It starts, like all the oldest and best stories do, with a kiss.
All stories hold within them a grain of truth, and the truth is this: a kiss, freely given, is one of the most powerful acts in all creation. A kiss can both destroy hearts and mend them; a kiss can seal bargains, and tear them asunder; a kiss can build armies, raze empires, show affection and mark betrayal. A kiss is a token and a contract and a promise and a curse - an oath in all senses of the word, and like all powerful things, it is two-edged and two-sided, and apt to turn in the hands of those who wield it carelessly. It is poisonous and bracing, generous and full of deception. A kiss can ravage worlds, and then fabricate new ones in the vacant spaces left behind.
A kiss can end life, but for Hansel Kuhn, a kiss bestows it.
It's not much of one, not really - not by the standards of the original Brothers Grimm, the ones that date back to Hansel's time (he sees it for himself, later, on the surveillance tapes: the woman bent over him on a whim, a chaste press of her soft pink lips to his own, rough and bloodlessly white, frowning slightly even then) but it's never been the technique that matters, only the intent. Hansel remembers the curse and the fall, remembers the darkness-dreams, endless and all-consuming. Into that seamless blackness came light, all at once, and the first thing he sees when he opens his eyes, two hundred years after they last fell shut, is Maria Hill's face.
She flees from him, of course (the one and only time he can remember her ever having fled from anything, in all the course of their long, complicated history) but then, even later when he has the space and the luxury of time to think, he can't really blame her for it. How else would a woman as staid and well-grounded as the Assistant Director react, when confronted with the evidence of a dead man come back to life?
(And no matter what the SHIELD scientists tell him about stasis and curses and catatonia, attempting to explain with large words and narrow focus what happened to him while he nods his head politely, Hansel knows that he's been dead these long centuries - wrapped up in the dark like a body wrapped in the weeds of a lakebed. It was just that his body forgot to stop breathing, his heart to stop beating, his mind to stop dreaming.
He was dead, and now he is alive, and no matter what the scientists tell him, the simple explanation is usually the best.)
Maria runs - but carefully, a controlled, tactical retreat, showing her back to him only when her hand meets the door to the exam room and she is well out of his reach. The oddness of it, her thoroughness and poise when confronted with something so strange and alarming, sticks with him, and her backwards advance is why Hansel terrorizes his nurses, the snarling invective rolling off of his tongue in harsh German at odds with the keen, detached way he watches how they move, how they react to a disgruntled witch hunter rolling off of his cot to bark at them like a rabid dog.
When the nurses run, it is with abandon, bolting for the door and never looking back. There are half a dozen ways for him to kill them before they reach the hallway behind his room, openings his hunter's mind enumerates dispassionately and automatically. He doesn't enact any of them, though the impulse twitches in the flex of his fingers, the tightening of his shoulders. Hansel has been too long left to lie still, and the ache to move nags incessantly at his senses, though all he dares to do whilst under watchful eyes (and they are watching him, of that he has no doubt at all) is flop back on his cot and feign exhaustion, closing his eyes for another little while when sleep is the absolute last thing he wants or needs, after two centuries of nightmares.
But Maria fled no less than the nurses did, and gave him no such chances, her blue eyes riveted to his face right up until she exited the room entirely. It sticks with him for days afterward, even through all the revelations to come, Hansel struggling to keep his head above water through the inundations of new things to learn and absorb. He doesn't see her again for more than a few minutes for damn near a week, if his sense of time hasn't been entirely upset by his long rest, but he thinks of her often in the times between, of what little he knows and what Marina Petrovka has said, pondering it as he stares at the insides of his eyelids and pretends to rest.
She reminds him of Gretel, in a way. The same catlike awareness and wariness, the automatic sense of defiance, like she expects to be sneered at and looked down upon and is only waiting for the opportunity to spit in the faces of those around her; a pessimist, he decides with a slight smile, sketching her out inside his own mind, adding her face to the catalog of portraits he houses in his soul. A woman-warrior, Maria Hill, when all those in her field are men, and searching her for weaknesses at that - someone who stands on her own two feet and needs no one and nothing to push herself above the crowd, who expects the worst of every situation and is so very rarely disappointed.
God help him, he likes her already.
Gretel would roll her eyes and laugh at his sentimentality, were she here. He can already hear her words, see the curve of her teasing smile and the slight crinkles at the corners of her nut-brown eyes: Brother, honestly! Aren't you a little too old to believe in love at first sight?
She has no idea how true that is, now.
The lack of Gretel, the knowledge that she is out there somewhere, alone and taken advantage of and as helpless to stop it as he was, is like a gaping hole in his chest, the kind of wound that he can only breathe raggedly around and pray doesn't kill him before it can be healed. He'll find her, of course he will - there is no doubt in Hansel's mind that he and his sister will be together again, just like before, like they had for their entire lives - and when he finds her, the terrible justice he will exact upon her tormentors will be the kind of black legends whispered in the dark behind locked doors. There will be no stopping him, until the last one who dared to touch him and his sister is hunted down and unspeakable things enacted upon their flesh.
Hansel Kuhn has never shied away from the necessities of the hunt, and he has learned many, many things that ought to never again see the light of day.
But he is nothing if not pragmatic, and there is precious little he can do, locked deep in what is for all intents and purposes an enemy castle; and Hansel has always been the patient one, the steady foundation, the blackened stone to counterpoint Gretel's fire. He can wait for his opportunity.
Besides, Maria kissed him.
A man can learn to subsist on a few motes of hope.