There are certain points in life that you can look at, that you can pull out and show to people, and say, "this is where my life changed. This is where it all began."
Everybody has a few of those moments.
Sometimes those moments aren't obvious when they're happening. They happen in a gesture, in a look. In a choice to turn left.
Some of those moments are obvious.
Some moments happen when someone you once knew decides to play conquistador.
Sometimes, they happen when the sky rips open and dumps a bunch of aliens on your doorstep, led by someone who should know better.
Apples and oranges, really.
Kate paces. Ten feet from her couch to her fridge, six from the couch to her door, back and forth as the hours wear on.
Nobody at SHIELD is returning their calls. A SHIELD facility is destroyed and apparently Loki is off somewhere raising hell.
Considering the team had been told last week that Loki had plummeted to his death off of the Rainbow Bridge, Kate is more than a little incredulous.
Incredulous, and other things. Things like angry, and irritated. Loki is their problem. Her problem. They should be there, dealing with this, not Tony Stark and some dude playing Captain America dress-up.
Kate stares hard at the footage being played and replayed by the news. It would be too weird if he was actually Steve Rogers, right? That's not logical.
Though it would explain why Thirteen bailed early on lunch while giving her best Jurassic Park impression. Hold on to your butts, she'd said, throwing down a wad of cash. Life will find a way.
Thirteen had thrown a five and two ones on the table, not nearly enough to cover her food. She, too, is ignoring Kate's texts.
Ten feet, fridge to couch. Six feet, couch to door.
Too weird. Too weird by half.
It's definitely above Kate's paygrade to question the Director of SHIELD, but seriously, Fury, what the hell?
If his hobby is throwing together teams of superpowered and highly skilled fighters together to see what happens, he needs to get a new hobby. Preferably one that is less ridiculous and involves less large-scale destruction.
At the very least, he needs to introduce some variety into the group. They've got a spangly soldier-type, a brainiac, a demi-god with great hair--
Maybe this is Fury's version of creating different playlists with the same twenty songs, just in a different order. The same ingredients, just in slightly different quantities. Like the difference between a pizza and a calzone. Or lasagne and spaghetti. Or The Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC.
Kate stands up and starts pacing again. She does better when she moves, her thoughts get tangled less. Ten feet, fridge to couch. Six feet, couch to door.
Ten feet. Six feet. Step over three sets of feet.
Kate is pretty tired of sitting around, waiting for someone to call and tell them what to do. There's still no word from Coulson, no word yet from Natasha or Clint, not Hill or even May.
Kate isn't digging her fingernails into her palms, worried because Clint always gets himself into dumbass situations and she's not thinking about the time he tried to go undercover back at the circus and wound up having to fake his own death and the fact that she's already been to his funeral--
She's not thinking about those things, okay?
She and her team have been ready to move out for the past thirty-six hours, glued to her crappy tv, so it's a little jarring when they see this team that's like them in so many ways. Like a weird funhouse version of her team, like them from another dimension, filling Kate with an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu—they aren't the ones down there, but maybe they are? Maybe it's just a different them?
She's about to call America—just to make sure about the alternate dimension thing, you never know--when Kate spots Natasha.
"Wait a minute," Kate says to nobody in particular. "Is that Bruce Banner?"
"Holy shit. Doesn’t he know what Ross wants to do to him?" Tommy stares unblinking at the screen as he says this, prompting about half of the group to give a collective shudder.
Kate moves next to Eli and presses her shoulder against his.
They don't know what Ross wants to do to Banner, but they are all pretty smart, so they have a pretty solid idea of what Ross wants to do to Banner.
Except for Eli, who has firsthand experience.
He leans into her, eyes fixed firmly on the tv. His arms are crossed over his chest, and he stretches two fingers out to tap against the crook of her arm I'm fine.
“What’s that movie where the real superheroes do all the work and the pretty ones get the credit?” Tommy asks the team, trying to crack the uncomfortable silence that's filled Kate's apartment at the mention of Ross.
“Mystery Men,” Billy responds when it becomes apparent nobody else is going to say anything, all of them trying not to stare at Eli.
“It’s not Mystery Men,” Kate replies ten seconds too late, distracted by the scroll at the bottom of the screen keeping track of deaths attributed to Loki, which she's watching for the fiftieth time. She's not pretending not to pay attention to Eli, she actually isn't, she's a lot better at this than the rest of them--
“I can’t believe Coulson told us to stand down?” Teddy half-asks for the tenth time, trying to break the tension with different tension.
“I know,” Kate says, for the thirtieth time, swallowing down her exasperation. Her apartment is small and the walls are thin. If she'd been contacted by someone, they would all know. And even if she had a huge apartment, she's fairly certain that Tommy would pickpocket her and check her phone and David would probably get some alert on his phone since he's got that thing that he does where he keeps excessive tabs on all of them. That he thinks Kate doesn't know about, which is cute.
“I told you, I had him give his security code five times,” Kate reminds Teddy. Well, she reminds all of them, but everyone else is pretending not to listen.
“I can’t believe this,” David says from her kitchen, an occurrence that is worrying enough on a good day. This is not a good day. Kate has the very real fear that her microwave is going to wind up exploding because David likes to tinker when he gets nervous. Tinker or hack. Kate's not sure which one would be more beneficial right now.
“It’s bullshit,” Eli agrees.
“Total bullshit,” Tommy flops down on her sofa for three seconds before popping back up. "Who are these guys, anyway?"
Kate says nothing.
She agrees, though, of course she agrees. They know Loki. Loki knows them. Pulling them in would—well, it would defeat the point of them being a secret team but Loki is attempting to take over the world. You'd think it would make sense to bring in people who know him, know how he fights.
Kates phone buzzes and she doesn’t even bother to look at who it is before accepting the call, prepping to tell the boys to suit up—
“Hawkeye.” It’s Natasha. That’s not comforting.
“I need you to listen and not speak. Loki has compromised Hawkeye. We’re about to bring Loki in, but we don’t know where Clint is. I’m breaking about twenty protocols right now, but you need to know in case he comes for you. In case Loki needs you.”
“What the hell would he need us for?”
“I don’t know! You’re the Asgardian experts. Figure it out!”
Kate only has time to make and offended sort of guh noise before Natasha ends the call. “Love you miss you stay safe,” Kate mutters to nobody.
Around her, the boys are still arguing, making snide remarks about the footage from Stuttgart. They have the director's cut of it, since David has generously given them access to some of Germany's security cameras. Illegal? Probably.
“I think that is Captain America. The Steve Rogers version,” Eli looks up from his computer. “Looks just like him, anyway.”
“And that’s definitely Iron Man,” Teddy adds.
“Wait, did you just say we weren’t pretty?” Eli glares at Tommy.
“Loki,” she mutters to herself. “What the hell are you up to?”
She doesn’t get a chance to answer her own question because she gets a fistful of popcorn thrown at the side of her head.
"I was aiming for Eli!" Tommy protests.
The afternoon just devolves from there.
They aren’t the pretty team, is the thing.
Physically, sure, they’re attractive.
They’re not pretty. Not the pretty you stick in front of a camera. Tommy, a felon. David, a SHIELD agent-cough-hacker-cough. Eli, substance abuse. Cassie, heart problems, (reformed) thief. Billy, magic, and therefore inexplicable. Teddy, alien. Her, socialite, daughter of a money launderer and with no special skills—at least not in the way the others have.
They could have been pretty, once. Could have been scrubbed clean, bright and shiny and aspirational.
That won’t happen now.
It wasn’t going to happen, not for a while. Not since Ross. Not since Latveria, and Baker’s Glen, and all the crap that went down with Yelena—
It would take too much effort, too much manpower, to redact, classify, and otherwise make them suitable for general consumption, as Sitwell is fond of saying on the odd occasion the subject comes up. Better to keep to the shadows. Easier to work when nobody knows to look for you. They're ghosts. Shadows. Most of SHIELD is like this. You don't know who other field agents are unless you work with them, and the people that coordinate those team-ups have the highest security clearance in SHIELD a person can have without being the director.
It's a safety thing for the agency itself and the people that work in it; it's also a great way for most of the organization to not know what's going on. Makes it easy to hide things, like an entire superpowered team. Makes it easy to get rid of information, if you know who has it.
Hawkeye thinks like this, because she has to. SHIELD has made it more that clear that her team, their team, is not a priority. The screwup in Latveria tipped her off, the one that David saved them from. And then the one in Madripoor. She thinks like this because she has to be ready to protect her team when their end comes.
The dawn of the Avenger program, fully fledged, would seem to be the final nail in their coffin.
Though Loki, who is currently attempting mass murder and global domination, might pave the way for their big society debut. Maybe that was his big plan. Why else take Clint?
Unless Clint had been the highest-ranking agent around.
It’s just that there’s a very specific list of people whose attention you’d get by stealing Clint. Kate is on that list, top three.
Assuming Loki’s even thinking that way, assuming he’s their Loki, and not one of his other batshit crazy iterations.
It doesn’t matter. Orders is orders is orders. They’re not supposed to go anywhere.
Which is why it’s really fortunate the battle comes to them.
Kate hopes an alien battalion marching down her street is an adequate excuse for disobeying a direct order.
Kate spots a red white and blue blur, surrounded by hostile aliens. It’s not Patriot, which means it’s the other flag-encrusted walking danger zone. He seems to have the aliens in front of him handled, but the ones behind him are, to Kate’s eye, completely unobserved.
“Wiccan,” Kate calls. “Give me a soft landing?”
He gives her a curt nod and Kate steps off of the edge of the glowing platform of light Billy is projecting.
The first three seconds are fine; Kate manages to take down two of the aliens in one shot—after that, the landing doesn’t resemble anything near smooth, because one of the Chitauri launches itself at her while she’s in midair—still shooting—and wrests her from Billy’s power, sending her skidding down the road.
She keeps shooting even as she fends off the alien that attacked her; she’s getting ready to do more than kick when a round shield buries itself into the thing’s neck.
“Hawkeye?” Steve Rogers, or a guy who looks a lot like Steve Rogers, turns towards her, frowning when he catches sight of her. “Not Hawkeye—“
“Do you think just because you’re Steve Rogers someone is automatically watching your six?” She crouches to pull one of her arrows out of the Chitauri, waving it menacingly at the man. "They aren't. That's not how that works."
“Actually I a—“
“It was a rhetorical question.” Kate levers herself into a standing position, grabbing on to Steve’s shield and pulling herself upright as he stares at her. “I think that asshat gave me road rash. You didn’t think knocking me out of the air was excessive, bro?” Kate asks the being that did the knocking. It’s apparently dead, and doesn’t answer her.
Hulkling lands next to her with a thump, pulling his wings tight to his back. “Oh my God,” he strides over to Rogers, hand outstretched. “Captain America, it’s such an honor—an amazing honor to meet you.”
“Sure, son,” he responds, looking from Kate to Hulkling. Kate gives Rogers a point because he does shake Teddy’s hand, looking more curious than startled at the wings and the green.
To the west, there comes a hollow boom and a shower of dust.
“Stature, I see an awful lot of pulverized concrete over by you—“
“Working on it,” Cassie grits out. Kate can see threads of blue magic weaving through the dust, a flash of an impossibly large amount of blonde hair, as Cassie braces against the building to try and keep it upright.
Out of the corner of her eye Kate sees one of the giant slug-whale-space monsters thrash through the air. “Stature—“ she begins, only to be cut off by Eli.
“Stature, you’re gonna have to let it go, you’ve got one of those things heading to you now, you need to catch it—“
Kate can hear Stature’s inhale as she gets ready to fight him on this, but never gets the chance—it’s instinct to throw her arms up to catch it because it’s headed right for her face. Concrete and brick rumble behind Stature, the structure crumbling behind her as she wrestles with the space-slug.
"We don't have anything powerful enough to take these monsters out," Patriot informs them. "We need to--"
Kate misses what it is they need to do, because a battalion of Chitauri come screaming around the corner.
“Who the hell are you?” Rogers asks when the immediate danger has passed. He's staring at her like she’s the most unbelievable thing he’s ever seen, which would be understandable if they weren't surrounded by alien invaders. All she's got is some blood dripping down her face and a sword in her hand, she's the least exciting thing here.
“Duck!” is her response as she drops the sword and swings her bow off of her shoulders. Thankfully he does duck, and an approaching alien trio gets shot in their eyes. “Prodigy, can you hack us into their comms?”
Steve Rogers—if he is Steve Rogers, she’s still not entirely convinced of this point—is staring at her, eyes moving from her bow to her face and back to her bow.
“Hack?” Prodigy manages to sound disgusted. “It’s not a hack, Hawkeye, that implies effort. It's more like I'll just open the door—and—we have convoy.”
“What does that even mean, we have convoy?” Tommy asks.
“What the hell?” Tony Stark half-shrieks. “Who is that—JARVIS! Systems intrusion!”
“Clear comms!” Kate barks. “We’re here to help—"
“Hawkeye!” Clint chirps. “Hey!”
“Hey Hawkeye!” she matches his tone. “Any place particular we should head? I’m Hawkeye, by the way,” she extends her hand to Steve. “Nice to meet you.”
“Captain—Captain America,” he stares at her, offering his hand on what appears to be reflex.
“Ha! Right, don’t be surprised if nobody on my team willingly calls you that. A dubious pleasure to meet you, regardless,” she barks a laugh, ignoring his hand in favor of fitting an arrow to her bowstring.
“What—never mind. You seem like a decent shot. You’re with me, if you think you can keep up,” he cocks his head, a challenge in the gesture.
"A decent shot?" Hawkeye splutters. Kate can imagine his indignant expression perfectly. "Decent?"
Kate stares at Rogers, the smirk that he’s trying to cover. Challenge accepted. “Works for me. Hawkeye?”
Clint manages to compose himself to answer her. “Tasha could probably use a hand? She’s going after Loki.”
There is an uncharacteristic silence from her team.
“Let me go,” Cassie says.
“Stature, we’ve got a building going down three blocks from you!” Patriot’s voice strains and there’s the unmistakable sound of him getting socked in the gut.
“Handle it, Stature,” Kate makes the decision. “Wiccan. You’re with the Widow. You figure out where Loki is and you keep him there.”
“Patriot, make sure Hawkeye doesn’t get himself killed—"
“Excuse you Hawkeye! Oh, Thor and Hulkling might be a good team up. Prodigy, please don’t hack Stark’s suit.”
“Is this your idea of cooperation?” Clint mutters, as if muttering will make the rest of the people on comms unable to hear him.
"Coordination, not cooperation," Kate corrects, and she's fairly certain that if she could see Captain Steve's eyebrows, they'd be raised. "There's a difference."
“Wow," a voice cuts in. "The Hulk is pissed. Damn—"
“Focus up, Prodigy,” Kate interrupts. “We need your brain, not everyone else’s. Take your cues from Clint—we’ve got a lot of panicked civilians. Figure out where they are and where they need to be. Speed, you follow him. Your job is to minimize civilian casualties, got it?”
"Aye, aye, Cap'n," Tommy pauses long enough to snap her a salute and toss Captain America a glare before bolting down the road.
Captain America looks at her curiously.
"Don't ask," she shakes her head.
"You really think two men can do all that?"
“My people are very good,” she grins. She raises her bow and Steve shifts just enough to not risk the arrow himself, glancing over his shoulder at the twitching alien she's just shot.
“If they’re anything like you, I imagine they are.”
It goes like this: the boys crash her sister’s wedding, ostensibly to save them, and it reads like an obscure anti-joke: the grandson of a supersoldier, a shapechanger, and a magician walk into a church.
They hadn’t known that Eli was juicing, or that Teddy is an alien prince; their reality is so much weirder than they’d thought, and even back then they’d thought their lives were pretty weird.
Or maybe it goes like this: five kids, New Yorkers all, are there when the world collapses. Kate doesn’t think there is a specific moment she can pinpoint where she knew she had to protect people, but that September—that was when is started. Stuff like that changes you.
Maybe it’s more that this was the event that primed them to become what they are now. Ready, waiting for the final piece, the match, the spark, whatever.
For Kate, the catalyst was the park, a few years later. Being helpless, and never wanting to be that again. It's like having a hot coal, a low, constant burn, that nobody should ever feel like this.
She wonders, sometimes, if they’d never found each other, would they have known something was missing, would they have kept looking, drawn, somehow, to each other?
And then, maybe a year into being a team, SHIELD contacts them, deciding to saddle each of them with babysitters to make sure they don’t kill themselves on accident.
Oversight, Director Fury had said.
You're idiots, Clint had said.
We want to keep tabs on how a team of extraordinary individuals works together, Phil had said.
SHIELD says a lot of things. What SHIELD does is…slightly different.
Steve Rogers appears to have reached his Done as Hell threshold about five years ago.
He kicks an alien explosive device back at the aliens who made the poor choice of throwing it at him when Kate has a realization that pulls her up short, and almost results in her losing a limb to an alien.
Assuming he's the reason Martinelli had to cancel lunch with her, assuming the reason he hasn't been in public before now is because he'd still been MIA as of a week ago--
Assuming a lot of things, it's entirely possible he woke up from a Rip van Winkle nap, like, this week.
"So," she says, once her leg is no longer in danger of being forcibly removed from her body, "has this week lasted seventy years for you, or what?"
Rogers simply stares at her before saying, "I can neither confirm nor deny." The corner of his mouth twitches as he says it, like he's trying to hold back a grin or a grimace.
"You know, if they kept you longer than a week I think that's probably a human rights violation." Rogers stares at her with wide blue doe-eyes. "You know what that is, right?"
"I'm from the 1940s, not the 1340s," he snaps, his gaze sharpening into a glare. "I fought in the War. We invented human rights."
"John Locke, the Magna Carta, and the Statute of Kalisz beg to differ."
This time, it is a smile he's fighting. "Fair enough." He looks at her like he's sizing her up, nodding to himself when he figures it out. He extends his hand and Kate takes it this time, giving it a firm shake. "I'm Steve Rogers."
He looks at her expectantly, waiting for her to expound or clarify, which she doesn't.
"So, does this happen a lot in the future? Alien invasions?"
"They aren't usually this obvious."
"Ah. Thought maybe they were just hiding them from me." Steve Rogers quirks his lips in a half-smile that Kate half-returns.
"Hey, if you two are done bantering, do you think you could get back to the alien invasion?" David gripes in her ear. "I mean. Seriously."
Kate rolls her eyes at Rogers, swinging her bow across her chest in favor of picking up one of the aliens’ weapons.
"It's called multitasking, Prodigy," Kate informs him, hefting the staff and slicing across the neck of an oncoming alien. "I thought you'd be into that."
Steve Rogers is staring, his eyes moving from her to the alien at her feet.
"Are you rationed?" He asks, disbelief coloring his voice. For some reason, he starts to turn red.
"Again I say, what?"
"Ah, nothing. You're just. You're a lulu, is all."
David is laughing in Kate's ear, which is not professional.
"Okay, Rogers, we're going to have to table the vocabulary lesson for later, and you can tell me all your fun forties lingo and I'll tell you about all the fun rights women and minorities have but until then, let's focus on getting all of these damn dirty aliens off our planet. That was a great joke, you'll really appreciate it when you start watching movies."
He’s staring at her like he’s about to say something profound when one of the giant space-slugs slams into the road, sending the pavement up in a wave that throws Kate into the air, dropping her back down a good twenty-five feet away. She’s not sure what part of her she landed on; she can’t breathe or think or move because her entire body is screaming THIS! FUCKING! HURTS!
She’s just managed to corral some air into her lungs when it’s knocked right back out, this time by something landing on her, instead of her landing on something.
She can hear someone speaking in an angry tone—it's hard to hear because her ears are buzzing. It takes her a few moments to realize that the person talking is her, and the things she’s saying are simply a litany of curse words, and that the item on top of her is a person who weighs an awful fucking lot and that it’s Steve Rogers.
“Get off, get off, get off,” she shoves at him, unable to think past the panic for a moment. Rogers stares at her, uncomprehendingly, as she pushes at him.
"Are you okay?" He asks.
"You're heavy as shit," Kate replies—only it's not exactly a reply, and Rogers knows that, a frown crossing his face as he opens his mouth to argue the point with her, something Kate is rescued from doing thanks to more flying debris.
It stops being debris and starts being lampposts and cars when a second beast lands near the first. Kate sees the cab coming at them from behind Rogers; she grabs the back of his uniform and drags him down, instinct curling her over his head and neck. Her mind flashes to the explosion at Baker's Glen, curling around Cassie like this as Stature's suit malfunctioned.
"Uh, Hawkeye? Whatcha doin'?"
"Protecting your spine, idiot," the response is out of her in a flash, harsher than she would have preferred. Things continue to crash around them as Kate tucks herself closer to Rogers, covering his head and back until it stops. Metal screeches as it settles and there is the faint but deep clatter as bits of sidewalk and building roll down larger piles of building and sidewalk. She waits one second, two seconds, until she's certain nothing else is flying their way before righting herself, pulling her face from Rogers' shoulders and grimacing as rubble rolls off her back. She's bruising for sure, maybe cracked a rib.
Rogers presses a hand to her face, and his glove comes back coated with blood. He frowns at her, opens his mouth to says something, when his eyes snap to something behind her.
Kate feels like she’s moving through molasses—her head turns too slowly, she registers what she’s seeing too slowly.
Stature, huge, wrapped in a tangle of electricity, head thrown back and face contorted in pain.
Kate starts running before she knows what her feet are doing.
The ground feels like the ocean, unsteady and uneven, and Kate isn’t sure if it’s all due to the ground being ripped apart by explosive impacts or if there’s a concussion taking root in her brain, but she runs anyway. She runs because she has to.
Stature is shrinking back to normal Cassie-size as Kate nears her.
Cassie crumples to her knees.
Kate draws an arrow and aims it at the Chitauri approaching Cassie.
She looses it.
The arrow embeds itself in the alien’s neck but can’t stop the momentum of his slash, from shoulder to hip, across Cassie’s body.
Kate’s breath is too loud in her ears—everything is wrong. It’s red, it’s too red, it’s—it’s—
She sees her hands from a great distance, shaking covered in something sticky and red, hovering over something sticky and red, there’s so much red everywhere—
“I can’t get a read on Stature, can someone tell me what the hell’s going on?”
Kate takes a deep breath, another, another, gulping in air because her lungs aren’t working correctly. “Stature is down,” she says, her voice even in a way that feels impossible.
“Down—down what down? Like how down? Concussion?” Speed’s voice cuts through the silence, frantically trying to fill it.
“Down. She’s—“ Kate can’t wrap her brain around it any more than she can wrap her voice around the words. Her hands still press uselessly at Cassie’s wound.
She isn’t bleeding any more.
Garish blue pants and candy-apple red boots enter Kate’s field of vision.
“Hawkeye,” Rogers says, not unkindly. “We’ve got a job to finish.”
“Somebody tell us what the hell is going on!” Patriot shouts.
"She's dead," Prodigy's voice is flat.
But he's the one who says it. He's the one who makes it true. Kate feels a welling of love and relief towards him in that instant, that she doesn’t have to say it. Her hands are still pressing at Cassie and Kate feels a faint puff of air as something snaps through the air past her. She looks up and sees a chitauri with what might be a startled expression, Steve's shield lodged in its chest.
He retrieves the shield and is back at her side faster than Kate can process, his hand under her elbow, hauling her upright.
“We’re not done yet,” he tells her, his voice low and urgent. “We still need you. You have to keep it together, Hawkeye.”
Kate feels herself nodding. She nods, and searches her mind until she can find what she’s looking for.
She might have a constant, low-level loathing for Jack Rollins, but he has taught her the finer points of compartmentalization and disassociation, and if she’s going to live through the day, those skills might be the reason for it.
Kate isn't bleeding profusely anymore but she's bleeding a lot as she stabs one of the Chitauri in the chest with its own weapon.
"Hawkeye--" Rogers calls, before his face changes and Kate ducks as he embeds his shield in another one of them.
It’s not quick enough—she feels the bite of one of their scythes in the back of her leg. Kate takes a step before the damage has a chance to register and feels the blood drain from her face and her head go light.
Rogers shouts "Fuck!" and he's at her side, pulling her arm over his shoulders and sliding his arm under her armpits so she can get weight off her leg. "All right?"
"Still alive, though. Stop complaining."
Kate can see another wave of chitauri rounding the corner, and she ducks out from under Rogers' arm to stand back-to-back with him, letting him take some of her weight.
Above them, there’s a flash of red and gold as Stark hauls a bomb into space.
It’s so stupid and improbably, it seems like a joke—
But the bomb goes off, and all the chitauri crumple at their feet.
“Wait,” Speed’s voice seems faint from the comms. “Um. What?”
“Where is he?” Kate shoves past a SHIELD agent—well, three—on her way into Stark Tower. “Loki. Where is he?”
Technically, she half-shoves one of them. Steve Rogers is still helping her get around, since her leg hasn’t been looked at by anyone, and so far he seems more than happy to throw his weight around to help her out. Fighting against a common enemy tends to have that effect on people, Kate’s noticed.
The assorted Avengers don’t stop their conversations.
No matter; Kate’s got eyes and she can see a contingent of security trailing down a hall. Loki is the only thing worth guarding; she hobbles that direction before her path is barred by two flat-faced agents.
“Get Coulson on the line; he’ll clear it,” Kate throws some Team Leader, Don’t Fuck With Me into her voice.
Natasha stares at her. If it was anyone other than Natasha, Kate would say the look was sympathetic.
“Loki killed Coulson,” Stark says. There’s a buzzing in Kate’s ears, growing louder. She feels the pressure of Rogers’ arm around her waist because her knees have gone soft. “I don’t know who you kids are, but we’re not letting you go and talk to that nutjob.”
“Come again?” Teddy, it might be Teddy who asks.
“Loki stabbed Phil right through the heart,” Natasha clarifies. “He’s not—"
Kate shoves away from Steve, shouldering her way into the two agents, her team trailing behind her.
“What the hell did we just say about not talking to the nutjob?” Tony starts after them.
“Hulkling,” is all Kate says before there’s the distinct sound of someone being slammed up against a wall.
The agents close ranks around the door; Kate tilts her head and a blue light shoves them out of her way. “Thank you, Wiccan.”
She opens the door.
Compared to the mayhem outside these four walls, the room Loki is being kept in is pristine. He’s in archaic looking cuffs and looks like he’s gotten the shit kicked out of him. For a second, Kate feels a pang of sympathy.
It’s a very fast second.
“So,” she finally says.
“So,” Loki agrees, reclining as best he can in a stiff chair. “Hawkeye. Come to scold?”
“Scolding would imply that I care about your well-being, Loki,” she manages in a very calm voice. The calmest. She’s fine. She can do this.
It’s obviously not the answer Loki was expecting; something deflates in him.
“Ah. Hoping to gain the seal of approval of the Avengers out there by publicly denouncing me?”
Kate doesn’t take the bait; instead she takes a deep breath. She can do this.
“Not twelve hours ago, Stature sat in my apartment and told me how she didn’t believe this was really you. That you wouldn’t do something like this. You had to be under duress, brainwashed, anything.”
“Sounds like Cassie.”
“Yeah,” Kate finally manages to look at Loki. “It does.”
They stare at each other, silence wrapping around them. It feels like it’s trying to strangle her.
“Which one are you?” She finally asks, her voice controlled.
“What?” Loki’s smile doesn’t falter for a second.
Gotcha. She's spent enough time with Loki—they all had—and they know his tells, his mindgames. Kate knows the tenuous lines of morality Loki had drawn around himself, at least in his most recent incarnation, and this isn't it. It’s been bothering her since he appeared in the sky with his magic and his poorly thought out plan of world domination. There’s something wrong with this whole thing. It’s too big. Loki likes to do things subtly. He likes to take control, to do the Thing, and he likes to watch as you realize that you played right into his hands.
Even that stupid bullshit he just pulled in New Mexico—it was small. One weapon. An army of aliens? Doesn’t seem his style.
"I am Loki Laufeyson," he proclaims with a wide grin, stretched too thin. "Trickster."
"We'll see," Kate narrows her eyes at him. I don’t believe you. "You killed Phil.”
Loki doesn’t speak, and Kate works her jaw back and forth, trying to find the right words, the way to say this so that Loki understands. “And you brought your Chitauri buddies down to party. And even as they poured through a hole in the sky, Cassie said, Loki wouldn’t do this. He’s not that person anymore. He’s a good person.”
“And you don’t think I’m a good person any more, do you?” Loki is all bravado and smug grins.
“Oh, no. I don’t think you’re a person at all.” She regards him through a layer of cool impassivity; she has to or she’ll kill him. The right words keep clicking into place. She can do this.
“Your entire life Odin told you Frost Giants were monsters, and then he tells you that you are one. You’re a monster. And when we worked with you—we knew the weight of legacy, of having people tell you who or what you are. We believed you could change. And then you bring a war here. I'm not a fan of that."
"Really. I hadn't noticed."
The wrongness of Loki slaps her in the face with those words, like a sour taste on the back of her tongue. Uncaring, insensitive, manipulative, she's seen Loki play all those games. This isn't any of them. This invasion isn't their Loki's style. Is it any Loki's style? Clearly doomed to fail—clearly for someone who spent as much time among humans as Loki had. This isn’t the Loki she knows. This is—
That bitter taste in her mouth again. A flash, a memory, of the one time she’d seen that Loki, the one from the End, the one that comes in a fucks everything up, because why not?
It doesn’t matter what she says, Kate realizes. This Loki doesn’t care.
“Cassie is dead because of you.” Her words sound flat, feel flat. Kate rises, feeling old. Tired joints, tired mind. “Goodbye, Loki.”
“Kate,” he says as she turns to the door. “Kate. Hawkeye.”
She pauses in spite of herself, head tilted to look at him. Something wars in his eyes, something that she’s seen before, maybe, a long time ago. Everything feels like a long time ago right now. She wonders if someone’s shoved all of the Lokis that ever were into one body, may the strongest survive.
“Perhaps she’ll rise from the dead.”
The words fight for a way out of her mouth, asshole and I’m going to kill you and I hope you rot in a dungeon until the end of time, and then the next end of time; the all-encompassing white-hot rage she feels stops up her mouth and nothing comes out.
“SHIELD has secrets,” Loki continues as she opens the door. “Don’t presume to know anything about them.”
Kate’s fingers curl and uncurl, into a fist, out of a fist.
“I looked into this team. Our—your team. Into SHIELD.”
“Ask Barton. Ask him about SHIELD’s plans for your team.”
She turns then, just so she can barely see him. “Don’t you dare speak to me about Clint.”
“You won’t let them take me."
Kate stares at him, eyes blank. “I don’t know you.”
“Come now, you’re not going to let them throw me in the dungeon—“ Loki, or Loki-but-not, looks panicked now. “What am I supposed to do?”
Not the God of Stories, then.
Or maybe he is the God of Stories, but other things, too.
It doesn’t matter. She doesn’t care.
Their Loki had tried. He’d screwed up a lot, and he’d done horrible things, but he tried. He wanted to change.
The person wearing his face isn’t that Loki.
What am I supposed to do?
The question hangs in the air.
Kate braces her knuckles on the table and stares him down.
When she gets out of the room, there's a SHIELD escort waiting for them. Kate thinks they should probably be using everyone they have to deal with, you know, the city, but apparently the have enough to run errands to fetch her and her team.
Because, oh yeah, they're not just there for Loki or Clint or Rogers.
Kate doesn't like the glint in Rollins' eye as he rounds them up. Not at all.
Steve Rogers looks like he just got pulled in before he even had a chance to sit down. There's still a smear of ash or dirt or something across his cheek, and the gash across his nose is still oozing.
His eyes keep darting to Garrett, to the camera not so cleverly disguised in the corner, to Kate, until she meets his eyes. He glances meaningfully at the camera, then at Sitwell again, before looking back at her.
"I think today has proven that such young, inexperienced fighters shouldn't be allowed in the field," he starts. "Disobeying orders." He eyes Sitwell again, and Kate can see he senior agent nod out of the corner of her eye. "To say nothing of the fact that one of your former teammates went rogue--"
"And led an alien army to attack Earth," Garrett interrupts when it appears Rogers isn't doing a good enough job of selling SHIELD's points. "I don't think we can stress that enough. One of your former teammates tried to destroy the Earth. That alone would make me wary of you as a unit, but combined with your disregard for chain of command and your flagrant displays in front of the general public today have led us—have led the Captain here—to realize we can no longer trust you."
"What are you saying?" Eli shifts in his seat next to Kate, swallowing hard.
“I don’t ever want to see you in those uniforms again,” Captain America tells them.
His words feel like a punch in the gut; she feels likes she's caught fire, all of her blood rushing to her skin and out of her head, the room spinning around her.
The room stops moving when Rogers pins her with another look before his eyes drift to various points of the room.
If Kate didn't know better, she'd say Steve Rogers thought they were being watched, or that he was being watched by someone he didn't trust and was trying to--
“SHIELD is willing to overlook your misconduct and keep the identities of you and your team secret,” Rogers finally continues. “Providing you sign some,” he looks down again at the papers. “Nondisclosure agreements.”
Tommy chokes on air.
Someone pokes their head in the room.
“Captain Rogers, we need you down the hall—I’ll finish up here.”
Captain Rogers looks at the papers, at Kate and her team, and nods. “Right.”
A balding man takes his place—short, a little portly. Kate recognizes him but can’t pin a name to him; all she can think is that he isn’t Phil.
“I’m Agent Sitwell,” he appears to read Kate’s thoughts. “I’ve been brought in on some of Agent Coulson’s projects—“
“Rest assured,” he thumbs through a dossier, “Speed, that you were a project. An unstable one, I might add. Agent Coulson believed in you, but he’s gone now, and after the incident in Hell’s Kitchen—well, the Director thinks it’s best if we scrap your team.”
The blood rushes to Kate’s head, a low buzz humming in her ears.
This is real.
“As the Captain said, we’ll be requiring all of you to sign nondisclosure agreements, similar to the ones you signed when we first recruited you, though these are a bit more...thorough.” Sitwell sighs. “I should warn you that should you refuse to sign, you’ll be opening yourselves up to legal unpleasantness.”
“Excuse me?” Teddy is the one who speaks up.
“Because you acted without orders, the City of New York could theoretically charge you for some of the events that happened. Reckless endangerment, destruction of property, manslaughter—one or two charges, you could probably play the hero card and beat them. But hundreds—thousands—of charges? I really think this is the best move.”
“Why would we be charged and not the Avengers?” Billy interjects. “That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
“Well, Black Widow and Hawkeye—other Hawkeye, sorry,” Sitwell says with a nod to her, “were, of course, acting under SHIELD’s orders. As were Captain America, Iron Man, and the Hulk. I think they’re playing some sort of diplomatic immunity card for Thor, I’m not sure,” he shrugs apologetically.
It’s almost like he’s on their side, but something in her—it doesn’t sit right. Loki's words echo in the back of her head. Don’t presume to know anything about them.
Teddy opens his mouth and closes it with a snap.
“Do you mind if I take a look?” Kate finally finds her voice. “Never sign something you haven’t read.”
“Of course, Hawkeye,” Sitwell smiles at her. Phil wouldn’t have smiled when he said that. He would have given a curt nod but those little creases would have appeared around his eyes because he would have been thinking about smiling.
Phil had been the one to tell her to read everything SHIELD put in front of her. It seems like the least she can do to honor him.
Sitwell slides the folder towards her, the clumsy movement scattering the papers.
“One short,” Teddy notes, stacking them up.
Kate catches his eye. “Cassie doesn’t need one anymore.”
“What?” he covers his confusion well. “Right. I mean. I just can’t—“ Billy puts a hand on Teddy’s shoulder—to Sitwell, it probably looks like a comforting gesture. Coulson would have known it was a communicative gesture.
“Agent Sitwell,” Kate says in her placating and too-polite voice. Don’t patronize me, Hawkeye, Phil said about that voice. I know you’re trying to pull one over on me. Phil insisted on a solid poker face, poker voice. “Could I have a minute with my team, please? I’m sure you can understand this is very hard for us.”
“Of course,” Sitwell smiles at them. Maybe it’s a sympathetic smile, Kate can’t be sure now. Not Phil, he's not Phil and she can't read him right now. “Take all the time you need. You kids did a good thing,” he pauses at the door. “But we have real superheroes now. Go live your lives.”
“One more thing,” Kate finds herself jogging over to Sitwell, catching him by the door. “Stature. Is she getting released to her brother?”
Sitwell is shaking his head before Kate is even done speaking. “I’m afraid not. We can’t—the Pym Particles, you understand. It’s too dangerous.”
“Did he seriously just say that?” Tommy says, once Sitwell’s footsteps recede down the hall. “We have real heroes now, what a dick. Shit. What’s got you guys all weird?”
“We’re short a contract,” Teddy slides them to Tommy.
“Yeah,” Tommy’s forehead puckers. “Cassie.”
Kate shakes her head, then presses a finger to her ear.
“You’re invisible,” David confirms. “Five minutes, tops.”
Kate pulls out the earbud and they crowd close so everyone can hear.
“Did you catch all that?” Kate asks David. “I thought it was interesting you weren’t mentioned.”
“You caught that, too?” she can imagine David rubbing his hand across his forehead as he sighs. “There’s something wrong here.”
“Agreed,” Billy nods.
“If someone’s shutting us down it means they have high enough clearance to know about us, but not high enough to know us,” David’s words are rapid-fire. “That’s anyone level eight on up, but not the Director or Deputy Director, because they know us all. Or could be someone operating outside of their clearance level.”
“That makes me feel so much better,” Tommy flings himself into a chair, then pops right back up.
Kate hesitates for a breath.
“Scrub us,” she decides. “We were never here.”
“If they don’t know who you are, feel free to stay. Up to you. And how safe you feel.”
“Right,” keys clack from David’s end. “I’ll meet you guys when I get off.”
“Stay safe,” Kate shoves the earbud back in her ear. “Let’s go before they change their minds.”
“And let us be a team again?” Billy stares at her, bewildered, as she pushes him out the door.
“And decide they don’t want to let us leave,” she clarifies.
Kate is the last one out, making her way down the hall as casual as you please, trying to blend in with all the other regular agents. Halfway there, and no one has noticed her or her team’s absence—or they have, and they’re keeping that information quiet, so they can corral them back with the least amount of fuss--
Someone grabs Kate’s arm, swinging her around and into a corner she knows is a camera blind spot, bringing her face to—well, face to chest—with Captain Steve America Rogers.
“Jesus Christ, Rogers,” Kate clutches her chest. “I thought you were a chupacabra.”
“I wanted to—wait, a what?”
“A chupacabra. I have a feud with chupacabras.” And Loki, the bringer of the chupacabras. God, none of this makes sense. Loki’s a trickster. This is a different Loki. But why? Kate’s brain feels like it’s in a never-ending scramble trying to logic through this whole mess. “You know what, dude? What the hell, I don’t have to tell you anything." Kate yanks her arm out of his grip. "You just fired us from an organization you didn’t even know existed until two weeks ago. Go to hell.”
“You’re telling me this isn’t hell?” He sighs when Kate continues to glare at him. “You’re right. I don’t know anything about this. I just have some friendly advice. Keep your head down.” He nods in the direction her team went.
“Advice on subtlety might be a little more palatable coming from a guy not dressed like the American flag.”
Rogers raises his eyebrows at her. “Don’t you have--?”
“Patriot doesn’t lecture me on subtlety. Other things, sure.” She sighs, rocking back on her heels and really looking at the man. He looks tired, the kind of tired that goes down to the core. “Take your own advice, Captain. Things have changed since you pulled your Rip van Winkle act.”
“I noticed that.” He presses his palms against his eyes, leaning back against the wall. "I don't know what's going on here. Two weeks ago I was in Europe, seventy years ago. I'm still trying to figure this out. Maybe those agents were right, and your team is out of control. Maybe they're wrong. All I know is what I've seen so far, and you're good at this. You were out there with us, and they weren't. That counts for something."
"Does it, now."
"Yes." He pulls his hands away from his face and glares at her. "It does."
Kate can feel the last of her bravado and energy slipping away, the weight of the day pressing down on her. “Catch you on the flip side.”
"Hawkeye," he says, and she stops in spite of herself, turning to face him. "Watch your six."
Kate sighs. As much as she wants to scream at him, Rogers is probably at just as much of a loss as the rest of them. "Ten-four, Captain."
“What did Rogers say to you?” David’s voice cuts through Kate’s mental fog.
“When he cornered you at SHIELD.”
Four heads swivel to stare at Kate.
“Steve Rogers talked to you? When?” Billy asks.
“Before we left. He apologized. For firing us. Sort of. And told us to keep our heads down.”
“That’s really nice,” Teddy says, hero-worship in his eyes.
“No, it wasn’t nice,” Kate snaps. “He fired us. That’s not an acceptable way to make nice. You can’t apologize for firing someone.”
“It wasn’t personal…” Tommy trails off when he catches Kate’s glare. “Um.”
“If you finish that sentence with ‘It’s just business’ I will force you to watch You’ve Got Mail twelve times in a row.”
Tommy shuts his mouth with a snap.
“So what’s the plan?” Teddy finally looks up, and now everyone but Eli is staring at her. She forces herself not to glance at Cassie’s empty seat, seeking encouragement that isn’t there anymore.
It’s your own fault.
“We scatter,” she says, with far more confidence than she feels. “Take a break. Six months, give or take, to put whatever SHIELD agents are going to be watching us off their guard. It’ll also give us some time to figure out our next move.”
She looks each member of her team in the eye. “For us to make sure we want to keep doing this. Losing Cassie—because of Loki—I don’t think that’s something any of us counted on. I want to make sure we’re all squared away in our own heads before we keep going. Okay?”
Teddy looks offended, like he can’t believe she’d call their desire to be heroes into question, but Teddy isn’t the one she’s worried about.
“Sounds like half a plan,” David shrugs, his grin not quite up to standard but good to see all the same.
“That’s the whole plan,” Kate rolls her eyes. “Laying low is the plan, and if there’s a second part to that plan, it defeats the purpose of laying low. No trying to find Loki. No digging in SHIELD’s trash. If we’re good—"
“But not suspiciously good,” David interjects.
“—but not suspiciously good, they’ll ease up on the security details that are undoubtedly being put into place.”
“And Captain Rogers?” Eli looks up from where he’s been staring at the table. “What do we do about him?”
“What do you mean, what do we do about him?” David says with a shake of his head. “There’s nothing we need to do about him.”
“He doesn’t know who we are or what we look like,” Kate muses. “So how would he know what we do? We’ll retool our suits; we’ll have to, anyway, since SHIELD confiscated our gear. He said he never wanted to see us in those uniforms again. I was getting a little tired of the jumpsuit look, myself.” She’s been turning those words over in her head, trying to parse out inflection and stress and meaning; as a warning against doing what they do or a call not to get caught, and she’s come up with nothing solid.
“About that,” pulling a bag up from under the table, David offers them all a grin. "Not the outfits. But, ah. Well."
He starts pulling stuff out of his bag, and it's like he's Assassin Santa. Eli's shield, Kate's bow--hers, not the one SHIELD issued her--a wad of material that looks like the stuff used for Tommy's suit--and a thick stack of manila folders.
"SHIELD isn't big on hard copies anymore," he says. "But these are ours, from back in the day."
Kate doesn't have favorites, but David is totally her favorite.
"Not that this isn't fun," Billy interrupts Kate and Eli getting reacquainted with their weapons, "But we're missing a really important thing, here. That whole thing about the City of New York throwing us in jail and suing us for all we're worth."
"What part of I wiped us from SHIELD's servers was unclear?"
Billy and David glare at each other.
Teddy clears his throat. "I think the threat was real," he says once all eyes are on him. "But I think that SHIELD doesn't want the world to know about us. They aren't going to be advertising our existence, you know?"
“How are they going to explain us away? There's got to be some footage of us, somewhere, fighting alien slugs,” the words snap out of Tommy.
“It’s SHIELD,” David leans back in his seat, shoulders sagging. “Footage can be altered. Witnesses can be convinced they didn’t see something they actually did. You guys look enough like the Avengers that most people will probably just assume they saw the...other Avenger. People who saw Hulkling will think they just remembered the Hulk wrong. Anyone who saw Kate will think stress made them see Hawkeye as a woman. It’s not even hard. It's standard SHIELD operating procedure.”
“Have I mentioned lately that you’re terrifying?” Tommy asks.
"Teddy's right," Eli rises, spreading his hands on the table. "We were the Avengers trial run. We're people nobody would miss if something happened, people who's deaths could be explained away pretty easily. They don't want people to know about us because they don't want any more public scrutiny that they're already going to be getting. Can you imagine? Public finds out about us--American citizens recruited as kids--SHIELD doesn't want that." There's an underlying and I would know to Eli's statement.
"Okay, then," Kate looks each member of her team in the eyes. "A year sound good? Anybody who wants to keep doing this, we meet a year from now, right here."
Kate catches David before he heads out, dragging him into a corner. "Just so we're clear. How wiped is wiped?"
His eyes dart to Eli, still saying goodbye to Teddy, before looking at her again. "I did what I could, but it's SHIELD. Most of our info is gone. But there's stuff squirreled away somewhere, there's got to be. I can't destroy what I can't find, but I'm pretty sure--no, I am sure--that to piece us together, someone would have to be able to access most of SHIELD's records, be awesome at spotting patterns, and just generally really smart."
"So they'd have to be you, then."
David's responding eyeroll is mitigated by the grin he can't smother. "Flattery gets you nowhere, Hawkeye."
"On the contrary, flattery gets me everywhere," she draws him in for a hug, quick and tight, before shooing him out of the warehouse. "Be safe."
"That's rich, coming from you," he hollers as she shuts the door.
Eli is the only one left, staring at the table they’ve all sat around for years, debating missions and eating take-out and just being them.
“This will be good, Eli,” Kate tries to convince him, trys to head off his hesitation and his argument. “And if someone decides not to come back—well, no pressure.”
“Not coming back, Kate. I’m quitting this,” he waves his hand around to indicate the room, the team. “I’m not cut out for it.”
Kate tries to think of something to say, but all she can find is silence for too long. “Eli. Don’t be ridiculous. That’s not funny.”
“And I’m not joking.” He sits back down with a sigh. After half a second, Kate follows. “That stuff they gave me to boost my powers—I never liked who I was when I was on it. And I don’t wanna die, Kate.”
“None of us want to die, Eli.”
“Yeah,” his lips twist in an approximation of a smile. “But you don’t act on that fear. The team—they listen to you Kate, and they respect you. If I didn’t think you could handle it, I wouldn’t leave."
“That’s—Eli, are you serious? You’re done, quits?”
“Hey,” Eli pulls her close and kisses her forehead. “You’ll be fine.”
“Of course I’ll be fine. What about you? What will you do without us?”
Kate makes it halfway to Clint’s before she sees the news.
Before she sees General Ross attempting to reassure the public, though why he’s been picked as someone with any sort of authority about these things, she doesn’t know. The man couldn’t even keep tabs on Bruce Banner—although one of those times had admittedly been sabotage, and Kate will take full responsibility for that—
Cassie’s body being kept finally connects with Ross.
Kate retches into the alley. Her knees give out and she stumbles against brick and concrete, her clothes digging into her fresh scrapes and restarting finally-staunched bleeding.
“Hey,” the voice is faint, the hand on her shoulder hot. “Hey, are you okay? Do I need to call an ambulance?”
Kate would laugh except she can’t even draw a breath, instead shaking her head frantically.
“You sure? You have a concussion or something?”
Kate looks at the woman—dark hair, rings around her eyes like she’s healing from a bar fight gone wrong. Kate shakes her head. “Just—a minute. Need a minute.”
“Okay,” the woman looks doubtful that a minute will cure Kate’s ills, and that’s accurate, but still she stays, barking a few fuck-offs to nosy bystanders who take an interest in Kate.
When she’s caught her breath, the woman wraps a hand around Kate’s elbow and hauls her back to the street, half carrying her to Clint’s building.
“You sure you’re okay?”
Kate stares up at the building, improbably still all in one piece, and thinks with despair all the stairs she’s going to have to climb.
“Yeah. Thanks, by the way.”
“Not a problem.”
In spite of the heat, the woman yanks up a grey hood, shoving her hands deep into pockets. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
It is, Kate thinks, a bit late for that.