’s problematic now, Red. We’ve moved past it as a culture. And what I’m talking about is pure. I wouldn’t even make you clean my house. My sexy maid costume wouldn’t even fit you. Not with those thighs. Be serious.”

Jason opens his eyes. The fluorescent lights swim above him, a bit more wayward and mobile than usual. Some head trauma, probably. Or maybe they dosed him with something.

He tries to sit up. It’s a mistake.

“Oh, hey,” Deadpool says. “Hey, woah, no. None of that.”

“What,” Jason says, curling his hand around the epicenter of the pain. “The fuck.”

“You did it again,” Deadpool tells him.

“Did what?” Jason asks. Although he thinks he knows. The memories aren’t back, but the evidence is starting to fall, horrifyingly, into place.

“You took another bullet for me, Red,” Deadpool says.

Jason cannot fucking believe himself. He did it again.

“Caught this one in the ribs,” Deadpool tells him. “So just a few broken ribs, nothing too bad. You weren’t even bleeding at all until the momentum swung your head right into that rebar.”

Rebar,” Jason repeats. He reaches up and, for a second, all he can feel is bare skin.

He’s not wearing his helmet.

He’s at a hospital, and he’s been unconscious, and he isn’t wearing his helmet.

“Whoops, nope,” Deadpool says, in that same tone he’d used when the pain in Jason’s side had flattened him a moment ago. It’s obnoxious, too soft. Almost cooing. “Hey, you’re okay. Don’t worry. You’ve still got your domino on. I didn’t let ‘em take it off.”

Jason breathes out. His fingers trace higher, and he feels the familiar edge of the domino mask.

He should probably say thank you. To Deadpool.

And,” Deadpool continues, “I Sharpied a big mustache on you.”

Jason slides his eyes over, tries to read his expression. Which is fucking ridiculous, because every inch of Deadpool’s face is still covered.

God, he hates concussions.

“So nobody could see your face,” Deadpool tells him. He reaches up and very carefully, almost gently, traces a big swirling mustache that branches from Jason’s lip clear up to his temple. “I told them your name was Sergeant Winston Hughes-Griffiths.”

“I’m going to break,” Jason says, “every bone in your hands, I swear to God.”

Deadpool leans toward him, and, somehow, Jason can tell he’s leering. “But are you gonna stick around to feed me ice chips after?”

Jason opens his mouth and just yells. A loud, wordless cry of irritation and disgust. A half second later, Deadpool joins in, and then they’re just yelling together, in a hospital full of normal people.

Jason shuts himself up before someone calls a nurse. Or the cops. Or a social worker.

He tells himself it’s a choice to distract from the fact that his lung capacity appears to be diminished to the rough equivalent of a juicebox.

“Goddamn it,” he says.

Deadpool pats at him again. “You want some ice chips?” he asks. He holds up a cup and rattles it, like Jason’s a dog and the cup of half-melted ice is, somehow, a treat.

“Fuck your ice chips,” Jason tells him.

Deadpool stares at him for a second and then slowly drops his chin so he can look down at the cup in his hand. “Doesn’t seem comfortable,” he muses. “But if it’ll cheer you up--”

“No, shit,” Jason says, lifting his hand enough to slap the cup of ice chips out of Deadpool’s grip, sending the ice tumbling out and skating across the floor.

“Well, now you’re just being difficult,” Deadpool says.

Probably. Probably he is.

But apparently he got shot again trying to save Deadpool, and he’s having a difficult time making his peace with that. His ribs hurt, and his head is just a sick-whirling carousel of aching disgust, and he’s in a hospital.

He hates hospitals. At least in the Batcave, it smells something like home.

“Deadpool,” he says, “get me out of here.”

Deadpool hesitates. His eyes go to the door, to the window, and back to Jason in his hospital bed. “I pinkie promised the scary nurse that there wouldn’t be any superhero bullshit,” he says, voice going hushed, slipping into a whisper in a clear indication that he’s fully prepared to indulge in some superhero bullshit.

Jason breathes out. He has to be careful about it. If he had to, if he needed to, he could fight. But he probably couldn’t win. And he doesn’t even know where his guns are.

“You owe me,” he says.

Deadpool fidgets, shifts back and forth, seems to visibly weigh it out. “Okay,” he says, “but if Eliza catches us, I’m telling her you kidnapped me.”

Jason tries to calculate whether he has the dexterity and strength necessary to whack Deadpool across the face with his flat hospital pillow. The answer, he concludes grimly, is probably yes, but it might not leave him with enough energy for the jailbreak.

He pushes himself up on his elbows and then, after a sharp, steadying breath, swings his legs over the side of the bed. The nausea that follows is uncomfortable but not incapacitating.

“Whatever,” he says. “Just get me the fuck out of here.”

Deadpool hops to his feet. He’s insultingly nimble. Jason doesn’t know how the hell he managed to get in here with those swords on his back, but they go a long way toward explaining why nobody’s come in here to check on them.

“Okay, Red,” he says. “I’ve got you.”

 

- -

 

Deadpool takes him to one of his safehouses, a decently-stocked but not strategically important one that Jason can abandon afterwards. Jason recites the instructions to Deadpool while lying flat on his back in the backseat of a stolen Volvo, shouting over the stereo that Deadpool swears is stuck on a Christmas music station.

It is late July. Jason’s head is throbbing dully, and he’s daydreaming about murdering an entire stable of reindeer.

When they finally arrive and the holiday music cuts off, Jason decides that maybe – maybe – this is better than being murdered by any of the Bats’ enemies while more or less helpless in a hospital bed. He clings to that until Deadpool decides to heft him out of the car in a bridal carry and serenade him with an increasingly graphic rendition of We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

“Just kill me,” Jason says. “Just fucking murder me.”

Deadpool giggles. Giggles.

“I’m sorry,” he says, damn near braining Jason’s head against the doorjam as he shuffles over the threshold. “I’m sorry. It’s just the mustache. Oh, Christ. I wish you could see it.”

Jason stares up at Deadpool’s windpipe and thinks about the fable of the scorpion and the frog.

The frog, he knows, is supposed to be the sympathetic figure. That blind optimism, the belief that people can change. But Jason, right now, finds the scorpion resonates a bit more.

Nobody talks about it, but maybe that frog got to be real Goddamn annoying halfway across the river. Maybe the scorpion thought mutually assured destruction was a fair price to pay.

“I killed all of ‘em,” Deadpool says, as he kicks the door shut and uses his elbow to somehow, mystifyingly, engage every single one of the locks. “Those guys? I know you said ‘no killing in Gotham,’ and I know Batman’s gonna be a real dick about it, but what the hell was I gonna do? They shot you.”

“They were trying to shoot you,” Jason says.

“Yeah, well, who hasn’t shot me?” The question comes out remarkably prosaic, given its content.

“I haven’t shot you,” Jason points out. “Yet.”

Deadpool nods. “Yeah,” he says. “You’re a real sweetheart, Red.”

He sets Jason carefully down on the couch and then bounds around the place making a Goddamn nuisance out of himself. He hauls the TV across the room so Jason can see it better, sets a glass of water by Jason’s elbow, and engages in outright warfare with the microwave that still, somehow, results in a cup of tea.

“I don’t really remember,” Deadpool says, as he crouches down beside the couch and gets entirely too close to Jason’s face. “Being that kinda hurt, you know? The kind that lingers.”

“Ugh,” Jason says. “You gotta get so close?”

Deadpool stays exactly where he is. “This is the worst part, right? Like, when the healing starts. How long it takes. How much it keeps hurting.”

Jason’s feeling a little better now. He reaches back, gets a decent grip on one of the couch pillows.

“I really wish you’d stop doing this,” Deadpool says, and there’s something about the way he says it that makes Jason disarm, release his hold on the pillow. The problem with Deadpool is that he’s entirely too honest. Jason can hear how much he means it, how strangely sad he is right now. “Just let them shoot me, Red. It’s over for me so much faster.”

“I don’t mean to do it,” Jason tells him. “It just kinda happens.”

Deadpool shakes his head. “You’re the sweetest Bat, you know?”

“The dumbest,” Jason corrects.

“The sweetest,” Deadpool says.

Jason settles deeper into the couch and crosses his arms – carefully – over his chest. “Nightwing’s the sweet one.”

“Nightwing has,” Deadpools says, sincerely and reverently, “just an absolutely life-changing ass. It’s a world wonder, Red. It should be in an art museum. But he won’t work with me.”

“Well, if you talk about his ass all the time--”

“You,” Deadpool says, poking him directly in the chest, and silencing Jason as he chokes on his own outrage, “are the one who’ll take a chance on someone like me. So stop catching bullets for me, dipshit. Because I want to keep you forever.”

Dipshit,” Jason repeats, skating right past the rest of that.

“Darling,” Deadpool croons, “beloved--”

Jason finally gives in and whacks him across the face with a pillow. “Mind your Goddamn manners,” he says, “or get out.”

Deadpool gasps. “Was that an invitation to stay?”

“If you shut up,” Jason says, “if you shut up right now and just—just sit. Quietly. If you---”

Deadpool scrambles up onto the couch, somehow fitting his body between Jason’s feet and the arm of the couch. “So quiet,” he says. “I’m gonna be so fucking quiet, Red. You’ll be like, ‘Where’s that handsome bastard gone?’ and I’ll be right here, so quiet I’m invisible, and then--”

“You get seven more words for the next sixty minutes,” Jason says. Deadpool goes silent and then gives him a very elaborate thumbs up.

Jason sighs. It’s strange, he decides. It’s weird. But here he is, head still spinning, every breath a grating endurance trial, and he’s not wondering what he’s going to do if someone breaks in. All those enemies that love to track him down when he’s vulnerable, and he’s not worried about it at all.

Well, there’s a warehouse full of dead men because one of them shot him.

“Thanks for getting me to the hospital,” he says, as he stretches one hand out toward the remote.

Deadpool leans forward and swipes the remote, sets it in his hand. He doesn’t say anything, just resituates himself on the couch and then pats Jason’s knee twice. A double tap, good game.

Jason considers him for a long moment and then passes the remote to him. “Watch whatever,” he says, as his eyes slip closed. “I’m gonna sleep this off.”

He drifts out to the low, fervent murmurings of Deadpool swearing violently at the contestants on The Great British Bake Off.

Chapter Text

The world survives, the dead are resurrected, Steve runs off to the past, and Bucky runs off to Gotham. There’s no reason to stay. There’s no reason to do anything. He is, conditionally, a free man. Like every decision anyone makes for or about him, there’s a timer ticking down to when that choice will be regarded with regret. Bucky’s given up on trying to escape that particular inevitability.

“We had contacts in Gotham,” Rhodes says. Bucky guesses he’s in charge. Tony and Natasha are dead, and Steve might as well be, so it probably falls to either Rhodes or Banner.

Or the raccoon. But even Bucky can see how that would be something of a crapshoot.

“Sure,” Bucky says, because Rhodes is looking at him like he expects some kind of response.

“Red Hood,” Rhodes continues. “Well, he was Batman at the time, but now there’s at least three of them with Batman suits, so I think our Batman is back to being Red Hood. He’s the one with guns. Also, Robin. There’s at least four of those, but we’re looking for the small one. Mean, mouthy. He likes swords.”

Bucky stares at him and wonders if James Rhodes really thinks the Winter Soldier wasn’t kept extensively aware of the Bats and their various weapons preferences.

“Harley Quinn and Bane,” Rhodes continues. “Although now that the Joker and the al Ghul’s are back, I don’t know which side they’re on.”

“I am not,” Bucky says, as clearly as he can, “gonna go to Gotham and do a welfare check on Harley fucking Quinn.”

Although, honestly, it doesn’t sound like a bad time.

Rhodes is silent for a beat. The look he gives Bucky is hollow but steady. “Good idea. Probably best to start with Red Hood.”

It occurs to Bucky that there’s nothing he can throw at him, no argument he can make, that’s going to convince James Rhodes to change course. This man grew up playing shepherd to Tony Stark’s extremely wayward sheep. And now Tony Stark is dead, and all that energy has to go somewhere. He can outlast and outmanuver any tantrum Bucky throws.

Anyway, nobody else seems to remember he exists. Besides various representatives of the judicial system and any number of foreign and domestic intelligence agencies, James Rhodes is the first person who’s reached out with a plan for what Bucky’s supposed to do now.

Maybe he’s just rootless. Maybe he’s adrift. Or maybe he spent so long following so many orders that he doesn’t know what to do unless he’s told to do it.

“Fine,” he says. “I’ll go find your people.”

 

- -

 

Nobody in Gotham seems to know how to get in touch with Red Hood, and everyone seems to think it’s really fucking weird that he wants to try. “Well,” Commissioner Gordon says, with the wane, wavery squint of a man who’s been awake since half the world’s population suddenly repopulated the planet and doesn’t even remember what sleep feels like anymore, “when we need Batman, we use the Batsignal. He was responding to that, but he’s not Batman anymore. Now Batman is Batman.”

“Right,” Bucky says. These kinds of convoluted machinations strike him as patently ridiculous. It’s insane, he thinks, to put a light in the sky, to fire up a beacon and let everyone who’s hunting you know exactly where you’ll be.

He remembers the Soldier’s plan had always been to stake out a nearby rooftop, shoot Batman in that exposed lower half of his face. Sure, a headshot’s cleaner, and he’s always been partial to two shots to the chest, bracketing the heart, as a backup. But a high enough caliber bullet would’ve taken Batman’s jaw clean off, and that kind of blood loss was likely to be fatal.

At the very least, it would’ve kept Batman neutralized for however long Hydra needed to conduct its business in Gotham.

“So you don’t have a phone number?” Bucky tries. “A neighborhood?”

Gordon gives him a pitying look. “Son,” he says, which damn near makes Bucky throw this desk and the next one and, hell, the entire fucking office right at his head, “how long have you been in Gotham?”

“Two hours and thirty-seven minutes.” Bucky’s hoping to be gone by sundown.

“You don’t find any of the Bats,” Gordon tells him. “They find you.”

Bucky rolls his eyes. He doesn’t have the patience for this. He doesn’t have the patience for anything anymore.

Rhodes, at least, had a few phone numbers, but nobody’s answered them since the final fight with Thanos. “And how am I supposed to let them know that I want to be found?”

Gordon laughs out loud. Right in his face. He’s a ballsy old man, Bucky thinks. But then he’s an old man who’s probably half Bucky’s age, still brazen with the armor of youth.

“Sergeant Barnes,” he says, which is somehow even more agitating than son, “you’ve been in Gotham for two hours, asking about them. They know damn well you’re here. If they want to talk to you, they’ll find you.”

Bucky does not throw any furniture. He does not make a fuss. He does not raise his voice and kick the desk and tell this man that Steve is gone and Natasha is gone and Tony Stark died before he could even try to earn his forgiveness. He doesn’t tell him that the world has been refilled with people who made Bucky into a docile little well-trained murder machine, and they all got a second chance at life, but the people Bucky killed are dead are dead are dead, and he can’t change that.

“Okay,” he says, instead. He sits up; he breathes out. He keeps his hands relaxed, loosely curled around the arms of this chair. “But let’s say I’ve got things to do. Appointments, meetings. Say I can’t be in Gotham indefinitely, waiting for them. If you really needed to talk to Red Hood today, where would you go?”

Gordon stares at him. He’s just a man. Sliding into late middle age, worn down, shellshocked, tired. But there’s a measuring look in his eyes, like he’s seeing all the things Bucky isn’t doing, like he’s watching all of Bucky’s weaker selves wreck this office. Like he knows exactly who Bucky is, and how thin those lines keeping his worst instincts in check really are.

“Fine,” he says. He takes a business card out of a little holder on his desk, flips it around, and writes something on the back. When he slides it over to Bucky, he holds onto it for a second, like he’s still not sure he’s going to let it go. “If you need to see him,” he says, “that’s his favorite bar.”

“Great,” Bucky says. Because, hell, he could use a bar or seven. “Thanks.”

 

- -

 

Bucky cannot for the life of him fathom why anyone would pick this shithole as their favorite bar, but he also cannot for the life of him fathom why anyone would pick Gotham as their place of residence. There’s nothing special about this place, really, except for how everyone in here wants to murder him for the half-empty pack of cigarettes in his pocket.

“Jesus Christ,” Bucky says, to the bartender, by way of introduction. “There’s actual human blood on the floor over there.”

The look the bartender gives him implies that he’s complaining about the lack of lace doilies. “Buddy,” he says, in the same tone someone might say rancid bedsores or you Goddamn son of a bitch, “does it look like closing time to you? We’ll mop up when you fucks clear out.”

“Great,” Bucky says.

“I mean,” the bartender continues, “who the fuck are you? The health inspector? The Goddamn EPA?”

Bucky clocks the particularly aggrieved way he says EPA. “You have a history of difficulties with the Environmental Protection Agency?”

“You know what, asshole?” He snaps a dirty rag at him like he wishes to God and everything holy that it was whip he could use to smack Bucky’s face right off his skull. “You can come back with a warrant.”

He turns and leaves, walking away without taking Bucky’s order, and Bucky stares after him, trying to decide if he’s irritated or charmed.

“First day in Gotham?” the man next to him asks. When Bucky looks his way, he shrugs. “Locals don’t pick a fight with a bartender until after we get our drinks.”

“I didn’t pick—there is human blood on the floor. Right over there.” Bucky points, just in case he needs help. To be fair, the whole place is held together by one stain or another.

The man smiles at him and doesn’t even glance toward the blood. He has, Bucky realizes, a hell of a smile, made all the more interesting by the scar on his chin, a faint line running up toward his mouth. “You got a habit of licking floors?”

“No,” Bucky says. It’s not the worst thing anyone’s ever accused him of. Hell, it’s not nearly the worst thing he’s ever done. But he’s offended anyway. He’s a serial killer and an assassin, not a Goddamn deviant.

The man’s grin gets wider. “Then I’m not sure what you’re so worried about.”

“I’m worried about how the hell I’m gonna get a drink.” Bucky gestures up the bar, toward the bartender who’s now very clearly playing some kind of swiping game on his phone. “Apparently I gotta get a warrant to get any service.”

“Oh, nah,” the man says. “I’ll service you for free.”

Bucky chokes on nothing except maybe this guy’s nerve, and he’s still recovering when the man hops over the bar, far too damn acrobatic for his size. “Wow,” Bucky says, either to the gymnastics or the comment.

The guy just winks at him and considers the bottles behind the bar. “What do you want?”

“Anything that hasn’t been opened,” Bucky tells him. “They’re pretty loose about bodily fluids here, and I want a beer, not hepatitis.”

“You’re real damn delicate, huh?” He considers the options and then grabs a bottle of some dusty craft beer that Bucky assumes was purchased either in a fit of delirium or as a joke.

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “That’s what people say about me. Delicate.”

He gets another smile – crooked, knowing – and a beer. On a napkin, too, which is possibly the only napkin in entire establish place. “Here,” he says, pushing it across the bar for him.

“Thank you for your service,” Bucky says. “Now get outta there before that bartender takes offense.”

“Oh, he won’t,” he says. He directs a friendly wave toward the bartender, who flips him off with a kind of rote indifference. “I own the place.”

This time, Bucky chokes on the beer, which is less embarrassing than choking on nothing at all. “Intentionally?” he asks. “Or were you just the only poor bastard left standing at last call? Are you being held hostage here? Blink twice if you need rescuing.”

The guy tips his head back and laughs, and there’s a bruise peaking up from under his collar, something ugly that must stretch down to his chest. Bucky starts cataloging the scars on his arms and still isn’t done by the time the man leans forward, forearms on the bar, smile stretching a new direction. “If I blink three times,” he says, “will you take me home?”

Bucky gives him a long, considering look and then takes an even longer sip of his beer. “I’m gonna need you,” he says, “to stop acting like you want to get me alone so you can steal my wallet. It’s really starting to upset the laidback, cozy atmosphere.”

“That’s not why I want to get you alone,” he says. “Anyway, if I wanted your wallet, I’d already have it.”

“Wow. You’re great at flirting. Can’t wait to see which misdemeanor you threaten me with next.”

“Public indecency?” he tries, offhand and drawling. “Criminal mischief?”

Bucky can’t help himself. Against his will and his own better judgement, he smiles, and the man grins like he’s just won some kind of award. “Pretty early in the night to make your move, isn’t it?” Bucky asks. “Don’t you wanna wait to see if anything better comes along?”

“No need,” he says. He gestures at Bucky, his face, his chest. “You’re absolutely gonna be the best thing that wanders into this bar all night.”

And Bucky couldn’t say, afterwards, what it was that tipped him off. It could’ve been the scars, could’ve been the casual hop over the waist-high bar. Could’ve been that he owns Red Hood’s favorite bar. Could’ve been the way his hands paused for less than a millisecond in their arc, face to waist, fingers gesturing every-so-slightly to the guns Bucky has tucked under his clothes.

But he thinks, actually, it’s this man’s cheekbones, his sculpted muscles, his smile. He’s too Goddamn pretty to be here. Too young, too handsome, too well-muscled.

Bucky fishes a pen out of his pocket, takes his beer off the napkin. Red Hood? he writes, and then turns it around for the other man to see.

The man considers it for a long moment and then looks up. He doesn’t look angry, and he’s damn sure not confused. Amused, maybe. Tolerant, sure. Vaguely impressed, Bucky thinks.

“I’m on vacation, Sergeant Barnes,” he says. “So you can finish your free beer and leave, or we can take this vacation back to my place.”

Bucky makes a show out of weighing out his options. Sips his beer, thinks it over. Red Hood’s smile just crooks up wider and wider, and Bucky can’t tell if he’s charmed because he thinks Bucky’s considering telling him no or because he knows damn well he won’t.

“Well,” he says, “I don’t have any other plans.”

“Flatterer,” Red Hood accuses. He sounds delighted. He grabs a bottle from the bar and then hops back over, even showier this time. His boots land soundlessly on the floor.

He’s dangerous, but so is Bucky. And the Soldier had a plan for him, too.

“Come on,” Red Hood says. “It’s just a couple blocks up.”

Bucky grabs his beer and follows him out onto the street.

 

- -

 

He means to talk to him. He has the outlines of a plan. Rhodes sent him here on some kind of mission, and Bucky never really bought into the purpose, wasn’t even entirely clear on the parameters, but he’d more or less committed to seeing it through. He was going to talk to him.

But the second they’re through the heavily-reinforced door of the safehouse, Red pushes him up against the wall and kisses him. Bucky’s hands tighten in his shirt, but he gets lost halfway through the instinctive reaction to push him away. He can’t even remember the last time anyone kissed him like this, like they were trying to convince him of something, like he was worth coaxing.

“Aw shit,” Red says, leaning back, studying his face. This close, Bucky can see another scar bisecting his eyebrow. “You’re not into brunettes?”

Bucky licks his lips, stares at Red’s mouth. It’s red, a little, from the kiss. It’s the first time in a long time he’s put red on someone in a way that didn’t hurt them.

“Hey.” His voice changes, suddenly. Not softer. Sharper.

This whole time, he’s just been playacting as a too-pretty man who spends too much time at the gym and must have some hobby that leaves him scraped up, like rugby or rockclimbing or bareknuckle boxing. But the second Bucky starts checking out, he’s someone else entirely. Bucky wavers, and this civilian is Red Hood, is present, is dangerous.

Bucky can’t put his hands on any breakable thing, because he’ll shatter it to pieces.

But the person here with him now isn’t breakable. This man’s looking at him like he’s got a plan to take him apart, too.

“You okay?” he asks. And then, a second later: “You with me?”

Brakes on a speeding train. A safety on a gun.

Beneath the hands Bucky has still curled in his shirt, he can feel how warm he is, the solid wall of his abs.

Mutually assured destruction, he thinks. And it makes sense, somehow, that mutually assured destruction is the closet he can get to peace.

“I like brunettes just fine,” he says, and then he tugs Red closer, brings their mouths back together.

Forgets about the mission. Forgets about his orders. Forgets about everything that isn’t this small, sheltered space and the man in here with him.

 

- -

 

Afterwards, he sprawls lazily in bed and counts the melee weapons on the wall while Red catches his breath. “Jesus Christ,” Red says, finally. “I think you owe me dinner.”

“Really?” Bucky tips his head over to look at him, takes in the state of him, the high flush across his cheeks, the marks freshly bitten into his neck and chest. “Really.”

Red laughs, still a little breathless. “Yeah, you’re right. Hey, stick around. I’ll have food delivered.”

“Sure,” Bucky says, with a shrug, “I’ve got nowhere to be. I heard we’re on vacation.”

The very next moment, Red’s breathing pattern settles into place. It’s so fast, Bucky thinks. It’s like a switch. A beat after that, he sits up.

“You’re real bad at vacation, huh?” Bucky asks.

Red gives him a shitty look. “I’m great at vacations. Two hours into patrol,” he says and then gestures at Bucky. “And look where I am.”

“Still counting the hours of patrol, though,” Bucky points out.

“Fuck you,” Red says.

Bucky makes a considering noise. “Sure. You got that in you right now?”

Red laughs, sudden and sharp, and his whole face softens. “You know, all the intel on you says you’re a surly bastard. No fun. Real buzzkill.”

Bucky scoffs out loud. “Well, when you update that intel, be sure to mention how great I am in bed.”

“Like hell,” Red says, and nudges him with his knee. “I don’t want any lines to form. I’m not great at waiting.”

Bucky huffs out a breath. There’s no reason to be flustered by the compliment. Hell, it’s barely a compliment at all. “What, you don’t have time to wait? I hear you’re on vacation.”

Red rolls his eyes. “Yeah,” he says, “I am.”

Bucky wonders who the hell he’s kidding. He wonders what he’s even trying to prove, and to who. “Rhodes wants to know where you are.”

“He wants to know what’s going on in Gotham,” Red says. “What’s going on in Gotham is Batman’s back, Red Robin’s back. Joker’s back, and Dent, and Penguin. We were done with that shit. We were all done. I had this city functional. I had it safe. And now they’re back.”

Oh, Bucky thinks. He hadn’t thought about it. Hell, what was there to think about? He wasn’t here. He has no idea what happened while he was gone, although it’s certainly not a struggle to think the world was probably a better, safer, more functional place without him.

Red sighs. “Five fucking years,” he says, “and we’re back to the same place.”

Bucky sits up so he can see him, fascinated by the play of anger and bitterness and regret. Red’s emotions seem so raw, seem so visceral they’re ready to burst out of him as living things. Bucky can’t feel anything like that anymore. He doesn’t feel much at all.

“So, I’m on vacation,” Red says. When his eyes drop to Bucky, all of those emotions disappear. “I did this shit for five years without them. They can do it without me for a while.”

And Bucky missed the last five years, so he doesn’t know what it’s like. Not really. He’s not a part of this particular pain.

But he knows what it’s like to lose your world. He knows what it’s like to wake up and find everything changed, all your towers torn down, every good thing you were clinging to wrenched away.

Steve’s gone. Batman’s back.

Maybe they’ve both been sheared off at the roots. Maybe neither one of them belongs in this new world.

“See,” Bucky says, “what I heard about vacations is that, usually, you go somewhere else. Somewhere nice.”

Red hesitates. His eyes are thoughtful. After a moment, he starts to smile that now-familiar taunting smile, “Oh yeah?” he says. “You inviting me somewhere nice?”

Bucky leans over and kisses him, just once. A little sweeter than anything he’s tried so far. “Well,” he says, “the thing is, I’m on vacation too.”

Chapter Text

At fourteen, Clint feels his soulmate die. It’s a door slamming in his face, a cut thread that’s been bearing half his weight since he was four years old.

Clint’s been stealing pain for hours, watching bruises bloom over his skin, taking everything he can, frantic and terrified and panicked, praying desperately for it to stop, and then the connection closes off, sharp and sudden. A minute or so after that, there’s nothing at all.

There’s emptiness where something vital used to be, like Clint woke up to find an arm missing or all his teeth scattered across the pillow.

After that, Clint does whatever Barney tells him to do. It doesn’t matter. There’s no one left to wait around for anyway.

 

- -

 

He’s eighteen, sitting across from Agent Coulson, midway through debrief, when terror slams across that dead connection, and he’s hunched over in his seat, gasping for breath, before he has a chance to understand what’s happening.

“Barton,” Coulson says, sounding torn between alarm and annoyance. “What is it?”

“I can’t fucking breathe,” Clint says. His fingers twinge with ghost-pains, less an actual sensation and more of a request, and it’s been four years since he felt this, but he’s saying yes before he knows it, taking whatever’s being sent before he thinks to ask who it’s from.

He watches his fingernails split, sees the blood rush up from under his nailbeds and spread across his fingers, creeping down his knuckles, and he feels like crying.

“Your soulmate is dead,” Coulson tells him.

It’s one of the main reasons they’d recruited him. Coulson told him, when he came to offer him a way out of prison, that they recruited SHIELD agents as matched sets or as broken bonds, couples or soul-widows or not at all.

An agent with an unknown soulmate is an agent with a liability, a gun to their head with no idea who’s behind the trigger.

“No,” Clint says, breathing deep and even, watching the blood drip to the floor. “Not anymore.”

 

- -

 

SHIELD goes looking immediately. Clint tries to help, but the connection is murky, fainter than it used to be. It was never very clear, but they could pass emotions back and forth, if they were intense enough, and they’d send brief messages, scratch smiley faces and short notes on the skin of their arms.

Clint marks a half-dozen questions on his skin with a paperclip, but he gets nothing back. When he tries to push into the connection, he gets silence. Numbness, he thinks. The specialists at SHIELD try to teach him how to track his soulmate, but the connection between them leads to nothing. There’s a body somewhere, but there’s nothing else.

Two years pass in silence. He goes back to work. Coulson pairs him up with Natasha, who keeps him steady. SHIELD’s specialists run test after test and eventually conclude that Clint’s soulmate is most likely in a coma, possibly brain dead. Nobody can tell him what that flicker was, those two hours of panic and pain.

Clint’s on a mission when that silence finally breaks, despair and rage and confusion slamming through the connection so hard that Clint almost tips right out of his nest. “Fuck,” he says, into the comm. “Coulson.”

“Hawkeye?” Coulson’s voice is soothingly clinical. “What is it?”

“Soulmate,” Clint says, closing his eyes. There’s a swirling black hole in his chest. It’s poison, right to his heart.

“Can you complete the mission?” Coulson asks.

Clint isn’t even sure he can breathe. “No.”

There’s a second, and then another, and then Coulson says, “Abort mission. Natasha, get to Barton. I’ll have the extraction team inbound in ten minutes. Clint, don’t move.”

He doesn’t mean to. But there’s so much bleeding over. The door between their minds hasn’t been opened; it’s been blasted off its hinges. And in that mad swirl of fear and anger and pain, there’s a single impulse, so deeply felt that it passes, crystal clear, from the other mind into his: run.

Run, he thinks. And he stops himself. He has to wait. Natasha is coming for him.

Run, he thinks. But Coulson said not to. Coulson ordered him to stay. He has to stay. He has to.

RUN. And he doesn’t think it. He doesn’t think anything. His mind is suffocated, overwhelmed, a candle’s flame overtaken by tidal surge, and he’s gone.

He runs.

When they catch him, he fights. It isn’t enough. They take him anyway.

 

- -

 

When he was young, he’d pass bruises through the link. Scraped knees, busted lips, black eyes. He’d take them, too. He used to wonder about his soulmate, about what sort of father they must have. As the two of them got older, Clint’s situation got better at around the same time as his soulmate’s seemed to get worse.

They’d swap out injuries regularly, passing bruises back and forth on a semi-predictable schedule. Clint needed to be well for his performances, but he could sleep during the day and after the show, could work on healing those deep bruises, the jammed fingers and busted knuckles, the broken bones.

Whoever his soulmate was, they seemed to need to look good during the day and be strong at night, so Clint would wear bruises during daytime and hobble on twisted ankles at night. Barney used to tell him that it wasn’t fair. You pay in, he’d say, but what the fuck do you get out of it?

But Clint always knew his day would come. Which is why he doesn’t feel guilty, letting some of the pain slip away.

They’re torturing him. He knows what it is. Interrogation, maybe, except they stopped asking questions an hour or so ago. They’re hurting him because they think pain is going to open his mouth, send SHIELD’s secrets spilling out onto the floor, mixing with all that splattered blood.

But it won’t. He won’t. The only SHIELD secrets he knows would lead them right to Coulson and Nat. So he won’t give them anything.

He’s bleeding pain through the link, which is still spiraling with that sick-sad desperation from before. He’s trying not to be too obvious about it, because he knows they’ll just switch methods, move to injuries he can’t give away. There’s no healing from amputation, no sharing something missing.

If they start cutting fingers off, he’s useless to SHIELD.

That’s the worst possible outcome, he thinks. The worst possible one. Surviving this as a useless thing.

“So much loyalty,” one of them says. His hand closes around Clint’s jaw, already swollen and bruised from those punches earlier. And that wrench. “And why? If they cared about you, they’d be here.”

Which is bullshit, Clint thinks. He knows enough about failure to know that it isn’t always intentional. Sometimes people try as hard as they can, and it isn’t enough.

Coulson will come for him. Natasha will get even for him. All he has to do is not betray them in the meantime. Keep his mouth shut, keep them working. Pass along what he can. Keep breathing.

The soulmate, he thinks, is doing something.

He’s not sure what it is. It’s not uncomfortable, exactly. He’s never felt it before. It feels, somehow, like he’s being looked at. Like eyes on him, not threatening. Maybe like the way Nat watches him, sometimes, when they’re playing poker and they’ve both promised not to count cards. Searching, he thinks. He’s being searched.

That doesn’t make any damn sense at all.

“Are you still with us?” There’s a slap across his face, sharp and sudden. More surprising than painful, although it wrenches Clint’s head around on his neck.

“We’ll mail you back to SHIELD in pieces,” one of them says, crowding close, breath and a blade against his neck.

“Be hard to do,” Clint says, half breath and half spite. “Since you don’t know where they fucking are.”

The knife shifts, cuts, and he flinches away.

Fingers tighten around his jaw, yanking his chin down, prying his mouth open. “If you’re not going to talk,” he hears, “then you don’t need your tongue.”

There are, Clint realizes, gunshots.

Several in rapid succession.

There is also some screaming.

The men in the room share uneasy looks. “What the hell?”

“You fucks,” Clint says, slurring it out, barely able to speak with his mouth forced open, “are gonna save so much on postage.”

The one with his fingers still digging into Clint’s jaw frowns at him. “What the fuck does that mean?”

“SHIELD’s here,” Clint says, with a smile.

But it’s not SHIELD. Clint doesn’t know who or what the hell it is, but what storms into this dimly lit warehouse basement is most definitely not SHIELD.

It’s just one man. One man, young and dark-haired and dual wielding pistols. His shirt is sticky with blood. His boots are coated in gore. He wrecks in like a tornado, like a wolverine on amphetamines. He comes in like the world’s going to end in sixty seconds, and he’s got some scores to settle before he goes.

Clint, dead-center of the room, handcuffed to a chair, is given front row seats to the bloodbath. He’s locked into the splash zone. Between the hours of interrogation and the five minutes of butchery, he’s pretty sure he like looks like a test subject for the pigs’ blood scene in Carrie.

There’s blood dripping down his face. He closes his eyes.  

It’s a hell of a way to die, he thinks. But at least it seems like it’ll be quick.

“Who are you?”

And that has to be the madman with the guns, but Clint has no idea why he’s decided to get chatty now. “Who the hell are you?” he volleys back.

“Jason,” he says. “I think.”

“You think?” Clint tries to wipe his face on his shoulder, but the handcuffs don’t give him the clearance. He really, really doesn’t want to get some strange low-level thugs’ blood in his eyes.

“Been a weird fucking day.” A second later, after making absolutely no sound, he touches Clint’s face.

Shit,” Clint says, and flinches back so hard he damn near sprains something.

“Sorry,” the man says. “I was gonna—your face is a mess.”

“Yours isn’t so Goddamn special either,” Clint says. He breathes out; it shakes a little, in his chest. “Sorry. That was uncalled for.”

“I think I’m your soulmate,” the man says, and he very carefully wipes something soft across Clint’s face, clearing the blood away.

When Clint blinks his eyes open, his gaze locks with the blue eyes above him, and he feels something turn over and settle in his chest. “Oh,” he says. “Shit. I think you're right.”

He nods, slow and thoughtful, and he looks strangely lost, just for a second. When he goes back to wiping the blood away from Clint’s face, his expression is focused, but distant. “And what kinda guy are you?” he asks. “Mixed up with people like this?”

Clint gapes up at him. “Yeah, well, you just mass murdered five people in front of me. It's not like you're a saint.”

The man grimaces at the word murdered, like somehow it’s a surprise. “I’m not,” he says and then fidgets, eyebrows pulling together, mouth working like he’s having trouble speaking. “I’m not doing well,” he says. “I got—I came outta the Pit, and then. And then they were hurting you, so I came here. But.”

Clint wonders if the Pit is some kind of metaphor, but he can’t for the life of him take a guess as to the underlying meaning.

Between them, that connection’s humming. Sad and swirling and unsteady, like a lifeboat caught in a whirlpool.

“Where the hell have you been?” Clint asks. “They thought you were in a coma.”

“I was dead,” he says. “I think.”

Clint stares at him. “You look pretty good. For a dead man.”

He gets a smile for that, wan and uneven, but it brightens his face into something approaching human. “Yeah? Well, you look like shit for a living one.”

Clint laughs. He can’t help it. “Yeah, I feel like shit. Get me outta these handcuffs. I gotta call my handler.”

The man holsters his guns with an ease that Clint appreciates with what he decides to call professional admiration and then crouches next to him, studies the handcuffs. “Handler?” he asks, as he pulls a set of honest-to-God lockpicks out of his pocket and sets to work.

“Oh, yeah,” he says. “Guess you should know, since they’re gonna try like hell to recruit you. I’m with SHIELD.”

The handcuff on his right wrist springs open. After a long, considering beat, the man lifts his head. “SHIELD?”

“SHIELD,” Clint repeats. The connection between them strengths, just for a second. He can feel that dizzying confusion, but a catch now, an anchor. That’s me, Clint realizes. He, somehow, is the anchor.

“Well,” Jason says, as he leans over to start working on the left, “nobody else wants me.”

Clint stretches his free hand, works at the tension in his neck. “Nobody wanted me either,” he says. “You’re gonna fit in great.”

Chapter Text

There’s a second when Tony clocks it, when he knows exactly how it’s going to feel. Rogers adapts to new trends same as anyone, but he’s a traditionalist at heart. Ten seconds left in the power play, two minutes left in the game, and there’s Rogers, coming down the wall, squaring up, and delivering a slapshot from the point like this is fifteen years ago.

Most goalies wouldn’t fall for it. Most goalies aren’t twenty-year-old call-ups.

Anyway, Tony wouldn’t blame him if he did lose that puck. It flies so damn fast Tony can’t track it until it’s a quarter second out, coming right for him.

He’d jumped on instinct. He hadn’t meant to. But now that he’s here, he doesn’t flinch. He looks at the puck coming right for him, and he thinks, very clearly: Shit. And also: This is gonna suck.

 

- -

 

The trainers are pissed in a way that means they think he’s batshit but brave. Coulson’s pissed in a way that means he’s spending a lot of time with his head in his hands, wondering aloud which sin he committed that remanded him to this hell. Tony should care, but they won, so he doesn’t.

“The points are important,” Coulson concedes, “but you know what’s also important?”

“The satisfaction of watching Steve Rogers break his stick in a rage?” Tony hazards. “The sheer girlish glee of not being the posterchild for unsportsmanlike conduct tonight?”

“Having a captain who can do a single jumping jack,” Coulson says. He gestures at Tony, an open-palmed come on sort of motion. “Let’s see it.”

Tony narrows his eyes. “I don’t think you’re properly appreciating the moral victory here. Which, actually, comes paired with a literal victory this time, so you’re welcome, and I’m not sorry.”

Coulson sighs. Heavily. Theatrically. He looks briefly heavenward, but there’s nothing up in the dusty fluorescents that’s going to save either one of them. “Tony,” he says, with the sort of lived-in resignation that Tony’s diligently earned over the years, “I’d like to have a captain at the game two days from now.”

“No broken ribs,” Tony protests. “I’m good to go.”

Coulson raises his eyebrows. “On a scale from egg to eggplant, what color are your new bruises?”

“I don’t think you can talk to me about eggplants,” Tony says, immediately. “That emoji’s a very popular euphemism for penis these days, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for a coach to talk to a player like that.”

Coulson’s eyes close for one second, and then another. Tony wonders idly how his blood pressure is doing this year; he resolves to be a better influence on that, starting tomorrow. Or possibly next week.

“Anyway,” Tony continues, “they’re barely day-old Kool-Aid stain, okay? We’re talking a very light Grimace the McDonald’s monster.”

When Coulson’s eyes open, he’s wearing that face he trots out when he’s decided to reschedule his current argument for later. Tony wonders if there’s an indictment of his professionalism in there somewhere, that he knows exactly what tactical retreat looks like on his coach’s face.

“Two days, Tony,” Coulson says. “When we get back to D.C., you’re resting. Don’t come in for optional skate.”

“But how am I gonna be a role model?” Tony yells, to Coulson’s tactically retreating back.

“By learning to prioritize one of our best assets,” Coulson calls back. “Which is you.”

 

- -

 

Tony loiters around the visiting locker room for a little longer than he normally would, just to see if Rogers makes an appearance. The last time he blocked one of Steve’s shots, it provoked quite an incendiary response, and he’s not opposed to a repeat, although he guesses he shouldn’t be surprised that Steve’s more bashful in his own town.

He takes the team bus back to the hotel, dodges the group of rollicking carousers looking to celebrate the win, and heads upstairs to his hotel room.

It’s a nice room, he thinks. Perfectly fine. The view of the city is charming.

Kind of weird how he’s pacing like a methed up tiger in a too-small cage.

He makes himself stop, rocks forward and back on his feet, and comes to the alarming realization that all this anxious energy comes from not seeing Steve. He hadn’t expected to. Or had he? He hasn’t been able to predict any single turn in this series of misadventures, but he’d thought, maybe. Maybe after blocking that shot, he’d hear something.

Well, he’s never been very good at being ignored.

He takes out his phone, pulls up Steve’s number, and then ducks into the bathroom where the hyper-bright glow of the lights feels like some kind of violent attack. He hooks his shirt up and grabs the hem with his teeth to keep it out of the way.

The puck hit him in the dead center of his chest. The shoulder pads redistributed the impact, but catching anything traveling at upwards of 100mph with your body is always going to leave marks, no matter what kind of armor you put on.

There’s a ring of deep purple-blue around the impact site, a starburst of color bleeding around it.

He snaps a picture of the carnage and sends it to Steve.

Five seconds later, his phone is ringing in his hands. He swallows his crow of triumph and answers with an unapologetically smug: “You would be a ‘call, don’t text’ guy. I bet you sign your texts, too.”

“You should put some ice on that,” Steve says. It sounds like he’s grinding the words between his teeth.

And, what the hell? It’s not like Tony has plans for the night. “Come over and do it yourself.”

The catch of Steve’s breath is audible. There’s a long, stretched-out pause that runs just long enough to be awkward, just long enough for Tony to wonder if maybe Steve only likes to chase, doesn’t like it when things get flipped on him.

“Okay,” he says, right when Tony was about to offer a helpful change of subject. Like, perhaps, some casual lie about the hotel being actively on fire.

“Okay?” Tony says, feeling it out, trying to gauge why it doesn’t seem to bear weight.

“Yeah,” Steve says. “What’s your room number?”

Tony tries to imagine what’s going to happen if anyone from his team catches Steve Rogers, captain of the freshly defeated Avengers, roaming the hallways of their hotel late at night, but that, he decides, sounds like Steve’s problem. “304.”

“Be there in twenty,” Steve says, and then he hangs up.

 

- -

 

Steve shows up twenty-one minutes later, wearing a navy cable knit sweater and a mulish expression. He has an ice bucket in his hands. He must’ve convinced the hotel staff to give it to him. “Here,” he says, and he shoves the ice bucket into Tony’s waiting arms.

That is…not quite what he’d been expecting to get his arms around. “Most guys bring flowers,” he says. "Or wine."

Steve rolls his eyes. Tony is reminded, again, of the way everyone sees Steve Rogers as the mild-mannered golden boy, the polite polished face of the League, but Tony’s always know him to be a petty, conniving, ruthless son of a bitch. He’s always admired him for it, too. The success of the ruse, and the truth underneath.  

“This isn’t a date,” Steve tells him, like there’s any chance Tony doesn’t know. “Put some ice on that.”

Tony juggles the ice bucket, side-stepping out of Steve’s way as he shoulders into the room. “I’m sorry. Are you here to play doctor? Your bedside manner’s bullshit.”

Steve frowns. “Ice it.”

Tony’s never hated the effectiveness of Steve’s causal authority more than the moment he finds himself inexplicably holding a bag of ice to his own chest at damn near midnight, when he’d expected to be more than halfway naked by now.

“You know,” he says, “you’re being very hot and cold about this whole me blocking your shots thing.”

Steve’s eyes narrow. He steps closer, curls his hand over Tony’s, and presses the ice harder into his chest. It should hurt, and it does hurt, but not as much as Tony would’ve guessed. Steve’s not using much of his strength.

“You caught the last one in the ribs,” he says.

“I also have ribs up here,” Tony says, tapping his sternum. “It’s a whole thing. A rib cage, they call it. The ribs actually start right below the clavicle and run to around the waist.”

Steve sneers at him. He has, Tony notes, a really excellent sneer. He could make a whale feel small with that sneer. “Yeah, but your heart is up here, asshole. And you have a heart condition.”

Tony gets, in that second, what this is about. Why the last blocked shot led to Steve hauling him into a weight training room and dropping to his knees and this one ends with him shoving a bag of ice into Tony’s chest like he can personally hold his heart together.

Tony’s stroke scared the hell out of so many people. Sometimes it’s like Tony’s the only one who forgot to be scared. At the time, all he’d been focused on was getting better, getting right, getting back to where he was supposed to be. Like when your car skids on black ice, and you’re not thinking about how sad the funeral’s gonna be, you’re just holding your arms steady, taking your foot off the accelerator, bracing for impact, trying your best to survive.

That stroke had terrorized the entire League, one of its loudest, flashiest faces falling suddenly silent, dropped by something internal, some secret invisible danger. The outpouring of support from the other players had been ridiculous, tinged with hysteria, like they all needed Tony to weather this because that would mean they didn’t have to be scared it was going to happen to them.

He remembers, suddenly, the melancholy little card he’d gotten from Steve. Delivered to his home by the trusty USPS, noteworthy because it was one of the very few messages that arrived in physical form.

It’s not the same game without you, it said. Get better soon. Regards, Steve Rogers.

“Regards,” Tony says, out loud, “Steve Rogers. God, you’re such a senior citizen.”

Steve glowers at him like he doesn’t follow the reference, but his blush gives him away.

“It’s a hole in my heart,” Tony says. “Just a small one. In the wall between the upper chambers. Apparently everyone has one, but it’s supposed to close up after birth. Mine didn’t. So I take blood thinners, and I’m fine. No more clots, no more strokes.”

Steve’s jaw wrenches tighter and tighter as Tony explains. They’re going to need a jackhammer to save him, Tony thinks. He’ll never speak again.

“I love the game,” Tony says. “And God knows I love ruining your night. But I wouldn’t risk my life for it, Steve. You’re not gonna kill me out there.”

Steve’s eyes shut, not slowly. Like he’s slamming them closed. A beat later, he tips forward, and his forehead comes to rest on Tony’s shoulder.

Tony remembers earlier. He remembers laughing. Laughing high and breathless, skating awkwardly to the boards, one arm over Rhodey’s shoulders, air knocked clean out of him, struggling to convince his lungs to take another gamble on oxygen. He’d been laughing, watching Steve snap his stick in half.

He’d thought Steve was pissed. He’d thought it was that streak of hyper-competitiveness he always downplays for the cameras, finally bearing its ugly, hungry, desperate face to the public.

But maybe it was Steve thinking he’d just shot a man in the chest. Maybe it was Steve smashing the weapon he thought he’d used.

“It’s okay,” Tony tells him. “Steve. It’s fine.”

Steve’s face is pressed into his neck. He’s trembling, Tony realizes. Jesus, he’s such an asshole. He’s such a piece of shit. It’s the same thing all over. Tony, in the hospital bed, rolling his eyes, telling everybody to shut up and stay calm. It’s him, not thinking about what it looks like from the outside, forgetting that people who aren’t distracted by the immediate concerns of pain have all that extra mental space to start pre-processing a grief they don't know they won’t need.

“Don’t ever fucking do that again,” Steve says. All his authority is gone. That controlled way he talks to people, the confident way he gives his orders. It’s been replaced by a request, soft and murmured directly into the skin of Tony’s neck. “Your ribs, your shin. Catch the puck with your fucking hands, Tony. I don’t care. But don’t ever take a shot like that to the chest again.”

Between them, the bag of ice is melting. Tony’s numb; it doesn’t even hurt.

It’s a small price, really. It’s just a bruise. He’d take that for a win every day of the week. He’d do it again tomorrow.

But it’s not just him, is it? It’s Coulson, yelling about the team, yelling about Tony. It’s the wreck it makes out of the rest of the Shields, when Tony limps down the tunnel again, hand to his chest, wheezing and unsteady. It’s Steve Rogers, thinking he’d just murdered Tony Stark on live television, losing that eternal cool of his, smashing his stick into the ice.

“Okay,” he says. He brings a hand up, threads his fingers into Steve’s hair. “Okay, Steve. I won’t.”

Chapter Text

The Arrows arrange the trade while he’s still on a leave of absence. There’s some talk about waiting. Roy hears pieces of it through his agent. The front office is concerned about the optics, how it’ll read to the public, but Oliver wants him out, and they usually give their captain whatever he wants.

“The hell with the optics,” Roy says. “I want to go.”

He’s been in the player assistance program since late June and sober since the morning after the loss that knocked the Arrows out of the playoffs. It’s just three months, but it’s the longest he’s managed since he got drafted.

He might as well be proud of it. He might as well do what he can to protect it.

And, when he thinks of Oliver, all he can hear is the way he said it, the disgust in his voice. You’re a fucking junkie.

So, that’s a no.

“Get me out,” Roy says, to his agent, to his coach, to the GM, to anyone who’ll still look at him. “I don’t care where. Anywhere. I’ll go back to Arizona. I’m not doing shit for Oliver Queen.”

He isn’t. He won’t. No more assists, no more blocked shots, no more throwing himself over the boards to lead the charge up the ice. No more taking whatever he has to so he can get back in the game. No more blind loyalty. No more 80-point seasons.

Nothing. Oliver Queen gets nothing from him.

Nothing from this fucking junkie. Never again.

“Okay,” his agent says. “I’ll see what I can do.”

 

- -

 

By the second day of training camp, he’s an Avenger. He looked better in green, but he doesn’t mind the blue. Anyway, he’d play in a baby pink leotard if it got him out of Starling City. Hell, he’d switch sports if he had to.

His therapist says, maybe, he’s putting too much on Oliver. But Roy’s not an idiot. He knows all the choices he made were his own. Oliver sure as hell never put any of the pills in his hand. But he didn’t choose to look at them, either. Never asked any questions. Oliver saw every kind of inbound disaster and didn’t care until he decided it impacted their postseason performance.

Roy has to remind himself every morning that he hates Oliver Queen because it’s the only thing that stops him from texting him. He built his whole career around wanting to be him.

Without him, what is he?

A fucking junkie.

Sure. But he’s a fucking junkie in an Avengers uniform now.

 

- -

 

He doesn’t have to tell the media why he went into the player assistance program. He chooses to. Some part of him is still raw, still stinging from the way he felt, just a fucking junkie in a hotel room, coming down after a loss, the whole city celebrating a win for the other side. He doesn’t know what to do with shame like that, so he figures, fuck it, he’ll set it on fire.

He’ll just tell everyone. There can’t be any nasty rumors if the nasty truth is already out.

“In a game like this,” he says, to the cluster of hawk-eyed reporters, “you get hurt. But you’ve gotta play. You get paid to play. People have a vested interest in you playing, so there’s—it’s not like they just give them out. But you can get them, if you ask. Pills, I mean. So that’s how it starts. Started, anyway. For me.”

He doesn’t tell them how young he started. He thinks probably younger than he should’ve. But there’s a gray area there, a time when maybe it wasn’t fully his decision, maybe he wasn’t old enough to decide, maybe he was gonna take whatever pills the adults around him gave to him. And so that’s not a confession, it’s an accusation.

He’s not here to accuse anyone. He’s here to explain.

“The thing is,” he says, “once you figure out you don’t have to hurt all the time, you don’t wanna hurt at all. I guess it got out of control. I mean, I know it did.”

It was such a strange thing, he thinks. Such a strange time. Downers and uppers, chemically correcting himself. Twice a year drug tests, but the League only cared about what they considered performance enhancing, and Roy was only ever trying to fix himself, not his game.

He’d get little pamphlets, some stern talks. Sometimes, people would look at him like he was a problem they were hoping someone else would solve.

It was like his whole team was watching him drown, but they’d just decided the water wasn’t real.

“I realized, you know. There was no good ending the way I was going. So if I kept going that way, it meant all the best times were behind me. And that’s bullshit. I mean, sorry. That’s—it wasn’t. It wasn’t…good. And I wanted better. I wanted to be better? So. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

The reporters ask a few questions, and he answers, mostly honestly. Some things just aren’t anybody’s business, and he’s not supposed to say anything negative about the Arrows at all. But he wants to be clear. He wants to explain what happened, how easy it was, how much sense it seemed to make until he realized, somehow, that his whole fucking life didn’t make any sense at all.

Because, mostly, he’s doing this for himself. Mostly, he’s just tired of the secrets, tired of lying, tired of hiding every flaw he has.

But, also, he wants people to know. He wants the kids who come after him to know. He wants the other people in the League, all those others who are just like him, to know there’s a way out.

He’s trying to be better, sure. But mostly he’s just trying to be the person he needed six years ago, and every day since.

 

- -

 

Steve Rogers tells him he’s brave, and Roy blushes so hard he damn near passes out. “Oh my God,” he says, and hides his whole face in his locker stall.

“I mean it,” Steve says, sincere and serious. “What you’re doing is important.”

“Oh God, Steve,” Tony Stark says. “Steve. Leave the kid alone.”

Steve huffs. “I’m just trying---”

“Look at him. He’s gonna asphyxiate on his sweater. You can come out now, Harper. I won’t let the mean man compliment you anymore.”

Roy withdraws just far enough to see there’s a whole mob of team leadership around him. “Um,” he says.

The thing is, he’s been defensive with Stark. He knows he has. He sees the C, and he feels like throwing a punch. It’s an ugly instinct, and not Tony’s fault. So, mostly, he’s just been trying not to talk to him.

He’s never had any problems with goalies, so he’s been fine with Steve until this moment.

Rhodes and Castle, the alternates, have been nothing but polite. Rhodes actually took him around the city on his second day in town, made sure he knew where the practice arena and all the best nearby restaurants were. He’s been checking in every day, little hey, Roy greetings and is that a Wonder Woman shirt? questions that make Roy feel like someone would probably notice if he died overnight.

Castle has the audacity to be so damn hot Roy can’t always process human speech when he looks at him, so that’s really put a damper on getting to know him. Roy cannot act like a normal person around him. Their communications have been brief, sporadic, and – Roy’s self-aware enough to admit – incredibly weird.

They’re all looking at him, expectant and silent.

“…thanks?” Roy tries, carefully aiming his eyes at Tony’s eyebrows.

“We’re glad you’re here,” Steve says. “Let us know how we can help.”

“Oh my God,” Tony says. He grabs Steve by the shoulders. “Let’s go.”

“That wasn’t a compliment!” Steve complains, as he’s jostled across the locker room. “I didn’t--”

“Oh, don’t try that letter of the law bullshit with me, Rogers,” Tony says. “I invited that shit.”

Roy stares after them. “Are they always like that?”

“Married?” Rhodes asks.

Roy blinks. Blinks again. Tips his head to the side, so his thoughts can roll into place. “Yeah,” he says, finally. “Married.”

“Sure,” Rhodes says. “Not officially, but part of being an Avenger is having faith that someday those two are gonna figure that out.”

“The other part,” Castle says, low and quiet, “is participating in the betting pool.”

“Yeah,” Rhodes nods. He waves his phone at Roy, who makes an obligingly impressed face and hopes like hell someone will explain something soon. “I keep track of it. Pretty sure we’re gonna finance somebody’s honeymoon by the time this thing’s over. Once you’ve got a date picked out, come talk to me.”

And, out of all the problems Roy’s had, he’s never had an issue with gambling unless you count betting on his health to hold through the postseason while he patches his body together with opioids and duct tape, so he nods. “Sure. I’ll, uh. Do some research. Let you know.”

Rhodes claps him on the shoulder, gives him a companionable shake. “Good job today,” he says. “Remember you’ve got my number if you need anything, okay?”

“Okay,” Roy says. “Yeah.”

Rhodes smiles and then leaves, following Stark and Rogers out. Castle lingers, considering him with that intensely assessing face that he usually has the mercy to direct at pucks or other players.

Roy can honestly, legitimately feel his heartrate picking up. He’s getting butterflies from being mean mugged. Oh God.

“You have my number?” Castle asks.

And it’s probably for the best that Roy doesn’t, but, then again, it’s not like he’s gonna get out of his mind and start texting people he shouldn’t. Not anymore. Hopefully. “Um,” he says, “no. Not yet.”

Castle nods. He takes out his phone, which is an honest-to-God flip-phone. Roy thinks maybe his knees are going to give out.

It’s some kind of crime, he thinks. To be one of the best fighters in the League and also the kind of man who very studiously plugs Roy’s number into his phone, repeating the digits out loud like it’s critically important he gets this right. Once he has Roy saved, he sends him a text.

“There,” he says. “If you need anything.”

“Okay,” Roy says. He refuses to think about anything he might need or ways Frank Castle could help him with that. “I appreciate it. Thanks.”

Castle nods. He gives Roy another one of those intense looks and then nods again, more decisive, like a promise. “Anyone gives you any shit, let me know.”

Roy’s been an Avenger for six days, and he can already tell this isn’t the kind of environment where anyone gives another teammate shit for something like this. They squabble all the time, run their mouths like they get paid by the syllable, but it’s all checked punches, every hit lands soft and careful.

They’re a weird bunch of guys, really. Roy hasn’t been around a group this playful since he left school.

Yesterday, Maximoff climbed onto Thor’s shoulders and then demanded that Peter Parker scale Drax and fight him like a man. Two days ago, Bruce Banner was late to practice because he stopped to save a kitten stranded on the highway, and the whole team emptied off the ice to meet her.

The Arrows never really laughed at anything. They didn’t even laugh at each other. It was all business, all the time, and their teammates’ business was never their own.

But Roy doesn’t know how to say any of that to Frank Castle. If he doesn’t already know how much it's worth, he wouldn’t believe it.

“Okay,” he says, with a shrug. “Sure.”

 

- -

 

Two games in, Roy figures out that Frank actually meant to tell him if players on other teams talked shit. There has, of course, been plenty of that. And it’s not like Roy doesn’t talk shit, too. He just picks less personal targets.

“That guy say something to you?” Frank asks, when Roy settles back on the bench after a frustrating shift of being dogged all over the ice.

Roy rolls his eyes, chews on his mouthguard. He doesn’t want to repeat it, doesn’t even want to remember it, so he just shrugs.

Frank leans closer, presses his knee against Roy’s. And Roy’s a professional athlete. He’s not small. He’s 5’11, rapidly rebuilding to those 180 pounds he usually starts the season with, and he’s not a small guy, but Frank Castle just looms up right next to him, all scruff and big brown eyes, and Roy would give up the nuclear launch codes if he knew them.

“Yeah,” he says, instead of the codes. “He’s talking shit. Sure. He keeps singing Amy Winehouse at me.”

Frank’s eyes don’t change. After a moment, he nods. “Okay.”

The next time Anderson steps onto the ice, Frank levels him with a barely legal check that leaves him flat out on the ice. Frank stands over him talking, and whatever he says keeps Anderson down for another three seconds. He doesn’t climb to his feet until after Frank skates away.

Roy doesn’t need anyone to do that. He would’ve been fine ignoring Anderson all night. But he watches Frank prowling around the ice, face set, mouth pressed into an angry line, and he feels like a cartoon character, some lovestruck coyote with giant red hearts for eyes.

He wants to give him something. He doesn’t know what. It’s the middle of a hockey game; he probably can’t order flowers or pizza unless he does some really fast work on his phone between the periods.

Plus, Frank probably doesn’t even eat pizza.

What if he doesn’t like flowers? People have allergies.

Roy abandons those plans. He decides to get Frank a goal, instead.

And seven minutes later, he manages one off a neat little behind-the-back no-look pass from Rhodes, who likes to one-up Stark on style whenever the opportunity presents itself. Roy, who’s never quite managed style, buries the puck in the net and then crashes shoulder-first into the boards, upends himself with the grace and finality of a drunk turtle going down a playground slide.

Castle picks him up. Literally grabs him by the sweater and hauls him to his feet. He’s grinning, yelling something wordless and impressed, and Roy hugs him on reflex, starts laughing.

It’s his first goal as an Avenger. He watches himself on the replay, doesn’t even recognize the smile on this face.

 

- -

 

It’s opening night at their home arena, and it’s a win, and it’s Roy’s first goal, and everyone’s going out, so he goes too. He thinks it’ll be weird, but Castle isn’t drinking either, so he just sits with him at the booth and tries desperately to pretend he’s cool while they sip water and talk about the game.

“You okay?” Castle asks, early on.

“Yeah,” Roy says, toothy and brave, still invincible with adrenaline. “Fine.”

“Okay,” Castle says. “You decide you wanna leave, we can go. I’ll Uber back with you.”

Roy doesn’t know what that means. Uber back with you. Just the two of them, in a car. Well, the driver will probably be there.

Hopefully the driver will be there.

Roy laughs at the dizzy wildness of his own mind. For just a second, as a joke, he thinks Wow, what did they put in this water?

And he knows it’s a joke when he thinks it, and he knows it’s a joke fifteen minutes later, and he knows it’s a joke half an hour after that. But an hour after they get to the club, he starts to get this weird, nagging thought that somehow he’s going to fuck up. Somehow, he’s going to pick up the wrong glass.

He’ll take one sip of one wrong thing, and everything will fall apart. Like it’s just the momentum that kept him going. Like he’s a house of cards, and he’s put himself in front of a jet engine.

He doesn’t want to say anything in front of the guys, but he doesn’t want to walk out of here by himself either. The idea of navigating out of this club is a nightmare. And then there’s the sidewalk, all those roving bands of partiers, all those people having fun. All the ways to go astray, and what the hell was he thinking? Why did he come here at all?

He texts Frank, just two frowning faces and an emoji of a man running. A minute later, Frank’s standing up. “I’m heading out,” he says, to the table. He lifts his voice to be heard over the subsequent outcry. “Anyone wanna share an Uber?”

“Hell yes,” Roy says, with maybe a bit more intensity than the situation really calls for. “Yeah, I gotta, um. Go meditate.”

The group in the booth falls silent and then Bruce Banner adjusts his glasses and leans over to give Roy an encouraging pat on the arm. “Good for you,” he says,

“Thanks,” Roy says, and follows Frank out of the booth, through the sea of people, and out onto the sidewalk.

It’s just as wild as he thought it would be, but Frank’s body is a barricade. People flow around him, but, so long as Roy keeps his eyes on Frank, he almost doesn’t even see them.

“I’m sorry,” Roy starts.

“Don’t be,” Frank says.

“I know it’s a party. Like, a reunion, kinda? Right? So if you want--”

“We have a party,” Frank tells him. “At the end of the summer.”

“Oh.” Roy blinks up at him.

“So,” Frank continues, “we already had the reunion. You’re not interrupting anything. I usually don’t even go to these things.”

And he hadn’t seemed the type, but Roy had been glad to see him. “Still,” he says. “Thanks.”

Frank frowns at him, not like he’s mad, but like he’s a little confused. Or maybe like he’s sad. “Look, I got traded a lot, early on. But I’ve been here for four years. This is a good team. We look after each other.”

Roy’s eyes cut away. For the first time since he got here, he’s having trouble looking at Frank Castle.

Sometimes, he thinks, people hit nerves without meaning to. That’s why he shouldn’t wear them so close to the surface.

It’s just that it’s all he’d wanted.

We look after each other.

Fucking junkie.

Roy shuffles a little, sidesteps closer, and Frank shifts without seeming to think about it, puts his shoulder right against Roy’s.

“I’m glad I’m here,” Roy says.

He’s two games in, and he’s got one goal and one assist, and he’ll give them any damn thing they ask for, but he’s hoping - maybe, finally – they won’t ask for more than his body can give.

“Yeah,” Frank says, and he slings an arm around him, steadying and warm, right across his shoulders. “Me too.”

Chapter Text

It’s cold. Midwinter in the mountains, and of course it’s cold. But it’s the blood loss that’s left him feeling like this. Like the cold is a living thing, burrowing inside him. Hollowing him out and packing him with ice.

Hansel and Gretel left breadcrumbs, and he left blood.

There’s a red path winding back behind him. He could follow it all the way back to where Obadiah stabbed him in the chest and left him to die.

He should not be here. He cannot be here.

The things that live in this forest do not welcome visitors. They feast on the unwary, butcher trespassers and bargain-seekers alike. There’s nothing for Tony in the woods. The only hope he has is a legend. No one’s seen the lost knight for years and years.

No, there’s nothing for him in the woods.

But there’s only death behind.

“You have heart,” something says. Not a person. It’s watching from behind one of the trees, starlight eyes blazing white in the darkness. When it speaks, Tony can see its teeth. There are far too many, and they are far too sharp.

Everything is cold and jagged. Even the spill of moonlight on the snow looks like it could cut his hands to pieces. Tony’s the only warm thing in these woods, and he’s going to die. He’ll be cold, soon. Just like them.

“Prince,” the thing says, crooning and hissing, breath curling strangely across those rows and rows of teeth, “you have a good heart.”

What he has, Tony thinks, is a fallible heart. And growing weaker by the moment.

There’s something laughing in the trees. Or maybe it’s the trees that are laughing. When the Starks took the land to the south, they pushed all the darker magics here, forced them into these woods. Tony has no trouble believing that even the trees will laugh when the last of the Starks dies here.

He keeps moving forward. He couldn’t say why. Deeper and deeper into the woods, chasing what? Going where?

Going back is death. But he’s already dying.

“Prince,” something sighs, soft and sing-song. When he looks that way, there’s nothing but a darkness that stretches and shifts. Looking at it makes him feel cold. It’s the cold of old grief, he thinks, of starving winters, of burying your children. It wants to eat him.

“Wouldn’t you like,” it hums, “to sleep?”

He would. The only warm thing in the world is the blood still slipping from his side. He wants to curl in on himself and fall asleep. He wants to be gone before they get their teeth in him.

But he’s a prince, and a prince has people, and his people cannot be left in the care of Obadiah Stane.

“They’re all going to die,” says the first voice, that hissing one in the trees. “Once we take you, there’ll be nothing holding us here. We’ll harvest them, same as you.”

He’s the last Stark. The magic that holds them here lives in him. When he dies, they’ll be released.

Unless, he thinks. Unless, unless. But it’s a children’s story.

The lost knight who sacrificed himself, the warrior who drew the monsters to him at the heart of these woods so the Starks could chain them. Too strong, they said, to die, so he sleeps.

Fools have gone into the woods to wake him. Their bones, sometimes, were returned.

“Where are you going?” the darkness asks. “There’s nothing for you there. Just lie down, prince. Just sleep.”

He wants to. But he won’t.

Pepper, he thinks. And Rhodes. Young Peter Parker. Happy.

He takes a step for every name, for everyone he knows, forces himself onward. It’s easier when he ties the next step to a face. And for the baker, he thinks, he as he staggers another step forward. And for John, who cheats at cards.

He thinks of Peter's aunt when his legs give out. Thinks of Harley’s mother as he starts forward again, on his hands and knees now, clumsy and awkward from the cold.

“Oh, prince,” says the hissing thing in the trees, “you have such a good heart.”

“Don’t go that way,” says the darkness. “It is such a difficult road. Just close your eyes. It won’t be long.”

He’s so cold that the shaking has stopped. He’s moving blindly now, dragging himself with his arms, eyes closed, scraping his face and chest and legs against the ground. He doesn’t know where he’s going.

Forward, he thinks. It’s enough.

His mind is fading in and out, a candle stretching and shrinking, guttering and flaring. Sometimes he thinks he’s already asleep. Sometimes he thinks he’s dead. And then he thinks of someone – James, again, or his father or the girl who sells flowers at the spring market or the cat with her kittens – and finds that, somehow, he’s moving forward again.

The singing in the darkness is taking on sharper notes. The trees are not laughing. He can’t hear them at all. There’s a stillness, he thinks, around him now.

When he opens his eyes, there’s a statue before him.

A knight, he thinks, so finely crafted he seems perfectly alive. He’s bearing a round shield with a single star. His eyes are open; his sword is drawn. There’s snow gathered on his shoulders and icicles hanging from his outstretched arm.

Tony wonders who brought this statue here, and why.

“Your heart, prince.” The hissing thing in the trees is not in the trees anymore. Tony can hear it, getting closer.

He forces himself up. Not to his feet, but at least to his knees. He’s a Stark. The very last one. He won’t die flat on his back, helpless and cowering.

When he turns to look, the thing coming for him has too many limbs and too many teeth and a smile that stretches like its face has been carved open. The fingers on its hands are long and sharp, twisting in hungry anticipation.

The thing does not have lips, so it licks along the exposed bone of its jaw, salivating and laughing as it trudges toward him. “I’m going to start,” it says, “with your heart.”

Tony sways, dizzy and cold and fading. He doesn’t want to die like this.

There’s nowhere to go. There’s no other way to die.

He reaches back anyway. His hand closes around the statue’s sword arm, and he tries to haul himself to his feet.

But he falls.

He falls because the statue moves.

All around, in the woods that ring this clearing, things that aren’t human scream and roar and rage. The trees don’t laugh; they howl. The darkness weeps like a new widow. The hissing thing shrieks and lurches forward.

The statue’s shield swings up and blocks its outstretched arm. A second later, the sword swings, and now the thing with too many limbs doesn’t have enough. The statue keeps swinging his sword until the creature is nothing, is ruined lumps of meat spilling boiling blue-black sludge onto the snow.

“You,” the statue says, turning to face him, “are a Stark.”

Tony stares up at him. He wonders, distantly, if he’s human. He’s not sure he can be, as beautiful as he is. “I was,” he says. He presses his hand over the wound in his side. He feels, suddenly, very faint and very frightened.

The statue frowns and steps closer. He shrugs his shield onto his back and crouches in front of Tony, stares hard into his eyes. And then he drops his gaze to Tony’s side, carefully peels his hand back, examines the wound.

“You’ll be all right,” he says.

And he sounds like a man who keeps his promises, but so is Tony. And his only promise was not to be the last. He can feel it, that same magic, the same humming spell, like a vibration in the air that is almost a note too high to hear.

He’s not the last person caught in this magic. It’s shared between them. The wall will hold. His people needed a living body to continue the spell, and, somehow, he found one.

“You will be,” the man says. He presses his hand over the wound, and his touch is so warm it feels scalding.

There are so many worse ways to die. Tony doesn’t mind this one.

“You have to,” Tony says, but the world is spinning. The sky is a swirling smear of stars. He closes his eyes.

He doesn’t expect to wake up.

But he didn’t expect to find a sleeping legend in the woods, either.

Chapter Text

The first time Jason sees Frank, he’s four rounds deep in Banner’s homebrewed moonshine, and the man’s face doesn’t resolve into much of anything until after Jason’s blinked a handful of times. “Who the fuck is that?” Jason asks, not quiet or careful, not watchful the way he should be.

Well, he’s drunk. And Rogers’ place is as close to safe as anyone gets these days. They’ll keep him til morning, throw him out with the scraps.

“Hm,” Natasha says. She’s sharpening her knives. Seems like a hell of a thing to do at the only functional bar in a fifty-mile radius, but she’s never taken bartending very seriously. “That’s Frank Castle.”

“Frank Castle,” Jason repeats. When he blinks again, his eyes steady out a bit.

Frank Castle looks like something feral, and Jason should know what feral looks like. He’s covered in empty sheaths and holsters, looks like a toy with half the pieces missing. Jason can pick out what’s gone, if he really focuses. The rifle from his back, the pistol from his side. Two knifes from his belt, probably one from his boot.

And there’s something else, too. Empty loops on his back for something thin. A crowbar, maybe. Or an axe.

“Guy looks like a fucking asshole,” Jason announces.

Frank Castle looks his way.

The bar has ambitions, but it’s an open-air operation for now. A shed with three walls, facing out into the camp’s main courtyard. They probably used to house animals here, back when this was somebody’s farm. They’re still housing animals, Jason figures. Tonight, they’re housing him.

The point is, Frank can see him. Frank can hear everything Jason’s said about him. He eyes Jason with the same attentive focus Jason would give a deer. Like he’s worth the attention, sure, but not like he’s any kind of threat.

Behind him, Natasha sighs. “You start a fight with Frank Castle---”

“And I’m out,” Jason says. “I know, Nat. I know the rules.”

“You start a fight with a camp resident and you’re out,” she says. “You start a fight with Frank Castle, and we’ll bury you somewhere nice.”

Jason laughs, startled and smiling his way through it. Frank Castle looks like a nightmare, but Jason’s been looking at nightmares for five fucking years, and he’s been killing them, one by one, waiting to find the one that’ll wake him up.

He leans forward, elbows on his knees, and he gives Frank the kind of smile that usually provokes some kind of reaction. A fist in his face, a mouth against his. A blush, less and less, since damn near nobody’s any kind of shy anymore.

Frank Castle just blinks at him, catlike and slow, and then he looks away. When he starts walking, it’s back toward the camp entrance. It should feel like a victory, maybe, but Jason’s lost the knack of those.

 

- -

 

They do the same work, so they see each other sometimes. There are only so many passable roads in the mountains, only so many warehouses and neighborhoods and decimated towns with salvageable supplies. He knows when Frank’s been around.

It’s an axe, Jason’s pretty sure. An axe he carries on his back. The head wounds he sees suggest something heavy and sharp. Jason and his crowbar crack skulls like eggs, all dented-in spiderwebs of bone and brain. Frank’s hits are cleaner, deeper.

Fewer, too. Frank leaves a lot of corpses walking. Jason has a higher body count, but he’s willing to admit he has a certain flair for the dramatic.

Or maybe he just feels bad. Maybe he looks at these zombies clawing at windows, shambling around like every step is an effort and a sacrifice, and he thinks it’s fucking sad. It’s a sad thing. Being dead looks like it hurts. And being alive is such an absolute bitch that Jason thinks, when it’s over, it should be over.

So he puts them down, and Frank leaves them walking. Jason can track where he’s been and what he’s after by following the neat trail of corpses that lead to and from whatever target Frank had his eyes on.

As far as actually seeing him, that’s fairly rare. Not because they don’t occasionally turn up in the same places, but because Frank doesn’t seem interested in making friends. When they end up scavenging the same area, Frank works fast and gets the fuck out. Jason usually only sees him when he’s already leaving.

So, sure. He sees him sometimes. But not as often as the campers seem to think.

“If you see Frank,” Rogers says, after Jason’s traded a backpack full of medical supplies for two nights in a halfway decent bed and all the food he can feasibly eat in forty-eight hours, “tell him to swing by. I need to talk to him.”

“If I see Frank Castle,” Jason says, “I’m gonna look the other way.”

Steve frowns at him the way he always frowns at Jason. Like Jason’s some errant schoolboy who won’t get in line. Like he’d rise to the bait, if he thought Jason was worth knocking back into his place. “Thanks,” he says, tone dry and unimpressed. “Appreciate it.”

Jason salutes him, because he knows it pisses him off. But it’s not like Steve doesn’t deserve it. Rogers’ camp is the only camp Jason knows that still flies the American flag. Like any of them are really Americans anymore. Like any of them are Goddamn anything.

“Happy to help, Cap,” he says.

 

- -

 

He doesn’t speak to Frank for something like six months. It’s hard to tell. Jason doesn’t plant anything, sure as hell doesn’t have any weekend plans, so the days don’t mean very much to him. But he’s pretty sure he first saw Frank in winter, and it’s late spring when they exchange their first words.

Frank, in his wisdom, opens the conversation with: “Did you steal that kid?”

Jason, who’s got a shellshocky twelve-year-old on the back of his motorcyle and isn’t so much in the mood for a neighborly chat, volleys back with, “Go fuck yourself, Castle. I’m busy.”

The kid, a tousle-headed brat named Harley who tried to knife Jason in the ribs an hour or so ago, shifts behind Jason like maybe he’s going for that knife again.

“There’s been,” Frank says, “some screaming.”

There’s been an awful fucking lot of screaming. The mountains sang with it. All the noise brought a swarm of zombies down from God-knows-where, and Jason showed up late, barely made it out of that shitshow with the kid and just enough of the group’s supplies to make it worth the effort.

Jason doesn’t feel the need to explain any of that to Frank Castle. There’s blood drying on Jason’s skin, caked into his shoes. Sweat chilling on the back of his neck and all down his chest. It’s been a hell of a morning.

Frank’s blocking Jason’s path, bike perpendicular to the road, shotgun resting easy in his hands.

He wonders where the fuck Frank got a shotgun.

He wonders why the world works the way it does, where Frank Castle gets a shotgun and Jason gets a preteen with PTSD.

“I’m taking him to Rogers’ camp,” Jason says. “Will you fuck off?”

Frank stares at him. He’s shaved his head since Jason last saw him. It doesn’t make him look less feral. “I’ll go with you,” Frank says.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Jason says, “I’m not gonna eat the kid, Castle. Nobody invited you.”

Frank puts the shotgun on his back and turns toward his bike. There’s that axe, strapped down, blade clean and sharp and bare.

“Got things to do,” Frank tells him. “Let’s go.”

Jason thinks about shooting him in the head. He can’t quite justify the waste of ammunition.

Behind him, Harley holds on too tight, leans forward to whisper too-loud in Jason’s ear. “Is that guy gonna eat us?”

“Don’t be fucking ridiculous,” Jason hisses back. “He couldn’t possibly eat both of us. He’d gorge himself sick on half of you, c’mon.”

 

- -


After they drop the kid off with Steve’s people, after Harley crowds in close to Jason and has to be convinced that this is better, that these people are better, after Jason gets hosed down and changed and cleaned up to the best of his ability, Frank Castle tips his chin across the courtyard, where Nat’s tending bar again, and says, “Buy you a drink.

It’s not a request. It’s barely an offer. He says it like he’s narrating fact, and Jason’s amused enough to go along with it. After the absolute shitshow of the day he’s had, he’d put up with a lot for a free drink.

“Sure,” Jason says, “but I’m not putting out.”

Frank stares at him like he’s never seen a human before and is not sold on the experience so far.

“I mean,” Jason says, after a few long seconds of staring at Frank’s chisel-crafted cheekbones, “maybe I will. Buy me two drinks. Find out.”

Frank walks silently beside him, with a look on his face that suggests he regrets the half-assed nature of the end of the world. Jason knows what that’s like. He regrets it, too.

But Banner’s been doing some experimenting, because the moonshine Nat puts in front of him this time is almost tolerable. “Heard you saved a kid,” she says, to Jason.

It’s charming, the way she says it. Half question, like there’s a chance in hell she hasn’t already heard the entire story. Rogers might be the face of this place, but Nat’s the spider at the center of the web.

“I was just trying to scavenge,” Jason says, as he takes a bracing sip of his moonshine. Most people shoot it, but Jason’s bored enough these days that he’ll take any new stimuli he can find. Sure, it’s not pleasant. But at least it’s unpleasant in a new and interesting way. “Kid happened to be there.”

“Uh-huh,” she says. She very clearly doesn’t buy it.

“Would’ve left him,” Jason says, “but he held me at knifepoint.”

This time, she just rolls her eyes.

He doesn’t deserve any accolades, so he won’t accept them. If he’d saved more than one person, maybe he could stomach her looking at him like he’s anything other than a scavenger who let a kid tag along to the place he was going anyway. But he didn’t save more than one person. Hell, he barely saved Harley.

Mostly, Harley saved himself.

“Here.” Nat refills his cup for him.

Jason stares at it. After a beat, he looks up at her. Not once, in the years he’s been coming here, has anyone in this place given him anything for free.

“We like to reward good behavior,” she tells him.

“Fuck you,” he says, but he knocks the moonshine back before she can take it away.

This time, when she rolls her eyes, it’s with a familiar irritated disbelief. “You know,” she says, “you make yourself very difficult to love.”

 

- -

 

Frank sits next to him, drinks a glass and a half of Banner’s moonshine, and then slides the half of a glass remaining toward Jason, who downs it immediately. He doesn’t talk. He almost doesn’t even look at Jason. So it’s weird, the way he stands up the exact same moment that Jason does, like there’s some string tied between them that he didn’t notice until Jason yanked it taut.

“I’m gonna head out,” Jason says. “Don’t like the roads after dark.”

“It’s already dark,” Natasha points out.

“Yeah,” Jason says. “So you can see how I’d be disinclined to hang around waiting for it to get darker.”

Frank just stares at him. He doesn’t say anything. It’s weirding Jason out, a little. Dumping adrenaline into his system that could twist any number of ways.

“So stay with Frank,” Natasha says.

Jason wishes, for the fiftieth time, that he could read Natasha Romanoff at all. “Yeah, that’s what I’m gonna do. Go up to a murder cabin in the middle of the night with some guy who carries an axe.”

“I have a place here,” Frank tells him. It’s the first thing he’s said directly to Jason since they got to the bar.

I have a place here.

They never let Jason stay past dawn after the night he’s paid for. He brings supplies, and they ration out time. And he sleeps on cots, in hallways, wherever there’s space and no one to mind.

But Frank Castle has a place here.

Jason can’t fucking believe it.

“Why the hell do you get a place?” Jason turns to Nat, holds up his hands. “What the shit, Romanoff?”

She just smiles, mean and sweet all at once. “You’re the only one keeping yourself on the outside, Jason.”

Like it’s that Goddamn easy. Like she doesn’t know damn well why he’s never signed up to move in.

“Fine,” he says, to Frank. Partly because he wants to. Partly because he likes the idea of staying here without paying a damn thing. “Show me your place.”

 

- -

 

It’s a small cabin, off by itself. Empty and lonely and with nothing personal in it at all, except for some picture frames that are lying facedown on the bedside table. Jason thinks about turning them over, but Frank gets a look on his face like a cornered rattlesnake, and, sometimes, Jason doesn’t need to get bit to know something’s poison.

So he leaves the pictures where they are and strips down as he walks the five feet from the door to the bed. “We fucking?” he asks, just to get a general temperature of the room.

Frank considers the bed like he thinks it’ll be disappointed in him. “You want to?”

It’s a weird question. It knocks Jason sideways, somehow, derails him. Does he want to.

He wants the world back. He wants to wake up in Gotham. He wants the future he was promised by every day of the past that led up to the moment when every single promise evaporated in a spray of blood and brain matter and horror.

He wants the people he failed. He wants the compound that died. He wants to sleep without seeing them, the befores and the afters, the mess that got made out of all the people he promised to protect.

He wants to stop fighting. He wants to fight the whole fucking world.

He wants so many things that they’ve clotted over, the beat of his heart dulled out and dumb, only the anger seeping through, only that endless, mouthless rage.

“Yeah,” he says, because there’s so much he can’t have, so he might as well have this. And he doesn’t know what it’ll be like, doesn’t know what to expect, but it’s new. It’s not yesterday. And he can’t survive another Goddamn yesterday, so he’ll take whatever it is, take any new thing he can find.

“Okay,” Frank says.

Jason breathes out, throws his shirt on the bed, stands his ground. There’s no reason for Frank to kiss him like he’s coaxing him into anything, but he does.

 

- -

 

Frank’s scarred up, same as him. Not the shiny skin of fresh scars, although there’s a handful of those on both of them. The world wasn’t gentle with Frank even before it overran with shambling corpses, and Jason can read that in the circular scar of an old bullet wound on Frank’s shoulder, the long thin lines on his forearms, the marks on his knee left by some surgeon, cleaning up a wreck.

Jason doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. He wants to leave, afterwards, but he can’t make himself go.

He’s thinking about those screams from before. He’s thinking about Harley, up a tree.

Someone put him there. One of the adults Jason was too late to do anything for. No branches low enough, no way to climb. Someone knew what was coming, saw the end, and spent their last living seconds putting that kid on their shoulders so he could climb high enough to survive.

Maybe more than one of them. Maybe they did it together, their last collective act before they all died alone.

It’s bullshit, he thinks. The choices people make out of the options they have. All this courage packed in bodies that aren’t strong enough to fight. Jason’s no better than any of them, worse than most of them, and he’s alive, and they aren’t.

Well, Harley’s alive too.

Probably the kid would’ve died up there if Jason hadn’t come down to clear the zombies out. Probably he would’ve gotten weaker and weaker until he fell, and then they would’ve done what they were always going to do.

“Why the fuck do they let you stay here?” he asks.

Castle’s got a cabin in the mountains, somewhere. Same as Jason. He doesn’t live here. He doesn’t belong to Steve Rogers. But they gave him a cabin anyway, like leaving a bed out for a stray cat, hoping he’ll get so accustomed to the place that he’ll forget he doesn’t belong.

Frank’s pressed up behind him, has an arm around his waist. “They’d let you, too,” he says.

If he agreed to shifts on watch. If he promised to help fight.

There are people here, soft and delicate, and they need people like him.

Maybe he needs people like them, too. Maybe these years on his own have just been a slow hemorrhage.

Every feral thing was domesticated, once.  Maybe all strays are meant to come home.

“This place,” Jason says, “is gonna get overrun. They’re all gonna die.”

He’s known that end. He saw it. He picked through a graveyard, tried to find enough to bury.

“Probably,” Frank says.

Probably.

But probably isn’t a prophecy or a promise. It’s just a statistical likelihood. And what’s the likelihood of Jason finding a kid in a tree? What are the odds of that?

It’s just sandcastles, he thinks. This whole place. All of it. Every single thing they build.

Maybe you have to build anyway.

“You always think so loud?” Frank asks. And Jason would be offended, would get snappy and defensive and mean, but he doesn’t sound like he’s judging. Mostly, he sounds like he’s trying to sleep and the caught gears of Jason’s mind are keeping him awake.

“Give me something else to think about,” Jason says.

Frank laughs, low and creaking and stuttering. Laughs like someone who’s almost forgotten how.

Jason listens for a second, lets it reverberate in his chest, lets his body remember how. And then he turns, buries his face in Frank’s neck, and he laughs too. 

Chapter Text

It looks bad. Clint knows it does. Hell, it feels bad.

He lurches his way down the sidewalk, trying to get into his building and up to his door before anyone notices. When he stayed in an ever-spinning carousel of SHIELD facilities, it didn’t matter what he looked like post-mission, but now he’s been released back to gen pop, living among the civilians for the first time since Coulson recruited him, and he doesn’t want the residents of his new apartment building to think worse of him than they already do.

“Christ’s sake.” And that’s his neighbor, the grumpy one from across the hall. Coming up the sidewalk from the opposite direction, groceries in his hand. He looks pissed. He looks hot. He always looks some combination of the two, although he’s leaning pretty decidedly toward pissed right now.

He’s never seemed particularly impressed by Clint. Probably because of the series of mishandled encounters that left him with the impression that Clint’s a prostitute.

“Hey, hi,” Clint says. He smiles, but regrets it immediately when it reopens the bad split in his lower lip. “Fish are biting tonight.”

He shouldn’t play into it, except that it’s funny. He’s been out killing people, sniping war criminals, and this guy thinks he’s been picking up creeps in dive bars or on street corners.

“Fish? Looks like sharks.” He stops directly in front of Clint, halting him in place and killing his forward momentum, which is unfortunate since that might’ve been the only thing keeping Clint moving.

“Sharks are fish,” Clint tells him. He watches Animal Planet. Fuck what people think, he’s an educated guy.

“Yeah, okay,” the neighbor says, like this fact isn’t important. Like he doesn’t care at all about the intricacies of marine biology.

“Look, man,” Clint says, “it’s kinda been a shitty night. And I don’t do people from this block anyway, so if you could just--”

“I’m not trying to hire you.” He sneers when he says it, fussy as a cat in a sweater.

Clint huffs out a breath. “Then I really don’t know what the fuck you want.”

He’s tired. He barely made it out of Medical with his dignity intact. He wants to sleep. He promised everyone that he was just going to go home and sleep.

The neighbor – Fred? Francesco? Ferdinand? – glowers his mouth into a thin line. “Who did this to you?”

Clint stares at him. “Why? You want his number?”

His face twists up like he thinks Clint’s tacky. He does that a lot, usually whenever he catches Clint down in the basement doing laundry, wearing purple sweatpants and nothing else. “Yeah,” he says. “I want his number.”

“Jesus,” Clint says, because he’s a mess. He can’t imagine how anyone would look at him and think I’ll have what he’s having but then again who is he to judge? Look at his evening activities. He got thrown off a helicopter. And that was the fun part of the night.

“Wow,” Clint says, “you’re into some hardcore shit, huh? But, hey. Good for you. That’s beautiful, that you’ve found yourself or whatever. Just wear a helmet. And maybe a mouth guard.”

The neighbor does not seem inclined to take this proffered olive branch with grace. Mostly, he looks like he wants to beat Clint across the head with it.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” he says. “I don’t wanna fuck him. I want to--” His face storms up like something that should set off sirens, makes some long-dormant part of Clint feel like ducking into a basement and hiding under something sturdy.

“Hey,” he says, suddenly soft, and that’s when Clint realizes he’s squared up like he’s about to punch his neighbor in the throat.

“Shit,” Clint says, dropping back into his dopey, hapless civilian body language. “Sorry. I’ve been taking fitness kickboxing at the rec center. Debra’s very serious about the ready stance, you know? It’s trained into me. I almost wrecked my dental hygienist last week.”

The neighbor doesn’t look like he buys it. His eyes move over Clint, assessing him like he’s checking the specs on a weapon, and Clint knows that look, knows what it means, but he’s known all along that his neighbor is ex-military. He watches a similar conclusion shape up on his neighbor’s face.

It could make him feel any kind of way about Clint, but mostly it seems to piss him off. Which, frankly, is par for the course as far as their interactions.

Oh, Clint thinks. Frankly. Frank.

“Your name is Frank,” Clint tells him, pleased by the sudden flicker of memory.

Frank’s frown gets somehow even worse. “You get hit in the head? I mean, other than the mouth.”

“You looking at my mouth?” Clint asks.

Frank stares at him. “It’s dripping blood on the sidewalk. So, yeah. I’m looking.”

Clint purses his lips out to check, but it’s difficult to see around his nose. There’s definitely a fresh streak of blood down the front of the t-shirt he borrowed from Natasha, though, so that probably indicates Frank’s observational powers have won this round.

“Huh,” he says.

“Come on,” Frank says, and he hooks his free hand around Clint’s elbow and starts dragging him up the street.

“Huh,” Clint repeats, sort of distantly perplexed by this turn of events. “If you try to take me down an alley somewhere, you are in for a real surprise.”

Frank makes an irritated noise in the back of his throat, and, usually, Clint has to put some effort into making guys go nonverbal with annoyance. He’s just a natural with Frank, though. That’s nice.

“I’m taking you inside,” Frank tells him. “Do you remember where you live?”

“I fucking got this far, didn’t I?” Clint volleys back. He trips a little going up the stairs, and Frank’s hand tightens around his arm, catches his weight like it’s nothing, holding him steady until he gets his feet back under him again.

Frank doesn’t say anything mean or shitty as they navigate their way inside. Clint ducks his head, focuses on walking. He’s starting to think he should’ve let Medical keep him, just for another hour or two. They would’ve cleaned up his face for him.

Now he’s got blood on Natasha’s shirt.

He’s thinking about that and the intricacies of putting one foot in front of the other, so Frank gets him all the way to a second location before Clint even figures out he’s effectively been kidnapped.

“Oh shit,” he says, when his feet hit the tile flooring of a kitchen entirely too clean to be his own. “Are you kidnapping me, Frank?”

“No,” Frank says. He sounds distracted, impatient. He’s still holding onto Clint’s arm with one hand, fumbling with something at the back of a cabinet with the other.

But this isn’t Clint’s apartment. And Clint remembers Frank stopping his fall outside, has an idea of how strong Frank is.

“Frank,” Clint says, tugging a little on his arm. “You’re kinda weirding me out a bit, bud.”

“Please don’t move,” Frank says, as he starts to pull something out of the cabinet.

Clint headbutts him in the face.

Frank makes a sharp, startled noise of pain and drops a first aid kit to the floor.

“Oh,” Clint says, staring at it.

Fuck,” Frank says and grabs a dishtowel just in time to catch the first rush of blood from his nose.

“Sorry,” Clint says, at a loss.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Frank says, louder than he’s ever been, and Clint grimaces, steps back, eyes darting sideways, scanning for the door. “You could have a concussion. Why did you headbutt me? Sit down. Are you dizzy?”

Clint blinks at him and then obliging takes a seat on the kitchen counter. “I don’t have a concussion,” he says. “I’m just loopy from blood loss. It’s fine.”

“Blood loss?” Frank straightens up. “Are you— what—”

Clint waves the questions aside. “It’s okay. I said it’s fine.”

It’s hard to read Frank’s expression, what with that towel covering half his face. But it’s strange how much kinder his eyes seem, when Clint can’t see him scowling.

“Look,” Frank says, “you need to rethink how you do this. I see you bruised up all the time. You’re constantly covered in bandaids. I don’t know where the fuck you’re finding these people, but one of them’s gonna kill you.”

Clint stares at him. He wonders if somehow this makes Coulson his pimp. He decides he’s going to write that into his next mission report, just to give HR something to do for a few days.

“Um,” he says.

Frank shakes his head. “We don’t have to talk about it. Not ever, if you don’t want to. Just. If you need anything, if you need--”

“I’m not a prostitute,” Clint says, as quickly as possible. “I kill people. I mean, for money. I mean, legally. Well, not—the government tells me to. So I guess maybe it’s not always completely legal, but it’s totally legit, I promise. The government people are real. I’m not Son of Sam’ing this.”

Frank stares at him. The blood’s really starting to stain that dishtowel.

“I can show you my guns if you don’t believe me.” Clint grimaces as soon as the words are out of his mouth. Show you my guns, for the love of God. “But now that I’ve said that out loud, I can hear how crazy it is, so maybe just take my word for it?”

Finally, Frank blinks. “Then why the hell did you offer to blow me for money?”

Clint sighs. “Yeah, see, I knew that’s why you got this in your head.”

“Right,” Frank says, “the wild assumption I made about you taking money for sex after you offered to have sex with me for money.”

“I didn’t offer to have sex with you for money,” Clint argues. “I asked you for money cuz I needed cash for the laundry, and then I tried to hit on you. I was just talking really fast because you answered the door half-naked, and I panicked.”

“I didn’t answer the door half--” Frank cuts himself off and then narrows his eyes. “I was working out,” he says, with a surprising amount of dignity for a man with a towel held to his face.

“Hell yeah, you were,” Clint confirms. He’d answered the door in basketball shorts and no shirt. Clint had damn near forgotten how to speak.

Actually, thinking about it now, he can feel the nuances of spoken language rapidly evaporating out of his mind, shoved aside to make room for more important mental processes.

Frank just stares at him, and Clint makes a valiant attempt to fight back a blush.

“What about,” Frank says, slow and deliberate, “those guys who come to your apartment? They show up, you go with them, and then you come back--”

“A little beat up,” Clint confirms. “Yeah. That’s just work, though. Not sex work. I mean, I don’t think they’re getting off. Maybe they are. I don’t know what people do on their side of the comms, you know?”

Frank just watches him as he fails, yet again, to make any damn sense.

“Anyway, they don’t hurt me. And we definitely don’t have sex.” Clint pauses, tips his head. “Why? Do they seem into me?”

Frank pulls the towel away from his face, works his jaw a little, and then very carefully breathes out. They both wait for a beat and then relax when there’s no more drip of blood. “Well. I guess I’m less worried about you,” Frank says, “now that you damn near broke my nose.”

“Yeah,” Clint says. “I’m actually really fucking dangerous.”

Frank raises an eyebrow, and Clint almost falls off the kitchen counter trying to explain.

“Not to you,” he says. “Or your nose. I’m real sorry about that. You just, like. You’re actually kind of a big guy? And you brought me in here, and maybe I’m still a little. Up. I get that way after missions. Hypervigilance, they call it. I overreact, sometimes.”

Frank just shrugs and tosses the towel over his shoulder. It lands neatly in the sink. He didn’t even look before he threw it.

Clint didn’t need another reason to be tongue-tied around this guy.

“You shouldn’t get this banged up all the time,” Frank says. “Who the hell do you work for?”

Clint just smiles, feels the whole right side of his face sting and then ache. “C’mon, Frank, I can’t just give everything away.”

Frank huffs, disagreeable and annoyed, which Clint is starting to understand is just a cover for concerned. He steps closer, deliberate this time, broadcasting all of his movements, which is both unnecessary and charming. 

“Your team’s shitty,” Frank announces.

“I don’t have a team,” Clint says. Not yet, although Coulson keeps saying he’s gonna work on it, gonna find a way to stop spinning Clint on the merry-go-round of teams who need a borrowed sniper.

“Well,” Frank says, as he flips his first aid kit open, all serious and intent, “there’s your problem.”

Clint feels a smile break across his face, wrestles it down by biting his lip. He resettles on the kitchen counter, lets his legs dangle down, not quite touching the floor, as Frank moves up beside him, focused on the cut near Clint’s right temple.

“It’ll happen someday,” Clint says.

The alcohol stings, but Clint doesn’t mind. He closes his eyes, let’s Frank get to work.

“Someday soon,” Frank grumbles, and, this time, Clint can’t bite his smile back at all.

Chapter Text

Coulson watches all eighty-seven seconds of the video that Natasha’s kidnappers send to SHIELD. When it’s over, he replays it twice, watching her hands, her feet, the pattern of her blinks. The fourth time, he doesn’t look at her at all. He studies the men around her, the weapons they’re holding, the angle of the sunlight coming through the high window in the wall behind them.

“What do you think?” Fury asks.

Coulson places the tablet back on his desk, setting it down so the edges line up neatly with the black border around his desk calendar. “Do you need anything else, Director? I have to cancel some appointments.”

Fury scoffs. Audibly and visibly, which indicates he’s only doing it for show. “Phil,” he says. He puts a lot into that one syllable.

“She’s my agent,” Phil says. He puts just as much into his.

“Probationary,” Fury counters.

Phil takes out his phone, starts drafting an apologetic message to the college friend he was supposed to have dinner with. “She’s my agent,” he repeats.

Fury sighs. “She’s not formally a member of SHIELD. You aren’t authorized to start any diplomatic quagmires over---”

“The Russian government won’t claim this group any more than you’re claiming our agent right now,” Phil says. “So long as this is handled before they finish rounding up bids--”

“Bids,” Fury repeats.

“That,” Phil says, very calmly, “is exactly what this is. They want a bidding war. Us, the Red Room, and anyone else who might have a grudge against or a job for the Black Widow. Are you prepared for the consequences of losing that war?”

Fury frowns at him. Phil’s spent years developing a very thorough mental dictionary of Fury’s frowns. This one says I’m blaming you for this but also I won’t stop you.

“If they want a bidding war,” Fury says, “why aren’t you asking me for money?”

Out of respect for the time they’ve worked together, Phil refrains from rolling his eyes. “We aren’t going to outbid the Red Room or whichever interested party comes out of Madripoor. Anyway, we don’t have time.”

Fury shifts, a slight tip of his chin. “Time?”

Phil’s eyes drop to the dark screen of the tablet. Eighty-seven seconds of film, and not a single one of her movements was a coded message meant for him or anything else from SHIELD. She had plenty of opportunity. She had all the information they needed. But she gave them nothing, because she didn’t think they’d want it.

“She doesn’t think we’re coming for her,” Phil says. “She won’t go back to the Red Room. She’ll get herself out, or she’ll get herself killed.”

 

- -

 

His agent, his responsibility. She got taken on his watch. She was captured while saving Clint, which is going to compound the effects of this if he doesn’t reassert some kind of control over the situation. When Clint wakes up, she needs to be there. If she dies, Phil’s down two agents for the foreseeable future.

It helps, right now, to think of them as agents. He’s lost so much control already. He can’t afford to lose control over himself.

So he doesn’t think about Natasha, nineteen years old and too old to believe in childish things like fairy tales and miracles and rescue missions. He doesn’t think about Clint, barely older, who can make a headshot while leaping off a moving vehicle but didn’t think to call for backup when he saw that Molotov cocktail fly through the open window of a school bus.

The lessons these two have learned have been, in their way, imminently practical.  In a crisis, they rely only on themselves. Natasha saves herself, alone. Clint saves everyone he can, alone.

Except. Except. Natasha broke the pattern.

Phil should have tracked this. He should have seen it coming. He’d hoped, of course, to get to this point eventually. He’d been actively working to bring the two of them together, trying to foster a workable partnership, but he hadn’t anticipated Natasha getting here so quickly.

The Red Room failed to train Natasha to withstand the pull of Clint Barton’s hapless, earnest, no-strings affection. Phil supposes he can’t blame them for that. SHIELD hasn’t exactly weathered it without changing, either.

Phil hasn’t, at least.

Fury offers additional assistance, but Phil knows they’re walking on a very thin line. SHIELD doesn’t want the attention of the World Security Council. Nobody wants to field a call from the Pentagon or the State Department asking why the hell they chose to get into a pissing match with some shadowy subsector of the Russian government.  

Phil muddies the waters as best as he can. He makes some phone calls, talks to old friends. He’s made a professional habit out of collecting favors, and he calls a few in now.

It’s possible he’s taking things personally. He can see how, reviewing the roster of names, Fury might be inclined to wonder if Phil is angling for a new definition of overkill.

He has a rationale prepared if asked. He has a number of points to make about pulling in people from various branches of various countries’ armed forces and intelligence agencies. He could give quite a lengthy speech on the merits of diffusing blame, creating rabbit trails, handing someone an ever-branching spider’s web of potential culpability instead of a straight line of responsibility.

The truth, as it often is, is simpler: she’s his agent. She got taken on his watch.

She has no faith in him. It’s his responsibility to prove to her why she should.

 

- -

 

The warehouse – and the surrounding two blocks of factories – are already on fire when Coulson and his team arrive. Fire is helpful, chaos-wise, but distinctly inhospitable to extended mission timelines. Which is fine, because Coulson doesn’t plan to be here long.

“Stay together,” Coulson says. “We won’t be the only group here.”

They do a bit of cleanup, as they go. The people in the street are not civilians. Smoke inhalation, in Coulson’s experience, does not present as contusions or what are very clearly knife wounds.

So she’s loose, and she’s armed. With a knife, if nothing else.

“Stay with me,” Coulson says. “She won’t know you.”

She’ll kill anyone she thinks she has to, but he knows she won’t hurt him.

When he finds her, he finds her trying to tie a tourniquet around her leg. She’s sloppy, probably from shock or blood loss or both. That leg is broken; it’s also caught a bullet or two. The fingers on her right hand have all been dislocated. She holds a gun on him with her left for three seconds before she blinks twice and slowly lowers it.

“Coulson?” she asks.

She has never once sounded young. Despite knowing her age, he’s always – until this moment – regarded her as something of a peer. She’s always carried herself like one.

“Agent Romanoff,” he says, but that’s not what she is. “Natasha.”

She stumbles her way to vertical, graceless with exhaustion, and starts toward him, limping across the smoke-filled street without cover, eyes locked on him.

For a long moment, he just stares at her.

This is what it means, he thinks, to survive the Red Room. It means walking on a broken leg because you think your rescue mission will leave you if you can’t keep up.

But it also meant leaving your allies to die, and Natasha has already shaken free from that. She can learn this, too.

“Here,” Phil says. “Don’t put any weight on that.”

Not that there’s much weight to her. He’s carried heavier soldiers farther distances. But, halfway back to their flight out, he lets the pair of pararescuemen he’s recruited take over. It leaves his hands free to shoot at every would-be-kidnapper he sees.

Ugly shots, not at clean as they could be. Every single one of her fingers on her right hand, dislocated. The trigger finger was tactically sound; everything after that was unnecessary.

Phil doesn’t often indulge in unnecessary violence. But, then, it doesn’t usually feel this soothing.

“Why are you here?” Natasha asks, still semi-coherent, as they prep for takeoff.

“You’re my agent,” Phil says. And then, because she won’t ask, “Because it’ll break Barton’s heart if you’re not there when he wakes up.”

“He’s going to wake up?” she asks. She’s already smiling.

“You’ll be ER roommates,” Phil tells her.

She’s double-blinking, fading out. Her smile lasts a second or two after her eyes slip closed.

His agent. His responsibility.

He has, he thinks, reasserted control. So what happens next is a choice. Sometimes you have to send a message.

“Do it,” he says.

Below them, what’s left of the warehouse explodes. If Natasha left any of those men alive, Coulson makes very sure they don’t stay that way.

Chapter Text

Frank doesn’t even notice until he damn near murders Rawlins for running his mouth. He thinks it’s the adrenaline; he thinks it’s the fear. Kandahar is the worst thing that’s ever happened to him, and he doesn’t understand until he’s being loaded into the back of a van with metal bars and armed guards that it’s worse than he thought.

Billy’s with him, looking shocky and pale, and maybe that’s the very worst part.

“I didn’t even feel it,” Frank says, to no one. To Billy, maybe, since he’s the only one who tips his head towards him, the only one still making eye-contact. "I didn't even know they had wolves."

Billy swallows. He doesn’t look away from Frank’s face. Frank can see the bite on him, the blood seeping through the bandages wrapped around his forearm.

Defensive, Frank thinks. That’s a defensive wound.

“Billy,” he says, staring at the red soaking stark and telling through the white, “did you know?”

Did he know and say nothing? Did he know it after? Or during?

They found the bite on Billy and that’s when they came for the rest of them. By then, Frank was ragdolling Rawlins like he was five seconds away from snapping his damn neck, so he was the first person they checked. And there it was, on his back, in the meat of his shoulder.

He doesn’t remember it. He must’ve thought it was a knife, or a bullet.

He would’ve said something if he’d known.

Billy didn’t say anything.

Well, Frank thinks, maybe I would've waited to say something until after I killed Rawlins.

 

- -

 

The van takes them to an airstrip, and two doctors – one visibly nervous, one dead-eyed and irate – inject them with sedatives that are supposed to make them safe to transport. Frank gets the dead-eyed woman, who sighs when she sees him. She shines a light in his eyes, takes his blood pressure, purses her lips as she records his pulse and temperature.

“Are you hungry?” she asks, pointer finger hovering over the screen of her device, eyes nowhere near Frank.

“What,” he says, surprised by the question. But as soon as the thought is done processing, his stomach audibly growls and his mouth fills with saliva. “Jesus Christ,” he says. “Yeah.”

Her eyes go to his stomach and then drag up his chest and finally settle on his face. “I’m doubling your dosage,” she tells him.

Across the room, Billy’s already sagging. Frank can see the panic on him from here, the way his fingers keep trying to roll into fists, the mad fluttering of his eyelashes as he fights to stay awake. Billy can sleep damn near anywhere, so long as he knows he’s the most dangerous thing in the room. Making him vulnerable is the fastest way to piss him off.

“Double,” he says. “Is that safe?”

She shrugs. The look she gives him isn’t unkind; it’s just completely without emotion. “Not for you,” she tells him. “But I’m sending ten people in an airplane across an ocean with you and your friend.”

An eight-man crew, pilot, and co-pilot, and all of them are sure things. But him and Russo, they’re unknowns. By this time tomorrow, they might be dead anyway.

If this was yesterday and that was his crew, he’d want the transport double-dosed, too.

“Okay,” he says. He looks at Russo while she does her work.

They’re chaining Billy’s hands together behind his back. Not handcuffs. Actual, literal links of chain. There’s already a blindfold over his eyes and a mask over the lower half of his face. The fact that he’s letting them do any of this means he’s completely out, dead to the world.

Or lying again, Frank thinks.

He should tell this lady, maybe. Billy’s just as dangerous as he is. Smaller, sure, but more subtle. He should warn her. He should warn all of them.

But there’s something about the way Billy looks, limp and unresponsive. Dead, Frank thinks. He looks dead. And maybe he is. Maybe the shot’s been fired, and it just hasn’t hit yet. Maybe that same bullet's coming for him, too.

He feels the needle when it breaks the skin.

And it’s weird, he thinks. So Goddamn weird that he never felt the bite at all.

 

- -

 

He wakes up in a room with no furniture. White walls, recently painted. Linoleum flooring, built just unlevel enough to suit the drain set in the center of the room. There’s a speaker in the ceiling and cameras perched in all four corners.

There is also, Frank notices, a man in here with him.

Not Russo.

He’s blonde and leggy, has a bandaid on one cheek, a scrape across his nose, and the bored, fidgety posture of a student midway through a three-hour lecture. He’s wearing scrubs. There’s a pizza box on the floor beside him, with half the pizza already gone.

“I saved some for you,” he says, and he nudges the box toward Frank with an elbow.

“Who’re you?” Frank says.

There’s something wrong with his skull. It feels like it’s buzzing, like the bones are humming around his brain.

The blonde smiles at him. He has a friendly smile and a bit of tomato sauce stuck to his upper lip. “I’m Clint,” he says. “You know your name?”

“Frank,” he says, after a few seconds spent trying to decide if he should tell the truth. “Where’s Russo?”

Clint tips his head. “That the other guy who got bit?”

Frank hesitates and then nods. He's not giving them anything they don’t already know. He’s not giving up Russo.

Clint gestures lazily with his left hand, thumb pointing toward the door. “Across the hallway with my partner. Similar setup, but, hey. We got the better room.”

Frank looks around the room and tries to decide how this could possibly be the better option. “What makes this one better?”

“It’s lucky,” Clint tells him. “We’ve had two guys in a row come through here and turn up with positive control parameters. Don’t you break my streak, Frank.”

Positive control parameters.

What kind of dog is he gonna be? Rabid, or useful?

Frank’s stomach growls, and Clint pushes the pizza box closer. Frank glances down, and it’s like he can smell each individual pierce of pepperoni. He lurches forward without meaning to. It’s been a long damn time since his body did anything without permission, and now, here he is. Crouched over a room-temperature pizza, damn near growling at this guy.

Clint eyes him thoughtfully, takes in Frank’s posture. “Not a good sign, Frank,” he says, softly.

He doesn’t sound disappointed, exactly. If Frank had to pick a word, he’d pick sorry. It sounds like Clint’s already apologizing to him.

“Are you the guy that’s gonna shoot me if I go rabid?” Frank asks.

Clint's eyebrows pull together. "You don't have rabies."

“I know it’s not actual rabies,” Frank says. “But that’s what happens, right? Either I can control it, or you put me down.”

Clint’s jaw works like he’s chewing on something and can’t abide the taste. “You know,” he says, “I get that this is a shitty time for you. But if you say anything like that again, we’re gonna have a fight about it.”

Frank stares at him. A few hours ago, he was leading a suicidal attack in Kandahar. Now this guy’s upset by his vocabulary. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“I’m not here to shoot you,” Clint says. “Your chances of survival are much better if you have another wolf to anchor you. That’s why I’m here.”

Frank hesitates. He’s got a mouthful of pizza, and it’s only making him hungrier. “You’re a wolf?”

“Yep,” Clint says. The p at the end pops in his mouth, and he tips his chin up like he’s trying to start a fight on the sidewalk outside a bar. “Since I was six.”

Six, Frank thinks. And he can’t fucking imagine. He doesn’t know the statistics. He’s never once looked into any of this. But he knows very few children survive infection.

“Shit,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

Clint softens, just a little. A second later, he shrugs. “They put me in a circus. So, you know. I’ve heard all of it before. And I’m not gonna leave, no matter what you say. But I will, at some point, get real fucking tired of listening.”

Frank shoves more pizza in his mouth. He almost can’t stop chewing long enough to breathe. He’s a little worried he’s going to take his own damn fingers off.

“Didn’t mean to be an asshole,” he says. “I don’t know how this shit works.”

Clint’s watching him eat. That frown that showed up a few minutes ago is really making itself at home.

Frank remembers what the doctor said. Are you hungry? He wonders what this desperate hunger means.

“It'll happen soon,” Clint says. "And once it does, we’ll know how it’s gonna go for you.”

“And if it goes bad?”

Clint hesitates. “There’s a bad that can be managed,” he says, “and a bad that can’t. Most people like you, who get bit out in the wild, you’ll kill any human you’re around. First shift’s a shitshow. Always. Protocol used to be to kill every wolf who got aggressive. We figured out a few years ago that, for most wolves, the aggression tapers off over time.”

There’s a second of silence and then Clint makes a small, irritated noise and tips his head so he can make some pointed eye-contact with the nearest camera. “Well, the scientific community figured that out. Wolves always knew. But nobody fucking believed us.”

“Because you kill and eat people,” Frank says.

Clint’s eyes slide back toward him. He takes a breath and then slowly lets it out. “You’re really starting to make me regret sharing my pizza with you.”

There’s no pizza left. Frank realizes that as his fingers scramble around in an empty box. Jesus Christ, he ate an entire half of a giant pizza in something like six minutes. “Is there anything else to eat?” he asks.

Clint rolls his eyes. “No. They’re not opening that door until this is decided.”

Frank studies the door. He wonders if he’s ever going to get to see what’s on the other side. “So how’s this go?”

“Well,” Clint says. “You shift, and I shift, and we see what happens.”

Frank sizes him up. He looks strong, sure. But probably not strong enough. “You any bigger when you’re a wolf?”

Clint grins, wide and toothy, and, for the first time, Frank can almost see the wolf in him. “You worried about me, Frank?”

Frank’s not sure he’s worried, exactly. He’s not processing much at all. He knows he’s hungry, and he’s pretty sure he’s going to die before he ever gets full.

“New wolves’ll attack humans almost always,” Clint says. “But things go better with other wolves. So we shift, and then we see if you try to kill me.”

Frank thinks about all the people who were alive twenty-four hours ago. “Do you know who I am? What I do?”

Clint gives him a look like his patience disappeared with the pizza, like Frank’s already eaten it all up. “Frank,” he says, “this is a SHIELD operation.”

Frank doesn’t know anything about SHIELD. But Clint seems confident enough, and, anyway, Frank can’t make himself care much. The buzzing in his skull is a dull, horrible throbbing, and his shoulder feels hot, like he got burned instead of bit.

“What,” he says, as he reaches up to push the heels of his hands against his temples, “the fuck.”

“Yeah,” Clint says, breathing out. He sits up, stretches his arms, then his neck. “Sorry, Frank. First shift hurts like hell.”

He wants to tear his skin off. He feels like something breaking out of a chrysalis, like a snake shedding its skin. He wants to rip into himself and rip through himself and rip and rip and rip until something comes loose.

His joints ache. He can hear his teeth scraping and grinding against each other.

“Jesus,” Clint says. “You’re fast, Frank.”

He doesn’t know what that means. Doesn’t know if that’s good. Doesn’t care if it’s bad. He feels like he’s going to burn up; he feels like he’s going combust.

Clint stands up and ditches his shirt. A second later, he’s kicking out of his pants. And Frank thinks that makes sense, doesn’t want his clothes on anymore, hates the way they feel, hates the restriction, hates the weight, but his hands are wet sacks of moving bones and melting muscle and he can’t grab anything, can’t move them, can’t grip.

The pain is so sharp-hot-stinging that he wants to throw up, but his stomach isn’t where it was, and his jaw is moving, and everything’s wrong, and he wants to scream.

The wrong noises are coming out of his mouth. Not speech.

It’s Kandahar, he thinks. It’s dying. It’s just war, he thinks, some part of his mind astral projected right the hell out of all this, like the rational part of him considered all his options and then just pulled on a jetpack and aimed for the stratosphere.

It’s just a war, Frank, he thinks. So fight it.

And he wants to. He wants to fight. Same as he did at that raid, when he was just supposed to die. He wants to fight, wants to kill, wants to take his brain and smother it, let his body do the work it has to do.

But there’s nothing in this room to kill except a wolf.

When he growls, his whole chest shakes. Nothing is the way it’s supposed to be. Everything’s too bright and smells like he’s huffing the entire contents of a janitor’s closet.

He tries to eat a pizza box. There’s nothing there but cardboard and grease.

The wolf is watching. Frank kinda wants to get his teeth in him.

Lanky thing. Blue-eyed. Doesn’t seem like a threat. Frank thinks he knows him.

Frank doesn’t know anyone.

He can’t get through the door. The drain in the floor smells like old blood. The wolf in the room smells like pizza and coffee and gunpowder.

He’s hungry, and he’s trapped, and everything’s wrong. He can hear something through the walls. A fight, he thinks. Maybe.

Wolves.

The other wolf in the room isn’t paying attention. His focus is on the door, ears pricked forward. He’s listening, just like Frank is listening. He’s listening to the wolves.

When Frank lunges for him, he snaps back around, but it’s too late. Frank could have his teeth in him if he wanted.

Does he?

Is that what he wants?

But it can’t be, because he doesn’t use his teeth. Just slams his shoulder into him, knocks him off his feet. Bored, he thinks. And trapped, and keyed up, and scared, and hungry, and trapped.

The other wolf climbs to his feet. The door opens.

Frank looks up, sees a person with a gun, and the buzzing of boredom ignites in a rage like a lit match dropped into a gas can.

He can’t track what happens next. He can’t track any of it. It’s a smear of noise and contact and hate, and he doesn’t come down, but he does eventually burn out.

When it happens in reverse, it hurts just as much, but he knows what it means now. He’ll be back in his own body eventually. He just lays on the ground and breathes, feels all the bones squirming into place.

“You shoulder-checking piece of shit,” Clint says. He’s sprawled out a few feet away. He has a blanket wrapped around him, one arm behind his head. “I can’t fucking believe you. They almost killed you.”

Frank’s having some trouble breathing. He doesn’t know if his lungs have figured out how they’re supposed to fit in his chest yet. He gasps and shifts and coughs, and things resettle, come together.

“Does this mean I’m good?” he asks.

He’d just assumed he was dead. He’d been waiting. He thought he knew how this ended. He doesn’t know what the hell he’s going to do now.

Clint looks over at him. He’s sweaty and flushed, but his body must know how to do this better than Frank’s. After a second, he tosses a blanket Frank’s direction.

Frank’s clothes are just tattered rags on the floor. Clint’s scrubs have been ripped to shreds. He wonders which one of them did that.

Probably him.

“It means you’re in protective custody until you’re not a risk to the public,” Clint says.

Frank frowns. “What’s that mean?”

“It means,” Clint says, “welcome to SHIELD.”

Frank doesn’t know what the hell SHIELD is, but he’s pretty sure that means he’s done with Cerberus. He should regret that, probably. He doesn’t.

“What about Billy?” he asks.

Clint’s quiet for a second, but, when Frank looks over, he smiling. Wan and tired, but smiling anyway.

It’s a hell of a thing, Frank thinks, suddenly, to volunteer to go alone into a room with a monster, on the off-chance that maybe you’ll save that monster’s life.

“Lucky day for everyone, Frank,” Clint says. “Your friend pulled through, too.”

Frank closes his eyes. It's different, somehow, when it’s Russo. It seems real now. Or maybe he just cares more about Billy’s life than he does about his own.

He breathes out, lets it settle in his mind. So he’s a monster. Billy is too. And so is Clint. And so is whoever was across the hall, locked in with Billy.

It should feel different, but it mostly feels the same. Maybe he’s been a monster all along.

“What does SHIELD do?” Frank asks, as he sits up, tucks the blanket around his waist.

Clint’s smile tips up smug. “We save the world."

Well, Frank thinks. What else is a monster supposed to do?

Chapter Text

Dean spends all of five minutes with the Soldier before he decides he’s one of Jason’s. Definitely not his problem. Sure, that blank, expectant stare could go either way, but the guy takes holy water to the face without flinching, and, anyway, no demon moves with that kind of grace. They always sit shallow in their hosts, steering from the waterline of the mind, all brutality and strength.

No grace, not really. Not like a human. Not in such an easy, lived-in way.

A demon might learn moves like that if they spend enough time in a body, but that kind of prolonged cohabitation lends itself to a certain slippage, personality-wise.

The point is: no demon who stuck around long enough to develop the dexterity necessary for those knife tricks would sit so still and docile in borrowed skin. There’d be flashes, hints, symptoms of any kind of temperament at all. But this guy handles a knife like it’s as familiar as his fingers, and he’s got all the personality of a cinderblock wall.

“Hey,” Dean says, when Jason picks up with a sleep-rough If this is another apocalypse, I swear to Christ--- “Got one for you.”

Jason groans like Dean just kicked down his door to serve papers. “Asshole, I’m gonna get you Superman’s number.”

“Oh, will he send me sexy pictures too?” Dean asks. Beside him, Sam chokes on his water.

“Of fucking course he won’t,” Jason says. “Why would he need to? Just Google him, for fuck’s sake. That suit is skintight.”

“Oh yeah,” Dean says, mentally paging through every memory of the Red Hood ensemble. “Cuz your outfit leaves so much to the imagination, Red. Any tighter on those thighs, and you’d split those pants every night.”

Jason scoffs. “Unlikely. You know what the tensile strength of that fabric is?”

“Wish to God it was a little less,” Dean says.

Jason makes a sharp, surprised sound that is almost a laugh. “You sure you’re not bringing me another ghost? If this one disappears when you cross state lines, I’m gonna stop taking your calls.”

“Bullshit you are,” Dean says. Because, really. Bullshit he is.

Jason must smile, because Dean can hear it, softening the edges. “Yeah, sure,” he says, “bullshit I am.”

 

- -

 

Dean puts the Soldier in the trunk. Sam doesn’t like it, gives him a look like he’s putting his open cup of coffee down on top of Sam’s laptop again. “Dean,” he says.

“What?” Dean gestures toward the backseat. “I moved all the guns up there.”

“You can’t put a person in the trunk,” Sam says. He sounds horrified. Sometimes, Dean legitimately cannot fathom how Sam grew up to be so fussy. Where the hell did he even find all that propriety? Dean can’t act right even when he wants to.

“I disconnected the emergency release,” Dean says. “It’s not like he’s gonna get out until we let him.”

“And how’s that gonna look?” Sam puts his hands on his hips and everything. If Dean doesn’t find the right arrangement of words to deescalate the situation, they’re going to have a whole fight about this. “You really wanna add a human trafficking charge to our felony bingo cards this year, Dean?”

Dean drops his eyes to the Soldier, who’s weighted down with about twenty-five pounds of variously magicked chains and locks. He shook off that tranq like it offered some unkind assessments of his mother’s sexual history, but he’s doing approximately fuck-all with all that fight now. Just staring silently up at Dean through that bizarre mess of eye black and hair.

“We’re going to Gotham,” Dean says. He shrugs his jacket off for no real reason, drops it so it drapes across the Soldier. “If we show up without a body in the trunk, they’re gonna think we’re posers.”

“I hate Gotham,” Sam says, which is probably true.

Dean lost Sam in Gotham, once. Years back. That was the same weekend he met Jason. He thinks they’re still rebuilding parts of the city that got caught in the crossfire of that catastrophe.

“I hear Zatanna’s back in town,” Dean offers.

Sam’s expression collapses into his terrible, pinched pokerface. “Thought she was still in Liverpool.”

“Nope,” Dean says. He shuts the trunk, doublechecks that it’s latched. “She and her fishnets have come back stateside.”

“Fuck off,” Sam says, off-hand, half-hearted. And then, with a heavy, martyred sigh: “Fine. Let’s go to Gotham.”

 

- -

 

They’re in Gotham city limits for about five minutes before Jason shows up in the rearview, on one of those bikes he trots out just to impress Dean. They both know he doesn’t need to make the effort, but Dean’s not going to pretend he doesn’t appreciate it anyway. He’s damn near breaking his neck trying for glimpses in the rearview, so Jason obligingly pulls up next to them at the next light, makes a whole production out of checking the backseat.

“Ghost?” he asks, half-yelling over the sound of traffic.

“He’s in the trunk,” Dean calls back. The business guy in the next lane over rolls up the windows of his sedan.

Jason laughs and shakes his head. “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” he says. “Come on.”

 

- -

 

The safehouse isn’t much, but there’s a private garage. There is also, Dean notices, an entire wall of melee weapons. “Oh right,” Jason says, nodding toward an axe that’s isolated on its own, displayed behind a thick pane of rune-covered glass. “I meant to call you about that one. Cursed as hell.”

“‘As hell,’” Dean repeats. “That a metric you know a lot about?”

“Not me,” Jason says. “Not my area. I leave that to you two.”

He died once, Dean knows. Everyone knows. That’s why so many people on their side of things end up working with him. He won’t fight demons if he can avoid it, sidesteps every supernatural problem he can, swears up and down he doesn’t know a damned thing from a doomed one, but something brought him back. And he’s never been particularly forthcoming about what that something was.

He’s not a demon, though. The night after they more or less leveled two city blocks to get Sam back, Dean swapped out the vodka while Jason was distracted, fed him two separate shots of holy water, and Jason hadn’t flinched, though he’d seemed vaguely insulted by the interruption in his drinking.

“Speaking of our areas,” Jason says, “don’t you two have something for me?”

“Yeah,” Dean says. “He’s in the trunk.”  

“Maybe,” Sam says, because nobody’s ever going to let Dean live down the ghost from three years ago.

“Metal arm, you said?” Jason asks. He’s taking out his guns, which isn’t exactly unusual, but he doesn’t usually draw both unless there’s some kind of active situation.

“Just one,” Dean says. “Arm. I mean, he has two. But only one of them’s metal.”

Jason grins like he thinks Dean’s cute. Dean hasn’t been cute since he was fourteen, but he’s not going to complain about the attention. “Just one metal arm,” Jason says. “Got it.”

“I think,” Dean says, as he goes to open the trunk, “that they were calling him ‘the Soldier.’”

Two things happen very quickly. Well, three. Three things happen very quickly.

The first is that Dean looks down and realizes that absolutely none of those magicked chains are still where they’re supposed to be.

The second is that Jason sidesteps in front of Dean, shouldering him completely out of the way, as he lowers both guns to aim directly at the Soldier’s eyes.

The third is that the Soldier blinks muzzily at them for a second and then, very slowly, holds Dean’s jacket up towards him.

“Holy shit,” Dean says.

“What the hell,” Sam adds. He has a machete in his hands. He must’ve taken it right off Jason’s wall. God bless him, a machete.

What the hell does Sam think he was going to do with a machete? Looks pretty badass, though. Dean’s maybe jealous. Or he will be, later, after whatever the hell this is resolves.

Jason says something in a language Dean is reasonably certain is Russian. The Soldier answers him, but he sounds strange, almost plaintive. He shifts in the trunk, still trying to return Dean's jacket, and that’s when Dean notices it.

The fourth thing. Although, if he had to guess, this one probably predates all of the others.

“Red,” he says. “Look. I know you’re gonna think this is because I don’t wanna get my car detailed again, but---”

“I know a guy,” Jason says. “He can get blood out of upholstery, no problem.”

“I’m sure you do know a guy,” Dean says. Because this is Gotham. And Jason is Jason. “But I think maybe this is one of ours after all.”

Jason hesitates. He doesn’t look at Dean. His eyes stay focused on the Soldier. Dean’s starting to get the feeling that maybe they took a hell of a risk, transporting this guy in their trunk like they did.

“Why do you think that?” Jason asks.

Dean slowly reaches over and taps on a rune etched into the underside of the trunk lid. It’s growing a faint but visible blue. “That’s a possession blocker, kind of,” he says. “And it’s sure as hell not working on us. It’s localized, only works on current passengers.”

Jason’s mouth pushes flat. “A ‘possession blocker,’” he repeats, sounding dubious. “Kind of.”

“Supposed to be part of a series. Never seen just that one light up like that,” Dean says. “I mean, usually, if one of us picks up something, the whole fucking trunk lights up. Sam, what the hell is this? What’s this one?”

Sam sidewinds over, moving awfully subtly for a man with a machete. He’s not prepared for that kind of weapon; he doesn’t have the gravitas. “Huh,” he says, once he’s closer. Dean waits – not patiently – for further analysis, and, finally, Sam offers: “Guy’s cursed, probably.”

Dean grimaces. “Cursed?”

“Well,” Sam moves like he wants to tap on the rune with the machete and then seems to realize that maybe waving a blade that close to the Soldier’s face might provoke some kind of inconvenient response. “Part of possession is forgetting who you are, right? That’s what that one’s for. Remembering your true self.”

“Your true self,” Jason says, sounding somehow even more skeptical.

“There’s seminars for that,” Dean offers. “We’ll put this guy in yoga pants, send him on a weekend retreat.”

“Look,” Sam says, “these things don’t always translate well, okay? Fuck off.”

Jason hesitates. He asks another question in Russian, and the Soldier shakes his head. Not like he’s saying no, but like he doesn’t know, like the question hurts somehow. Jason frowns and asks the same question again.

“No,” the Soldier says. “No one. I’m not—I don’t want to.”

Jason’s frown deepens. After a second, he lowers one of the guns. The other shifts, still pointed at the Soldier but aimed to stop, not murder. “Who are you?” he asks.

The Soldier’s given up on trying to give Dean’s jacket back. He’s just holding it, looking absolutely ridiculous with his eyeliner and that weird, hunted look in his eyes. “I think,” he says, “I’m Bucky Barnes.”

There’s a long pause where nobody says anything. Jason takes his eyes off the Soldier – Bucky Barnes – just long enough to shoot Dean an incredulous look.         

“Well, hell,” Dean says, “that makes him even more your problem. There damn sure aren’t any demons named ‘Bucky.’”

“Bucky Barnes?” Sam repeats, very loud, and drops his machete.

Chapter Text

The wolf comes out of the dark, tries to rip into his throat. Billy’s too tangled up to shoot, can’t get to his knife, so he kicks out on instinct, nails the bastard in the belly. The wolf falls back, but it takes Billy’s arm with it, teeth cutting through skin, catching on bone.

It’s a brainstem-level primal terror, one he hasn’t felt in years. Decades of work, all that sweat, bodies’ worth of blood, and here he is anyway. Brought back to exactly where he promised himself he’d never be again.

Smaller, weaker. Devourable. Prey.

His skin rips like paper. When the wolf snarls, it shows him his own damn blood.

Billy wants to paint the ground with this thing’s brains. He wants its blood on his teeth. He wants what he always wants when he’s hurt: to do what’s been done to him, but better, harsher, crueler. Escalate and escalate, annihilate the whole damn world if he has to.

He raises his gun, aims between its eyes. Its ears go flat against its skull.

It’s not the right ammunition. It won’t matter. A bullet in the brain will bring it down, even if it isn’t silver. And while it’s panting on the ground, twitching and convulsing, he’ll saw its fucking head off, and then it’ll be done.

But there’ll be a wolf body with blood on its teeth. And somebody’s gonna wonder who it’s been chewing on.

“Get the fuck out of here,” Billy says. If it were rabid, it wouldn’t know a gun when it saw one. But this one knows. This one’s smart enough to understand what’s happening. “Go,” he says, and he shifts his aim.

A belly wound won’t kill it either, but it’ll hurt like a son of a bitch.

The wolf takes off into the darkness. Billy breathes, counts to three, and then looks at his arm.

It’s a mess. It’s meat.

Anyone who looks at that is gonna know what it is. They’re gonna know it’s a bite. They’ll take him, tranq him, transport him. Probably kill him.

But maybe they don’t have to know. Maybe he can buy some time. Maybe he can disguise it enough to get away.

He looks at the gun in his hand, thinks about his knife. He’d be cutting with his off hand. Maybe he’d fuck it up. Maybe it’d still be too obvious.

The gun, though. If he blasted half his arm off, nobody would know what happened to the rest.

But he’d be in surgery anyway. Maybe they’d run the tests. Sure as hell they’d stop everything as soon as he started to shift.

But, he thinks. But. Field hospital wouldn’t be as well-guarded as wherever they take fresh wolves. If he’s gonna have to eat his way out of somewhere, hospital’s the better option.

Is that what I’m doing? he thinks, a single panicked voice echoing in the roaring senate of his mind. Am I gonna murder doctors?

He doesn’t know. It doesn’t matter. A doctor’s no different from anybody else.

That wolf, he thinks, ran off toward Frank.

If anyone’s getting out of this, it’s Frank. Billy has to get to wherever Frank is. He has to survive this moment. And he’s not going to survive if a wolf murders Frank Castle.

He bandages the cut before he goes. It won’t fool anyone. The blood’s already seeping red and telltale through the bandage.

But maybe that won’t matter.

 

- -

 

He gets the nervous doctor. That makes sense. They put the experienced one with Frank. Everyone always thinks Frank’s the dangerous one.

But Frank’s dangerous like a loaded gun. You still have to pull the trigger.

Billy’s dangerous like a kid with a fat lip and a knife. There’s no trigger; there’s a flinch.

“We have to sedate you.” The guy says it like an apology. Billy gives him the warmest eyes he can, paints himself human, lets his gaze unfocus a little. The weaker he seems, the less they’ll give him.

“Yeah,” he says. “Of course.”

He hates this shit. He hates it. The bite is throbbing, but he knows half the pain is in his head. That nausea isn’t real. It’s his brain, confusing the signals.

There’s something happening to him, and he can’t stop it.

Billy looks over at Frank while they inject him. Frank’s set-jawed and serious, intense. It’s just another fight for him. Frank’s got enough fight in him to win a dozen wars, a hundred. Chin ducked, shoulders set, nothing in the Goddamn world can get a grip on him.

Frank Castle wasn’t ever small.

Billy wonders what would happen if he asked Frank to stop this. He’s still keyed up from Kandahar. There’s not much human in his eyes yet. He’s all instinct like this, and his instincts run loyal.

What would happen, Billy wonders, if he looked over and said: Frank, get me out of here.

Frank, they’re gonna kill me.

Frank, they’ll split us up. You’ll never see me again.

Frank, I’m gonna be alone.

Frank, nobody gives a shit what happens to a dead man walking, the same way nobody gives a shit what happens to a ten-year-old with a pretty face whose own mother didn’t want him.

If he let some of that animal fear show on his face, would that be enough?

Frank’s always saving every wounded guy who falls. If Billy made himself wounded, would Frank save him too?

The needle’s almost painless in his arm. The doctor wipes up the single bead of blood, pats a bandage onto his skin. Like that little needle prick’s gonna matter when they’re powerwashing his brains off the asphalt by dawn.

Frank’s not saving anybody. His saving days are done.

The truth is the same as it’s been since Billy was ten years old. In the end, he’s the only thing he has. Nobody is coming to save him.

Secure your own oxygen mask, he thinks.

So he lets himself slip sideways, leans into the drugs trying to bring him down.

 

- -

 

He wakes up on the flight. His arm is burning; he’s dizzy. Sick. Cold.

Frank’s beside him, breathing so slow that Billy thinks he’s dead for a handful of seconds.

When he thinks Frank’s dead, he doesn’t feel grief. He’s not sure what he feels. Relief, maybe.

When he thinks Frank’s dead, he thinks: nobody on this plane can stop me.

He’s still trying to formulate an answer to stop me from what? when he feels Frank breathe in beside him.

It’s a check. A chokechain maybe, but it mostly just feels like someone coming along to resolutely flip the switch to off.

Frank’s here. There’s nothing for him to do.

He’s asleep again in seconds.

 

- -

 

“You want the pretty one,” a woman muses, “or the big one?”

Billy tries to focus, tries to follow. He assumes he’s the pretty one. He usually is.

“I want the big one,” a man says. Which is good. If Billy has to deal with one of them, the woman’s probably less of a threat. “The small ones eat too much. I want at least half this pizza, you know?”

“Hm.” The woman’s quiet for a second. She’s circling closer. Billy can hear her footsteps. “You read their files?”

“Yeah.” There’s some shuffling, a yawn.

“Be careful,” the woman says.

You be careful,” the man replies. “That one does upkeep on his hair in a war zone. Respect to the troops and all, but that’s a damn psychopath.”

“Yours shaves,” the woman counters.

The man scoffs. Audibly. “You don’t know how much a beard can itch, Nat.”

The woman hums. She’s entirely too close. Every single one of those audible footsteps had been a choice that she eventually stopped making.

Billy doesn’t flinch. He breathes on a slow, careful pattern. He waits, listens.

“Am I supposed to believe that you do?” the woman asks, arch and gently teasing.

The man gasps. “Oh,” he says, “fuck you.”

 

- -

 

When he wakes up again, there’s a woman with him in an otherwise completely empty room. She’s beautiful, but not in a way that will be useful. Some people make themselves beautiful and hope to God that someone notices. But sometimes it’s a weapon. Sometimes it’s a trap.

“Hello,” she says, poised and polite. “You don’t have any next of kin listed in your file.”

There’s an uncle somewhere, Billy thinks. Cousins. They didn’t want him when his mom abandoned him, so he doesn’t think they’ll care if he dies now. No reason to waste postage. No reason to waste anybody’s time.

“No,” he says. “I don’t.”

She nods, but her eyes are interested. She’s trying to break him into pieces, trying to figure out how he was put together. He knows what she’s doing because he’s doing the same thing.

If his head didn’t ache with every beat of his heart, maybe he could spin her a story she’d like. But he can’t think about her right now. He’s thinking about his body, about this traitorous bullshit sack of meat, betraying him again.

“Your emergency contact,” she tells him, “has a fifty percent chance of dying in the next four hours.”

Billy laughs. He doesn’t know why. “Your math’s off,” he says. “You don’t know Frank Castle.”

He closes his eyes, thinks about Kandahar. They were supposed to die then, too.

He should’ve asked Frank for help. He should’ve gone to him before they evac’d out. He should’ve shown him the bite, said Frank, they’re gonna kill me. Frank. Frank. I don’t know what to do.

He’s never really understood Frank. He’ll give some people Goddamn anything. Billy’s one of them, and he knows that. Frank loves him. Billy thinks, sometimes, he loves Frank too. But there’s an emergency override in everything Billy’s ever thought was love, so maybe it wasn’t anything at all.

But if they’d left together, he could’ve gone through this with Frank. It wouldn’t be so bad, he thinks, if Frank killed him. At least it would feel personal. At least he knows Frank wouldn’t enjoy it.

It would be an acceptable kind of ugly. Frank wouldn’t make it last longer than it had to.

“We need to know if there’s anyone we should contact if you don’t make it out of this,” she says.

Billy smiles at her. It’s not one of his good smiles. There’s nothing sweet there, nothing warm. She smiles back, just the same. Like a pair of switchblades, he thinks. Like dogs showing teeth.

Who the hell are you? he wonders.

But she’s just the obstacle between him and the door.

“Curtis Hoyle,” Billy says, because, probably, Curtis will want to know.

“Okay,” she says. She doesn’t write it down, but there are cameras in every corner of this room.

Billy considers her. She’s 5’7, maybe 130 pounds. She’s not even a little afraid of him, and he’s going to sprout teeth any moment now.

Hell, he’s had teeth his whole life.

“Are you animal control?” he asks.

She smiles again. A prettier one. “I guess I am.”

He lets his eyes move over her. Body like that, she has to be used to it. Billy’s used to it. There’s a certain kind of invisibility in being the most attractive person in the room. Everyone’s looking at you, but nobody’s looking into you. It’s amazing what you can get away with if you’ve got the kind of smile that keeps everyone’s eyes on your face and not your hands.

“You think you’re qualified to control me?” he asks.

“I know I am,” she says. “I’ve got more practice as a wolf than you do.”

Oh, he thinks. “You’re one of them?”

“One of us,” she says, with another one of those maneater smiles.

He tips his head back against the wall and laughs. “One of us,” he repeats. “What is it you said? I’ve got fifty/fifty odds of coming out of this alive?”

She shrugs. “Don’t feel too sorry for yourself. Most people in your position have odds a lot worse than that.”

It annoys him more than it should. Don’t feel too sorry for yourself. He tries to keep if off his face; he doubts he’s successful.

“They flew the two of you all the way here,” she says. “They brought us in. My partner and I have the best record of successful first shifts in the world.”

Which means someone, somewhere, still thinks he and Frank have value. Someone with power or money has work for them to do.

If they live through this, they’ll be even stronger than before.

If Billy lives through this, he’ll be a monster.

But it doesn’t matter. He knows the fables, same as everyone else. He remembers Little Red, knows the made-up part of that story was the huntsman. In real life, there’s nobody coming with an axe to save children who get cornered by wolves. In real life, Little Red’s dead or she took up that axe herself, swung and kept swinging until she was coated with gore.

That’s how it works. That’s how it’s always worked. You’re a wolf, or you’re meat.

“You got any suggestions,” Billy says, “for how to survive this?”

She leans forward, crouched on the balls of her feet, staring into his eyes. She feels familiar. She feels like the same species. After a long silent moment, she smiles again, and it’s the first one that’s seemed real.

“Billy,” she says, “I don’t think you need any tips from me on how to survive.”

Chapter Text

Everyone knows the king is a monster. Demon-hulled, a husk. They say he sold his heart to save his neck, and now all that’s left is blue ice, packed in his chest. He doesn’t like to be touched, and no one likes to touch him, but there are rumors of frostbitten fingers, ice forming on the eyelashes of anyone who gets too close.

Clint has a healthy respect for monsters, but he has more respect for the everyday tragedy of empty cupboards and barren fields, the neighbors’ children getting thinner and thinner.

They say anyone who agrees to be the king’s consort will win their village enough food to last all winter. Clint can think of worse things to die for. And if he stays another winter here, he’ll probably die for nothing at all.

 

- -

 

It is cold in the king’s castle, and empty. The king doesn’t keep servants; he builds them. Enchants them. Clint should have the good sense to be terrified, but he’s charmed, instead, by the bobbling of the metal contraptions, as they bumble and bounce their way down the stone halls.

Clint sees the king only from a distance. He’s dark-haired and handsome, and he leaves frost on the walls and floors in his wake. He never speaks to Clint, will not stay in the same room, but he writes letters that Pepper Potts dutifully delivers every morning.

“Oh,” Clint said, that first morning. He’s sleepy and well-fed, and death seems like a fair price for the luxury of sleeping through the night with a full stomach. “I can’t actually--- sorry, Pepper. I don’t know how to read.”

So she’s been teaching him, and reading him the letters in the meantime. It’s sweet, that she’s bothering to teach him. He likes the idea of being literate enough to write home to his mother before he dies, although it’ll be a chore for her, trying to find someone to read it.

Pepper pens his replies for him, too. He starts signing his own name on the second week.

It is cold and lonely, and there are screams, sometimes, in the night. But Clint watches the wagons being loaded with supplies for his village, and he doesn’t regret what he’s done.

 

- -

 

It never occurs to him that the marriage is legitimate. The king didn’t even attend. James Rhodes, the captain of the castle guard, stood in for him, carefully exchanging the rings and then kissing Clint dutifully on the cheek before passing him a glass of wine.

It had seemed like a ludicrous bit of artifice, like pinning lace doilies to the gallows.

But a shepherd’s flock gets taken, one by one, by overgrown wolves, and the shepherd comes to the castle to beg for a guardsman or two, just to stem the loss. He is shown, ridiculously, to Clint, who’s been wearing a circlet on his head all morning, but only because he knows the value of a good joke.

“Oh,” he says. “I’m not actually anyone.”

“Please,” the man says. “My lord, I can’t--”

“I’m not anyone’s lord,” Clint says. “Please don’t call me that.”

“You’re married to the king,” Pepper points out. She’s standing quietly by his side. “It would be all right,” she adds, voice gone soft, “if you wanted to send Rhodes with some guardsmen. You have the authority to do that, if you wish.”

The only authority Clint has ever had is over himself. “No,” he says. “I’ll go.”

 

- -

 

The shepherd said overgrown wolves, not cursed, monstrous wolves with teeth the size of Clint’s hand. But bigger wolves mean bigger hearts, which means bigger targets. Clint kills three on the first night and the last two the night after that. The shepherd and his family feed Clint a meal that reminds him achingly of home, and he sets off for the castle by starlight, because he thinks his heart will break right in half if he stays any longer in a house that reminds him so much of his mother’s.

The king is waiting for him on the walls above the castle gate. He must have been waiting quite a long time. The walls are wrapped in sheets of ice that run clear to the ground.

“You left,” the king says, calling down to Clint.

“There were wolves,” Clint says, a little nonsensically. He gestures back over his shoulder. “From the forest.”

“Did you go?” the king says. He leans forward. The ice shudders and cracks against the walls. Clint shivers, and doesn’t answer.

“Did you go into the forest?” And he’s a monster, everyone knows. Everyone knows exactly what he is. But Clint’s never heard a monster sound scared before.

“No,” he says. “I stayed with the sheep. No one goes in the forest. It’s cursed.”

The ice groans and seems to settle into place. The king withdraws, tucks his hands into his sleeves.

“Stay out of the forest,” the king says. “It isn’t safe.”

 

- -

 

The king’s name is Tony, but no one ever uses it. Clint asks Pepper how it’s spelled, starts penning it himself at the top of the letters Pepper writes for him. He’s married to him, after all. He supposes he can call him whatever he likes.

Anyway, it’s good for a person, Clint thinks, to be reminded that they are a person, and not a walking crown.       

Clint wears his own circlet more than he would like, since he feels obligated to make some vague gesture toward propriety whenever Pepper reports another villager has arrived with a problem.

“But I don’t know anything about bridges, Pepper,” Clint says, when a man reports the only bridge out of one of the northern villages collapsed during the spring thaw and has yet to be rebuilt.

“I would send that one to the king,” she tells him.

So Clint mentions it in his next letter and receives, the morning after, intricately sketched plans for another bridge along with authorization to spend royal funds on its construction.

Killing the wolves is bad enough. Once word gets out that he has money at his disposal, every village in the area starts sending its people to sit tearfully across from Clint and explain that the crops have failed for three years in a row, or that raiders come every winter, or that something has taken up residence in the town well and sings so sweetly at night that four children have been lured to their deaths.

The first letter Clint writes entirely on his own is a quick note to the king that he will be gone for a few days. Off to kill a well witch, he writes. And then a very painstaking: Take care.

He takes his bow and leaves his circlet, sets off on a horse the king gave him after it became clear Clint intended to visit every village that sent for help.

The well witch tries to sing him into the well, sings a song that reminds him of home, but he doesn’t miss his home so much that he’d die for it. His arrow goes straight through her throat, and that’s the end of her songs.

The children of the village are released from the cellars and attics and sheds they've been imprisoned in to keep them safe, and they bring him flowers, which he weaves into crowns and gives back to them. He only keeps two crowns for himself, and he wears one the whole way back to the castle and sends the other to the king.

The next morning he sees him, standing out on the walls, staring toward the forest with a frozen crown of flowers on his head.

 

- -

 

“You know,” Clint says, from the safety of the ground, as he stares up at the king on the walls, “people say I’m your consort. They ask me for all sorts of things.”

“Give them what you like,” the king says. He seems surprised to be approached. He reaches up, fingers brushing against his crown of frozen flowers. Clint thinks it’s interesting, that a man who leaves frost in his wake can still blush. “It’s yours to give.”

“You could meet with them instead,” Clint says. “They’re never very impressed with me.”

The king’s face folds up in a very unkingly grimace. “They would like that far less. I wouldn’t give them half as much as you do.”

Clint grins up at him and wonders if that was some sort of reproach. “Should I be less generous?”

The king shrugs. For a damned thing, he’s awfully bashful. For a king, he’s strangely uncertain. “Do what you like,” he says. “It always seems to be the right thing anyway.”

 

- -

 

The king, James Rhodes tells him, used to like to play a game called chess. Clint has Rhodes teach him the rules, and he allows the village that once had a raider problem to repay Clint’s extermination work with a chess set big enough to sit in the courtyard between the king’s tower and his own. Each piece is as tall as his knee and intricately carved.

“I hope you’re not embarrassed to lose,” Clint calls up at the king, who’s been brought out onto his balcony by the general cacophony of Clint arranging thirty-two giant wooden chess pieces on a stone courtyard.

“I’m not especially worried about it,” the king says. “Do you know how to play?”

“In my experience,” Clint says, as he heaves one of the pawns two steps ahead to begin the match, “knowing the rules only makes it harder to win.”

The king laughs, suddenly and for the very first time. He doesn’t seem so cold then. He laughs, with his hand around the railing, and his head tipped back, and, for a moment, it’s like he’s not cursed at all.

Oh, Clint thinks, looking up at him. Oh, he’s beautiful.

Beautiful, he learns, and absolutely ruthless. Tony takes his king six times in a row before Clint manages to stalemate him. The pieces move over night, or during meals, or while Clint is away.

The king still won’t come near him. It’s strange, Clint thinks, how he used to regard that as a blessing.

 

- -

 

When it happens, it’s Clint’s fault. He can’t claim he wasn’t warned. From the very beginning, he was told. The king’s heart is ice. If you touch him, that ice will spread to you, and whatever damned bargain keeps the king walking won’t be so kind to anyone else.

Clint forgets, or he doesn’t think about it. When he finds him, he doesn’t look cursed. He looks tired. He looks lonely.

It’s the morning after the king’s birthday. There was a feast he didn’t attend, and a dance he didn’t go to, and the castle’s grounds were crowded with representatives from various villages who treated Clint with a strange combination of respect and fondness, called him my lord at the feast and laughed themselves sick at his dancing just hours later. The king made a single appearance: walking out on his balcony to toast the revelers at dusk, holding a glass of wine that he drank quickly, probably to avoid it freezing in the glass.

Possibly not, though. Possibly just because he wanted to get drunk.

That’s what he looks like, when Clint finds him. He looks like a drunk who wandered down to the chessboard and fell asleep.

He’s curled on his side, holding Clint’s king against his chest. The entire chessboard is covered with a fine sheet of ice that crunches under Clint’s boots.

There’s no reason at all for what he does.  

He feels it, as soon as his fingers touch the king’s shoulder. That fierce, stabbing cold, cutting right into him.

It hurts. It feels like his skin is being sliced off his fingers, like he’s being cut open.

He should pull away. He should flinch back. But there’s something in him that holds him in place, a quiet horrified voice at the center of him that says: Is this how he feels all the time?

It’s such a horrible thing. To be cold all the time, to be alone.

Clint knows he should pull away, but he doesn’t. Maybe he will, but not yet. The cold is burrowing through him, but he’s fought wolves and witches and bandits and bridges, and he can fight this too, for one more moment.

For one more moment, he holds. And he presses his whole hand against the king’s shoulder, hopes some small bit of warmth bleeds through.

The king’s eyes open, and the cursed blue fades to a warm doe brown. He breathes in and then scrambles away. “Clint,” he says, “what the hell—what are you—you can’t be near me.”

“Well,” Clint says. “But I want to.”

When he looks at his hand, it’s all ice. But the ice is melting.

The ice is melting all over the courtyard, actually.

The king presses his hand to his chest, where the blue light is fading away. He curls in like he’s hurt, but his smile is blinding, and open, and relieved. “Oh, you mad bastard,” he says. “You did it.”

Clint’s certainly done something. He couldn’t for the life of him hazard a guess as to what. “I did?”

“You love me,” the king says.

“Oh.” Clint huffs out a breath, tries to reset the knight and bishop around him. “Well. Well. I don’t—you’ve just. Your penmanship,” he says, looking at nothing. “It’s very. You’re. I like the way you cheat at chess.”

The king laughs, just like that first time, like he’s so surprised by the fact of it that he’s helpless, has to cling to the nearest pawn to keep himself reasonably vertical. “It’s all right,” he says. “I love you too.”

Clint startles so badly that he upends the rook entirely, sends it skittering across the board, knocking pieces down in a cascading butchery. It doesn’t matter. Neither one of them is looking at the pieces anymore. “Do you really?”

“Do you have any idea,” the king says, as he stands, all that ice just morning dew, a mist that hangs between them, “how easy you are to love?”

Clint has no idea. It doesn’t matter. It seems like that’s more his husband’s concern than his. “Are we actually married?” he asks. “You weren’t at the wedding. You didn’t--- it’s just, there’s usually a kiss.”

The king – Tony – rolls his eyes, but he’s biting back a smile. “Yes, and how wrong of me. A thousand apologies for not kissing you when it would have cost you your life. I’ll be sure to rectify that as soon as possible.”

Clint nods. And then, very casually, he kicks a few lingering chess pieces out of the way, so there are no barriers at all left between the two of them. “You’d better,” he says.

And so he does.

Chapter Text

Gotham scares the hell out of him. Tony remembers being young – six, maybe seven – and wanting to be braver than he was. It was the gargoyles, probably, that scared him so much back then. The gargoyles, and the weather, and the way nobody ever went anywhere alone.

He’s ten now, and a little braver, but he’ll never really forgive this city for its architecture.

The kidnapping attempt doesn’t help.

It happens so quickly that he’s not sure what’s happening until he’s already outside. He knows better than to leave any of these galas without his parents, no matter how boring they are, no matter how tired he gets, but the woman with the nametag smiles at him so kindly and tells him his mother is looking for him, and then, somehow, they’re standing outside, and she’s disappearing back through a door that doesn’t have a handle on Tony’s side.

“Yeah,” one man says, stepping out of the darkness, “that’s him.”

Tony hears the clatter of a car door opening, and he backs against the wall, fingers scrambling at the space between the door and the jam. Leverage, he thinks. Maybe if he can get enough leverage---

There’s a series of grunts and cracks, and, when he turns around, Robin is crouched on the asphalt, aiming a beaming grin his way.

“Hi,” he says, “are you the Stark kid?”

“I—oh.” The men, all three of them, are unconscious on the ground, wrapped in what’s either dark rope or cable. Batman is pulling another man out of the driver’s seat.

Tony looks at Robin and is rendered abruptly and catastrophically speechless. He’s never been starstruck in his life. He thinks maybe that’s what’s happening now.

“Hey,” Robin says, straightening up, mouth falling into a concerned frown. “You okay? That lady didn’t hurt you, did she? You drink anything she gave you?”

“No,” Tony says, shaking his head. “I’m fine.”

Robin, he thinks, must be the brightest thing in this whole city. A flicker of red and green and yellow in a city that lives in darkness.

Robin moves closer, jogging over on soundless feet. “You’re okay,” Robin tells him, when he gets close. He keeps his voice quiet, almost a murmur, so Batman can’t hear.

Tony appreciates that. He doesn’t want Batman to think he’s an idiot, or a coward. “I know,” he says, not quite as decisively as he’d hoped. “It’s okay,” he says, and now he just sounds earnest and hopeful, like he’s trying to sell something. “Nothing happened.”

Robin’s mouth quirks up into a rueful smile. He’s only a couple of inches taller than Tony. It strikes Tony as horrifying and incredibly embarrassing, that Robin’s dropping off rooftops and taking out would-be kidnappers, and Tony’s getting the shakes just because he was in danger for about five seconds.

“Gotham’s a dangerous town,” Robin tells him. “C’mon, let’s get you back inside. I hear there’s a party.”

“I hate these parties,” Tony tells him, more honestly than he means to, because he’s having the strangest difficulty trying to level out the hammering of his heart.

Robin laughs, sharp and pleased and cheerful. He throws an arm around Tony’s shoulders, and Tony leans in, just a little. “Oh, man,” Robin says, “me too.”

 

- -

 

Tony’s eighteen the next time he almost gets kidnapped in Gotham. He should definitely and absolutely know better, but he is also definitely and absolutely drunk. One of the security guys really should’ve checked him for flasks before they let him leave the hotel. He hadn’t expected to get all three into the party, and, now that he has them, he’s sure as hell not going to let them go to waste.

The taste of whiskey is heavy in the back of his throat, and he’s leaning hard into the darkest corner he could find, trying to remember what his exit strategy was.

Go back to the hotel, he thinks. Go back to the hotel before you embarrass yourself.

That’s what his dad would want, probably. It’s definitely what his mother would prefer.

And he could go to his mom and tell her he doesn’t feel well, and she’d smell the whiskey on his breath and call a car, and he could be safe and out of the public eye in fifteen minutes, but he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want her to know.

It’s fine to be a fuck-up and disaster, so long as nobody he cares about ever knows.

Well, he once took a Propulsion final at 8am after finishing the last shot from a bottle of rum at 6:55am, so. He’s probably fine to walk back on his own. He aced the final, after all.

He slithers to his feet and starts off, winding his way through the crowd. He’s not that drunk. Just slow and sleepy in his thoughts, brain all syrupy and deliberate. He’s got a bit of mental tunnel-vision. It’s nice. His head gets so damn cluttered these days, especially at these events, where he’s surrounded by people who are already placing bets on how useful he’ll be, how profitable, how worthwhile an investment he was for his mother and father, and.

Well.

The comforting numbness of too much whiskey on an empty stomach is nice.

He ducks into an employees only hallway, wanders until he finds a poorly lit, industrial stairwell. He’s shocked to hear voices, tense and obviously arguing, and he’s even more surprised to see Bruce Wayne standing on the stairs, monologing something grim and serious at a surly dark-haired man in a leather jacket.

They go silent when they notice Tony, but he’s still a full story up, which makes things awkward as hell as he toddles his way down.

“Great party, Bruce,” Tony says, knocking an overly-friendly elbow against Bruce’s side as he sidles past him. “Hey, that plant lady in her lingerie is pretty amazing. Did you pay her extra, or is she always that friendly?”

Bruce hesitates, eyes darting above them. Tony watches him visibly weigh things out in his head and then he sighs. “Funny, Tony,” he says, but he heads upwards anyway, like he’s suddenly remembered how long he’s left his guests unattended.

Tony smirks after him, shares a short, amused look with the other man in the stairwell, and then starts his downward trek again. “What’d you do to Bruce?” he asks. “Never seen him look so serious. Did he knock up some model? Did you just deliver the paternity test results?”

There’s a beat of silence behind him and then the man sighs and rattles down the stairs after him, heavy boots thunking against the uncarpeted concrete. “Didn’t do a Goddamn thing to him,” he says, aggrieved. “He doesn’t want me to fight.”

Tony casts a sidelong look at him, reassessing. The man’s wearing a tank top under that leather jacket, and Tony can see muscles, heavy and defined. He’s got one hand shoved into his jacket pocket, but there’s a spiderweb’s worth of scars branching over the knuckles of the other.

“You some kind of boxer?” he guesses. He doesn’t know how that works, or why Bruce would be involved. “My dad owns a baseball team.”

The man laughs and looks over at him, eyes flashing bright in a way that is, for a second, almost familiar. “It’s really not the same,” he says, but he’s smiling for the first time since Tony’s seen him.

He has, Tony thinks, a really nice smile.

“You’ve got a nice smile,” he says, because, for him, whiskey and tact have always had a fairly antagonistic relationship. “Pretty.”

“Wow,” he says, eyes going wide, and it occurs to Tony that he’s alone in a stairwell with this guy, and no one but Bruce Wayne has the faintest idea where he is. And Rhodey’s always saying, You gotta think, Tony, about the things that come out of your mouth.

“Sorry,” Tony says, swinging away, knocking his hip into the handrail. “Was that--? Sorry.”

“Hey, I don’t mind.” The man shoves his other hand into his pocket, hunches his shoulders a little, and Tony wonders, bewildered, if he’s trying to make himself seem smaller. “Thought it was sweet. Just didn’t expect anything sweet from you.”

Tony furrows his brow. “Why not?”

The man laughs again, and it’s terrible, because even in the weak, flickery light of neglected fluorescents, he’s heart-stoppingly beautiful. “The papers say you’re an asshole,” he says, with a sharp smile that almost seems approving.

“Oh,” Tony says, a little disappointed. He’d really, really hoped this guy wouldn’t know who he was.

“Don’t worry,” he says, holding open the door as they reach the ground floor. “You should see what the papers say about me.”

Tony shifts around to look at him, walks backwards through the door. “What do the papers say about you?”

The man takes out a gun.

Tony’s stomach sloshes and then drops, and he goes completely still.

“Sorry,” he says, as he puts a hand on Tony’s shoulder and herds him out of the way. “You assholes here for a reason?”

Tony looks behind him. There’s a dark van, loitering by the exit, with two very startled looking men in the front. “Uh,” Passenger Seat says.

“Who the fuck are you?” Driver asks.

“Look,” says a third guy, crouched in the open side door of the van, looking irritated and aggrieved. “We’re just here for the Stark kid.”

The man huffs like someone just stole his parking space and shoots the third guy in the shoulder. The driver yelps and floors it, door still open, the shot man screaming and flailing as he falls deeper into the van.

“Holy shit,” Tony says. And then, again, higher pitched than he’s been since he was twelve: “Holy shit.”

“Hey,” the man says, and the gun’s already gone. “Hey, you’re okay. You’re fine.”

“I hate Gotham,” Tony says. “I hate this place.”

“Oh, look at you,” the guy says, hustling Tony back into the stairwell, reaching into his pocket for his phone. “You’re starting to sound like a local.”

 

- -

 

The third time it happens, it’s not an attempt. It’s a success. He gets grabbed while very mildly drunk afterhours at a conference, and he cannot fucking believe the indignity of being Iron Man and also being kidnapped. They didn’t even take him because he’s an Avenger. They want the SI kidnapping insurance payout.

He’s insulted. He’s embarrassed. He is not looking forward to the shit he’s going to get from Steve about not following security protocols.

“Look,” he says, to the thugs who are so incredibly out of their depth that they haven’t even noticed he broke out of his zip ties. “For both of our sakes, just let me go before we all end up embarrassed on national news.”

“Shut up,” one of them says.

“I’m still stuck in the fucking menu,” another says. He’s been trying to report to SI that Tony Stark has been kidnapped for the past fifteen minutes. He keeps calling the customer service line.

“Oh my God,” Tony says. “Honestly, listen. You’re adorable. You’re the cutest criminals Gotham has to offer. Let me go before you get hurt, okay?”

The third one, the angry one, glowers over at him from where he’s been silently stewing since they got to this house. Tony thinks that it might actually be one of their personal homes. They might have brought him to their house.

“Guys,” says the fourth one, whipcord thin and clearly high on something, fussing with the blinds again, “I’m freaking out. I think there’s someone out there.”

Tony’s not worried about the first two. He’s not even all that worried about the angry one. The fourth one, the anxious one, could be a problem.

Idiots can be outmaneuvered. Anger makes people predictable. But panic makes people dangerous, and everything Tony is, everything he’s built can be easily undone by one scared man with a gun.

Well, it could’ve been, probably. If someone didn’t crash through that window and knock the squirrelly one completely head-over-heels until he smacked his head against the wall and slumped, unconscious, to the floor.

The other three are dispatched equally as quickly, and Tony stands up, walks right out of the chair they thought they’d tied him to, and helps handcuff the dumb ones while his rescuer notifies someone – presumably either GPD or SHIELD – that he’s been recovered.

“Hi,” Tony says, as the Bat in question drops the freshly unconscious angry one onto the pile of his compatriots, “thanks for not killing them. I know that’s a thing you do.”

Red Hood shrugs. Tony tries to remember if he’s ever been this close to this particular Bat. He doesn’t think so. Still, his presence feels familiar.

“Haven’t really committed to no fatalities yet,” Red Hood says. “Did they hurt you?”

“Just my pride,” Tony says. “You know, someday I’m going to learn to stop going to parties in Gotham.”

It’s impossible to tell if he smiles. That mask covers his entire face. But there’s something in his voice that sounds like a smile when he answers. “Yeah, yeah,” he says, “I know you hate Gotham parties.”

Chapter Text

They’ve been running for five days. It’s Natasha’s first escape, and Jessica’s fourth. For Jean, it’s impossible to count. She’s been absent from her body hundreds of times, sends her mind walking farther and farther afield, but they haven’t reached a consensus on whether that counts as an escape or a dream.

But this feels like a dream too.

A nightmare, Nat thinks. One of the ones that seems normal until you look down and realize your hands are covered in blood. Where you’re not sure if you’re awake or dreaming, but there’s a voice in your ear saying follow him or just stay quiet or cut, keep cutting, cut until he stops moving.

They don’t have a plan. Natasha knows they need one. The truth is she never believed the first plan would work, and, now, here they are.

In Poland, she thinks. She’s pretty sure. She tries to remember, tries to plot the railways in her mind.

“You’re hungry,” Jean tells her.

That’s not useful information.

“I told you to eat that sandwich,” Jessica says.

That’s not helpful either.

“You didn’t eat it,” Natasha reminds her.

Jessica shrugs. “I don’t think I can die from not eating.” She says it dismissively, the way she reports something she’s learned from experience. It makes sense, that the trainers would have a history of denying her food. There are so few ways to exert control over Jessica. Sometimes Natasha thinks her nearly unbreakable body is just an extension of her unyielding will.

Once, Natasha watched her walk in front of a truck. She was meant to shoot the driver, but she bent the barrel of the gun and then took a walk instead. Faster this way, she’d said. I’m a terrible shot.

Natasha thinks it was less about a devotion to mission efficiency and more about Jessica’s complicated relationship with killing. If she’d shot him, that would be murder. But if she walked in front of a truck and the driver chose to hit her, sending his truck flipping end over end into a ravine, then he got himself killed.

The Red Room found Jessica when she was almost nine years old. All that time in the care of gentler people left strange marks on her mind.

Still, maybe gentle is the wrong word. Four escapes in two years, and this is Natasha’s first.

“Jean needed it more,” Natasha says.

The truth is, they need Jean’s mind and Jessica’s strength, and Natasha’s the least critical component of this team. She needs to stay sharp enough to get them somewhere safe, sharp enough to find someone they can sell their skills to. Sharp enough to survive, to go back, to get Yelena.

Jean says Yelena’s still alive, even after what she did in Lithuania. But Natasha stopped asking Jean to check a week ago, after spending two minutes in Yelena’s mind made her cry for three hours.

Still alive, though. Probably. If they didn’t kill her immediately, they must be hoping to salvage her. Retrain, recondition. Rework, reshape, remake.

Natasha doesn’t want to think about it any more than Jean does. She has other things to think about.

She leaves the others in the storage shed beside the rail station, steals a man’s wallet and a bag of clothes from the laundromat, and makes a call from a pay phone outside the post office. She memorized the number a full year ago, when a SHIELD agent left it hidden in the office of a target Natasha was ten minutes too late to kill.

It rings twice, and then a man answers, in English, “This is Coulson.”

He has such a strange voice. Calm, polite. Curious, but not directly questioning. Natasha opens her mouth, but she can’t think of anything to say.

A second later, she’s seven years old, and everything smells like snow and blood, and the dogs at the Siberian facility are hungry, and a girl’s going to run, Natasha knows she is, but if the dogs aren’t so hungry, they won’t chase after her so quickly, and--

Her hand tightens around the phone. It’s Jean, and she knows it is. Jean, in her mind.

This is what happens when Jean gets frightened. She spreads fear like a virus.

“Coulson,” she says, reminding herself. She sounds choked. She sounds scared.

The answer is immediate. Concerned, now. “Who is this?”

She’s young, younger and younger, aging backwards, drawing into the time when everything cut so deep, when every hit bruised hard, before the callous, before she learned how to settle into her own mind like she was sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

“Jean,” she says.

“Jean?”

“No, I’m—I’m not.”

In the street, grown men are screaming. Crying out for their children, their mothers. Natasha can hear women crying, too. She’s so used to the way children sound when they cry that hearing adults is eerie. All these lower tones, the wails that are almost growls, they’re terrifying.

Like animals, Natasha thinks. They sound like animals.

She tries to focus. Something’s happened to Jean. One down, Natasha thinks.

When she drops the phone, she can hear, in the distance, the sound of heavy impacts and metal crashing.

And so that’s Jessica. Fighting something. Maybe fighting nothing.

Two down.

Jessica never did learn how to push Jean back. But Natasha made Jean sit across from her and try to take her mind away from her, and they’d do that for hours, fighting for control until they were both shakey and sweat-soaked. The Red Room let them because they considered it training. It was, of course, but not training she ever meant to use for them.

Again, Natasha would say, throat tight, tears clear down to her jaw, skin shivering and jumping. Again, again. Jean, do it again.

Natasha punches the payphone, smashes her knuckles into the metal. The pain anchors her, just for a second. Like a stuttering emergency light, showing her the world just long enough to orient herself to it.

She’s the last one left. She has to get to the others.

Jean first. If she can’t be re-anchored, if they’ve drugged her again, she’ll need to be knocked out. That’s okay. Natasha knows how. She can do it.

She will do it.

When she shoves away from the payphone, she’s running, feeling the impact of her boots on the sidewalk, and she’s also killing her very first target, holding her breath, thinking That’s it? It’s over? It’s all done?

She jumps over a woman in the street, fighting someone who isn’t there, prying invisible hands away from her throat.

She’s running, and she’s freezing, and she’s dancing, and she’s bleeding, and Jessica has punched through an entire train, and that was their escape route, so Natasha doesn’t know what they’re going to do now, doesn’t know what she’s doing, doesn’t know what she’s running toward.

She’s sloppy.

Well, who wouldn’t be? She’s both thirteen and four years old, doesn’t know how long her strides are supposed to be, can’t settle on how big her body is meant to be.

The first bullet catches her in the leg, a hobbling shot.

The scrape of asphalt in her palms brings her back into her body just long enough to hear the second shot.

It’s a tranquilizer, and it stops three inches from her neck. It hangs in the air, perfectly still.

She stares at it.

Jean goes silent in her head, and the whole town goes suddenly, completely quiet.

“You and your friends,” a man says, “have been very loud.”

He’s wearing some kind of helmet. He has very blue eyes.

“Are you SHIELD?” she asks, because she was calling them, she thinks. She was on the phone with someone from SHIELD. She asks in English, because that’s the language she was using last, and she can’t remember, right now, which one this man had used.

“Absolutely not,” he says. Also in English. So either she guessed right, or he knows both.

But they’re in Poland. She thinks. She thinks they’re in Poland.

Damn it, Jean, she thinks. Everything’s all jumbled in her head.

“Natasha,” someone says, “it’s time to go.”

That’s a handler’s voice, and a handler’s accent. The man in the helmet tips his head, stares over Natasha’s shoulder.

Too many variables, too many unknowns. Jean’s not better; she’s just gone. And if Jessica were still active, Natasha would’ve heard something breaking by now.

Two down, one up, but Natasha’s too compromised to be any use at all.

Yelena, she thinks.  Jean. Jessica.

She pushes her hands against the street, shoves herself to her feet. When she turns, there are four of them. They’re all armed. There are more, probably. Snipers. Additional agents inbound.

There’s no way out. There never was.

But if she can buy time, maybe Jessica will get free. Maybe Jean will wake up.

She falls back, darts behind the man in the helmet.

“This isn’t my fight,” the man in the helmet tells her. But there’s something in his voice that says he doesn’t mean it. That he doesn’t need an invitation.

“Sir,” the handler says, moving forward. “You need to step aside.”

The man’s hands are curling at his sides, and Natasha’s watching the metal of the street signs start to bend inwards. “Do I?”

“They’ll kill us,” Natasha says, because they will, eventually. Someday. The same way Jessica killed that man in the truck. Not directly, maybe, but as a result of their actions. By eliminating all meaningful choices until all that’s left is die how we choose or die how you choose.

The man breathes in. She watches the way his shoulders fall, the sudden set of his jaw.

Sometimes, people only need permission. Natasha’s coached plenty of the girls through it. She knows how to frame these things. It’s so much easier to kill when you’re killing monsters.

She makes her voice small, lets some of that terror from earlier slip out between her teeth. “Jean’s only six.”

Move,” the handler says, and then he raises his rifle.

They’re dead in seconds. All of them. So neatly and cleanly that Natasha almost can’t believe it. Four decapitations in two seconds, and then the street signs wing off, head up toward rooftops, and Natasha wants that kind of power, wants it so bad that she’d kill him to have it.

But Jessica has her power, and Jean has hers, and they fell before she did. Two down, and she’s the last one up. She has to get the others to their feet.

“You said there were more of you?” he asks.

“Yes,” she says. She lets herself limp as she runs for them. Lets him see the damage, the weakness she’ll hide from the others.

When she finds them, Jessica’s already stirring, slapping weakly at the dart in her throat. They can never keep her out for long.

Jean’s limp and mussed, looks like someone’s dropped doll. She’s small and pale, underfed, and an expression crosses the man’s face when he sees her like he wants to go back and do those decapitations again, less quickly this time.

“The fuck are you?” Jessica slurs, glaring up at the man in the helmet.

“A very concerned citizen,” he tells her. “Who are you?”

He’s looking at Jean when he asks. He’s turned toward Jessica. He’s not paying attention to Natasha at all.

She does it the way she was going to do it to Jean. Carefully, precisely. As gently as she can.

The helmet makes it harder, but Natasha’s known about blood chokes since before she had the grip strength to kill anything bigger than a rabbit. He reaches back for her, slams her into the wall, but Jessica grabs his hands and then headbutts him, and he’s out.

Natasha makes sure he’s laid out in a way that’ll be reasonably comfortable.

She still has that number. She can call again.

“Get Jean,” she says. Jessica can throw a Jeep. A six-year-old girl who’s had one meal in three days won’t slow her down. “We have to go.”

Chapter Text

The trees don’t talk to him. He’s not sure how the hell that rumor got started. He’s not some moss-covered witch in the woods, feasting on lichen and murmuring to the leaves. The trees don’t say a damn thing. It’s not like they have a common language.

The squirrels, though. The squirrels never stop talking.

He hears from the deer, too. The wolves, when they have a problem they want him to solve.

This particular problem is a troop of men in the woods, who are not welcome and are not subtle and are not well-intentioned. The wolves break into Frank’s cabin at dawn and steal his breakfast, expressing their general displeasure by ensuring that he, too, is genereally displeased.

“Yes, very smart,” Frank tells them. “Give me another reason to turn all of you into coats.”

Two of them lunge onto his bed and nose around in the blankets, getting their fur everywhere, getting his scent on them. There aren’t many animals left in the woods who’ll run from him. The more the wolves smell like him, the closer they can get to their prey.

Which is a trick he wouldn’t normally allow, but they’re hungry. The men, they explain, have chased all the prey into their dens and burrows. They’re too loud. They reek of iron and poison. And the small one they brought with them smells strongly of blood.

Frank has a decent idea who these men might be. What magic he has is oriented toward woods and life, to the animals and sometimes to storms, but he felt the call coming from Gotham, the same as everyone with any bit of magic in their hearts. Gotham’s lost one of its witch-princes. It’s been trying to call him home.

And that’s not Frank’s problem, really, but, if they’re hiding in his woods, they’ll bring Gotham here.

Gotham is an abattoir and a carnival and a madhouse. Frank wants less than nothing to do with any of it.

“Don’t make a mess,” he says, to the wolves who have already gleefully done so. “And don’t,” he continues, putting a bit of power into it, “eat anyone who comes here for sanctuary.”

The cat in the rafters leans over and hisses. The wolves whine, heartbroken.

Don’t,” Frank says.

They whine and huff and then leap, the whole mess of them, onto his bed. He slides the last of his knives into its sheath and then sets off, letting the eerie silence at the heart of the woods guide him in.

 

- -

 

There are six of them. They don’t keep a strict watch. Frank studies them for half an hour and decides they don’t keep a strict anything. Although it’s entirely possible they’re in an advanced state of chaos because they’ve just realized their captive escaped overnight.

He hunts them one by one. His soldiering days are long done, and he never swore allegiance to the Waynes anyway, but it’s offensive, treating any witch like that. Offensive and insulting and dangerous.

Nothing good ever comes from treating witches like bargaining chips. They aren’t a currency to be traded back and forth, not swords to be taken up when needed. The war should’ve taught everyone that much.

But most people didn’t see it. Not the way Frank did.

He remembers Hydras’ witches. They were feral, half-dead things with runes cut into their eyelids to keep them blind to their friends, blind to who they used to be. Halfway through the war, someone found a counterspell, but it was difficult to hold a raging witch long enough to undo the working. Most witches unlucky enough to be runed by Hydra had to be killed outright or permanently blinded.

Frank killed seven witches. He saved two. And, when the war was over, he went into the woods. He’d seen enough of the world.

So he doesn’t mind killing these men, without orders or payment. He regrets, a little, that their bodies may never be found. He would prefer them hanging from walls, or gallows. He wants everyone to remember why stealing a witch is a very bad idea.

The mystery will have to be enough. He’s not hauling bodies out of the woods. He doesn’t want to risk anyone giving them a proper burial.

He leaves them for the animals, goes to find the missing prince.

 

- -

 

They’ve blinded him. Not like the witches from the war, but Frank imagines that was the inspiration. It’s just a thin silver chain they’ve wrapped around and around his face, covering his eyes. Frank can see it spinning darkness, even if the spell isn’t meant for him. He can hear, faintly, the screams.

Someone’s cursed a nightmare into that chain, and they’ve left it on one of Gotham’s princes for days.

It’s a wonder this forest isn’t on fire. It’s a miracle the boy hasn’t opened the earth, brought out demons, let the nightmare reach into him and pull out whatever it could find.

He’s curled up against a tree, arms wrapped around his head. Resting, Frank thinks. Well, he must’ve crawled the whole way here.

Or run blind.

His feet are bare, and bloody. So are his hands. There are scratches on his arms and face, bruises around his throat.

Gotham’s princes are difficult to kill. They don’t generally carry wounds for long. But that chain must’ve bled his magic dry, and now there’s nothing left to heal him.

Anywhere but here, Frank couldn’t even touch that chain without losing his hand and possibly his mind. But these are his woods. He’s been here for years. And he’s not a witch, but he has some magic, and what magic he has always fights harder when it’s at home.

Still, he’s not an idiot. He grabs the chain and flings it, touches it for less than a second. The spell only works on the wearer, but it’ll take him, if it can.

He can feel it, hooking into him. For half a heartbeat, he’s the only person touching it, and the spell turns the whole world dark.

He’s at war. Dropped into battle. The smell and the sound and the taste of it. He’s stepping on fallen bodies, ripping into more. He’s coated with blood. It’s in the air. He’s breathing it; he’s drinking it. He’s---

Being kicked directly in the stomach. Hard.

He grunts and staggers back, the chain still hissing as it flies through the air, and the witch-prince on the ground tries another kick, aimed distressingly lower.

Frank scrambles out of range. “Are you rabid?” he asks.

The boy shoves himself up on his elbows. He’s dirty and wide-eyed, looks scared. But only for a moment. After that moment passes, he looks focused, and dangerous. He also, charmingly, grabs a large stick. “Who are you?” he demands.

“You’re in my woods,” Frank tells him. That’s possibly not what the witch was asking. “I’m Frank.”

The prince narrows his eyes. “There were,” he says, “some men.”

“They’re dead,” Frank says. He shrugs at the look that earns him. “These are my woods.”

There’s a long moment where Frank wonders if the prince is going to throw the stick at his face and try to run. Frank wouldn’t stop him. He’s nobody’s jailer. But he won’t get very far in the shape that he’s in.

The prince seems to weigh that out on his own. He tips his head back against the tree, takes a deep breath. “I’m Tim,” he says. “Would you happen to know how to get to Gotham from here?”

 

- -

 

Frank puts the boy on his horse. It’s not an especially dignified moment, but there’s nothing to be done about it. The boy’s hands are more wound than skin at this point, and his feet are in similar condition. Anyway, she’s Frank’s horse. The boy would have to get a running start on his best day.

Frank walks alongside, having decided that his company is probably not wanted and that the prince probably feels better, with the reins in his hand and Frank outside of reaching distance.

“We’ve wondered,” the prince says, “about these woods. We knew someone was keeping them.”

“I’m not keeping them,” Frank says. “I just live here.”

The prince stares down at him. He’s very good at looking down, Frank notes, for a boy of his size. “Wasn’t there a werewolf pack here?”

Frank huffs. “They weren’t good neighbors.”

They were bloodmad, is what they were. And who can blame them? The war left him the same way, but he dug his way out of it. He’d only gotten rid of them because he didn’t like the reminder.

“And,” the prince says, “a dragon.”

“Ate one of my horses,” Frank says.

The prince hums. “I heard it ate two children from the village to the north.”

“True,” Frank admits, “but it ate my horse first. Which I didn’t appreciate.”

Dragons and werewolves. It’s just a bit of upkeep. He doesn’t own these woods. This isn’t the sort of place that abides an owner. A keeper, maybe. But he’s still working his way to that. It’s something that you earn, over time.

“Well, whatever you’re doing,” the prince says, “we appreciate your work.”

Frank rolls his eyes. We appreciate your work.

He doesn’t do it for anyone’s appreciation. He does it because it’s there to do. Anyway, it gives him something to focus on, other than the fact that his cabin is always empty, and his children are gone.

“If you need to rest,” he says, “let me know.”

The witch-prince smiles. For a second, as they pass through shadow, the pupils of his eyes glow red. “Don’t worry about me,” he says.

But he’s just a boy. Someone should worry about him. And it isn’t as if it’s out of Frank’s way.

 

- -

 

They’re out of the woods and nearly to the closest village when a bird darts down from the sky and is a man, in a heartbeat, in half a moment. Dark feathers melt into dark hair and dark clothes, and Frank never swore allegiance to the Waynes, but he knows their heir when he sees him.

Tim,” he says, voice still half birdsong, and Tim drops gracelessly off the horse, hits the ground in an ugly bundle of limbs, and leaps toward him. “Tim,” he repeats, as he wraps his arms around him and swings him around.

He’s so incredibly magical that Frank can feel the beat of his heart, can feel his own falling into the same rhythm. It’s not a threat, but it makes him nervous.

He wants to be home. He wants his woods.

“Dick,” Tim says, “this is Frank. He saved me.”

Frank isn’t so sure that he did. By the time he arrived, the witch-prince was mostly free. Frank just cleaned up the mess. “Said I’d bring him to his people,” Frank says, when Gotham’s heir lifts his eyes to him. “And,” he continues, off-kilter, distracted by the weight of that magic, by the shape of those cheekbones and that mouth, “I have. So.”

The smile that darts across Dick Grayson’s face is beautiful enough that it’s almost a threat of its own. “So you have,” he says. “And what reward would you like?”

Frank frowns. “Didn’t do it for a reward.”

“He’s the woodskeeper,” Tim says, nodding his chin over Frank’s shoulder, back to his woods.

“I’m not their keeper,” Frank says. “I just do work when there’s work to do. And the trespassers weren’t welcome.”

They both smile at him this time. Tim’s is small and quietly amused, disappears quickly. Dick Grayson’s, inexplicably, seems charmed. “I see,” he says, as he holds his clean hands over Tim’s wounded ones, magic flaring quickly, all that dried blood falling as flower petals to the ground. “And is anyone who enters your woods a trespasser?”

They aren’t his woods. But nobody seems to be listening to that particular point.

“No,” he says, as he climbs onto his horse, prepares for something of an expedited getaway.

“Well,” Dick Grayson says, still not quite looking at him, fussing over his wan and wounded brother. “Then perhaps I’ll visit sometime.”

Frank’s not a proper witch. And he’s not a proper keeper, either. If the heir of Gotham wanted to visit his woods, there’s nothing he could do to stop him.

And, strangely, he doesn’t want to.

“Do what you like,” he advises, since, in his experience, that’s what a prince will do.

“Thank you,” Tim says, raising his voice, calling after Frank as he turns to go, “for saving me.”

That’s not what he did. He killed six men, and he threw a chain. The prince more or less saved himself. But, still. He likes the idea of it. He likes the thought that those two know nothing about him, except he helped someone in danger.

The war is five years gone, and it’s the first thing he thinks of every morning. He’s not a keeper yet, and maybe he’ll always be a soldier. But maybe it’s not all he’ll be, forever.

He doesn’t look back. He heads home to his woods.

There are still wolves he’ll need to drag out of his house.

Chapter Text

When Talia brings the fledging home, he’s a broken thing, and muted. Beautiful, in the way of young and breakable things. Bane looks at him and thinks the men of the Pit would’ve made a meal out of him before dawn. But, when Talia sends her men against him, the boy dumps them one after the other to the floor.

“Bruce Wayne taught him,” Talia says. As if Bane can’t see Bruce Wayne’s signature scrawled across this boy as clear and propriety as a brand.

“Taught him to die, I believe,” Bane says. He has no patience for this. Death is a promise owed to all living things. Ra’s al Ghul may break what laws he wishes, but the League has no right to recall the uninitiated. This boy has earned his rest.

“Calm yourself, old friend,” Talia says, with that quirk of her mouth that means she still thinks his impertinence is amusing. “This wasn’t our doing. We found him wandering like this.”

The boy is a dull and listless creature, staring vacantly in front of him, hands at his sides, knees slightly bent. Braced for an attack, but not seeking one. A placeholder, a mannequin that breathes.

Bane cannot see how it is the boy’s place to suffer for his mentor’s sins. The boy is a walking corpse. It would be a kindness to return him to the earth.

But Talia, of course, is in the habit of bringing home broken strays. And he knows better than to suggest that she cull this one now. For months after Bane was brought here, he asked her to let him die. But hers is not a nature that bends toward mercy.

“You’ll look after him, won’t you?” It’s hardly a question. He will do whatever she asks.

“I will,” Bane says.

 

- -

 

There is not much mind left in the boy. He eats when he is fed, and he goes where he is led. There is something in him, though. A silhouette of a soul, a thing more shadow than substance. There are foods he eats more readily than others. He walks slower on sunny days, tips his face upwards and stares at the stars on cloudless nights.

He is bothered by sounds of pain. He will follow them to their source. He will interfere, if he is not stopped. There are very few who can stop him.

Talia, with a word. Bane, with force. Although, over time, force becomes simultaneously less effective and less required.

He seems to develop favorites among the men. He will gravitate toward them if left unattended and undirected in an open room. Bane, curiously, is one of them.

“He’s fond of you,” Talia tells him, when the boy wanders into a meeting and sinks, cross-legged and straight-backed, to the floor.

“I don’t believe it’s a fondness,” Bane says. The boy has his back to a wall, his face turned toward Bane.

Talia smiles, pleased and proud of this broke-necked fledgling she is spoon-feeding to keep alive. “He follows me, too,” she says.

“That,” Bane says, “might be fondness.”

Some remembered affection might linger, he thinks. Some draw toward familiarity. He doesn’t know how clearly the boy can think, if he can think at all. He doesn’t know if he sees Talia as a ghost or if he thinks he’s one himself.

The boy is staring at Bane again. Not quite expectant. Never quite present enough to be interested.

Bane reads to him, sometimes. The boy is restless at night. He terrorizes the trainees, slipping in and out of rooms, moving weapons, drawing bats on walls with his fingers, dipped in water, in mud, in blood.

Bane began with questions, which got blank stares and some small outbursts of frustration, overturned cups and thrown shoes and fingernails digging into the boy’s own face. He calmed him by narrating his actions, describing the room they were in, the weather, the small tear in the cover of the book he’d been reading before the boy interrupted.

When he ran out of his own words, he read someone else’s. It never seems to matter what he reads. Bane doubts he has the acuity necessary to process anything more complicated than a handful of simple words strung together. Sometimes, Bane reads to him in languages he’s reasonably sure the boy does not know.

But he’s calm. Focused, attentive. Still.

The boy’s been following him ever since. And when Bane stops him from interfering with training, the boy doesn’t fight him anymore.

The most likely explanation is that the boy is simply orienting himself toward the most reliable source of stimulation. Even flowers possess the initiative to turn toward the sun.

Talia thinks there is something of the boy who died left alive in this body that breathes. But she believes there’s something left of the man from the Pit in this monster he is now, and Bane knows her eyes, unused to the sight, are easily clouded with hope.

 

- -

 

The boy, he thinks, is a mirror, glass smudged with the fingertips of everyone who’s used him for some purpose or another. Bruce Wayne, who made him a soldier but taught him none of the discipline necessary to keep himself alive. Talia, who thinks he’s both pet and poison, a dog she wants to train and a knife she’s planning to hold, someday, to the throat of her former lover.

Bane can see his own fingerprints, when he looks. The boy adopts some of his mannerisms. Sometimes, when he’s lost in some other world, twitching and retching and clawing at nothing, he’ll work his jaw like it’s too heavy for his skull and start breathing in a deep and rattling gasp, mimicking the noise of Bane’s mask.

This is not a life. It’s a punishment.

“He may someday get better,” Bane tells Talia, when she doesn’t ask, “but it will still not be a kindness, making him endure this.”

She smiles at him. Her face is beautiful; her eyes are a hawk’s. He tried to save her from the Pit, but it had already infected her. She’s the brightest thing he knows, and sometimes he sees a darkness eating her up from the backs of her eyes.

“He’s good enough,” she says. “He’s useful as he is. He remembers me.”

Sometimes he thinks Talia fought too desperately for life to understand that death, in its way, is the sweeter blessing.

In many ways, he is the same as the boy. He is good enough. He is useful as he is. He remembers her, and, more importantly, she remembers him.

She will never let him go. He will be hers forever.

It is not, he thinks, a burden, to belong to the best and purest thing you have ever done.

 

- -

 

She feeds the boy to the Lazarus Pit. He is not healing fast enough. He is not useful enough. Her father plans to send him away, and she will lose nothing.

It is some kind of desecration, Bane thinks. It is something unholy. The wrongness of it fills his mind so completely that he cannot dismiss it.

It would be cruel for anyone to recall this boy fully to a life he has completed. But it is a sin for someone who escaped one Pit to feed a child to another.

“You should not do this,” Bane says. Even now, he cannot say do not. Even now, the idea of Talia being wrong feels too disastrous to face fully, like contemplating the idea that the sun has always dawned dark, that the sky will grow teeth when it’s hungry.

“I have no other choice,” she says.

She wants no other choice. She wants to keep this boy, this pet. She reshaped Bane’s skull and fed him poison. Every breath he breathes is a sacrifice of pain he makes to her. And now she will do the same to this boy, who cannot choose it, who does not ask.

Bane does not stop her. He fought the army of the Pit to keep one child safe, but he cannot stop one woman from mutilating and desecrating another.

The boy drags himself gasping out of the Pit. The boy lives.

But all of life is connected. The universe keeps its ledgers neat. The boy heaves and gasps back to life, and something within Bane falls silent and dies.

 

- -

 

The boy hounds his way through the world, a sheepdog with no sheep, getting his teeth into any wolf he finds. Training, he reports. Getting stronger. Preparing to kill his mentor.

It is, Bane thinks, his right. And it is right that he should do so. Bruce Wayne is weak and wayward. Bruce Wayne did not protect his child.

Bane is struggling with his mind. He is struggling with an unease that will not end. He is struggling with the way he feels when he watches Talia pull the puppet strings she has so carefully stitched into the boy’s heart.

He does not know why he feels the way he does.

Perhaps it’s just the jarring feeling of catching his reflection in a mirror he wasn’t prepared to see. The boy would give her anything. It’s an invitation she accepts.

Once, Bane gave her his life and then offered up whatever this is that has followed after. It felt holy at the time. But from this perspective, he sees an avarice in Talia, a cold greed that has no holiness in it at all.

A god, he thinks, might demand any piece of its creation that it wanted. But Talia is no god.

Perhaps it is not her fault. Perhaps the Pit marked her just as deeply as it marked Bane. But Bane grew in the same darkness and still knew to protect what light he found. Talia is not protecting the boy. She’s using him.

He’s a weapon in her hand. He’s nothing else.

It isn’t right.

Such a simple sentiment, setting the whole world off its axis.

It isn’t right.

Talia isn’t right.

 

- -

 

“You know,” the boy tells him, “I remember you used to read to me.”

Bane has been sent to fetch the boy back. Talia has moved up the timeline. She wants Jason with her. She wants to put the final stitches into place.

“I did,” Bane confirms.

The boy has made a bloody wreck of himself, murdering traffickers without a plan. Bane doesn’t wonder at his lack of strategy. When you are raised to be a cudgel, you do not treat your body delicately.

Jason fidgets and fusses and smiles. He’s such a lively thing now. That stillness is gone. Whatever peace he had was hollowed out of him.

The kindest thing, Bane thinks, would’ve been to return him to the rest he earned. The next kindest would’ve been to send him somewhere with nurses and sunsets and even-voiced people to read him stories with soft endings.

This was the cruelest way. But it made the sharpest blade.

“Doesn’t talking hurt?” Jason asks. “With that mask?”

It hurts whether he speaks or not. His jaw was a jigsaw puzzle pieced back together by callous hands. The doctors cared that he could breathe. The point of him was never to speak. They would’ve accepted him as a mute.

In some ways, perhaps that would’ve been easier.

“It seemed to soothe you,” Bane says. He is putting a neat row of stitches into the boy’s arm. He’s more careful with him than the boy is with himself.

Jason grins at him, nudges Bane with his elbow. “You should’ve been a nanny.”

There are many things he should have been.

“I am,” he says, “what I am.”

Jason laughs, but it’s an ugly, painful thing. He should be resting, Bane thinks, sick with a sudden, insignificant rage at a world that will eat and eat and never feed. They both should be done with pain by now.

“Yeah,” Jason says, still somehow smiling, “me too.”

 

- -

 

There is some poetry to Talia’s plan. Send the lost child home to kill his father and burn his city. Who better to damn Gotham than its own sacrificial lamb?

But Bane over-empathizes with the lamb.

Or maybe this is rage, this sickburning feeling that has him in Bruce Wayne’s cave, waiting for him to return. Maybe this is hatred. Maybe this is the flinch that follows the stinging slap of betrayal.

Bane loves Talia, even now. She was a child once, and worth every sacrifice he could make.

But she’s grown cold and cruel and merciless, and she is right that Gotham is a sickness that needs to be purged, but the boy is not sick. The boy has done nothing to condemn him to this.

You can love a wrong thing and still stop it, Bane thinks. There is a strange mercy in not allowing Talia to make herself into a monster.

Bruce Wayne is a shadow in the dark. But Bane knows darkness so well that even a shadow stands out.

When he grabs him by the neck, he takes care not to break it. Killing the boy’s father won’t solve any of this.

He shakes him, though. Just once. Just to show him how easily it could be done. And maybe to soothe the hateful part of him that looks at this failed father and thinks your son’s killer walks free.

“Jason Todd,” he says, “is alive.”

They are going to do what they can to make that a liberation, not a recall to arms.

Chapter Text

Jessica’s back in the bar, singing Jolene like it’s a Goddamn death threat, and Clint ducks out into the alley for a cigarette. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate Jessica’s bourbon-soaked, snarling reinterpretation of the classic, but the only time it’s safe to smoke is when she’s distracted. Otherwise, she’ll steal his whole damn pack.

He’s just about to light his cigarette when the dumpster to his right makes a noise like it’s dying.

Well. Makes a sound similar to what he assumes a dumpster’s death throes would sound like. He doesn’t know for sure. He’s never killed one.

He considers the dumpster for a long moment and then, with a sigh, puts the cigarette back in its pack and puts the pack back in his pocket. There’s a swell of noise from the bar that indicates Jessica’s either finished her song or started another fistfight with a bartender, and, either way, Clint sure as hell can’t go back in right now.

“Hey,” he says, to the dumpster, “you alive in there?”

The dumpster does not answer, although there is a subtle and ominous shifting from within.

If he gets knocked around while out for casual weekday drinks with Jessica Jones again, someone down at SHIELD is going to put together a presentation about it. At the very least, Coulson’s going to mandate he bring another agent along. But most of the other SHIELD agents Clint knows don’t have the chaos tolerance to drink with Jessica. Even more problematic, very few of them can sing, and Clint’s not sure any of them properly appreciate Dolly Parton.

Still. It’s cold already, and it’ll get colder overnight. Whatever’s alive in there now might be a body by morning. And Clint’s only in the business of death when he’s getting paid.

Warily, he crosses the alleyway toward the dumpster. In response, the dumpster makes another series of hissing-crunching shifting sounds.

Clint hopes for a raccoon. Hell, he hopes for three raccoons. He’d happily settle for a possum with a grudge. He considers taking a moment to pray, but, in his experience, any live thing in a dumpster has no fear of God, so it probably wouldn’t do any good.

He shoves open the lid of the dumpster.

There’s a man in there. Dressed all in black with some kind of black fabric over the top half of his face.

“Oh, son of a bitch,” Clint says, and he lets the lid fall closed.

“I’m okay,” the man in the dumpster tells him. His voice is barely audible through the metal. He sounds strained and breathy, like he’s struggling to breathe.

Clint pushes the lid back again and shoves at it until it stays open. After a long moment of steeling his nerves, he hops up onto the lip of the dumpster, somewhat precariously balanced in his sneakers. “You’re having a shitty night, huh?” he asks.

“No, ‘s fine,” the man says. “I’m fine. How’re you?”

Clint smiles, startled into it by the offhand tone. “Oh, I’m doing great. Not currently in a dumpster, so. My night’s looking up.”

Dumpster Man blows out a dismissive breath. “Wow. Are you always such a showoff, or are you just trying to impress me?

This time, Clint laughs. Dumpster Man smiles back, crooked and a little bloody near the gums.

“Someone put you in here?” Clint asks.

Dumpster shakes his head. “No,” he says. “I fell.”

Clint looks up. The fire escape, now that he’s looking, does seem to have been recently dislodged. Quite a drop, though. And, sure, the trash would’ve been kinder than the concrete, but that’s still not exactly a gentle landing.

Clint considers him, eyes lingering on the black clothes and that mask. “You want me to call an ambulance?”

The man laughs. “No,” he says, still laughing a little as he struggles his way up onto his elbows. “I do not want you to do that.”

Yeah, Clint figured as much. “You want help getting out of the dumpster?”

Dumpster makes a face at him, mouth screwing up in a little grimace. That mask over his eyes looks pretty opaque; Clint wonders how he well he can see, especially in the low lighting of a back alley. “No, thanks. I wouldn’t want to accidentally pull you in here with me.”

Clint shrugs and then hops down into the garbage.

Dumpster seems awfully taken aback by that for a man who’s been auditioning for Oscar the Grouch for the entirety of their acquaintance. “You really didn’t need to do that,” he says.

“Yeah, well. No one who knows me is gonna be surprised that I ended my Tuesday in a dumpster,” Clint says, which might be a bit of an overshare, but a little solidarity goes a long way when you’re at rock bottom. Or dumpster bottom. “Let’s get you outta here, yeah?”

“Sure,” Dumpster says. “Thank you. I appreciate the help.”

He’s very polite, Clint thinks. And there’s a strangely formal pattern to his speech, considering his nighttime habits, but he still sounds like he belongs. He’s got a neighborhood accent.

Clint wonders who he is, how he ended up here. What, exactly, he was doing, dressed all in black and falling from rooftops.

But he doesn’t have a gun on him. Clint doesn’t even catch a hint of a knife, as he helps the guy carefully maneuver his way out of the dumpster and onto his feet.

He doesn’t find any weapons at all, actually. Mostly his discoveries are limited to: 1) the guy is built like an Olympic gymnast, and 2) he’s bleeding.

Clint doesn’t notice the second part until he’s hopping back out of the dumpster, and the streetlight catches the red on his hands.

“Shit,” he says, swiveling back toward Dumpster. “You’re bleeding.”

“Oh.” Dumpster shrugs, like sure. Like that’s not news. “I’m fine. I prom---”

He doesn’t drop immediately. He wavers for a few seconds, giving Clint just enough time to catch him.

And then Clint’s in a back alley behind a bar, holding a bloody masked man who’s already made it very clear he doesn’t want anything to do with a hospital.

“Shit,” Clint says.

“Hey, shitbag,” Jessica says, as she kicks her way through the door. “We’re up. Where the hell have you been?”

She takes in the sight of Clint, the open dumpster, and the unconscious man in his arms. “Oh, damn it,” she says. “Again?”

Chapter Text

Clint doesn’t even think about it all that often anymore. When someone publishes an article on the murders or releases a new documentary, sure. When some new podcast means his Twitter is getting weird again. Whenever he sees some movie or ad with a kid in a graduation gown. And just in the spring, sometimes, when the weather warms up, and he thinks, for a second, about how nice it would be to go camping.

He’s pretty good at letting the hit land and roll off him, clocking the memory and the inevitable spike of panic, but letting it go before it can burrow in. It’s been years since some off-hand joke about We need another Snap has sent him spiraling.

Clint’s mostly made his peace by telling himself that what people think it was and what he actually lived through are two entirely different things. Most people, if they knew, would never let their kids go Goddamn anywhere. If they could look inside Clint’s head and see what he saw, hear what he heard, they’d start trading overnight shifts with other parents in the neighborhood, staying up all night with a gun, just waiting.

People can’t live with that kind of terror. People, Clint’s noticed, mostly just want to live like nothing bad is ever gonna happen. He doesn’t blame them. Hell, he’d like to live like that too. And these days, he mostly does.

But walking a long way toward better doesn’t exactly mean he’s enthusiastic about the concept of backflipping back to hell, so he doesn’t know what Nat’s thinking, inviting him to a thing like this.

“You don’t have to go,” she tells him. They’re getting coffee at some ridiculous establishment where they charge you ten dollars for drip coffee and throw the sneer in for free. If the baristas know who they are, they’re too jaded to show it, and Clint tips outlandishly in the hopes that they’ll stay that way.

“I know,” Clint says.

“Really,” Natasha says. And then, again, after she knocks her knuckles against the table to make sure he’s paying attention. “Really, Clint. You don’t have to go.”

These days, Clint doesn’t have to do much of anything. He’s gonna retire after a couple more seasons, he thinks. His accountant says he could retire now if he wanted. And there’s plenty of work for him – announcing, maybe, or coaching, or going into management – but he still enjoys the game too much to leave it.

For a while after it happened, he only ever felt safe with a ball or a bat in his hand. Maybe that explains why he hit the League like every game was a death sentence he was cheating. Everyone played like they had something to prove, but Clint played like his coach had a loaded Glock on his desk.

“I know that, Nat,” Clint says. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. He likes to think what happened then has very little impact on what happens now, but the truth is he can’t stand the idea of her going back there alone. He already knows what he’s going to do. He’s just stalling to give his courage time to get its feet planted. “Who’s going?”

“Well,” she says. “It’s the ten-year anniversary, Clint. I guess everyone’s going.”

“Everyone,” he says.

“Yeah.” She pauses, rotates her coffee cup so the handle is neatly parallel to the edge of the table. “I’m going,” she says. “And Steve, which means Tony’s going, obviously.”

“Obviously,” Clint agrees.

“And Rhodey’s going--”

“Obviously,” Clint says, again, since Rhodey has never once let Tony walk into danger without jogging along after him, shit-talking the whole way.

“And Thor’s flying over. Bruce and Jane, I think. Wanda says she’s a maybe, but they’re doing a thing for Pietro, so she’ll show up.”

Clint swallows, drops his eyes. Pietro always hits like a punch to the back of the head. He and Wanda weren’t even supposed to be there. Too young. Years too young.

They’d all been years too young.

“And,” Natasha says, “Sam’s going. I heard he’s bringing Bucky.”

Clint hasn’t seen Bucky Barnes in five years. They all reunited at the five-year mark. Just a small group, out at Tony’s place out in California. The small group, he guesses. The group the press liked to call the Avengers.

It doesn’t really feel like they avenged a damn thing. At the time, they’d just been trying to live through it. Maybe Survivors was too sad to sell enough copies.

Whoever they are, whatever you call them, they’re all getting together again in the town where it happened, and Clint’s been a professional athlete too long not to pick up a few superstitions.

They were the survivors before because they all fought together. Nothing’s going to happen. They’ll all be safe. He knows that.

But they aren’t going anywhere without him.

“Okay,” he says. “Okay, I’ll go.”

Natasha nods but doesn’t smile. She puts her hand over his, squeezes for a second, and then lets him go.

 

- -

 

Tony rents a house, because of course he rents an entire house for a weekend. “I can get my own hotels now,” Clint tells him. “You know? I’m kind of. I mean. I’ve got money.”

“Great,” Tony says. “Good for you. Does that mean you’re too good to stay with us now, Barton?”

“No,” Clint says. “It just means—I can, like. Pay, you know? I can pay you back.”

Tony scoffs audibly into the phone. “Spare me,” he says and then hangs up.

He calls back a second later. “You sharing with Romanoff?”

Clint would like to, but he thinks probably it’ll give the wrong impression. It used to give the wrong impression when they were in high school, too, and that protected both of them. But he’s almost thirty years old now, and he should probably stop using Nat as a shield. “Uh,” he says. “No.”

“Okay,” Tony says. And then, with that trademark brisk, bossy kindness, like nobody’s gonna catch him being nice if he’s just really, really fast about it: “I’ll put you across the hall from each other.”

“Thanks,” Clint says, but Tony’s already hung up.

 

- -

 

He thought he was going to be the only coward on the Avengers crew, but everyone seems jumpy. He can read it, a little, in the email chain and the group chat, but it becomes more obvious when Jane clings to him like a chipmunk fleeing a forest fire as soon as he steps off the plane and also when Bucky shoulders up next to him at baggage claim and just leans on him for a full five seconds.

“Hey,” Clint says, pulling back far enough to see his face. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. He’s impossible to read. He always has been. “Just didn’t think we’d ever all come back.”

Neither did Clint. But here they are. And, anyway, maybe it’s time. “Good to see you,” he says, because he can see Sam and Jane in his peripheral vision, and Sam’s finally finished spinning her in circles, so it’s probably Clint’s turn now.

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “You too.”

He’s got a weird look on his face. Intent. He’s looking at Clint like he’s trying to memorize the shade of his eyes.

“I missed you,” Clint says, for no damn reason at all.

“Yeah,” Bucky says, half-sigh. His mouth quirks up; his eyes are sad, and worried. “I missed the hell out of you, Barton.”

Clint opens his mouth to say something, but Sam tackles him, sweeps him right off his feet.

 

- -

 

Clint and Jane and Sam and Bucky are almost the last to arrive, showing up in their rented SUV exactly fifteen minutes before Thor arrives in a tiny little convertible that had, allegedly, been the last rental car available.

It’s a loud, chaotic, glorious mess for the first couple of hours. Just all of them, yelling over each other, careening from one conversation to another, leaning into each other, all elbows and hands, crashing together like maybe, somehow, even after everything, they were all homesick for this feeling. They were all homesick for each other.

They go to dinner at the diner and then for drinks at the bar that they could never get into, except for Tony whose fake IDs were so good that the bartenders used to let him have one drink on merit and effort alone. And everyone there must know who they are, because they don’t pay for a drink the whole night, but it doesn’t matter, because, with so many of them, they can all collectively pretend not to notice.

Clint drinks more than he should, but not so much that he’s drunk. He’s had a lot of practice at gauging the difference. Most of the others were smart enough to pick professions that got them out of the limelight, but people have been staring at Clint since he was eighteen years old and his bandaged face was on the front page of every newspaper and the cover of every magazine across the country.

Him, with that bloodstained baseball bat and the look in his eyes like he was back from some kind of war.

He doesn’t think about it. He’s got a lot of practice at that, too. He doesn’t think about it, and he doesn’t think about it, and he doesn’t think about it.

He plays pool. He plays darts. He signs a napkin for one of the regulars, ducks away right when the guy gets that weird, weighted look in his eye, starts to say, “And, look, I had a niece at that graduation party. I just wanted to tell you--”

He’s pleasantly buzzed when they all pile into the SUV, having picked up Thor and Wanda and Bruce, who are all too drunk now to navigate the manual transmission in that convertible. They sing the whole way back to the rented house, blasting songs from their senior year, and he never really did this, never really looked back. Nostalgia shifts so easily to gut-rotting fear, but he can hold on, for just a second, and then for one second more. He can hold onto this moment, this feeling he half-remembers, being young and invincible.

He’s still smiling when Nat kisses him goodnight, just a brush of her lips against his forehead.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she says.

And that’s when he realizes he’s about to be alone.

The golden haze of the evening dies. He wants to ask her to stay.

He doesn’t.

“Goodnight,” he says. And then, because he always does, but because, right now, he needs to say it. “I love you, Nat. You know?”

She kisses him again, fluffs his hair in every possible direction. “I love you, too,” she says, and then she’s gone.

 

- -

 

He dreams about it. Just pieces of it.

He dreams he doesn’t wake up in the middle of the night with Pietro crouched over him, wide-eyed and scared. He dreams Pietro dies before he can warn anyone. He dreams, maybe, that Pietro didn’t sneak out of his parents’ house and drive all the way to the senior campout just to prank Clint one last time.

Usually, he sees Pietro’s body. This time, it’s everybody else.

The plan, he remembers, was to kill half the graduating class. Something about balance. Something about resources. Clint never looked into it, didn’t want to know the justification.

Thanos killed fourteen kids before anyone even knew what was going on. Started with his followers on one side of the field, worked his way north to south.

The thing is, Clint was never going to die. He was on the safe side of the field. So were all the other Avengers, all their tents clustered together. But they didn’t know that.

He’s not sure it would’ve mattered. Pietro woke Clint up, talking about bodies, talking about knives, and Clint never really thought of himself as brave, but his hand was curling around the baseball bat before he even finished waking up.

You throw a baseball at ninety miles an hour, and it can crack a human skull. Clint had three. They’d been playing catch earlier.

He never missed. Not even then. And when he ran out of baseballs, he still had the bat.

Nat, being Nat, had a knife. Everyone else used their hands, or the weapons they took from the cultists they brought down.

Afterwards, they were heroes. It’s still the worst thing Clint’s ever done.

So he knows, even as he’s looking at the bodies of his dead friends, that this isn’t how it went. He’s a murderer, and they’re alive. Fair trade. He’d do it again.

“Wake up,” he says, to Nat, with her slashed throat and empty eyes.

“Wake up,” to Steve, skull crushed, fingers clutching at the grass.

“Wake up, wake up,” he says, to Rhodey, body slumped protectively over Tony’s. “Wake up,” to Jane and Wanda, holding hands.

“Please,” he says, to Bucky. Staring vacantly, eyes on the stars. “Please, Buck. Please wake up.”

They don’t. But he does.

He blinks his eyes open in the darkness, takes a long shuddering breath in. He’s in a rental house. They all came back together. Everybody’s fine, and Thanos is dead. Tony killed him. Steve helped. Clint and Bucky held one arm each.

They’re murderers. He loves them.

They’re safe.

 

- -

 

He doesn’t check every room. He’s not a creep or a lunatic. He checks the windows and doors on the main floor. They’re all locked. He checks Natasha’s room. She sits up just long enough to get a look at his face, and then she gives him a sleepy thumbs up and pats the empty side of the bed, half-question, half-invitation.

He’s still too keyed up to sleep, though. He just waves at her and then goes back downstairs.

He’s playing games on his phone and drinking some of that valerian tea one of his teammates swears by when Bucky wanders in, shirtless and yawning.

“Hey,” Bucky says. “Bad dreams?”

“Yeah,” Clint says. “You?”

Bucky grimaces eloquently and fishes a glass out of the cabinet, fills it with water from the tap. “Stark tell you about all the security on this place?” he asks, as he settles onto the barstool next to Clint.

Clint blinks. “No. There’s security?”

Bucky laughs, rueful and fond. “He bought the fucking house,” he says. “He had Sam and I work on it for two months this winter.”

Sam and Bucky went into private security after they left the Army and Air Force. Clint keeps thinking maybe he’ll get them to look at his house, but he’s not sure how to bring it up, doesn’t want them to think he’s asking for free work. Stark probably just left dufflebags full of cash on their doorsteps and then kicked their doors down, yelling, “You bastards work for me now!”

“He bought the house?” Clint looks around, at this place so carefully arranged like a rental. “What the fuck for?”

“Because he wanted us all to come home for the anniversary,” Bucky says, patiently, mouth pressed flat at the edges like he’s biting back a tolerant smile.

“Jesus,” Clint says.

He bought the house. He had Bucky and Sam work on it for two months.

“You know,” Bucky says, “we’re all fucked up about it. You know that, right?”

Clint swallows. He picks up his tea, puts it down. “I just,” he says. “I mean, I’m not. It’s.”

“Hey.” Bucky leans into him, shoulder to shoulder, so Clint’s warm all along his side. “We don’t have to talk about it, okay? I just wanted you to know. You didn’t go through that night alone, and you’re not going through the rest of this alone, okay? We’re all here with you.”

Clint hasn’t given any interviews about that night since he left the police station the last time. But he’s a public figure, in his way. People ask, sometimes. The callups and the new guys on the team, they’ll ask. Reporters who think he hasn’t said anything interesting in a while.

How’d you do it? How’d you survive?

And the answer is that Clint had the baseball bat, so Clint went first. And because Clint was first, his friends were behind him. People always seem to want a deeper answer, but, in the end, that’s all there was.

He was first. His friends were behind him. That was all he knew, and all that mattered.

He wasn’t fast enough for Pietro. But he was lucky enough for the others.

“So,” Clint says, clearing his throat. “So, this house. It’s pretty safe?”

Bucky smiles. He looks tired, and sad, and unfairly handsome, all that tousled bedhead and bare skin. “Yeah,” he says. “Everyone was coming home, you know? It’s as safe as we could make it.”

Clint has three locks on every door at home, two on every window. He can’t sleep in a hotel room until he drags something heavy in front of the door. But he’s okay, most of the time. He’s alive. He’ll go whole weeks without thinking about it in more than a surface-level way.

He thinks, maybe, by flinching away from everything, he’s left some of the good things behind.

“Thanks,” he says, taking another sip from his tea. “For doing all of that, with the security.”

Bucky shrugs, knocks his elbow into Clint’s. “I’ve always got your back, Barton,” he says.

And he does. Clint remembers. That whole smear of time he doesn’t think about, during that night he tries to forget, with Bucky pressed right up behind him, following him straight to hell.

But maybe, he thinks. Maybe. When you fight through hell, you can leave it behind.

He tips his head, just a little, so it falls onto Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky tips his own to rest against his.

They don’t say anything. They don’t have to.

They’re safe. They’re together.

No one’s getting in this house tonight.

Chapter Text

Bruce’s bones ache when they shrink back down. It’s the tendons, actually, he thinks. It’s difficult to call. All he knows is that he can feel it in his teeth, in his ribs, in the delicate bones of his inner-ear. Malleus, incus, and stapes, stretched-out, shrunk-down, shifting back into place.

It always feels this way.

Sometimes some part of him – a muscle, usually, but sometimes the smaller bones in his hands or feet – won’t come back quite right. If he catches it early enough, he can fix it before everything starts to stiffen up and swell.

Everything sorts itself out in the end. His body comes back together. The Hulk may level cities, but Bruce weathers it well enough. It’s just that it hurts, afterwards. Every time.

“Hey, Doc.”

Bruce blinks his eyes open. Clint Barton’s standing over him, giving him a friendly wave. “Clint,” Bruce says. “Hey.” He rubs dirt and dust off his face, carefully maneuvers his way out of the remains of what was probably a perfectly lovely sidewalk at some point.

“You’ve got--” Clint says, and then: “Hold on. Close your eyes.”

Bruce screws his eyes shut, and Clint’s fingers move carefully across his face, brushing something away. He’s gentle about it, but Bruce’s skin is so oversensitive that it feels like Clint’s scrubbing his face with sandpaper.

“Okay,” Clint says. “You’re good.”

“Thanks,” Bruce says. He opens his eyes.

It’s midafternoon, and incredibly bright. He squints. It’s not fair, he thinks, that he should feel this brutally hungover when he didn’t even get to drink. But there’s a lot about his life that isn’t fair these days.

“Brought you some water,” Clint offers. “Also, some pants.”

Bruce looks down at himself. He sighs.

“Thanks, Barton,” he says.

“Hey, I don’t mind,” Clint says. “Nobody’s shooting at me when the Hulk’s doing his naked tank routine. Nobody’s even looking at me.”

Bruce is too exhausted to be embarrassed. Too disassociated. Maybe in an hour or three, he’ll start to feel like this body is his, but, right now, it’s just a body. The only thing he really seems to own is the pain that’s filling up every spare centimeter of his mind.

He drinks the water Clint hands him. After maybe a minute or so, he drags himself to his feet and pulls on the Iron Man-themed sweatpants. He smiles, a little, fingers tracing the logo up near his hip.

“Did Tony give you these?” he asks.

Clint shrugs. He’s a little banged-up himself, has a scorch mark on his left elbow, but seems reasonably intact. “I stole them,” he says. “Did you know Tony has a gift shop on the first floor of the Tower? No shit. I’ve got themed coffee mugs and Band-Aids. You can get a frisbee of Steve’s shield.”

Bruce did, in fact, know about the gift shop. There’s a little toy Hulk that will recite science facts if you smash its green arms up and down.

“Tony probably would’ve given you a pair of pants,” Bruce says. “If you asked.”

Clint rolls his eyes like Bruce has just insulted his professional integrity. “Where’s the fun in that? I guarantee you Tony’s spent, like. Forty hours this week figuring out how I got in and upgrading all the security to keep me out.”

And that, of course, is probably true. “And will it keep you out?”

Clint grins, smug and uneven, one side crooking up higher than the other. “Guess we’ll find out.”

Bruce smiles. He drinks more of his water. He turns to look around himself at the wreckage. “Where’s the rest of the team?”

“Interrogating the survivors,” Clint says.

“Oh.” Bruce attempts to get his hair out of his eyes, but his fingers come back coated in dust and ash, so he assumes he’s mostly just made an even bigger mess of things. “Nice of you to come find me.”

Clint gives him a look, sidelong and assessing, like Bruce has just said something he can’t quite get a read on. “Yeah,” he says, into the suddenly weighted silence. “Well. I know you don’t like surfacing alone.”

Bruce blinks, and then blinks again.

He doesn’t, of course. Because Bruce may always stitch back together fine, but the process of remaking is brutal. He’s vulnerable, when he comes back. And nothing can kill him, but there’s a long list of unpleasant things that won’t kill him. 

He just hadn’t thought anyone had noticed.

“Oh,” Bruce says. And then, “Well. Thanks.”

Clint shrugs like it’s nothing. He’s not looking at Bruce. He’s busy affixing a Hawkeye-branded Band-Aid to a small cut on his arm.

 

- -

 

There’s a hoodie for him on the quinjet – Thor-themed, with a lightning bolt on the back – and more water. Also a bottle of ibuprofen, which Bruce cracks open before takeoff. He’s asleep again before they hit cruising altitude, jolts awake when the jet touches down on the landing pad Tony built on the roof of the Tower.

“We ordered Indian food,” Nat tells him. She nudges his bare toes with her boot. “Don’t worry. JARVIS has all our preferences memorized. We got something for you too.”

“Oh, I’m not worried,” Bruce says. “I love when systems I have no control over collect my personal data without my permission.”

“Calm down, 1984,” Tony says, with no actual offense in his tone. “He’ll delete the data if you ask.”

“Most people won’t think to ask,” Bruce calls out, as Tony clatters his way out of the jet.

He doesn’t care, really. It’s just that very few people are around to needle Tony, and he thinks of it as a service to humanity. Of the services he provides to humanity, this one is probably his favorite.

“Sometimes,” Clint says, as he helps Bruce to his feet, “I order stuff I don’t even like, just to mess up his algorithm.”

“Smart,” Bruce says. He leans into Clint probably more than he should.

He thinks one of the metatarsals in his left foot ended up a bit off-course. It’ll probably resettle overnight.

“If you wanna take another nap,” Clint tells him, “I can bring the food up to your floor, put it in your fridge.”

It’s a little weird, Bruce thinks. Clint’s being a little weird.

But he doesn’t care. He likes the idea of it. Someone putting food in his fridge for him. Someone thinking about him waking up hungry.

“Sure,” he says, as he limps toward the elevator. “Sounds good.”

 

- -

 

He doesn’t make it to bed. He passes out on his couch, which is why he wakes up when Clint arrives with the food. “Oh, hey, Doc,” Clint says. He holds up some white takeout containers. “Brought dinner. Want any of it, or should I put it away?”

“You’re being a little weird,” Bruce tells him, as he finger-combs his hair back away from his face.

Clint shrugs. “Yeah,” he says, “I get that a lot.”

“No,” Bruce says. “I mean, right now. You are being weird right now. Have been since we finished the mission.”

Clint shrugs again. “So that’s a fridge situation, then? With the food?”

Bruce sighs. He forces himself to sit all the way up. “No,” he says. “I’ll try to eat some of it now.”

He’ll feel better if he eats. He always does. Sometimes his teeth hurt too much to chew, but he thinks it’ll be fine this time.

Clint brings him the food and then goes off into Bruce’s kitchen to get him more water, and he’s definitely being weird, but Bruce doesn’t think he minds.

“Are we gonna talk about this?” he asks, as he optimistically flips open the nearest takeout container.

“About Indian food?” Clint asks.

Bruce looks up at him. He lets the silence sit between them for a handful of heartbeats and then he raises a brow.

Clint stares back at him, pokerfaced.

“Clint,” Bruce says, starting to set his silverware aside.

“You’re doing the thing,” Clint says. And then, unhelpfully, he gestures at Bruce.

“I am doing,” Bruce repeats, looking down at himself, checking for anything askew or amiss, “the thing.”

“You’re.” Clint hesitates and then his face goes lax. A beat later, he half-squints his eyes. “The thing,” he repeats, gesturing at his face. “You’re doing it.”

Bruce just stares. “Look,” he says, “you’re talking to me like I’m Natasha right now, and I appreciate the gesture, Clint. I really do. It means a lot that you think we’re close enough for me to follow that dialect, but---”

“You’re not good at hiding when you’re hurt,” Clint says.

Bruce frowns. He considers trying out his own pokerface, but it wouldn’t fool Barton. “I’m not hurt,” he says, instead, which has the benefit of being true.

Clint rolls his eyes. “You're in pain," he says, "right now.”

“I’m.” Bruce shrugs. “I was the Hulk an hour ago, Clint. Of course it hurts. It always hurts.”

“I know,” Clint says. And there’s too much emphasis there. He says I know like it’s something that’s haunted him for a while. “But this was a bad one, right? You get—I don’t know. Pale and squinty. You touch your hair a lot.”

Bruce suppresses the instinct to cross his arms over his chest. Or brush his hair back. “Collecting personal data, Agent Barton?”

Clint winces. It’s not a full on flinch, but it looks like it hurts.

And, well. That’s strange, isn’t it? Five seconds ago, Bruce thought it was weird that Clint knew what pain looked like on his face, and here’s Bruce, clocking it on Clint’s.

“Sorry,” Bruce says. “I’m just not…”

“Used to anyone giving a damn?” Clint says. His smile twists up bitter, but it smooths out when he looks at Bruce, grows into something fond. “Yeah, I noticed that, too.”

Bruce fidgets. He doesn’t touch his hair. The silence stretches out, and Bruce realizes, if he doesn’t do something, Clint’s going to leave.

He thought he wanted to be alone. But maybe he’s just gotten used to it.

“You want to watch Dog Cops?” Bruce asks, just as Clint opens his mouth.

Clint blinks. Blinks again. A smile, small and patient or maybe grateful, hovers at the edges of his mouth. “Yeah,” he says. He hops neatly over the back of the couch, settles in next to Bruce. “Yeah, I kinda do.”

Chapter Text

There’s a disreputable youth in the Archives, and he’s asking Tim for a gun.

“Nothing special,” he’s saying, from where he's sprawled in the chair across from Tim, one combat book kicked up onto Tim’s desk, a cup of tea in his hand. “The one Gertrude borrowed is fine.”

Tim’s got the Cheshire smirk of an incoming HR complaint and the reckless smolder of a man too charmed by a set of cheekbones and an impractically sleeveless shirt to recognize danger when it comes begging for handguns. John does not have time for this.

“Excuse me,” he says, shouldering Tim’s door open a bit wider. “I’m afraid we don’t keep firearms in the Archives. You’ll want Artifact Storage. Upstairs, please.”

The smile he gets is too cheerful for the conversation they’re having. The man, in his wisdom, has dyed a lock of his hair brilliant white. “Oh, you’re fussy,” he declares. “Gertrude must love you.”

“Gertrude Robinson,” John says, “has passed away.”

The smile drops off the youth’s face like a body dropping from a gallows. A second after that, he turns fully toward John. “No shit?” he says, slow and drawling. “Did she really? Do you have a body?”

John falters. He’s knocked off-course, somehow. He’s not sure if it’s the laughter in the man’s eyes or the scar someone’s carved into his face. Maybe it’s just the knowing look, the smug way he asks it: Do you have a body?

“What we don’t have,” John tells him, “is a gun. So if you’re not here to make a statement, I’m afraid you’ll have to leave.”

“Are you the Head Archivist?” He asks it like it’s a joke. He turns toward Tim, that strange smile hooking wider, stretching the scars on his face until the J is almost unrecognizable. “Is he the Head Archivist? Really?”

“Jonathan Sims,” Tim confirms, with a nod. “Head Archivist of the Magnus Institute.”

“Oh, fuck me,” the youth says, as he climbs to his feet. There are more scars on his arms, John is realizing. And now that he’s standing, he’s actually something of an imposing figure.

“Upstairs, please,” John repeats. And then, impatiently, when the man just keeps standing there staring at him: “Do you require assistance operating the door?”

He gets another smile, a sharp flash of teeth. “No, thanks,” he says. “I don’t think any of you know the way out.”

There is, John thinks, something disquieting in the way he says it. Something significant. He finds himself unable to answer. He watches in silence as the man walks past him.

“When you find that gun,” he says, as he nears the door, “you can keep it. You’ll need it more than I do.”

 

- -

 

The youth comes back weeks later, to offer unsolicited pest control advice and also to bother Martin into making him a cup of tea.

“This area isn’t open to the public,” John says. “How did you get down here?”

The man shrugs, sips his tea. He smiles warmly at Martin, who, apparently compulsively, smiles back. “Didn’t go down anywhere,” the man reports. “Came up.”

“This is the lowest floor,” John says. “You are in the basement.”

“Not,” the man adds, eyes thoughtful, mouth paused a few spare centimeters from the rim of his cup, “that I am opposed to going down.”

“That’s the spirit,” Tim offers, with unhelpful enthusiasm.

“Really,” John says. “With all due respect--”

“No, I don’t think so.” Nothing has changed about his body language or expression, but John is reminded, suddenly, that this is a stranger and that he has offered no explanation for his presence or intentions.

“You don’t think what?” John asks, tone a bit more wary than before.

“I don’t think you are giving all due respect to the situation,” the man says. “The Flesh Hive’s not very clever, but it’s on your doorstep, Archivist. There are worms in your tunnels.”

“Not the most pleasant of euphemisms,” Tim says, “but I’ll allow it.”

Is that a euphemism?” Martin asks. He’s clutching another cup of tea to his chest. Unlike Tim, he seems to regard this intruder with suitable caution.

“Well,” Tim says, “I’m trying to stay positive.”

“Corruption likes to burrow,” the man says. He seems very confident for a man making no sense whatsoever. “And I know a great deal about digging my own grave, but you’ve shown up with a shovel. With all due respect to you, I suggest you stop digging.”

John wonders if, perhaps, he has ascribed an inaccurate level of danger to this man. “What do you know about Jane Prentiss?”

He shrugs, doesn’t smile. “I know she was lonely and isn’t anymore,” he says. “I know she has no strategy but infection. I know she’s not as dangerous as she thinks she is, but you and your team are still very young.”

“Young,” John repeats. It’s the only part of what he said that John wants anything to do with. He gestures at the man, who can’t be much older than twenty. “We’re all older than you are.”

The man laughs, and this time he does smile. “Archivist,” he says, “only living things age.”

 

- -

 

His name, apparently, is Jason. John finds out when Elias ejects him from the Institute.

“Jason,” Elias says, looking especially snappish, knocking open the door to the Archives with unprecedented urgency, “leave. Right now. I will call the police.”

John’s not sure when the man arrived. He’s been recording a statement for the past half hour. Right now, he’s sitting at Sasha’s desk, drawing something on a Post-It note. “Your cops don’t even carry guns,” he says, with an eyeroll that would be far more appropriate for a teenage girl losing cellphone privileges than a grown man caught trespassing.

Elias does not seem swayed by the argument. “I assure you that the officers who respond to calls at this Institute carry all manner of unpleasant things.”

Jason’s hand goes still. After a long moment, he looks up. “Aren’t you happy to see me?”

See me, he says. With a strange, heavy emphasis on see.

“Not as happy as Peter would be,” Elias says. “So I’ll call him, shall I?”

Jason snarls. It’s such a sudden change, such a violent expression that John finds himself shuffling silently in front of Martin, who has arrived inconveniently with lunch.

“Someday,” Jason says, low and hateful, “I’m gonna take your eyes.”

“I very much doubt it,” Elias says and then he pushes the door open and points. “Go.”

Jason leaves his drawing on Sasha’s desk and storms across the room, toward the door. “You know,” he says, as he passes Elias, “I used to like you a lot more.”

“Funny. I’ve never liked you,” Elias says, and he shuts the door firmly behind him.

The drawing on Sasha’s desk, John realizes, is a pair of masks, one laughing and one crying. There's a note, but it's just two words: Take care.

 

- -

 

Jason doesn’t come back to the Archives, but he does, apparently, accost Tim at a pub in his neighborhood.

“Well, accost,” Tim says, when John is attempting to write a report of the incident. “I should be so lucky. No, it was just a conversation.”

“You really should make a statement,” John says. “Here. I’ll get the--”

“Um,” Tim says. He screws up his face unattractively, which is decidedly out of character for him. John’s hands go still above the tape recorder. “Actually,” Tim continues, breaking that single word into at least five separate syllables, “I promised him I wouldn’t? So.”

John feels his eyes narrow. “Wouldn’t what?”

“Make a statement about him.” Tim shrugs at whatever look John must be giving him. When John’s glower just gets worse, he holds his hands up, makes a much more typically charming who me? sort of grimace.

Sometimes, Jonathan cannot believe the incompetence of his assistants. With the exclusion of Sasha, obviously. “So this man with completely unknown intentions has you lying for him? Is that what’s happening, Tim? Is that honestly what’s--”

“Hey,” Tim says. “Hey. I’m not lying for anybody. I’m just not telling you everything. People have a right to privacy, John.”

And that’s the first John’s hearing of it, especially given Tim’s freewheeling approach to confidential government files. “Tim. Listen to me. This man showed up at your pub and--”

“He didn’t show up,” Tim scoffs. “He followed me from the Archives.”

“That doesn’t make this better, Tim. It makes it a great deal worse.”

Tim seems to weigh that out. “Sure,” he says. “Now that I’m saying it out loud, I guess you’re right. But he doesn’t—Prentiss feels bad, you know? Those worms. They feel bad. But does he feel bad to you, John?”

No, John thinks. But there’s something about that fact that is highly suspicious in its own right.

“The fact remains,” John says, “that we don’t know who he is, but he seems to know a great deal about us. You should get a hotel room for a few days.”

“Get a hotel— John.”

“Jane Prentiss tracked Martin home, and look what happened.” John gestures wildly with his arm, toward where Martin is no-doubt still sleeping, even though John has been at work for hours. “We don’t know anything, Tim. You need to be careful.”

After a second, the expression of righteous indignation fades off Tim’s faced, replaced by a troubled frown. “That’s what he said. Bought me a drink, asked me how I ended up at the Magnus Institute. And then he said ‘you need to be careful,’ and he left. Not especially menacing, John.”

But there’s always something menacing in someone who knows more than you do.

“Don’t go back to that pub, Tim,” John says. “And let me know if you see him again.”

 

- -

 

As far as John knows, no member of the Archives sees Jason again until after Jane Prentiss attacks. And, when they do, it’s him. He sees Jason.

He sees Jason because Jason breaks into his flat.

“Stay back,” John says, and he points a steak knife at him.

Jason looks at the knife, looks at the bag in his hand, and then looks up at John’s face. “I brought you whiskey,” he says. “Why don’t you grab us some glasses?”

“Go right back out that window,” John says. “Right now.”

Jason sighs. “Archivist, come on. I was in Portugal three hours ago. Do we have to do this right now? I think we’ve both earned a drink.”

The knife is shaking in his hand. Or maybe it’s his arm that’s shaking. He’s more bandage than skin, and he is so very tired. “What do you want?” he asks.

Jason goes preternaturally still. “Oh,” he says, hushed, half murmur and half sigh, “you are the Archivist, aren’t you?”

What,” John repeats, “do you want?”

“To check on you,” Jason says, so fast and sure that it’s like John pulled the answer from him. “I know it’s difficult, when it happens.”

The point of the steak knife is tracking all over Jason’s chest, his throat. John can’t hold himself steady. “When what happens?”

“When you realize it’s real,” Jason says. A beat later, his mouth turns down, and he steps forward, looking irritated. “Now, stop asking questions and have a drink.”

“I think I’m entitled to question a man who breaks into my home,” John says.

“You think you’re entitled to any question that enters your head,” Jason retorts. “And you aren’t. But, if you want to play this game, fine. Why don’t you think, for a second, about how very far you are from you friends.”

For a second, John’s mind is entirely empty. And then he is thinking about it. Tim, just as injured as he is. Martin, back at his place for the first time in weeks, alone, probably scared. Sasha, who hadn’t seemed rattled but who had seemed…off somehow, and strange.

They are, he thinks, so far away. And he is so far from them.

“I don’t know what you mean,” John says.

“I know that you do,” Jason says, “because I can feel it on you. You’re alone, Archivist. All the time now. It’ll get worse from here. Have you found her body yet?”

“We have,” John says, not thinking. And then, suddenly, he’s lifting the steak knife again. “Did you kill her?”

“Why would I kill her?” Jason asks. “I don’t have many allies left. I sure as hell wouldn’t’ve killed Gertrude Robinson.”

John can’t know if he’s lying. He doesn’t know anything about him. But, still. “Do you know who did?”

“Not many people could have,” Jason says, with a wry respect that doesn’t seem to fit the frail old woman John remembers. But most of what he’s learning about Gertrude doesn’t seem to fit that image. “But I have a short list of people to talk to, yeah.”

“She was shot,” John says, for no reason. “Didn’t you lend her a gun?”

Jason’s face does that quick-shift again, rage painting over his smile. “Jesus fucking Christ,” he says. And then, decisively, he’s pulling a whiskey bottle out of that bag in his hand. “If you don’t get me a glass, I’m drinking from the bottle.”

“No one’s inviting you to stay,” John tells him. “I’m certainly not getting you a glass.”

“Oh, stop fucking around,” Jason says. “You won’t chase me off. You want to interrogate me. So get me a Goddamn glass or I’ll leave you here. Alone.”

John gets him a Goddamn glass. He gets two Goddamn glasses, and he watches as Jason pours heavily for both of them. “That is entirely too much,” he says. “I’m on medication.”

“There’s not a lot that can kill you, either,” Jason tells him. “Indulge in the pleasant things while you can still feel them.”

“What the hell,” John says, “does that mean?”

Jason tips his glass toward him and then knocks back a heavy swallow. “Oh, you’re getting very good at that, Archivist. But you’ve got to believe it yourself before you can sell it to me. So ask me again in a year or so. Maybe I’ll answer.”

“Are you mad?” John asks. “Are you out of your mind? Is that why you talk the way you do?”

“I talk the way I do,” Jason says, off-hand and remarkably amiable, “because you’re smarter than you should be, and I want you to enjoy what time you have left.”

John takes a careful sip of his whiskey. When the burn hits his stomach, he takes another, deeper swallow. “Why is it that every word out of your mouth is a riddle?”

Jason smiles. Sad, somehow. Maybe wistful. “Because someday you’ll be able to solve every riddle there is, and you’ll never be happy again.”

“See,” John says. “Right there. Just now. You never say anything that has any meaning.”

Jason shrugs. He’s pouring himself more whiskey. “Well, we’re both ghosts, Archivist. But you haven’t figured out what you’re haunting yet.”

John lets his head loll back on his neck, stares accusingly up at the ceiling. “I am growing very tired of never knowing what’s going on.”

Jason lifts his glass and smiles. “You’ll miss these moments when they’re gone, Archivist.”

John sighs. He sets his steak knife aside entirely. If Jason meant to do anything violent, he likely would’ve done it by now. He’s a strange man, and dangerous, but, despite Elias' reaction to him, he doesn’t seem to mean any harm. At least not to John and the others.

“And which moments are these?” he asks.

Jason leans over so he can tap his glass against John’s. “This is all you have left of peace,” he says. “Cheers.”

“Cheers,” John says, more habit than thought.

He aches from the attack on the Archives, from the holes Prentiss’ worms left in his skin. He’s tired, and he’s scared, and they took his predecessor’s dead body out of the tunnels today. He doesn’t really know where his team is, and he isn’t sure that they’re okay.

He isn’t sure that he’s okay.

“This isn’t peace,” John says, because it isn’t.

But Jason just laughs. He looks over and smiles, almost gentle. “Maybe not,” he says. “But you’ll miss it, when it goes.”

Chapter Text

Tony’s been awake for something like thirty-six hours when he hears the alarm sounding through the camp, raised voices passing the message back and forth. Mechanic, he hears, over and over again. Mechanic, mechanic. Someone get the Goddamn mechanic.

They’ve been traveling for twenty-two days, ransacked their way through the remnants of a small town strip mall five days back. And even though they emptied out a CVS, their primary tradeable goods are still whatever Tony can scrap together out of the endless series of broken tech the scavengers keep dropping in his lap.

They’ll reach one of the permanent camps by tomorrow, if they’re lucky. Which means he has until tomorrow to earn his keep.

He’s tired, always, but right now he’s exhausted, and the sun went down hours ago. Trading hours are done. Maintenance hours end at dusk. Whatever they want a mechanic for, Tony needs it to wait until morning.

“Fuck off,” he says, to the man who shoves into his tent. “I’m working. You wanted this shit done before we got there. I need to work. I can’t keep--”

“Okay,” the man says, because it’s Rumlow, and he doesn’t have to make threats anymore. “You wanna come deal with this shit like a grownup, or do you want to throw a fit about it first?”

There’s a weapon Tony’s been building. He could use it, right now, to stop Rumlow's heart in his chest. But that’s only one man out of fourteen, and then he has Clint to worry about.

There’s always Clint to worry about. There used to be others to worry about, too. And now there’s just Clint, and that’s how Tony learned that building weapons and fighting back only ever served to get better people killed.

Rumlow stares at him. His hands are on his hips, thumbs tucked into his belt, and there’s nothing special about his hands, really, except that Tony knows how hard he can swing them. He’s learned, over time, to regard those rings he wears with particular respect.

“Fine,” Tony says, grabbing his flashlight and his tools. “Let’s go.”

 

- -

 

On the outskirts of camp, standing in the haze at the edge of the firelight, is the biggest man Tony’s seen in years. He’s a monster in human skin, fit and strong and heavily muscled in a way that almost no one is anymore. High quality protein is difficult to come by. Even Rumlow, who eats better than any of them, who takes the best cuts from all of Clint’s kills, can’t sustain half this man’s muscle mass.

He has intent blue eyes and the kind of hands that could snap Tony’s neck without effort.

He’s terrifying, no matter how pretty his face is. All Tony sees, when he looks at him, is how many ways this man could kill him.

“You have to come back with me,” the man says, staring right at Tony. He’s holding those giant hands open and beseeching in front of him, turning earnest eyes his way like it’s Tony he really needs to win over. Like Tony has any say in where he goes. “I couldn’t bring the bike here.”

Tony blinks and turns incredulously to Rumlow. “You want me to go with this guy?”

Rumlow shrugs. He looks bored. “Christo and Miller are going with you.”

Christo’s a ruthless bruiser, and Miller would knife his own grandmother for a half-smoked cigarette. That combination of escorts suggests that the plan is to follow the blonde back to his bike, kill him, and steal whatever he has that’s worth taking.

It’s a risk, though. They haven’t seen any infected in the area, but a horde would overrun the three of them, easy. And Tony, as Rumlow is so fond of pointing out, is the most expensive thing in this camp.

But they probably made the same calculations that Tony did. Anyone that well-fed has resources. Anyone that well-fed is worth killing.

Still. It’s been a long time since Tony was out of camp after dark. Even with two escorts, it’s dangerous.

He looks toward the perimeter of the camp, finds where Clint’s standing, bow in hand and blunted arrows in a quiver on his back. Clint stares back at him for a long moment. His jaw works, but he doesn’t say anything. Used to be, there wasn’t anything in the world that could shut Clint Barton up. But that was back when there wasn’t anything that could shut Tony up, either.

They’ve learned better by now.

After a few drawn-out seconds, Tony looks away again.

He doesn’t know what will happen to Clint if he leaves and doesn’t come back. But he knows exactly what will happen to him if he refuses to go.

“Great,” he says. “Swell. Can we get a move on? I’ve got shit to do.”

 

- -

 

“Hey,” the blonde says, later, when they’re picking their way through an overgrown road by moonlight, and Christo and Miller have dropped back to bitch amongst themselves about missing sleep. “That man,” he says, “with the bow.”

Clint, Tony thinks. He bristles, but does his best not to let any of that show on his face. “Yeah,” he says, short and sharp, as discouraging as he can make it without explicitly suggesting that this guy fuck off and never look at or think about Clint again.

There’s a long, ominous pause. Tony shifts his pack on his shoulders and hopes they find this motorcycle soon.

“It looked like…” The man’s voice is low and careful and completely devoid of emotion. “It looked like he had a chain. Around his leg.”

Tony’s hands curl around the straps of his backpack. It’s so hard to gauge these things. Sometimes, when people look at Clint – or the others, back when there were others – they’re horrified. Sometimes, they’re confused.

But there’s something twisted in people. And, sometimes, when people see any sign of weakness, any indication that someone’s vulnerable, they don’t react with pity. They react with interest. They start looking for ways to benefit.

“Yeah,” Tony says, finally. Because he has to say something. And it’s never really worked out for him, trying to protect anyone. “He’s on watch.”

“He’s on watch.” The man speaks slowly, like he’s testing the weight of the words. “So they chained him up outside the camp.”

“Yeah,” Tony says.

“As bait.” It’s not a question, the way he says it. He says it like he knew all along. Like tying people up outside a camp, just in case any wandering infected happen by, is the sort of tactic he’s familiar with.

“No,” Tony says. “They do it because he’s got a beautiful singing voice. Wakes us up every morning with show tunes. It’s really special. There’s a dance we all do. It’s choreographed.”

The blonde’s head swivels his direction. It’s too dark to make out his expression, but Tony’s a little cowed anyway. “As bait,” the man repeats.

Tony swallows. “Yeah,” he says, after a beat. “As bait.”

“That’s what I thought,” the blonde says. His voice is soft, his tone unreadable.

They don’t say anything else. And then, finally, almost an hour after they leave camp, they find the motorcycle sitting abandoned in a clearing, waiting for its owner. Tony crouches down beside it, starts spreading his tools on the grass. The blonde grabs something off the ground, something metallic and round, and Tony’s still arranging his tools when the man shifts, and, suddenly, within seconds, Christo and Miller are just dead bodies sprawled out in the grass, their heads caved in.

“Holy shit,” Tony says, lurching to his feet.

“Sorry,” the man says. “I lied.”

“Oh, yeah?” Tony can’t drag his eyes away from the smashed-up remains of what used to be Christo’s face. He sidesteps, half-panicked, puts the motorcycle between them like there’s a chance in hell that it will protect him.

“It’s not the bike,” the blonde elaborates. He’s doing that thing with his hands again, that look how harmless I am gesture that really only serves to show off how big his hands are. “The bike’s fine. We’re gonna have to take a longer trip.”

Tony breathes out. Christo and Miller are dead, and he’s not sure if what’s happening to him counts as kidnapping or theft. He doesn’t remember the last time he felt like he was a person.

“You gonna kill me too?” He should be scared, probably. But it had all happened so fast. Alive, and then dead.

Tony wouldn’t mind that kind of death. It’s better than any of the options he’d had this morning.

He can just make out the other man’s face in the filtered moonlight. He sees the grimace, the way the man’s mouth twists up and then gets bullied into a flat, stoic line.

“I sure hope not,” he says, finally. He even sounds like he means it.

Tony could run, but he’s exhausted. Underfed, overworked. He wouldn’t get far.

“All right,” he says. He moves slowly to start packing up his tools. “Let’s go find out.”

 

- -

 

They spend what has to be an hour riding in near-absolute darkness. They have the moonlight and starlight, and nothing else, and there are times when Tony can barely see the man on the bike in front of him, but the man drives like it’s broad daylight, careening through the darkness with the ease of someone who can see.

It’s not the first thing he’s done that isn’t quite human. But it’s the first Tony can’t explain away.

The muscles could mean he’s lucky, or smart, or part of a powerful group. The skill with that shield could be training, or natural athleticism. Or it could be that Tony’s just forgotten what people can do, when they’re well-fed and well-rested and well taken care of.

But no human has this level of lowlight visual acuity. When the bike finally stops, Tony knows exactly what he’s dealing with.

“You’re Enhanced,” he says, as his boots hit the dirt.

The man turns his direction. It’s still too dark to make out the intricacies of his expression, but his body language isn’t particularly inviting. “That a problem?”

Tony’s dad worked on Project Rebirth, right up until the end. It hadn’t saved them. And he understands why people generally find the Enhanced unsettling, but he hasn’t been around enough of them to form an opinion.

As far as he can tell, they’re as likely to be shitty human beings as everyone else is. They just make more of an impact, either way.

“Not a problem,” Tony tells him. As far as his list of problems goes, this one doesn’t even make it past the interview process. “Don’t we have somewhere to be?”

“It’s just—look.” The man shifts toward him, moving fast and silent, and Tony backpedals so fast he trips in the dark, topples over. “Shit,” the man says, “sorry.”

Sorry,” Tony repeats. He picks himself carefully off the ground. “Don’t fucking crowd me.”

“Sorry,” the man repeats. He takes a deliberate step back. “But you’re gonna have to get used to it. The man you’re working on is just like me.”

“I don’t give a shit if he’s a Sasquatch or my fairy godmother,” Tony says. “I don’t care if he’s Enhanced. I just don’t like--” Tony gestures sharply, feels frustrated and lost and tired. He doesn’t have words for what he doesn’t like. Or maybe he’s just forgotten how to say it in a way that matters.

“Don’t like being crowded,” the man repeats. His voice is gentler now. “I get it. Fine. I’ll give you space, but we need to go.”

“Right,” Tony repeats. He scrubs his hands down the front of his shirt, shakes out his fingers so the nervous energy will have somewhere to go. “You said--- wait. I’m here to work on a person? Jesus Christ, I’m a mechanic, not a doctor. Meat problems are outta my wheelhouse. I can’t help you with a person.”

There’s a brief, awkward pause. The man takes a breath. “He’s a person. And he needs a mechanic.”

Tony doesn’t understand for a long moment, and then he does.

Toward the end, when the infected were overrunning cities, when they were walking out of the oceans and rising out of the quarantine fires, SHIELD started recalling its discharged super soldiers and sending them back out to fight. Tony had been in a refugee camp on the safe side of the Rockies by then, but he’d seen pictures of it, back before all the media lockouts.

Living people with cybernetic implants hastily punched in to replace lost eyes, missing limbs. Humans with metal parts patched into living tissue, sent back out to fight the dead again and again until some of them were more robot than person.

The implants and prosthetics, they were all prototypes and one-offs, devices thrown together by desperate scientists and engineers without much thought for durability or design. They tended to overheat and catch fire or combust. Some of them leaked carcinogens or got fried in the rain. Others were patched incorrectly into nerves, sending up pain signals with every use.

It’s been seven years since the last Rebirth compound was abandoned. Tony had no idea that any of the patched-up super soldiers had survived this long. He certainly wouldn’t have predicted that any of the implants would still be functional.

“Jesus,” he says, soft and mostly to himself.

“He needs help,” the man says, and it’s strange, because he could break Tony to pieces if he wanted, but he sounds like he’s begging. “I can--- we’ll pay you. Whatever you want.”

Tony swallows. Whatever I want, he thinks. All he’s wanted for a very long time is a full meal, a good night’s sleep, and safety for him and Clint. He doesn’t know how to ask for that. Maybe, once he sees what’s needed from him, he’ll find a way to put a price on it.

“Okay,” he says, hands tightening around the straps of his backpack. “Show me the problem.”

 

- -

 

At the top of the hill, there’s a cabin lit with the steady, unflickering light of electricity. Tony stops when his feet hit what probably used to the driveway. He looks right into the light, feels drawn to it, moth-like and helpless.

“You guys have a generator?” he asks, even though he knows better than to get nosy about other people’s things.

“And solar panels,” the man says. He answers easily. He’s not worried about the consequences of Tony’s curiosity.

It occurs to Tony that maybe he isn’t worried because he knows Tony won’t have a chance to tell anyone. Maybe, when this is over, he’s just going to bury Tony out back, if he bothers to bury him at all.

“Solar panels,” Tony repeats. “No shit?”

“No shit.” His voice is dry, but not unfriendly. When Tony risks a glance his direction, the glow of the electric light almost makes it look like he’s smiling.

“So,” Tony says, clearing his throat and adjusting the heavy weight of the bag of tools on his back. “Where’s the patient?”

And this time, it’s impossible to deny that it is a smile. Relieved, somehow. Grateful. “He’s this way,” the man says, and he leads Tony into the house.

 

- -

 

It’s a sick room. Dark and still, with a bed in the corner and the window open to let in the breeze. Smells musty anyway.

When people get sick at camp, they’re left behind. Nobody tends to the sick anymore; nobody has the resources. But this man is tucked in bed, with a cluster of glasses and cups at his bedside, a tray precariously balanced on top, bearing what looks like a picked-over meal.

Tony doesn’t look at the food. It’s not for him.

“Buck?” the man who brought Tony here says, tone so gentle that Tony turns to stare. “You awake?”

“Steve.” The man in the bed rolls over. He’s pale, and there's a dark line of sweat at his hairline and throat. When his eyes fall on Tony, he blinks, long and slow, eyebrows pulling together. “Who’s that?”

“He’s gonna help,” Steve says. He’s still using that same careful voice. Tony hasn’t heard anyone talk like that to someone in a very long time.

“I’m Tony,” he offers, when the sick man’s eyes drift back to his face. “I hear there’s a mechanical problem.”

The man – Buck? – sighs. He rolls his eyes up toward the ceiling. “Keep saying,” he murmurs. “Just cut it off again, Steve. Cut higher.”

No.” Steve’s hand tightens around the doorframe. Tony realizes abruptly that he’s walked into a room and let someone block the only way out. “We’re not cutting—he’s gonna look at your arm. Okay, Bucky?”

Bucky’s eyes close. Tony tries to remember the last time he saw anyone who looked this sick, this exhausted. It has been, he thinks, a very long time. Usually, weakness like this would mean exile. Usually, people suffer alone.

It would’ve taken a long time for an Enhanced man to end up in this condition. Steve must’ve been taking care of him for days. Weeks, possibly.

He must care about him. He must care about him a lot.

Slowly, Tony steps forward. “Let me see,” he says. “It’s the arm?”

Bucky’s eyes are almost as blue as Steve’s. A little grayer, Tony thinks. And far more bloodshot. “Yeah,” he says, and he pulls the blankets down, revealing a lifeless metal arm patched into his shoulder. “Hurts,” he says. “Something’s wrong with it.”

There’s a lamp on his bedside table, but Tony doesn’t realize he might be able to turn it on until after he’s already slipped his little headlamp on over his forehead, focused the beam of light. He takes out his tools as he needs them, carefully assesses what he’s looking at.

He doesn’t know how to describe the feeling that settles over him when he realizes he can fix this.

Dread, yes. But a hopeful variant.

He swallows and steps back, leaves his tools scattered across the bedsheets. He can feel his pulse in his throat, beating mad and frantic, like a hummingbird’s wings. “I have,” he says. He pauses, catches his breath. “I’ll.”

Steve looks at him. He’s still blocking the way out. Tony’s eyes catch on his hand, clinging to the doorframe so hard that the wood is bending around his fingers.

Tony doesn’t let himself think about it. Steve wouldn’t risk hurting him until after the work is done. It’s very clear how much he cares about Bucky. Tony is as safe as he’ll ever be, right now.

“Payment,” Tony says, almost stuttering through it. “You said you’d pay me.”

Steve’s face could be a statute’s. He’s impossible to read. “Yes,” he says.

“I can fix the arm,” Tony says. “I think. I can—and if I can’t fix it, I can remove it. Without—there’s no need to cut into any skin. It won’t hurt. And once it’s off, I can keep working. Maybe fix it then. Reattach it after.”

There’s a brief flash of something across Steve’s face. When it goes, it leaves resolution in its wake, a determined jut to Steve’s chin. “What do you want?” he asks. “We have—there’s a lot here. There’s a lot we can give you. Or--”

“I don’t want to ever go back,” Tony says, in a rush. “You don’t ever take me back there. That’s the deal. And you have to go get Clint. That’s—the blonde? The archer. The—the bait, from before. You have to get him and bring him here, and, when this is all done, when I’ve fixed the arm, you have to let us go.”

Steve stares at him. Then he shakes his head. “No.”

“Yes,” Tony says, desperate. Too loud. “Yes, that’s—I can do it. I can fix him. That’s the price. You have to pay it. Please.”

But Steve shakes his head again. “No. Tony, listen--”

Yes,” Tony says. He’s aware – vaguely, distantly, like he’s watching all of this from the next room over – that he’s starting to hyperventilate. He can’t make himself stop. “Yes, that’s—please. Steve. Please.”

“Hey.”

That’s the other one, Bucky. His fingers brush Tony’s arm, and Tony flinches back so hard he rams his shoulder into the wall. Bucky, sweaty and pale and weak, has pushed himself up onto his elbows. “Tony?” he asks. “That you?”

“Yeah,” Tony says. He nods, once. Jerkily. “Yes. That's my name.”

Bucky nods back at him. The dull haze in his eyes is gone. His eyes are sharply focused on Tony’s. “Ask for something else,” he says.

“No,” Tony says. “You don’t under—I promised I’d---”

“Ask for something else,” Bucky says, low and quiet, voice gone gentle and careful the same way Steve’s had earlier. “Stevie’s gonna do that first thing for free.”

Tony blinks. “What,” he says, too confused to make it a question. His eyes skitter from Bucky to Steve, back to Bucky. “He’s--- what?”

But Bucky’s looking at Steve now, so Tony turns, slowly, to do the same.

“I’ll get the archer for you,” Steve says. He sounds lost, a little. But his face is serious, and set. “But we aren’t trading for him, or you. That’s not— I don’t trade lives. Think of something else.”

But there isn’t anything else Tony wants. He’s spent so long trying to work toward that, and nothing else. He opens his mouth, but he can’t find any words. After a beat, he closes it again.

Steve nods. His eyes drop away for a second and then rise to Tony’s face. “Think about it while you work,” he says. “I’ll go get your friend.”

And then he’s gone. Just turns and leaves. Like it’s nothing. Like he isn’t offering to steal from a camp of lunatics and murderers.

“He’s.” Tony pauses, swallows. “Shit. I should stop him. They’ll kill him. They’ll---”

“How many of them?” Bucky asks, rising half out of bed.

“Twelve,” Tony says.

Bucky blinks and then resettles back into bed. He laughs, under his breath. “Poor bastards,” he says. “He’ll be fine.”

Tony remembers Christo and Miller, how quickly it had happened. Steve hadn’t even been out of breath.

He can’t make himself believe in it. Not yet.

But there’s work to do. And he promised.

“Okay,” he says. “Okay. You ready?”

Bucky looks up at him. After a moment, he nods his head, shifts closer so his arm is easily within reach. “You know what you’re doing?” he asks, not unkindly. Curious, more than anything.

“Yeah,” Tony says, because there’s so much he doesn’t know, but this part, at least, he does. “I’m gonna fix this.”