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And Standing Sent To Burn

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Jasper Sitwell has the worst dreams after missions where nothing remarkable happens. And they never have anything to do with anything that happened, could have happened, or didn’t happen. Those only happen when something goes horrifically wrong, and are almost a relief.

The latest one, after he and Barton (who didn’t even have to shoot anyone) and Jackson got back from what was basically a milk run in Istanbul, was just depressing. He was starting a new job in another life, a life without SHIELD and his engineering degree, the details are hazy but maybe he was a teacher, and on his first day, when he walked into the staffroom, as soon as he opened his mouth the minor nervous stutter he had all through school, basically up until the summer between his first and second year of university, was back. But ten times worse. And he tries to say hello, tries to answer pointed unpleasant questions, and his words jump and skip and repeat and they laugh, snarl and snip at him. Their faces shift, but there are a lot of familiar ones, his hands shake as much as his voice and he’s stuck on the f sound of telling someone to fuck off when he realizes they’re his SHIELD colleagues, out of place in civilian clothing and teenage cruelty, and he wakes up shaking and can’t look anyone in the eye for most of the morning.

There have been other dreams, faces he sees every day across his desk sneering out from under the flipped up hoods and pulled down baseball caps by the train tracks near where he grew up, slow creeping blindness and deafness, lost in the woods, too small to see over the high snowfall and walking in lost little circles until he falls and can’t get up. One time he dreams he’s in the water, clinging to a tiny raft in the middle of a lake, late at night and maybe it’s raining, and whoever is lying on the raft (he thinks it’s Jackson, wiry little Jackson with pipecleaner limbs who’s in medical every other week) is facing away, still and silent. When he shakes their shoulder, his hand comes away bloody.

He wakes up with a start as a hand closes around his leg. He’s sitting on a jumpseat in the back of a Seahawk and Phil Coulson is looking at him with an unsettling amount of understanding. No one else seems to have noticed, they’re all asleep.

"What was it?" he asks, and he can't think of a good reason not to answer. So, quietly, he tells Coulson. They sit in engine-shaken silence for a long time, and then Coulson says “I always see him dead,” and nods at Barton, who’s filthy and a little bruised but alive and asleep opposite them, and that makes sense enough but does nothing to make him feel better.

 

When he’s assigned to observe Bruce Banner, he spends three weeks watching footage of the Hulk, interviews with people who have met it, talking to people who knew Banner, and he isn’t surprised at all when a huge green shadow appears in his dreams. It doesn’t do anything though, it’s just there, watching him try to draw Barton’s infernal bow with broken fingers to shoot the idiot kid who broke his little sister’s ribs, the whole time I can stop this playing over in his head.

The Hulk doesn’t do much in his dreams, and once, after he screws up and misses an excellent opportunity to talk to Banner (he doesn’t get spotted, but Fucking Goddamn Josh does, and Banner hares off), he dreams about Banner as well. He looks sad, but doesn’t say or do anything while Jasper tries to yell a warning at silhouette people far away, choking on his own voice. He gets pretty fond of Banner, actually, fond enough that he doesn’t put everything he finds out in his growing mountain of files, even though he knows it's a bad idea, a betrayal. Banner is the enemy, he's what they're fighting against, except, he discovers, he's not really. He's lead a heartbreaking life (things like The Hulk don't show up for no reason, they just don't), had everything he worked for taken from him, including his own body, and he still persists in trying to improve the world for other people. He's not sure if he's completely mad or impossibly decent, but late some evenings, alone in his office, he starts pulling subtle strings, makes a few things easier, redirecting interested traffic.

He starts to protect him.

After he's been watching him for about eighteen months, Fury starts to make noises about approaching him for some kind of team. Jasper has a plan that he’ll be pitching in a matter of days, and then Loki swaggers out of the Tesseract and everything goes to hell.

Fury wants to send Natasha after Banner. Sitwell can’t articulate why that’s a bad, or if not bad, ineffective idea. He doesn’t want to have to explain the things he left out of the file.

“Smart and pretty,” Hill says curtly when Jasper makes the first overture of protest, “that’s what Banner likes. Look at Betty Ross.” He knows. He has. But he’s also looked at Henry Pym and Walter Langowski and a few other awkward nerdy guys with mad scientist streaks and handsome eyes. Betty Ross, while lovely and brilliant, is definitely a Y-chromosomeless exception, not the broad-shouldered rule. She also doesn’t reek of danger like Natasha does. That attracts a lot of people, but Sitwell seriously doubts it’s going to work on Banner, and when he says this (it’s weak), Hill just gives him a long suffering scowl and says “maybe two weeks ago, that would have been a consideration” and then shoos him out of her office.

Coulson seems to understand, but he rubs his forehead and says “your attention to detail is admirable, and your concern for Miss Romanov is hopefully superfluous” and Sitwell knows that he’s seen Barton dead in his dreams and possibly his future, so he leaves with both their secrets.

 

Phil is dead a few days later and New York is a mess.

 

He’s in charge of tracking Items down, frustrated by his inability to make any of them work, but at least he doesn’t dream.

 

The next time he does (leaden feet as water rises, Phil Coulson on the floor unconscious, nose and mouth about to go under) he jerks awake to Bruce Banner’s ungainly square hand on his wrist. He’s leaning in close, concerned. Sitwell fell asleep in the labs again, with silent alien tech spread all over the bench in front of him.

“Are you okay?” Banner asks, and doesn’t leave when he nods, he settles into the other chair and starts fiddling with the nearest thing. A few hours later, their knees bump and their eyes meet and Jasper is vividly aware of the fact that Bruce Banner didn’t just like those brilliant handsome people, they liked him, ungainly misproportions, open car door ears and unruly hair and all. He’s well out of his depth, but when he staggers to bed around 4am, he doesn’t dream. A few weeks later, while they’re eating sandwiches in medical and waiting for stitches, (he inherited the Avengers as well as Phil’s office) he asks some questions about his research, and has to mention that he was the agent in charge of Banner’s case.

“So you know everything there is to know about me,” Banner says mildly, “interesting.”

Jasper explains that he was planning to go collect him, meet up and invite him to join the Initiative in person, but then Loki happened and Fury sent Natasha.

“I see,” Banner says, then flashes him an outright impish smile. “I think you’d have had more luck than her.” Sitwell is halfway through saying what an excellent agent Natasha Romanov is when his brain catches up to his mouth and the last four minutes, and he first stutters wildly over “competent” before giving up. Banner’s fingers brush the back of his hand, but he doesn’t press, doesn’t laugh. Jasper rests his chin on his chest, closes his eyes and tries not to think.

“She’s nice,” Bruce murmurs, stroking the bumps of his knuckles, “but I like scientists and engineers more than assassins, playboys and supersoldiers.”

 

Over time his dreams shift, it doesn’t happen overnight, but he no longer wakes up from irrelevant anxieties, mismatched miseries. He sees destruction and shattered bones and buildings, looming green shadows that trip and fall through the ground under the weight of bullets to leave a tiny bright body behind. He sees Bruce Banner dead in his dreams, but wakes up with him asleep against his back.

It’s a trade off he’s willing to make for as long as he can.